There were numerous early European explorers to Australia. A Dutchman named Willem Janszoon is generally credited with being the first outsider to make a landing on Australian soil (doing so in 1606) but others followed not long after. The most famous of these is fellow Dutchman Abel Tasman, who in 1642 became the first to discover the large island off Australia’s southern coast – hence its modern name, Tasmania.
It was Captain James Cook, however, who landed at Botany Bay in 1770 and changed the fate of the land forever. When he and his men stepped onto Australian shores, they encountered an Aboriginal way of life that went back some 40,000 years. The first governor, Arthur Phillip, was ordered to encourage a positive relationship with the indigenous locals, although a mixture of disease, malice and mutual suspicion meant this was over-optimistic. The first European settlers treated the Aboriginal population with appalling brutality, which gave way to racist and cruel policies from subsequent administrations. Many tensions still exist between mainstream Australia and the guardians of the Aboriginal way of life.
While the native way of life was being strained to breaking point, the island’s new settlers were putting down firm roots. A British colony had been firmly established not long after Cook’s arrival, and by 1868 (recognising the powerful crime deterrent afforded by penal transportation) London had sent more than 160,000 convicts to Australia.
By this time there had also been the mass arrival of free settlers and speculators, many of them pouring into the country in the gold rush of the 1850s. It led to significant economic expansion. By the 1880s the majority of people in the colony had been born and raised in Australia, which in turn was creating a deeper sense of nationalism. The Commonwealth of Australia came into being in 1901.
The nation was deeply involved and affected by both world wars and the Great Depression, but continued to develop into a modern, versatile nation with a keen sense of its own character. A burgeoning arts scene, forward-thinking civil rights and a set of economic reforms all helped the country grow as both a domestic and international power. The slow march towards racial reconciliation was given a boost in 2008 when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology to the indigenous population for the suffering of the past.
Australia remains a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as its present monarch. The country saw its first ever female prime minister in 2010, when Julia Gillard helped the Labor Party to a narrow election victory.