The insular region, of continental size, once known as New Holland, probably was first discovered by a Portuguese navigator in 1601, though certain French maps of 1542 claim to contain the country under the name of Jave la Grande, the discovery at that date, if true, being still due to the Portuguese. In 1606, Torres, a Spaniard, passed through the strait that now bears his name, between Australia and New Guinea. The early presence of the Dutch explorers is proved by such names as Dirk Hertog Island, De Witt Land, and many others, since changed, which show that they visited nearly all the northern and western, with much of the southern coast line. In 1642 Jan Abel Tasman sailed from Batavia with an expedition which reached the island now called by the name of its discoverer, but which he styled Van Diemen’s Land, in honor of the Dutch Governor of the East Indian Colony. He sailed round its southern coast and for nearly a century and a half the country was believed to form a part of the great Southern Continent. In his eastward course, Tasman came upon New Zealand and then returned to Batavia by the north of New Guinea. In 1664 the States General gave the name of New Holland to the western part of the region of which their countrymen had at that time seen more than any other navigators. The land was then almost forgotten in Europe, save for the visit of the enterprising and skillful mariner, William Dampier, who is the first Englishman known to have landed on the Australian shore. This adventurous man, who had fought in the Dutch wars of Charles II, had cut logwood on the coast of Campeachy Bay, commanded a privateer against the Spaniards in American waters, and sailed round the world, was appointed, in 1698, to the command of a sloop of war in the British navy. In this vessel he was dispatched by William III on a voyage of discovery to the Australian seas, where he visited the western coast, caught sight of kangaroos, and of some of the ill looking natives, and bestowed the name of Shark’s Bay on an inlet then and now infested by the sailor’s foe. The first British occupation of any part of the Southern Continent dates from the closing years of the Eighteenth Century. In October, 1769, Cook arrived at New Zealand and spent six months in examining the shores. The east-ern coast of Australia was then attentively surveyed, and possession of the land under the name of New South Wales was formally claimed for the Sovereign of Britain. An inlet on the southeast shore received the name of Botany Bay, because of new plants there observed.
The first settlement made on Australian soil was due to the want of a place of banishment for criminals from the British Isles. The loss of the American Colonies, whither convicts had been sent to compulsory work in the plantations, had caused the Government to place prisoners on board hulks or dismantled men-of-war. An outlet was sought for these seething and unwholesome communities of crime, and Botany Bay occurred to mind as a spot fitted to a penal colony. In May, 1787, a fleet of eleven sail, commanded by Captain Phillip, bore from Portsmouth nearly 800 convicts, with two or three hundred officials, guards, and other free settlers. In January, 1788, the expedition arrived at Botany Bay, but Phillip, as Governor of New South Wales, did not approve of the site and, entering the splendid harbor of Port Jackson to the north, he laid on the shore of one of its many inlets, the foundations of the town of Sydney, named after the peer who was then in charge of colonial affairs. It was only by slow degrees that the new colony received any large number of free emigrants and began to emerge from the state of a mere convict settlement. For more than thirty years the chief work done lay in the forced labor of criminals employed in constructing public buildings, in making roads, and in clearing the land. The system of “assignment,” by which convicts were allotted as servants to free settlers was introduced after the year 1821, when a tide of emigration began to set in from the mother country. The crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813 laid open to newcomers a great territory which tempted further advance. The future prosperity of New South Wales was to lie in sheep farming, for which the land was soon found to be admirably suited. In 1797, Captain MacArthur introduced, from the Cape of Good Hope, some rams and ewes of the pure Spanish Merino breed, and excellent results were gained from the crossing of this stock with the coarse wooled sheep already in the colony. From this source the whole country was in time supplied with the sheep, which have produced wealth so vast in wool and tallow. The criminal element of population became, in the course of sixty years from the first settlement, greatly outnumbered by the free immigrants, and in 1841 the reception of convicts ceased. A great impulse was given ten years later to the increase in population in this part of Australia by the discovery of very rich deposits of gold. The production of California was surpassed, and the event was an epoch in the history of Australia. In 1843 the principle of representative government was introduced, and in 1855 “responsible rule” was fully established, with a Parliament of two houses, elected by voters without any property qualification. Education is under State control, and the flourishing University of Sydney forms the apex of the system.
