Names, Themes, Timelines and Brief History of Australia

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Formal Name: Commonwealth of Australia.
Short Form: Australia.
Term for Citizen(s): Australian(s).
Independence: The British colonies of Australia were federated and the Commonwealth of Australia established on January 1, 1901. [Source: U.S. Library of Congress]

The name "Australia" was formally adopted and popularized in 1817 by the British governor of the colony of New South Wales. The title was suggested in 1814 and derives from the Latin terra australis incognita ("the unknown south land") which had been used by mapmakers for centuries before European colonization. [Source: Loretta Baldassar and David S. Trigger,“Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

"Aussie" is a colloquialism used to describe Australians that originated during World War I to refer to Australian-born people of British or Irish ancestry According to “Countries and Their Cultures”:. Initially used to describe a happy-go-lucky character capable of battling through hard times, the term was employed after World War II to distinguish those born domestically from "new" immigrants from western and southern Europe. The term continues to have meaning as a label for Australians representing their country. Among some sectors of society, "Aussie" is regarded as Eurocentric and anachronistic in a nation officially committed to ethnic and racial inclusiveness.

Australia is sometimes called Oz. On why this is so, Lachy Jameson, an economic historian, posted on in 2016, It is short for the first syllable of "Australia,” ie. “Aus.” If you say Australia with an Australian accent, it makes perfect sense. Harley Vague, “born in Australia but a man of the world” posted in in 2023: It’s a play on word pronunciation. In everyday conversation Australia is pronounced “A.straylia”, whilst English and posh people pronounce Australia as “Aw. straylia”. Americans tend to refer to Australians as “Ossies” . To reduce their accent Australians pronounce Australia as “Oz. straylia” or the land of “Oz” a pun refering to the land in movie “The Wizard Of Oz”. This is because Australia was often refered to as “the lucky country”.

Themes in Australian History

Australia is relatively young as a country, but it is a very ancient land. The first people arrived there over 65,000 years and Aboriginal people lived in harmony there with their environment since then. When England first settled Australia in 1788, they made it a penal colony for its overcrowded prison population. After that things changed. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures]

‘A wilful, lavish land — All you who have not loved her, You will not understand.’ is how Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar (1885–1968), described Australia in ‘My Country’, a hymn to the Australian land,

Australia is considered a "settler colony" along with New Zealand, Canada, and the United States: These countries were originally colonized by the British and the indigenous peoples that lived there before the British arrived were almost completely wiped out. Australia was first settled by England in 1788, and many Australians have of English origin. Until World War II (1939–45), about 90 percent of Australians were born in Australia and about 9 percent were immigrants from Britain. After the war ended, the country took in more than 5 million immigrants from Europe — the vast majority of them white. Today, Australia is more diverse and the Asian contingent is especially strong. In the 1970s and 1980s, Australia was a major recipient of refugees from the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. In recent years, wealthy Chinese and other Asians have made their presence felt Aboriginal Australians make up about one percent of Australia’s total population. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures]

Australian have an irreverent, independent streak. Robert Hughes described Australia's "spiky nonconformist spirit," respect for outrageous behavior and bizarre characters.” The Australian distrust in authority, some say, is based in the distrust that convicts had towards the English authorities and lords that sent them to Australia and ended up taking the choicest properties. Explaining why criminals who are well liked sometimes get off, one man told Smith, "That's the simple secret to success in this country...You've just got to be a good bloke."

Although the impact of environmental variation is highly evident in the traditional cultures of indigenous Australians, it has not been as strong a factor in immigrant cultures. The most significant lifestyle differences are affected primarily by variations in climate. [Source: Loretta Baldassar and David S. Trigger, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

Brief History of People in Australia

According to the “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook”: Australia's aboriginal inhabitants, a hunting-gathering people generally referred to today as Aboriginals and Torres Straits Islanders, arrived more than 40,000 years ago. Although their technical culture remained static—depending on wood, bone, and stone tools and weapons—their spiritual and social life was highly complex. Most spoke several languages, and confederacies sometimes linked widely scattered tribal groups. Aboriginal population density ranged from one person per square mile along the coasts to one person per 35 square miles in the arid interior. When Capt. James Cook claimed Australia for Great Britain in 1770, the native population may have numbered 300,000 in as many as 500 tribes speaking many different languages. The aboriginal population currently numbers approximately 517,200, representing about 2.5 percent of the population. Since the end of World War II, the government and the public have made efforts to be more responsive to aboriginal rights and needs. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009"]

