This brief overview of Australia’s history is far from complete, but hopefully it gives you an insight into the events that shaped the country and its culture. For thousands of years Australia was populated by indigenous, known as Aboriginals. The arrival of the first English fleet with convicts and colonists in 1788 came to change the life of the Aboriginals, not always for the better.
From being a small European colony in a distant part of the world, Australia has over the last two hundred years become a regional power to count on, a modern and developed society. A country many nations around the globe envies. The colonizer’s ‘ relationship with the country, its indigenous peoples and the people themselves has changed tremendously over these 200 years. Today’s Australia is built on human rights and freedom. This lengthy change of course culminated in February 2008 when the Australian state officially apologized for its long oppressive policy towards the Aboriginals.
Australia’s indigenous and languages
Australia’s different local indigenous cultures have the world’s longest unbroken cultural history, with a cultural heritage stretching far back in time; Australia’s indigenous has lived on the continent for 40,000-60,000 years. They consist of two large groups; Aboriginals that historically come from the Australian mainland and Tasmania plus the Islanders from various islands of the Torres Strait (Torres Strait Islanders) north of Cape York in the north-eastern corner of present Australia. The cultures of the two peoples differ and they have their own languages and traditions, for example, the latter have a lot more in common with islanders living in present Papua New Guinea and surrounding island states in the Pacific Ocean.
Over 700 different languages and dialects were spoken by various groups of indigenous people before the English settled in the country. Only about 145 of these languages have survived until today. One reason why so many languages disappeared is because indigenous never used any written language, instead the spoken language was (and is even today) extremely important when communicating their culture and the country’s history. A telling example of this is the verbal story of how Port Phillip Bay in Victoria was flooded and filled with water – something that has evidently been found to be based on an actual event that occurred 10,000 years ago.
Dreamtime, Dreaming and Aboriginal art
Different groups and indigenous clans or tribes have different names for what we call the Dreaming or the Dreamtime. Dreaming is an abstract term for the system of knowledge, faith, wisdom of life and guidelines for how indigenous people should live and behave towards each other and nature. History and Dream stories have been told to indigenous children and youngsters for generations and explains how the world was created and formed, and how and why they must behave in a certain way. The stories also gave children practical knowledge, such as how they can find food and how to survive in the barren landscape. For indigenous people, the Dreamtime is a sacred epoch during which ancestral spirits created Earth, and these creation stories differ between different parts of the country – for example, indigenous in southeast Australia and western Australia have different stories that explain how the birds got their colours.
In the Aboriginal story of the world’s creation, spirits or totems journeyed across the lands and heaven during the Dreamtime in paths or lines called song lines and dreaming tracks, and these are well described in indigenous songs, dances, stories and paintings. By singing a song line, a person can often navigate over long distances, thanks to the song describing heights, water holes, landmarks and other natural phenomena along the way. Various phenomena in the Australian landscape are often described and explained as part of song lines in stories of the creation, for example, how a series of waterholes came to be when a creation spirit stopped and cried out of longing at that specific place.
A song line can be hundreds of kilometres long and span across areas where completely different groups of indigenous have lived, which can lead to different parts being in different languages. However, the tongues between different communities is not a major obstacle to the wanderer, because it is the melody and rhythm in the song line which contains most information about the landscape and the road, to listen and feel the song is to some extent the same as travelling along the song line being one with the landscape and nature. The sacred creatures (spirits or totems) of the Dreamtime journeyed along these unseen paths all over Australia singing the names of all the things that crossed their path, thus singing the life of the Earth; Birds, animals, plants, rocks and streams. Even at present, the songs in the song lines must constantly being sung to keep the country and the world alive.
Some song lines are unidirectional, to walk in the opposite direction of such a song line may be a sacrilege – a common example of this is how Aboriginals are offended by tourists climbing up the gigantic sandstone rock (monolith) Uluru (Ayers Rock), partly because the song line along Uluru only goes from the top and down.
