Aboriginals, Convicts and the Outback: Exploring Australia’s Cultural Past

The strong desire of Americans and Australians to explore each other’s countries points to one conclusion:  no two other nations so far apart geographically, are so close culturally.  While uniquely Australian, the country’s culture evolved from British tradition, as did America’s.  The majority of the Australian population is of European origin and before World War II, more than 90% were of British decent.  With only five people per square mile, Australia is considered one of the least densely populated countries.  Nearly 80% of Australia’s 17 million people live in cities, with the largest number of inhabitants in Sydney.

English is the official language and literacy is nearly 100%, however, the Aboriginals speak their native language as well as English.  The native languages differ amongst the many regions of the country, with the most similarities evident in the center of the continent.

The Outback is not only the center of the Australian continent, but also the center of the Aboriginal culture.  At the time when Europeans first landed on the continent, the aboriginal population was close to 300,000.  It has since declined to 160,000 due to European disruption of their way of life and lack of resistance to new diseases.  Today, less than one-third of the Aboriginals live as nomads.  Many live on reservations, in the cities, or work on cattle ranches.

The Aboriginal dreamtime stories tell of the beginnings of life and its continuation into the future.  This history and saga is recorded in oral stories and the library still lives on in the minds of some elder Aboriginals.  Their special connection with nature is evident in their beautiful and powerful rock art.  Numerous rock-art sites can be found around the country, and Kakadu National Park alone contains some 5,000 sites.  The oldest artwork dates back some 20,000 – 30,000 years ago.

Political/History:  The Aboriginals have lived in Australia for over 30,000 years, recording

their history through art and dreamtime stories.  Australia remained unexplored by the European powers until the 17th century, although it was mentioned in late medieval mythology and logic as a great Southland, or Terra Australis, thought necessary to balance the weight of Asia and Europe.

In 1606, the Dutch explorer, Willem Jansz, sailed into Torres Strait, between New Guinea and the mainland.  Encouraged by Jansz’s expedition, the Dutch sent out several more voyages.  In 1642, Abel Tasman discovered Tasmania, and then continued northeast to explore New Zealand.  Several other Dutch ships enroute to Indonesia, would sail off course and land on the north western coasts of Australia.  Britain’s involvement began with the 3-year voyage of Captain James Cook in 1768.  Cook landed on the eastern coast at Botany Bay, and named the region New South Wales, however, Australia’s coasts  were not fully explored until the 19th century when Matthew Flinders sailed around the entire continent.

Initially, Australia was not viewed as an attractive settlement for Europeans.  Instead, it became a land designated for British convicts.  Captain Arthur Phillip began the first permanent settlement at Port Jackson on January 26, 1788 (now known as Australian day).  The settlement was named after Britain’s secretary, Lord Sydney.  Phillip brought with him, 11 ships of convicts and their spouses and children, as well as officers to guard them.

In 1840, after sending roughly 150,000 convicts to Australia over the course of 52 years, Britain finally halted it’s shipment of convicts to New South Wales.

Australia underwent major changes during the mid-1800s.  Among these were a significant wave of immigration due to gold discoveries, establishment of new colonies along the coasts, increase of sheep and cattle raising ranches in the interior, and the transfer of more authority to the colonies through Britain’s adoption of free trade.  For a growing Australia, the remainder of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth century was a time of building an economic base, self-sufficiency, and a strong sense of shared culture and national pride.


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