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Map Courtesy CIA World Factbook


The Commonwealth of Australia is the sixth-largest country in the world by area. Comprising the major land area of Australasia, it includes the mainland ("island-continent") and a number of islands, the largest of which is Tasmania. Australia has been inhabited for about 50,000 years, originally by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Eastern Australia was claimed by the British in 1770, and officially settled as a British colony on January 26, 1788. As the population grew and new areas were explored, six self-governing Crown Colonies were established within Australia. On 1 January 1901 the six colonies federated and the Commonwealth of Australia was formed. Since federation, Australia has had a stable democratic political system and it remains a Commonwealth Realm.

Australia's neighbouring countries include Indonesia, East Timor, and Papua New Guinea to the north, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to the north-east, and New Zealand to the south-east. The shortest border distance is between the mainlands of Papua New Guinea and Australia at about 150 kilometres; however, the northernmost inhabited island, Boigu Island, is about 5 kilometres from Papua New Guinea. This has led to a complicated border arrangement allowing access for traditional uses of the waterway across the border by Papua New Guinean people and Torres Strait Islanders.

The date of the first human habitation of Australia is estimated to be between 42,000 and 48,000 years ago. These first Australians were the remote ancestors of the current Australian Aborigines, and arrived via land bridges and navigation of short sea crossings from present-day south-east Asia. Most Indigenous Australians were hunter-gatherers with a complex oral culture and spiritual values based upon reverence for the land and a belief in the Dreamtime. The Torres Strait Islanders, ethnically Melanesian, inhabited the Torres Strait Islands and parts of far north Queensland, they have distinct cultural practices and practised subsistence agriculture.

The first undisputed recorded European sighting of the Australian continent was made by the Dutch navigator Willem Jansz, who sighted the coast of Cape York in 1606. During the 17th century the Dutch charted the whole of the western and northern coastlines of what they called New Holland, but made no attempt at settlement. In 1770 James Cook sailed along the east coast of Australia, which he named New South Wales and claimed for Britain. His discoveries provided impetus for the establishment of a penal colony there following the loss of the American colonies.

The British Crown Colony of New South Wales began with establishment of a settlement (later to become Sydney) at Port Jackson by Captain Arthur Phillip on January 26, 1788. This date was later to become Australia's national day, Australia Day. Van Diemen's Land (the present day Tasmania) was settled in 1803, becoming a separate colony in 1825. Britain formally claimed the rest of the continent (present-day Western Australia) in 1829. Separate colonies were created from parts of New South Wales: South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851 and Queensland in 1859. The Northern Territory was founded, as part of the Province of South Australia, in 1863. Victoria and South Australia were founded as "free colonies" - that is, they were never penal colonies, although the former did receive some convicts from Tasmania. Western Australia was also founded "free" but later accepted transported convicts due to an acute labour shortage. The transportation of convicts to Australia was phased out between 1840 and 1868.

The Indigenous Australian population, estimated at about 350,000 at the time of European settlement,declined steeply for 150 years following settlement due mainly to infectious disease, forced migration, removal of children and other colonial government policies that by today's understanding constitute genocide. Only following the 1967 referendum did the Federal Government have a mandate to implement policies and make laws to benefit Aborigines. Traditional ownership of land, native title, was not recognised until the High Court case Mabo v Queensland (No 2) overturned the notion of Australia as terra nullius at the time of European occupation.

Between 1855 and 1890, the six colonies achieved responsible government, managing most of their own affairs while remaining part of the British Empire. The Colonial Office in London retained control of some matters, notably foreign affairs, defence and international shipping. On 1 January 1901, Federation of the Colonies was achieved after a decade of planning, consultation and voting, and the Commonwealth of Australia was born, as a Dominion of the British Empire. The Australian Capital Territory was formed from New South Wales in 1911 to provide a neutral place for the proposed new federal capital of Canberra (Melbourne was the temporary capital from 1901 to 1927). Australia willingly participated in World War I; the defeat of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) at Gallipoli is often regarded as the birth of the nation: the first major military action that the Commonwealth of Australia participated in.

The Statute of Westminster of 1931 formally ended the constitutional links between Australia and Britain, other than the Crown, but Australia continued to regard itself an essentially British country until World War II, and did not adopt the Statute until 1942. The shock of Britain's defeat in Asia in 1942 and the threat of Japanese invasion caused Australia to turn to the United States as a new ally and protector, and since 1951 Australia has been a formal military ally of the U.S. under the auspices of the ANZUS treaty. After World War II, Australia encouraged mass migration from Europe, and since the 1970s and the abolition of the White Australia Policy from Asia and other parts of the world, radically transforming its demography, culture and image of itself. Although Australian voters rejected a move to become a republic in 1999, which was rejected by a 55 % majority. Australia's links to its British past are increasingly tenuous and since the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972 there has been an increasing focus by many Australian governments on the nation's future as a part of the Asia-Pacific region.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Australia".