Dreaming stories and Dreamtime is a complicated bank of knowledge that overlaps and combines knowledge and history, animistic beliefs and practical guidance through life by connecting to a series of creation stories. The Dreamtime is not only something that existed in the past; Every living soul exists forever in the Dreaming – it is believed that your eternal soul existed before your physical life began and that it will continue to exist after your physical body has stopped working.
The rules and stories that make up the Dreaming provide structure and guidelines for society and how individuals should behave, and the ceremonies, dances and rites that must be followed to ensure that life continues as it should.
The oldest preserved Aboriginal artworks are rock carvings and rock paintings dated to be up to 30,000 years old. In Australia’s inland, much of this art contains abstract and symbolic dot-and-circle-based patterns that depict the landscape or different stories from the Dreamtime. Further north, the artworks are less abstract, often with figures of people, animals and spirits.
The first Europeans
The early discoverers
Although the Chinese probably were aware of Australia long before the Europeans, the first discoveries notably mentioned is from year 1606 when the Dutchman Willem Jansz landed on the western coast of Cape York where he was attacked by Aboriginals. He chose to not explore the new continent further. At the same time, a Spanish ship with Luis Vaez De Torres sailed through the strait north of Cape York. It is from him the Torres Strait got its name. Later in the 1600s, the Dutch explored the continent’s coasts further; What is now Western Australia was called New Holland and in 1642 Abel Tasman discovered a coastline he came to call “Van Diemen’s Land “(nowadays Tasmania). Tasman’s roughly drawn map of New Holland shows how at that time, it was believed there was an unbroken coastline from there up to Papua New Guinea – no one had yet understood that a whole new continent had been found.
William Dampier was the first Englishman to sail to Australia in 1684 and he had the misfortune to land in the northwest corner of the mainland. He quickly concluded that the dry and sandy landscape had no economic value and could not serve as a colony.
Captain James Cook
The Australian east coast was not properly explored by Europeans until the Englishman James Cook reached it in 1770 with his ship Endeavour. Cook had been sent out by the British Government to explore the South Pacific, and during his voyage along the east coast he landed in Botany Bay, around 20 km south of present-day Sydney where Sydney Airport now is located. Whether the area really reminded him of South Wales in the United Kingdom, or whether one wanted to make the dry country sound nicer than it was remains unspoken, nevertheless, Cook named the area New South Wales and proclaimed it a British territory for King George III. (I can’t help but think of the Viking Erik the Red who gave the barren and icy land northeast of Iceland the name Greenland to make it sound more attractive).
The first Swedish traveller and botanist Daniel Solander goes ashore during this time; He is one of Carl Linnaeus apprentices who together with the scientist Joseph Banks collects and documents hundreds of plant species in the new country. If you travel south of Sydney, you can visit the place that is named after him: Cape Solander.
What most people do not know is that the Swedish king Gustav III already in 1786 (two years before the British established their colony) had plans for a Swedish colony on Australia’s west coast, but unfortunately Sweden’s war with Russia crushed the king’s plans. Still, the idea is mindboggling, imagine what this could have meant regarding Swedish-Australian relations.
It is unique in terms of colonizing a country that so many of the first people to arrive in Australia were convicts sent away from the United Kingdom. United States of America proclaiming their independence from United Kingdom in 1776 which meant a major problem for Britain since 1718 they had deported their convicts to its North American colonies. In 1787 the expulsions were resumed, but this time with the destination Botany Bay in New South Wales, Australia. From 1787 the British “transported” over 160,000 convicts to the new colonies of New South Wales, Tasmania and Western Australia until the deportation of prisoners was banned in 1868.
The first colony
On January 26, 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip had managed to bring the first 11 ships of convicts, guards and colonists unscathed all the way to what would become the port of Sydney, these ships are since known as The First Fleet. The anniversary of this date is at present (2019) Australia’s National day, known as Australia Day.
The colony’s fist years were very difficult, but through rationing and sacrifices even from the officers, the colony survived and slowly began to grow and establish itself. The convicts worked under threat of getting sent into the wilderness or a death penalty if they did not follow orders, but those who served their entire sentences were liberated and got to serve as free men and women who could move into the colony and start new lives. After three rounds of convict transports, the first free colonists enticed to try to build a better life for themselves arrives in the new country in 1793.
