While indigenous Australians are the custodians of the world’s most ancient living culture, Australia as we know it evolved from the late 18th century on, and was built on the labour of Britain’s unwanted. In 1770, the English explorer James Cook had recommended Botany Bay, near present-day Sydney, as a site for a colony. Petty criminals, as young as nine years old, were forced to emigrate there and put to work in a harsh environment.
The first fleet travelled to the continent in 1787. Some 1,530 men and women, convicts and their families, seamen and officers crowded onto eleven ships and set sail for New South Wales. The journey took around 250 days, and not everyone survived it. In the last decades of the 18th century, around a third out of almost six thousand convicts transported on ships died from diseases such as typhoid and cholera. Many of the 160,000 convicts sent in total to Australia were skilled carpenters or blacksmiths, whose jobs had been threatened by the industrial revolution. In Australia they built roads, bridges and public buildings and worked on government farms or as domestic labour.
Initially, Aboriginal guides assisted in the European exploration of the colony and traded goods. However, hostility between prisoners and Aboriginal men, as well as sexual violence against women, became common. Public meetings were held across Britain to promote the benefits of the new colony and the first free settlers arrived in 1793. They received free passage, two years’ provisions, and free grants of farming land. New colonies were formed, as Europeans occupied Aboriginal lands and resources.
The population of Australia shot up with the discovery of gold in 1850. New shops, factories and farms were opened and merchants and shopkeepers became rich. A century on, rapid industrialisation led to another wave of immigration as demand for labour for new industries and civil engineering projects grew. In addition to people from Britain and Ireland, many people migrated from China, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Cultures, customs and cuisines combined, although the Australian English language that had arisen from the intermingling of early settlers’ dialects remained dominant.
Today, Australia has a population of twenty-five million people, and immigration is strictly controlled. Indigenous Australians make up just 3 per cent of the population, victims of the economic and psychological effects of government policies that assumed white superiority. Australia’s political structure and its legal and educational institutions are based on British and American models. It is governed by Parliament, located in the capital Canberra, which consists of three components: the Monarch (represented by the Governor-General), the Senate and the House of Representatives. The office of prime minister is the most powerful political office.
While Australia is one of Earth’s driest continents, it also has tropical rainforests and mountain ranges. What Australians call the “bush” refers to rural areas, while the Outback is a vast, sparsely populated area that extends from the northern to southern coastlines and encompasses a number of climatic zones. Rich in natural resources, Australia is a major exporter of agricultural products, minerals and fuels to Asia and the US. The use of renewable energy has received a recent boost, and now some 21 per cent of energy is green. However, natural disasters in Australia are common, from heatwaves to severe storms, earthquakes and tsunamis. In recent years there have been huge bushfires across its east coast and cyclones across the west.
Australia’s unique geographic position and centuries of isolation have created ecosystems that are unique in the world and that require protection. Australia is famous for its Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the world. Koalas, kangaroos and wombats are native animals. The continent is also famous for its alligators and many snake species. Notable insects include the giant centipede, the goliath stick insect and a notorious array of spider species, some of which are enormous or have a poisonous bite.
Among the most serious of the spiders to avoid in Australia is the venomous lizard-eating redback spider —responsible for some two thousand human bite victims showing up in hospital every year— the funnel-web spider, the white-tailed spider, the wolf-spider and the impressive goliath bird-eating spider, with its 6cm body and 16cm leg span. Spiders are such an issue on the continent that a controversial episode of the children’s cartoon Peppa Pig called “Mister Skinny Legs” is continuously being pulled off the air, as it is felt to promote the idea that spiders are harmless and not to be feared...