Australia, officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a sovereign country comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands. It is the largest country in Oceania and the world’s sixth-largest country by total area. Its population of nearly 26 million is highly urbanised and heavily concentrated on the eastern seaboard. Australia’s capital is Canberra, and its largest city is Sydney. The country’s other major metropolitan areas are Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide.
Indigenous Australians inhabited the continent for about 65,000 years prior to the first arrival of Dutch explorers in the early 17th century, who named it New Holland. In 1770, Australia’s eastern half was claimed by Great Britain and initially settled through penal transportation to the colony of New South Wales from 26 January 1788, a date which became Australia’s national day. The population grew steadily in subsequent decades, and by the time of an 1850s gold rush, most of the continent had been explored by European settlers and an additional five self-governing crown colonies established. On 1 January 1901, the six colonies federated, forming the Commonwealth of Australia. Australia has since maintained a stable liberal democratic political system that functions as a federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy, comprising six states and ten territories.
Australia is the oldest, flattest, and driest inhabited continent, with the least fertile soils. It has a landmass of 7,617,930 square kilometres (2,941,300 sq mi). A megadiverse country, its size gives it a wide variety of landscapes and climates, with deserts in the centre, tropical rainforests in the north-east, and mountain ranges in the south-east. Australia generates its income from various sources, including mining-related exports, telecommunications, banking, manufacturing, and international education.
Australia is a developed country, with the world’s thirteenth-largest economy and tenth-highest per capita income. It is considered a regional power and has the world’s thirteenth-highest military expenditure. Immigrants account for 30% of the population, the highest proportion in any country with a population over 10 million. The country ranks highly in measures of health, education, economic freedom, and civil liberties. Australia is a member of the United Nations, G20, Commonwealth of Nations, ANZUS, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), World Trade Organization, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Pacific Islands Forum, and the ASEAN Plus Six.
The name Australia (pronounced /əˈstreɪliə/ in Australian English) is derived from the Latin Terra Australis (“southern land”), a name used for a hypothetical continent in the Southern Hemisphere since ancient times. When Europeans first began visiting and mapping Australia in the 17th century, the name Terra Australis was naturally applied to the new territories.[N 5]
Until the early 19th century, Australia was best known as “New Holland“, a name first applied by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1644 (as Nieuw-Holland) and subsequently anglicised. Terra Australis still saw occasional usage, such as in scientific texts.[N 6] The name Australia was popularised by the explorer Matthew Flinders, who said it was “more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the Earth”. Several famous early cartographers also made use of the word Australia on maps. Gerardus Mercator used the phrase climata australia on his double cordiform map of the world of 1538, as did Gemma Frisius, who was Mercator’s teacher and collaborator, on his own cordiform wall map in 1540. Australia appears in a book on astronomy by Cyriaco Jacob zum Barth published in Frankfurt am Main in 1545.
The first time that Australia appears to have been officially used was in April 1817, when Governor Lachlan Macquarie acknowledged the receipt of Flinders’ charts of Australia from Lord Bathurst. In December 1817, Macquarie recommended to the Colonial Office that it be formally adopted. In 1824, the Admiralty agreed that the continent should be known officially by that name. The first official published use of the new name came with the publication in 1830 of The Australia Directory by the Hydrographic Office.
Colloquial names for Australia include “Oz” and “the Land Down Under” (usually shortened to just “Down Under“). Other epithets include “the Great Southern Land”, “the Lucky Country“, “the Sunburnt Country”, and “the Wide Brown Land”. The latter two both derive from Dorothea Mackellar‘s 1908 poem “My Country“.
Human habitation of the Australian continent is known to have begun at least 65,000 years ago, with the migration of people by land bridges and short sea-crossings from what is now Southeast Asia. The Madjedbebe rock shelter in Arnhem Land is recognised as the oldest site showing the presence of humans in Australia. The oldest human remains found are the Lake Mungo remains, which have been dated to around 41,000 years ago. These people were the ancestors of modern Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal Australian culture is one of the oldest continual cultures on Earth.
At the time of first European contact, most Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers with complex economies and societies. Recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 750,000 could have been sustained. Indigenous Australians have an oral culture with spiritual values based on reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. The Torres Strait Islanders, ethnically Melanesian, obtained their livelihood from seasonal horticulture and the resources of their reefs and seas. The northern coasts and waters of Australia were visited sporadically by Makassan fishermen from what is now Indonesia.
The first recorded European sighting of the Australian mainland, and the first recorded European landfall on the Australian continent, are attributed to the Dutch. The first ship and crew to chart the Australian coast and meet with Aboriginal people was the Duyfken captained by Dutch navigator, Willem Janszoon. He sighted the coast of Cape York Peninsula in early 1606, and made landfall on 26 February 1606 at the Pennefather River near the modern town of Weipa on Cape York. Later that year, Spanish explorer Luís Vaz de Torres sailed through, and navigated, Torres Strait islands. The Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines and named the island continent “New Holland” during the 17th century, and although no attempt at settlement was made, a number of shipwrecks left men either stranded or, as in the case of the Batavia in 1629, marooned for mutiny and murder, thus becoming the first Europeans to permanently inhabit the continent. William Dampier, an English explorer and privateer, landed on the north-west coast of New Holland in 1688 (while serving as a crewman under pirate Captain John Read) and again in 1699 on a return trip. In 1770, James Cook sailed along and mapped the east coast, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Great Britain.