The population was at this time made up of Englishmen, Scots, Irish and Welsh. Despite many conflicts between the different groups at home in the United Kingdom, they supposedly lived in a reasonably benevolence side by side in the new country. Released convicts gradually found new opportunities in the colony and eventually it was common to see ex-convicts working as peasants, craftsmen, shopkeepers, pub owners and entrepreneurs. Several positive changes began to appear in the new colony along with appointed Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s in 1810. Instead of just being a penal colony, Macquarie worked towards a colony of free citizens. He sent out expeditions to explore the rest of the Australian mainland and he was leading his colony to improve in agriculture, he invested in founding authorities, education systems and the judiciary system, including hiring some ex-convicts as judges and officials. Governor Macquarie’s great efforts for the colony were honoured in many ways, including having many places and institutions named after him (such as Macquarie University in Northwest Sydney).
The convict’s children were born free, making the differences between prisoners and free colonizers gradually erased and from around 1850 onwards the colonists were self-governing. They were ashamed of their inheritance as descendants of prisoners and criminals, but a century later this had changed to what we see today; Nowadays one can feel proud to have a family tree that extends all the way back to some of the prisoners who rose ashore as part of the First Fleet in 1788.
The Aboriginals meet the Europeans
At the time of the European’s arrival in Australia the number of indigenous has been estimated from around 750,000 to 1,4 million people across the entire country, living in 250 independent nations and speaking over 700 languages. Unlike what happened in New Zealand, a peace agreement was never signed with the indigenous people and the colony’s leadership believed that the Aboriginals had no sense of land ownership and saw it free to take over indigenous land. (Worth knowing is that New Zealand is considered to have been founded by the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 between the British and Maoris, where indigenous was promised the protection of the Crown as citizens of the new colony, and the British gained sovereignty over the new country.)
Although the governors had received orders from home not to harm the Aboriginals, British settlers spreading out from the colony began to kill many Aboriginals crossing their path, without being punished for their crimes by the colony’s authorities. Although a few Aboriginals managed to live in peace side by side with their new neighbours, times were difficult for the indigenous. Governor Macquarie offered the Aboriginals their own estates and schools for their children, but few Aboriginals wanted to break with their traditions to start living as settled landowners like the settlers wanted.
Hundreds of thousands of Aboriginals came to die in the years that followed, largely because of diseases the Europeans brought with them from the old continent, but also in regular massacres. It was estimated that 10,000 Aboriginals lived in Victoria in 1830, but only a few decades later in 1853, the count was down to 1,907 Aboriginal inhabitants. The violence against the Aboriginals was not sanctioned by the authorities, and as an example, when up to 30 unarmed Aboriginals were shot down in the massacre in Myall Creek in 1838, seven settlers were sentenced to death by hanging. Many settlers sympathized with the perpetrators and saw the Aboriginals as no better than animals, and many other massacres and incidents were silenced in fear of the legal outcome.
The Australian inland is explored
During the colony’s early years, life in New South Wales was not an easy time, and Europeans had huge problems caused by lack of freshwater and fertile soils. The Aboriginals had learned to survive in nature, but they too had difficulties during the droughts.
The first major obstacle to put a halt to the inland expeditions from the colony in Sydney was the mountain range Blue Mountains 50 km west of the city. It was not until year 1813 as three men (Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson) managed to find a way through the many valleys and steep mountains. Today’s road and railway running from Sydney to and through the Blue Mountains is following the same path these explorers mapped out more than 200 years ago.
