Australia: the Cultural Development

Australia was first approached by Portuguese explorers, and later it might easily have been a Spanish colony. The Dutch rejected it in favor of the more attractive East Indies, and the British were first to occupy it shortly after the American Revolution. Such, in brief, is the account of early European contact with this continent.

The exploration by James Cook in 1770 of the previously unknown east coast of Australia, then called New Holland, became the real basis of British interest in that continent. Cook sighted the southeast coast of New Holland at Cape Everard on April 20, 1770. He coasted northward and entered Botany Bay, where Joseph Banks, the botanist, became familiar with the distinctive flora. The expedition continued its mapping activities northward along the coast and, after being shipwrecked at Cooktown, sailed through Torres Strait for Java and eventually England. The name New South Wales was applied by Cook to the east coast because of its assumed resemblance to his native coast of Wales.

A great deal of interest was aroused in England by the accounts of Cook and Banks regarding New South Wales as a place for settlement. The need for a new convict-receiving center after the American Revolution led in 1788 to the arrival at Botany Bay of the First Fleet.


The commander of the First Fleet, Captain Arthur Phillip, was less favorably impressed with Botany Bay than was Cook, and, as a result, the first settlement was established at Sydney, six miles to the north. The site at Sydney Cove provided deep water along shore, ample supplies of timber, stone, and fresh water, and several small tracts of cultivable land. A rigid system of military control was established to supervise the convicts and most other activities. Sydney was a penal establishment and not a colony of free settlers. From time to time additional consignments of convicts arrived, and the post was largely dependent on imported foodstuffs and supplies. Some detailed knowledge of the coastline to the north and south of Sydney was gained by small exploring parties although the main objective was to restrict expansion rather than to encourage such effort. The name Australia gradually replaced the earlier name New Holland.

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