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Amazing Australian History


Aborigines have lived in Australia for an estimated 50 000 years but while in other parts of the world people exhausted themselves building Great Walls, pyramids and Taj Mahals, Aborigines happily wandered the plains, slept under trees or if it got really wet built a shelter of tree branches and fan palm leaves.
It is probably for this reason that the first settlers presumed Australia to be 'Terra Nullius' (not occupied by anyone) as there were no fences, roads, houses and all the things normally visible where people live.
Soon after arrival the Poms started building and nowadays the oldest building to be found is a brick cottage in Parramatta, Sydney, that was built in 1793. A lot of the time though Australians expect you to get excited over structures that are only about a 100 years old which is ancient in their eyes but a joke to Europeans who are used to living and shopping in cities with buildings dating back at least 700 years. If you want to see something really old try to see some Aboriginal rock paintings, the oldest ones in the Koonalda cave under the Nullarbor plain are estimated to be 20 000 years old!

Black birding

Many people are surprised to hear that Australia's history includes the phenomena of "black birding', a local version of the slave trade that occurred on American plantations in the early days of settlement there.
When white settlers first started turning the landscape into sugar cane plantations they found it hard going in the tropical heat and honestly believed that white people could not work in such circumstances. While the Dutch were succesful getting Indonesians to work hard on spice plantations Australian settlers were not so succesful getting Aborigines to do the same (though they proved their skills as horsemen and workers on cattle stations). A solution was found in sailing out to Pacific islands and kidnapping people to bring back to the cane fields, starting around 1860 at least 800 ships had "kidnapped" at least 60,000 islanders and sold to Queensland sugar growers. Though officially they were not slaves the pay was that ridiculous that they could not afford to return home and thus had little choice other than to stay and work to survive. The government passed the Pacific Island Labourerer Act in 1901 to abolish this practice and by 1906 ordered their repatriation, though not all of them returned and even nowadays you can see dark skinned people in sugar cane areas that are not Aborigines but descendants of Pacific Islanders that decided to stay.

Black war

Aborigines have not fared very well all over Australia since the arrival of Europeans in the 1700's but during the Black War in Tasmania they fared worst of all. In the early 1800's tensions flared that high that martial law was proclaimed by Governor Arthur, which gave soldiers the right to arrest or shoot on sight any Aboriginal found in an area of European settlement. Aboriginal people who fought to retain their land speared shepherds and stock and were subsequently hunted and shot. Between the 1820s and 1840s most Aborigines were relocated to a camp on Bruny Island. Conditions there were terrible and their numbers rapidly declined due to malnutrition and disease and by 1876 Tasmania's last full blood Aborigine died. They had been wiped out so quickly that very little of their history, culture or language had been recorded.

Bombing of Darwin

While Australia has never been invaded in the 200 years or so of white settlement it has had a few visits from the Japanese army in World War Two.
In february 1942 a Pearl Harbour style attack on Darwin by 188 Japanese planes killed 243 people and sunk numerous ships. They came back another 57 times over the next two years doing more damage. You can still see remains of concrete bunkers and gun turrets in Darwin and there is a museum in Fannie Bay with war relics. Other places in Australia received Japanese visits too, there were also air attacks on some North Queensland and Western Australian towns and mini submarines attacked Wollongong and Sydney where they managed to sink a ship in the harbour, the Japs never made it home after that, many years later their sunken mini submarines were discovered on the ocean bottom near Sydney.

Burke and Wills

Crossed the continent on foot from Melbourne to the north in 1861 but died on the return journey.


In 1966 Australians changed from the old system of paying for their beers with pounds (quid), shillings and pence to paying for their beers with dollars and cents, though the expression "to make a quid" is still heard nowadays.

Gondwana breaking up

About 55 million years ago the ancient super continent of Gondwana broke into pieces. One bit that floated off is now known as Australia, this long separation from the rest of the world explains some of the interesting flora and fauna that lives in Australia nowadays.

James Cook's crash on the reef

Weary Bay, Australia
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Weary Bay where Cook and his men had a rest