A more fertile land suitable for pastures for sheep and cattle stretched out on the other side of the mountains, but further inland the explorers were disappointed to see how the grassland gradually gave way to drier shrubs and desert. To survive in the inland was a challenge, and in 1848 explorer Ludwig Leichhardt died (never to be found) during an attempt to cross the continent in an east-west direction. The attempts to map and discover what was hiding beyond the desert continued, and in 1860 explorers Burke and Wills went north from Melbourne in an attempt to cross the whole continent by land. Most of Australia’s inland was at that time still unexplored by non-Aboriginals and the British still had no idea what was hiding beyond the coast (it would take more than 40 years before the Wright brothers’ first aeroplane would be airborne in the United States, leaving expeditions by land the only possibility for Europeans to get their answer on what was waiting in the inland).
During Burke’s and Wills’ leadership the expedition managed to get all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria west of Cape York in the north, a 325 km long hike from coast to coast leading through the desert. Burke and Wills, however, were anything but experienced bushmen and both died during their journey back despite being helped by Aboriginals, and only a single man in the squad – John King – managed to survive and get all the way back to Melbourne. Although Burke’s and Wills ‘expedition failed, it is worth knowing of since it is often reflected and referred to in Australian art and literature as an example of how unforgiving and harsh the Australian landscape can be, but also on how incompetent leadership, poor planning and inadequate communication led to the expedition’s failure and the men’s unnecessary death.
Settlers and pioneers
Even after land areas with fertile soil and better water resources had been found, life in Australia continued to be difficult for the settlers, and floods and droughts led to crops withering, forcing farmers to start all over from scratch. In 1838, wool exports were Australia’s main export industry leaving settlers very vulnerable to droughts and the world’s wool-markets varied prices. Life as a settler in Australia was a whole lot about stoically continuing the fight for survival, repeatedly. Although life in Australia is much more comfortable nowadays, its countrymen still values the ideals of endurance, independence and mateship.
During the hard times of the mid-1800s the Australian mateship takes root, to stand side by side, be generous and show solidarity towards one’s neighbours. Mateship made travelling through the harsh landscape and surviving the elements or everyday life in the countryside possible. Even today, the mateship concept is a central part of the Australian society; the sense of esprit de corps and a solidarity towards a neighbour who has suffered losses, or thousands of volunteers setting out to fight forest fires or help flood victims.
The term mateship comes from the word mate which means friend and is used frequently in friendly everyday chats. To display mateship is to feel and show equality, self-sacrificing loyalty and friendship with one’s mates. The origins of the concept are likely the sense of shared burdens among British workers during early 1800s, a feeling that was reinforced and further made aware of because of the poor and hard times people experienced in the 1800s Australia.
Australia’s gold rush
The discovery of gold in New South Wales in 1851 came to change Australia, and shortly after gold was discovered in Victoria (at that time a separate colony). Towards the end of 1852, around 90,000 people from all over the world had taken to the gold fields in Victoria resulting in Australia’s population tripled during the following 10 years, all thanks to opportunists following in its tracks. This is when Melbourne had its heyday and during the peak, a total of two tons of gold a week was transported into the big vault of Victoria’s treasury, of what is today’s Old Treasury Building Museum at Spring Street in central Melbourne. The news about gold in Victoria reached all the way to Scandinavia and Sweden, and soon there were a total of 1,500 Swedes in Victoria (of which only six were women).
The gold rush of the 1850s directly and indirectly brought on several revolutionary changes to the Victorian colony (at that time Australia was not yet a country of its own). When the most easily accessible gold finds were mined, the disputes between different groups in society increased with more and more votes being raised against the local government’s high tax collections and expensive fees for mining licenses. The sense that politicians in the government were not listening to the workers grew, leading to protests over how landownership was poorly handled.
This growing discontent combined with increasing conflicts and a strong democratic spirit following in the steps of the gold rush gradually lead to the universal suffrage being introduced throughout Australia in the second half of the 1800s to 1902. Sadly, it wasn’t until 1962 the universal suffrage came to include indigenous people.
A wave of Chinese immigrants in 1854 complicated the situation further, and ethnic tensions between Europeans and Asians lead to segregation and rioting, as well as laying the foundation for what much later would be called The White Australia Policy.
