European Discovery of Australia

HMS Endeavour, the ship James Cook commanded when exploring Australia.
James Cook.
Modern-day photo of Sydney Harbour, where the first British colony in Australia was established.
Types of domesticated animals that the British brought to Australia.
Friendly interaction between Brits and Aboriginal Australians.

The Dutch, in the 1600s, were the first known Europeans to discover Australia. In particular, Dutch seafarers explored and mapped the northern and western coast of Australia, naming it New Holland. But the Dutch Republic didn’t care to lay claim to the new continent. They already controlled today’s Indonesia and were busy guarding that large possession, where they grew rich from cultivating and trading spices.

In the absence of a Dutch claim to Australia, it was the British discoverer James Cook who, on behalf of his country, first lay claim to parts of Australia as he explored its eastern coastline in 1770. British settlement here would, however, not take place until about two decades later.

Colonization in 1788

In 1788, some twenty years after Cook’s discovery, and with thirteen colonies recently lost to the United States, Britain had finally grown ready and eager to populate new land. A colony was now set up in the area that is Sydney today, and the 1000-odd Brits who had arrived with the first fleet began work to develop it. Consequently, trees were cut down, buildings were erected and fertile agricultural land was sought out. Domesticated animals, furthermore, also arriving with the first fleet, were let to graze the surrounding areas.

European diseases

The Aboriginal Australians who already lived or hunted on the colonized land didn’t really matter to the British. An important reason for this was that great numbers of indigenous people contracted European diseases like smallpox, and died soon after the Brits made contact with them. Still, not all aboriginal people of the Sydney area died of new germs, and some of the survivors were befriended by the colonists, while others were chased away or killed in skirmishes.

In the years following 1788 and some of the earliest contacts with Aboriginal Australians, new British ships arrived in Australia with more supplies and more people to work the newfound land. As a result, the newly founded colony started to grow, both in terms of population and in terms of size, and became firmly established. Thereby, Britain could claim yet another piece of the world as part of its giant empire.