Immigration has been a key to Australia's development since the beginning of European settlement in 1788. For generations, most settlers came from the British Isles, and the people of Australia are still predominantly of British or Irish origin, with a culture and outlook similar to those of Americans. However, since the end of World War II, the population has more than doubled; non-European immigration, mostly from the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America, has increased significantly since 1960 through an extensive, planned immigration program. From 1945 through 2000, nearly 5.9 million immigrants settled in Australia, and about 80 percent have remained; nearly three out of every 10 Australians are foreign-born. Britain, Ireland, Italy, Greece, New Zealand, and the former Yugoslavia were the largest sources of post-war immigration, but New Zealand has now overtaken Britain as the largest source country for permanent migrants to Australia, with India, China, and the Philippines making up the rest of the top five.

Australia's humanitarian and refugee admissions of about 13,000 per year are in addition to the normal immigration program. In recent years, refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and Southwest Asia have comprised the largest element in Australia's refugee program. Although Australia has scarcely more than three people per square kilometer, it is one of the world's most urbanized countries. Less than 2.5 percent of the population lives in remote or very remote areas.

Timeline of Australian History

Timeline of Events in Australia history since the arrival of Australia
1606: Willem Janszoon, the first European to definitely see Australia, reached the Cape York Peninsula and thought it was part of New Guinea.
1770. Captain James Cook claims Australia for Great Britain.
1788. Australia is settled as a British penal colony.
1793. The first free settlers arrive.
1851. Gold is discovered in New South Wales and Victoria.
1883. Silver is discovered at Broken Hill, New South Wales.
[Source: Michael Pretes and Rory Eames, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of National Economies”, 2001]

Early 20th Century:
1901. The Commonwealth of Australia, a federation of the colonies, is proclaimed. Australia adopts a federal system similar to the United States.
1914-18. Australia sends troops to fight for Great Britain in World War I.
1917. Transcontinental railroad opens.
1927. The national capital is moved from Melbourne to Canberra.
1940-45. Australian troops serve in World War II.
1942. Japanese planes bomb the Northern Territory capital of Darwin. Japanese midget submarines penetrate Sydney harbor.

After World War II:
1952. Uranium is discovered in the Northern Territory.
1960. Aboriginal people are granted Australian citizenship. The Reserve Bank of Australia is established.
1961. Iron ore deposits are discovered in Western Australia.
1966. Australia changes its currency from the British pound to the Australian dollar.
1992. The Mabo decision in the High Court allows Aboriginal people to claim title to their traditional lands.
1997. The Asian financial crisis weakens Australia's economy.
1999. A referendum to change Australia from a constitutional monarchy to an independent republic is defeated.
2000. The Summer Olympics in Sydney

Identity and Mythology in Australia

Loretta Baldassar and David S. Trigger wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Australian began as a British penal colony in the eighteenth century, and its national character has formed predominantly through the mechanisms of immigration and race relations. Other factors that have shaped the national culture include the early small female population relative to that of men, which is said to have laid the foundations for a widespread ideology of mateship. The involvement of Australian and New Zealand (Anzac) troops in World War I has been characterized as the symbolic birth of the nation. [Source: Loretta Baldassar and David S. Trigger, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

A further impetus for the formation of a national culture was the myth of the rural bushman, which developed around early phases of the historical establishment of pastoral and agricultural industries. The "bush" mythology has continued to influence conceptions of the national character despite the fact that the population has always been concentrated in urban coastal centers. The relatively sunny climate has facilitated an image of a sporting, outdoor, beach-loving culture represented by images such as the bronzed Aussie surfer.