A peaceful Australia with democratic rights including the universal suffrage was thus lined with conflicts, and it all culminated on the 11th of November in 1854 when 10,000 people gathered in Ballarat north of Melbourne to sign a petition containing claims for fundamental democratic rights. In particular, the miners wanted to be free to dig for gold without having to pay an expensive license fee to the state and to be able to vote for their own representatives for the Victorian Parliament. The miners were so angry at the central power in Melbourne it made them willingly to take up violence to protect their interests, appointing leader Peter Lalor to be their “commander”.
The protest was done through civil disobedience and later that year a small group of rebels built a barricade at the mining area in Eureka and hoisted the rebel flag (known as The Eureka Flag or The Southern Cross Flag – a white sideways cross with stars on a blue background) in revolt against the authorities. On December the 3rd in 1854, the Melbourne Government sent troops to quell the rebels and, after a short battle, 30-odd miners lay dead around the barricade.
However, when the rebels ‘ leaders were brought to justice in Melbourne, it turned out that the public strongly sympathized with them, and no jury was willing to judge them. A royal investigation instead found that it was the government that committed major errors and it had to meet several of the claims brought forward by the miners and protesters, including introducing universal suffrage for men in Victoria 1857 (and in New South Wales the following year). Within a year, the rebel leader Peter Lalor was elected as a Member of Parliament in the Victorian Parliament. Even as today the revolt in Eureka and the Eureka flag remains a strong symbol of protest and rebellion against government superiority and the struggle for justice.
The railway and telegraph system emerged in Australia during this time period and gold takes the lead over wool as the most valuable export commodity in the colonies. It is possible that Australia around year 1890 had the highest living standards in the world thanks to its gold exports.
Farmers and land occupiers
Gradually more and more land around the colonies was claimed in the early 1800s by land occupiers who built farms and farms for their families, and even though they never paid for the land, they saw the land as their own. When the first major gold rush slowed down and thousands of newcomers stood without land, the pressure on the colonies ‘government to give people access to attractive land increased. Those who first arrived in Australia had already had time to occupy rich lands, gradually growing wealthier. During the 1860s, governments tried to distribute parts of the occupied land to newly arrived immigrants and poor city dwellers who had no land to farm. This obviously led to conflicts and discontent between the occupiers who did not want to release “their” valuable land, the authorities and the ones seeking land. The dream about owning a bit of land in the new country and to be able to create a future instead collided with the fact that all the best areas and, by extension, the power of several communities already were controlled by a few first arrivals.
The conflicts over land access together with working conditions and the situation of sheep shearers culminated in 1891 in the Australian Shearer’s strike, a conflict nearly leading to a minor civil war in central Queensland. It is during these uneasy times one of Australia’s most well-known songs, Waltzing Matilda, gets written by Banjo Paterson (in 1895).
Hard times for the Aboriginals
Aboriginals were forced to give room for settlers and land occupiers, thus ending up living on the society’s outer rims. Some worked on farms and cattle stations in the Australian inland (the outback), often poorly paid. The colonies ‘governments gradually set up reserves where they wanted the remaining Aboriginals to live, but they could seldom hunt and freely gather food as they did before the Europeans arrived. It was difficult for the Aboriginals who had trouble living according to their traditional beliefs.
At the end of the 1800s, governments further stripped the Aboriginals of their rights. Limiting where they could live and reside, who they could marry, and Aboriginal children were forced to live with “white” foster families or in orphanages against the will of their families. The intentions behind the program were perhaps “good”; To take care of children they thought otherwise would grow up under difficult conditions, and to help the Aboriginals to better integrate into the new society. Unfortunately, in most cases this led to a large sadness and the children being exposed to this (up until the end of the 1960s) would later be called the stolen generations. No such thing is occurring today, but the abuses that were committed during this time still runs like deep wounds in many Australian families. This is clearly a very regrettable chapter in the country’s history.
The colonies merge as a federation
The colonies had evolved as independent communities, but towards the end of the 1800s, a sense of national solidarity had evolved. This is expressed in the song “Advance Australia Fair” which was composed in 1878 by Peter Dodds McCormick and this very song is at present (2019) Australia’s national anthem.