The great Colony of Victoria, formerly the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, was made a separate State in 1861. First settled in 1835, this territory owed its rapid growth in population and wealth to sheep farming on the rich pastures near the River Murray on the southeast coast. A rush of immigration came with the discovery of gold, and Melbourne, the capital, increased within a few years from a population little exceeding 20,000 to five times the number. From 1851 to the end of 1888 the value of the gold obtained in this region exceeded £220,000 sterling. In 1888 the value of the wool exports was above £5,000,000. In 1854 the Colony received full representative government, with two legislative chambers, chosen by universal suffrage. Education is free, and compulsory between the ages of six and fifteen.
The settlement of South Australia had its origin in a body of immigrants sent out from England in 1836 by an association formed for the purpose under royal charter; with a grant of land from the Imperial Government. The site for the capital, named Adelaide, from the Queen, was chosen on the River Torrens, near the Gulf of St. Vincent. After a period of early struggle, the Colony was helped by the discovery of rich copper mines, and then checked for a time by the outrush to the tempting gold-fields of Victoria and New South Wales. Under financial difficulties the settlement in 1841 was transferred to the crown, and two years later the Governor was assisted by a legislative Council, the members of which in 1850 began to be chosen by the colonists. A regular Parliament of two houses was granted in 1853. Education is compulsory up to a certain standard. In 1863 the Colony received from the Imperial Government the provisional cession of the vast region extending northward to the Indian Ocean, once called Alexanderland and now known as the Northern Territory.
The first settlement of Western Australia took place in 1829, soon after Captain Fremantle had claimed possession of the territory in the name of George IV. The Colony was known then as the Swan River Settlement, and for a long period its progress was very slow. The population is mainly found in the Southwest, near the Swan River and King George Sound. Owing to the scar-city of labor, the colonists petitioned for convicts to be sent to them, and in 1850 Western Australia became a penal settlement, but in 1868 transportation was abolished. The Colony is provided with a responsible government in the shape of a legislative council. Education is compulsory.
Until December, 1859, the most northern portion of New South Wales was known as the Moreton Bay District. In that year the territory became a separate Colony, Queensland, provided with a Parliament of two houses. This flourishing Colony, with rich gold-fields (discovered in 1858), immense numbers of sheep and cattle, coal mines and large crops of sugar cane, possesses more than 2,000 miles of railway, and nearly 10,000 miles of telegraph, all in the hands of the Government.
Tasmania, the best watered and most healthy of all these great Colonies, was first settled in 1803 as a penal offshoot of New South Wales. For fifty years the country was a convict settlement, becoming a distinct Colony in 1824. In the earlier days of its history progress was much retarded by the hostility of the natives, a race now extinct, and by the evil doings of convicts who escaped from control and became harassing depredators known as bush-rangers. Two houses form the Parliament.
The group of rising States under the brilliant southern cross is completed by the antipodean isles known as New Zealand. They were first seen by the Dutch navigator, Tasman, in 1642, when a boat’s crew of his sailors were massacred by the natives. After the visits made by Captain Cook the coasts were sometimes resorted to by sailors, escaped convicts, and maritime adventurers. The first permanent settlement was made in 1815 by missionaries whose labor by degrees won the Maoris from their practice of cannibalism. In 1833 a British resident was appointed subject to control from New South Wales; and, in 1840, under the New Zealand Company, a regular Colony was established. In 1841 New Zealand, with a seat of Government at Auckland, was formally separated from New South Wales, and in 1852 a system of constitutional government was established. In 1861 a great impulse was given to immigration by the discovery of the gold-fields of Otago, and the generation which has since elapsed has brought remarkable and rapid progress.
The efforts made during the closing years of the century to bring about a federation of the Australian Colonies were finally successful. The British Parliament passed the act July 9, 1900, and January I, 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was duly proclaimed. It is composed of the following six colonies: New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, New Zealand having chosen to hold aloof. The legislative power is vested in a Federal Parliament consisting of the King, a Senate, and a House of Representatives, the King being represented by a Governor-General. The Earl of Hopetoun was sworn in at Sydney, N. S. W., January 1, 1901, as the first Governor-General.