After the invasion in 1788 by British colonists, the indigenous population was dominated by force. Aboriginal societies across the continent experienced violence and disease. After colonization a general history of discrimination and racism was mixed with a range of more benevolent policies. Of lasting effect was the policy of assimilating Aboriginal people into the mainstream culture. The historical stress on assimilation had its most dramatic impact on the children of mixed Aboriginal–European descent who, especially in the first half of the twentieth century, were taken from their Aboriginal parents so that they could be "civilized" and raised in "white" society. These individuals have become known collectively as the "stolen generations" and public acknowledgment of their plight is an important part of the process of reconciliation between Aboriginal peoples and other Australians.

Importance of Anzac and Gallipoli in the Australia National Psyche

Anzac Day is a major holiday in Australia and New Zealand. Anzac stands for: Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. It honors Australians and New Zealanders who died or suffered in the battle at Gallipoli, Turkey, one the bloodiest military campaigns of bloody World War I. The idea behind it, hatched by Winston Churchill, was to launch a naval sweep through the Dardanelles to capture Istanbul (The Turks were on the German side in World War I). This action, it was hoped, would open a sea route to Russia, bringing them much-needed supplies, and encourage the anti-Turkish Balkan states to side with the Allies. This didn’t happen and the most tragic Allied error took place on April 25th, 1915 when Allied units were carried by strong currents to cliff-surrounded Anzac beach, a mile away from where they were supposed to be dropped. In this one battle — a sort of D-Day that didn't succeed — 50,000 men were lost, most of them Australians and New Zealanders machine gunned down by Turks waiting in trenches.

Ilsa Sharp wrote in “CultureShock! Australia”: Anzac Day commemorates the terrible trials of the Anzacs in their attempts to scale and control the rugged sea-cliffs at Gallipoli, from the landing date, 25 April 1915, until their withdrawal on 19 December that year. During this time, 8,000 or so Australians (and more than 2,000 New Zealanders, as well as French soldiers and others) were killed, and 19,000 Australians were wounded. Their bravery in the face of hopeless odds won the Australian soldier an enduring reputation thereafter, to this day — one reconfirmed elsewhere, as at the battle for Singapore in 1942 and since then in Vietnam (1960s), Iraq and Afghanistan. [Source:Ilsa Sharp, “CultureShock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette: Australia”, Marshall Cavendish, 2009]

“I have said that anything is fair game when it comes to Australian humour: from cripples to Christ on the Cross. This is true. But not Gallipoli, or ‘the Anzacs’… Gallipoli? You will certainly have to get wise about Gallipoli if you wish to penetrate the Australian psyche. Anyway, you only have to stay long enough in Australia to hit the Anzac Day national holiday on 25 April to understand its importance. No matter how small the Australian town you may chance upon on 25 April, you can be sure there will be an Anzac Day parade around the local war memorial, complete with emotional speeches, brass bands and little boys clutching their fathers’ hands, both wearing the traditional cocked Digger slouch hat. (‘Digger’ has been the name for an Aussie soldier since World War I).

Immigrants in Australia

Loretta Baldassar and David S. Trigger wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: Since its days as a British colony Australia has developed a complex national culture with immigrants from many parts of the world as well as an indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. The strong sense of societal and historical distinctiveness among the different states and territories has not developed into major subcultural diversity based on geographic regions. [Source: Loretta Baldassar and David S. Trigger, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

The first migrants were Chinese, attracted by the 1850s and 1860s gold rushes. Fear of miscegenation and xenophobia and the consequent race riots resulted in restrictive legislation against the importation of Pacific and Chinese labor. However, immigration was viewed as important; a well known catch phrase was "populate or perish," reflecting the rationale that population growth would aid both defense and economic development.

The Federation of States in 1901 coincided with the implementation of one of the most influential governmental policies affecting the development of the national culture: The Immigration Restriction Act. This "White Australia Policy" was aimed primarily at combating the perceived "yellow peril" represented by immigrants from neighboring Asian countries. Throughout much of the twentieth century, migrants were selected according to a hierarchy of desirability that was broadened as preferred sources dried up. The British were always at the top of the list, and a number of government subsidies and settlement schemes were implemented to encourage their immigration.

Immigration thus can be defined as a series of waves, with the British dominating until the 1940s, followed by northern Europeans (including displaced persons from World War I), southern Europeans (predominantly in the post–World War IIperiod), and eventually, after the White Australia Policy was abandoned in 1972, Asians. Immigration has declined since the 1980s, and it is now difficult to gain entry. The number of migrants has become an issue of debate, particularly in regard to uninvited refugees.