By the end of the century, two attempts were made to unite the colonies. In 1889, one of the leading politicians of the time, Sir Henry Parkes, convened a conference to discuss the possibility of uniting the colonies into a single federation. Due to weak support from the public in the matter the process was slow. However, the public opinion swung and several conferences and meetings between the colonies were held during the 1890s to discuss the details of a closer collaboration. The smaller colonies (and initially also Fiji and New Zealand who were supposed to become part of the federation as well), were concerned about entering a federation that would be governed by the two most populous colonies; New South Wales and Victoria. How a federation would be governed was also intensively debated; A particularly worrying example was the newly formed federation of United States that suffered from civil war between its states. However, the Australians liked how the constitution of United States offered its states a relatively great self-governance unlike other more central-driven federations (such as Canada).
Through a series of referendum in all colonies, the decision to merge into a federation was anchored and, after the change also had been anchored in London, the new Australian constitution came into force and the first Australian Federal Government was sworn in, in front of a large crowd in Sydney’s Centennial Park on January the 1st in 1901. The federation’s first prime minister was Edmund Barton, one of the politicians who in New South Wales had led the work against a federation.
Despite Australia now being an independent country, it still belonged to the British Empire. It was not until 1931 that Australia became fully independent when it came to defence and foreign policy. It might sound a bit odd, but despite people having a strong nationalism and being happy to have come together as their own country, many still had a feeling of being a part of Britain.
Political parties are formed
During the late 1880s, the conflicts regarding land rights and conditions for miners and farmworkers created a platform for trade unions to emerge. Same year as the Australian Shearer’s strike (1891) occur, the Labor party is founded and high on their agenda is to improve the benefits and conditions of workers in urban and rural areas. This is when ombudsmen and government official committees are introduced to set minimum wages and to help reduce the risk of strikes and conflicts related to work. In 1907, the federal authorities establish what a reasonable minimum wage is for a worker, his wife and their three children to be able to live in “frugal” comfort.
As Labor grew, the other parties merged into a Liberal alliance party, The Liberal Party, founded in 1910. The Liberal alliance has had many names in the last 100 years; In the inter-war period, it was first called The Nationalist Party and then The United Australia Party. The party that now sits in the parliament under the name The Liberal Party was founded in 1944. One of the most influential Liberal politicians in the immediate post-war period was Sir Robert Menzies who became Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister.
After the First World War, The Country Party was founded to specifically monitor the interests of farmers and rural areas, at present the very same party is called The Nationals and reigns at the time of writing (2018) together in coalition with The Liberals against Labor in opposition.
White Australia policy
Several factors led to ethnic tensions between European citizens and, above all, the later arriving Asian immigrants in the beginning of the 1900s Australia. Competition between British and Chinese gold miners in Victoria intensified, conflicts on farms and plantations when non-British immigrants were willing to work for lower wages than the union demanded, and an emerging nationalism led to the new government repeatedly being approached by the Labour movement. The Government pushed through legislation that closed the borders of non-British immigrants. The law of Immigration Restrictions Act got active in 1901 and became known as the “White Australia policy “. Anyone who did not have a European background had to show they were qualified to immigrate to Australia. These immigrants had to carry out a language test in which one had to prove that 50 words could be spoken in a European language.
The White Australia policy led to the new country being open only to British emigrants during the first decades of the 1900s. The immigration policy became less strict after the Second World War when it first began to allow non-British Europeans to immigrate, followed by gradually opening the borders of coloured immigrants. During Prime Ministers Menzies and Holt’s time in power, the legislation was between 1949 and 1966 gradually rolled back and in 1973 the Whitlam-Government established laws that dictated that ethnicity should not play any role in granting visas to new immigrants. In 1975, the Whitlam-Government made it illegal to discriminate against someone because of their race and colour, and since then Australia has had an immigration policy based on equal and equitable opportunities to apply to move to Australia, regardless of which country and race an applicant has.