On 10 june 1770 Lieutenant James Cook ( he was not promoted to Captain yet) sailed along the North Queensland coast in his Endeavour and just after passing Cape Tribulation hit a coral reef in the night. They were lucky that a part of the reef actually broke off and partly filled the hole to reduce the flow of water entering the ship. This, together with covering the hole with a sail from the outside, pumping like hell and throwing lots of heavy stuff like cannons overboard, managed to keep the ship afloat. When Cook looked around the next morning after a sleepless night and understandably feeling a bit grumpy, he assigned a whole bunch of rather negative names to the beautiful coastline. Kuranjee (Aboriginal for 'place of many cassowaries' was renamed into Cape Tribulation (tribulation = trouble). He ordered the men into the rowboats and for several days they towed the disabled ship up the coast (naming Weary bay where they had a rest stop) until they found a river suitable for bringing the ship in to beach at high tide and carry out repairs. This is now called the Endeavour River and the town there is called Cooktown. They spent seven weeks here fixing the ship while botanist Joseph Banks enjoyed himself discovering more new flora and fauna, most notably the kangaroo. Apparently the name 'kangaroo' originated when Cook asked the local Aborigines what the name of this animal was they replied something like ' kang-goo-roo' . Later it emerged that this was not the name of the animal but one Aborigine saying to the other; what the hell's that white idiot talking about? When repairs were completed Cook spent considerable time up the top of Grassy Hill observing the rather tricky passage out of the river, not being keen on getting the ship stuck again on departure. The trickyness of this passage was demonstrated 200 years later when a replica of the Endeavour sailed around Australia and could not enter the Endeavour River as it was considered too shallow. Cooktowners intent on getting the ship to come in for a re-enactment begged the State Government to pay for dredging the entrance but to no avail and the ship anchored outside. After the repair stop the ship sailed further north and it was only further up the cape that Cook actually planted the Union Jack and claimed this country for his King. He named it New South Wales, the name Australia would take another 40 years to appear. When you consider the Dutch had already visited this area in 1606 and named it New Holland it makes you wonder what Australia would have become if Cook had sunk that night on the reef and not planted the flag later further up the coast, would it still have been New Holland? Would Australia have been filled with windmills, canals and coffee shops? There is a good museum in Cooktown where you can learn all about Cook's adventures and even see original items from the Endeavour like the anchor and cannons later retrieved by scuba divers. Once a year in June the Cooktown festival is held where you can see a re-enactment of Cook's arrival in 1770.
More info on Cooktown....


John Eyre

The first European to cross the Nullarbor Plains from Adelaide to Albany in 1840, this effort was rewarded by having the highway that runs along here now named after him.

John Stuart

Mapped the route of the overland telegraph line in 1842 from Adelaide to the Northern Territory and now his name lives on as the highway connecting Adelaide and Darwin is named after him.

Korean War

In 1959 Australia sent over 17000 armed soldiers to Korea to fight the communists for two years.

Ludwig Leichardt

leichardt river in queensland
Photo by Rob Lapaer of Rainforest Hideaway B&B, Cape Tribulation, N.Qld.
The Leichardt river in dry season

In the 1840s explored and mapped the coastline from North Queensland to the Northern Territory, known as the Gulf of Carpenteria, and later set out to cross the continent from east to west after which he has never been seen again but at least he now has a river and a waterfall named after him which is more than most of us can say.

leichardt falls outback queensland
Photo by Rob Lapaer of Rainforest Hideaway B&B, Cape Tribulation, N.Qld.

Matthew Flinders

Around the start of the 1800s Matthew Flinders mapped some of the New South Wales coast, did a circumnavigation of the continent and introduced the name Australia which we still use today.

Metric system

In 1975, when a lot of people were still trying to come to terms with the loss of their pounds, shillings and pence in 1966, Australians also lost their yards, inches, feet, miles, gallons, degrees Fahrenheit and ounces when the metric system was adopted, while the yards and ounces have largely disappeared inches and feet still persist in todays society, mainly in the building and hardware industry, rainfall is still often reported in inches as many people still have no idea how much water to imagine in millimetres, real estate agents still use acres to indicate size of a plot, there being around 2.5 acres in a hectare, and miles and gallons are still used in many expressions and conversation.
Another system of measuring that was never officially terminated but gradually disappeared in the late 1990s was beers. In outback areas where nobody used to worry about drink driving distances were often measured in beers, the distance to a nearby town could be 'only a sixpack' but a longer trip to the nearest city could be as far as 'a carton'. It was also customary in those days to throw all the empties out the window while driving so all highways were lined with empty cans and broken glass, stricter enforced drink driving laws and a government campaign to not throw out all your rubbish in the late 1990s succesfully changed attitudes and now there is very little rubbish next to the highways.

The naming of Australia

For quite a few years, from 1606 after the first Dutch landing until James Cook's official posession of this continent in 1770 it was called New Holland. It then changed its name to New South Wales but it was only in 1817 that it was officially changed to Australia, the idea coming from famous explorer Matthew Flinders who thought the Latin name Terra Australis would be a good compromise between the names given so far by the two claiming nations Holland and Britain.

Thomas Mitchell

As Surveyor General in the 1800s he mapped most of Victoria and introduced the use of Aboriginal names for geographical locations instead of repeating all the names from back home ( New South Wales, New This, New That ) so we can thank him for twisting our tongue with names like Woolloomoolloo, Murrumbidgee, Borroloola etc.

Vietnam War

In 1962 Australia sent the first of 50,000 armed soldiers to serve overseas in the Vietnam War that dragged on for another ten years.

Women's wages

At the start of the 20th century women were not paid very well but this changed in 1919 when women were awarded 54% of the national basic minimum wage for men, ( assuming working women are single and do not need to support a whole family like men did).
In 1950 women got an even better deal when their minimum wage went op to 75% of men's wages. And in 1972 it got even more better when female public servants were awarded the same pay as men!

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