With the loss of its American colonies in 1783, the British Government sent a fleet of ships, the “First Fleet“, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, to establish a new penal colony in New South Wales. A camp was set up and the Union flag raised at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, on 26 January 1788, a date which later became Australia’s national day, Australia Day. Most early convicts were transported for petty crimes and assigned as labourers or servants upon arrival. While the majority settled into colonial society once emancipated, convict rebellions and uprisings were also staged, but invariably suppressed under martial law. The 1808 Rum Rebellion, the only successful armed takeover of government in Australia, instigated a two-year period of military rule.
The indigenous population declined for 150 years following settlement, mainly due to infectious disease. Thousands more died as a result of frontier conflict with settlers. A government policy of “assimilation” beginning with the Aboriginal Protection Act 1869 resulted in the removal of many Aboriginal children from their families and communities—referred to as the Stolen Generations — a practice which also contributed to the decline in the indigenous population. As a result of the 1967 referendum, the Federal government’s power to enact special laws with respect to a particular race was extended to enable the making of laws with respect to Aboriginals. Traditional ownership of land (“native title“) was not recognised in law until 1992, when the High Court of Australia held in Mabo v Queensland (No 2) that the legal doctrine that Australia had been terra nullius (“land belonging to no one”) did not apply to Australia at the time of British settlement.
The expansion of British control over other areas of the continent began in the early 19th century, initially confined to coastal regions. A settlement was established in Van Diemen’s Land (present-day Tasmania) in 1803, and it became a separate colony in 1825. In 1813, Gregory Blaxland, William Lawson and William Wentworth crossed the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, opening the interior to European settlement. The British claim was extended to the whole Australian continent in 1827 when Major Edmund Lockyer established a settlement on King George Sound (modern-day Albany). The Swan River Colony (present-day Perth) was established in 1829, evolving into the largest Australian colony by area, Western Australia. In accordance with population growth, separate colonies were carved from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, New Zealand in 1841, Victoria in 1851, and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory was excised from South Australia in 1911. South Australia was founded as a “free province” — it was never a penal colony. Western Australia was also founded “free” but later accepted transported convicts, the last of which arrived in 1868, decades after transportation had ceased to the other colonies. In the mid-19th century, explorers such as Burke and Wills went further inland to determine its agricultural potential and answer scientific questions.
A series of gold rushes beginning in the early 1850s led to an influx of new migrants from China, North America and continental Europe, and also spurred outbreaks of bushranging and civil unrest; the latter peaked in 1854 when Ballarat miners launched the Eureka Rebellion against gold license fees. Between 1855 and 1890, the six colonies individually gained responsible government, managing most of their own affairs while remaining part of the British Empire. The Colonial Office in London retained control of some matters, notably foreign affairs and defence.
On 1 January 1901, federation of the colonies was achieved after a decade of planning, consultation and voting. After the 1907 Imperial Conference, Australia and the other self-governing British colonies were given the status of “dominion” within the British Empire. The Federal Capital Territory (later renamed the Australian Capital Territory) was formed in 1911 as the location for the future federal capital of Canberra. Melbourne was the temporary seat of government from 1901 to 1927 while Canberra was being constructed. The Northern Territory was transferred from the control of the South Australian government to the federal parliament in 1911. Australia became the colonial ruler of the Territory of Papua (which had initially been annexed by Queensland in 1883) in 1902 and of the Territory of New Guinea (formerly German New Guinea) in 1920. The two were unified as the Territory of Papua and New Guinea in 1949 and gained independence from Australia in 1975.
In 1914, Australia joined Britain in fighting World War I, with support from both the outgoing Commonwealth Liberal Party and the incoming Australian Labor Party. Australians took part in many of the major battles fought on the Western Front. Of about 416,000 who served, about 60,000 were killed and another 152,000 were wounded. Many Australians regard the defeat of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) at Gallipoli as the birth of the nation — its first major military action. The Kokoda Track campaign is regarded by many as an analogous nation-defining event during World War II.
Britain’s Statute of Westminster 1931 formally ended most of the constitutional links between Australia and the United Kingdom. Australia adopted it in 1942, but it was backdated to 1939 to confirm the validity of legislation passed by the Australian Parliament during World War II. The shock of Britain’s defeat in Asia in 1942, followed soon after by the bombing of Darwin and other Japanese attacks, led to a widespread belief in Australia that an invasion was imminent, and a shift towards the United States as a new ally and protector. Since 1951, Australia has been a formal military ally of the United States, under the ANZUS treaty.
After World War II, Australia encouraged immigration from mainland Europe. Since the 1970s and following the abolition of the White Australia policy, immigration from Asia and elsewhere was also promoted. As a result, Australia’s demography, culture, and self-image were transformed. The Australia Act 1986 severed the remaining constitutional ties between Australia and the United Kingdom. In a 1999 referendum, 55% of voters and a majority in every state rejected a proposal to become a republic with a president appointed by a two-thirds vote in both Houses of the Australian Parliament. There has been an increasing focus in foreign policy on ties with other Pacific Rim nations while maintaining close ties with Australia’s traditional allies and trading partners.
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