First World War, 1914-1918, and the legend of Anzac
Except early conflicts between the first settlers and the Aboriginals, Australia has been a peaceful country with no revolution or civil war. The first colonists were loyal to the British Empire and had no thoughts on revolting like the colonies in North America.
Australian’s for long had a sense of being some sort of European outpost on the threshold to Asia, very vulnerable to attacks by the regional major powers (especially Japan and Russia) and the new country was heavily dependent on good relations with London and the power of the British navy to defend itself. Along with the strong cultural ties to Britain (which was still seen as the original homeland), these were some of the strongest reasons why Australia fought as a faithful member of the British Empire in both world wars.
Australia joined in during the First World War with an infantry landing against the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) in 1915 who was by then allied with the enemy of Germany. Australians and New Zealanders were assigned a coastal segment at the Gallipoli peninsula (just west of Istanbul at the Strait of Dardanelles) where they would disembark and attack Turkish fortifications.
The Australian soldiers were disembarked in the wrong place by the British Navy and the heroic stories are many about how they fought uphill in steep terrain all while many of them were gunned down by Turkish fire. Despite heavy losses, the Australians managed to get up along the cliffs where they could fortify themselves in defensive positions, and at home in Australia their courage and spirit became something to be very proud of.
Overall, the Gallipoli Campaign turned out to be a devastating failure for the allies (Australian, New Zeeland, Great Britain, Ireland, India and Newfoundland) and after eight months of terrible trench warfare with 220,000 allied soldiers and 250,000 Turks dead, the allies had to withdraw. It cost Australia 26,000 casualties, including over 8,000 deaths.
Following their efforts in Gallipoli the Australians furthermore fought (more successfully this time) against the Germans at the Western Front in France, and it is from this era’s trench warfare Australians use the expression digger when talking about its soldiers, a lot of work done by young soldiers went into digging and maintaining the trenches. Being accustomed to warmer climates, the Australians also fought in the Middle East, around the Suez Canal and on Sinai. The deadliest battle took place at Fromelles in France where 2,000 Australians died in just one night (what’s interesting is that one of the young German corporals on the other side of Fromelles is assumed to be a young Adolf Hitler).
The First World War and the Gallipoli Campaign turned out to play a big part in shaping the young nation Australia, both through the huge loss of human life affecting the whole country, but also through the legends and traditions that arose. Australians and New Zealanders who fought in the war was constituted of their own army corps, Australia New Zealand Army Corps, which was shorten down to ANZAC. Every year on the 25th of April, Anzac Day is commemorated in remembrance of the landing in Gallipoli that took place on the 25th of April in 1916. The day is a national holiday commemorating its fallen soldiers, and it is easy to understand how immensely traumatic the ANZAC soldiers ‘ sacrifices was. At this time, only 5 million people lived in Australia, and with war losses of over 60,000 (a little over a percent of the population), most Australian families lost a family member and had friends who never came back from the war. The Anzac legend is as good as a sacred part of the Australian cultural heritage and it both embodies and is esteemed for the core values the ANZAC troops showed; Virtues such as mateship (solidarity brotherhood), perseverance and discipline, as well as morality and good humour despite terrifying odds and fierce opponents.
War memorials were built across the country in commemoration of Australia’s fallen soldiers, and in the 1920s almost every city in Australia built war memorials to honour its fallen. Worth knowing is that a cenotaph is a war memorial in memory of the deceased whose remnants could not be saved from the battlefield or are buried somewhere else – you will see many of those if you travel around Australia.
The Great Depression, 1929-1932
Australia was affected by the 1930s depression, and by mid-1932, the unemployment rate was at 32 percent. External world factors triggered the crisis, but local problems such as falling prices in Australian exports, large-scale reductions in Government Spending and in the construction industry all contributed to the difficulties.
Without work and income, many families had to leave their house and home, being forced to live in improvised shelters with poor hygiene and without heating. Alcohol problems became increasingly more and more common, and many women ended up solely responsible for the family when husbands and fathers began to drink, committed suicide or just gave up and left their families.