Australia's long history of immigration and the increasing ethnic diversity of its population have spurred debates about the definition of an Australian. Many Aboriginal and Asian citizens still experience a sense of alienation and exclusion from acceptance as "real" Aussies and in difficult economic times often become political and social scapegoats. However, concerted efforts have been made to present these groups in a positive and inclusive light.

New Zealand is the national culture related most closely to Australia. New Zealanders have special entry rights, and there have been large population flows in both directions. Australians and New Zealanders compete energetically in areas such as sport but cooperate closely in international relations.

Assimilation and Australian History

Loretta Baldassar and David S. Trigger wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”: For much of the nation's history, there has been a focus on assimilating different cultural groups into the dominant British Australian traditions; however, in the early 1970s a more pluralist policy of multiculturalism came to prominence. In 1988, bicentennial events were promoted officially as the "celebration of a nation." A commitment was made to the idea that Australia is a collectivity of diverse peoples living in a relatively young society. However, the divisions within the nation continue to find expression in public life, arising from social differences in race, ethnicity, social class, and gender. [Source: Loretta Baldassar and David S. Trigger, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

The ideology of assimilation permeated relations not only with the indigenous population but also with immigrants. The early British Protestant colonists were bolstered by the arrival of Irish Catholic settlers who eventually (through their involvement in the development of a Catholic education system and their representation in government) became incorporated into the dominant cultural group. Since that time Australia has been defined as an Anglo-fragment society in which British or Anglo-Celtic culture was and remains dominant. However, immigration over the last two centuries has created a nation that is among the most culturally diverse in the world.

The intergenerational reproduction of minority ethnic identities has produced a national culture that is multicultural, polyethnic, and cosmopolitan. Since the 1970s this diversity has been encouraged through progressive equity legislation that promotes recognition of difference and tolerance of diversity. Nevertheless, multicultural policy has been dominated by a culturalist philosophy in which linguistic and lifestyle (food, dress) diversity has been recognized more readily than have the structural economic difficulties of some immigrant groups. Despite the focus on cultural diversity, the Anglo-Celtic heritage continues to dominate most institutional aspects of society, including the media, the legal system, public education, and the system of health care.

Australia’s Lack of Cohesiveness

According to “CultureShock! Australia”: Few outsiders realise that Australia was for long no more than a collection of separately autonomous colonies. Nationhood is still a very new thing. To make matters worse, internal communications and understanding have been hampered both by the geography of a harsh and huge terrain, almost 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) from east to west, over 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) north to south, and by economic stupidities such as it costing about the same to fly abroad as to air-commute internally (only recently mitigated by the advent of budget airlines such as Virgin Blue and Jetstar Airways). [Source: Ilsa Sharp, “CultureShock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette: Australia”, Marshall Cavendish, 2009]

The remnants of that early colonial structure, still expressed in the independence of the six state governments, are only now being broken down. For example, only in 1991 was a decision taken to form national bodies which would standardise legal procedures, electrical power, road systems, and the gauge used on railway lines across the country. But whether all of this will actually materialise is still in doubt. For years, state differences have been a great block to economic progress. Until 1991, sausages had differing content regulations, in different states, preventing their inter-state sale. Electricians, plumbers, doctors and lawyers needed licences to work outside their home states. A rail cargo container sent east-west from Sydney to Perth was subject to four changes of locomotive, five safe working systems, six sizes of loading gauge and had to spend 12 hours at sidings for crew changes and inspections.

The states can raise some of their own revenue by taxation but their power to collect state-based income tax was grabbed by federal legislation in 1942; the Federal Government generally raises the equivalent of 80 per cent of all government spending. Regular ‘blues’ (fights’) between the federal and state governments over a beast called ‘horizontal fiscal equalisation’ or the distribution of federal monies to the states, nowadays mostly in the shape of federal GST (Goods and Services Tax) revenue, are a routine feature of the Australian political and economic landscape.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Loretta Baldassar and David S. Trigger,“Countries and Their Cultures”, Ilsa Sharp, “CultureShock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette: Australia”, Marshall Cavendish, 2009, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2023

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