At this time, the Australian state didn’t have much of a social safety net, and even when the economy started to improve at the end of 1932, the social suffering in Australia that year was beyond big. Many survived thanks to various charities, or indirectly through jobs created by investments in state infrastructure. It is foremost at this time in the young country’s history as the tradition of volunteering for charitable work is being established and strengthened by the Australian’s spirit of mateship, which still runs strong in today’s Australia. It is quite common that people in different ways work as volunteers in various roles; As lifesavers, voluntary firefighters or giving a helping hand at homeless shelters.
The Second World War, 1939-1945
A new generation of Australian soldiers fought alongside the Allies even during the Second World War, initially against the Germans in North Africa, but after Singapore fell and Pearl Harbour was attacked, the focus shifted from assisting Europe to rushing home desperately trying to prevent Japan from taking the entire southeast Asia and Australia.
The Japanese suffered their first land battle defeat in eastern (Papua) New Guinea just north of Australia along muddy jungle tracks at Kokoda. Those battlefields are now something of a place of pilgrimage named Kokoda Track and is together with the Anzac Cove bay at Gallipoli the two most important locations in Australian military history (and if you are in the country you can’t avoid reading references to these sites).
Unlike the Germans, The Japanese were ruthless and harsh against their POWs (prisoners of war), and when the Japanese took Singapore in 1942, a whole 15,000 Australian troops were captured, many of whom came to die in captivity or when forcedly building a railway between Thailand and Burma for the Japanese. The inhuman treatment of their prisoners by the Japanese alongside with how the Australians took care of each other in captivity and the efforts made by the Australians to stop them still lives strong in remembrance of the war.
Another commemoration worth knowing besides Anzac Day is Remembrance Day which is a more general day of remembrance for the country’s fallen. The eleventh hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month (11/11 at 11:00 am) a minute’s silence is held in memory of the fallen, and many wears a red poppy flower on the collar as a symbol. Red poppy flowers blossomed on the battlefield of the First World War in Flanders. A poppy in the lapel is since then a symbol of respect for blood spilled at war.
The Aboriginal’s situation in late 1900s
The Aboriginal’s situation was to improve slightly in the second half of the century. In May 1962 the indigenous got included in the national suffrage but were still expected to adapt to the non-Aboriginal culture. The situation improved further in 1967 when 90% of the population voted YES on the matter of Aboriginals to be included in the official census. This shows clearly how the population wanted Aboriginals to have the same rights as any Australian, and after protests and pressures during the 1970s the authorities took several decisions that gave greater autonomy to Aboriginal communities.
One of the great aboriginal leaders of the 1960s was Vincent Lingiari, who, in protest of poor wages and working conditions, led a strike among Aboriginal farmers in Northern Territory (The Gurindji Strike at Wave Hill Cattle Station). The protests began as a quite simple conflict over discriminatory bad conditions for the Aboriginals, but over time the conflict grew to include the Aboriginal’s right to their own lands. The strike was to change the relationship between Aboriginals and the wider community, and when the Gurindji-people (the local aboriginal group) demanded their ancestors ‘ land to be returned it became a national political matter.
Lingiari and the movement gained increasing support among the population, and in 1976 laws were passed that gave the Aboriginals ownership of large land areas in Northern Territory, as well as the right to negotiate mining rights and farming on their lands. A powerful symbolic action takes place in 1975, when Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours sand from the area into Vincent Lingiari’s hand and thus “hand over” the Wave Hill area to the Gurindji-people. The well-known song “From Little Things Big Things Grow” by Paul Kelly describes the whole story and Lingiari’s sense of determination and legal pathos.
Finally, on February the 13th in 2008, the Australian state apologized to its indigenous, especially over the abuses suffered by the stolen generations. In his speech, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said “Sorry” on all Australians ‘ behalf for how Aboriginals had been treated historically, and especially how the state had helped to take children from their parents during the 1900s. The Government’s apology was a major step for the country and although Aboriginals continue to be marginalized in Australia, the apology was a huge symbolic act and a great recognition of their role and historical suffering in Australia.