The History of Immigration to Australia

Australia is a country of immigrants.
We came from all over the world.

Except for the Aboriginals who have been here for over 50,000
all other Australians came here within the last 225 years.

Aboriginals - the First Migrates to Australians

The Aboriginals Discovered Australia

Painting of Aboriginals Hunting Kangaroos

The first human inhabitants of Australia were the Aborigines. They came here about 50,000 years ago. Since Australia was separated from the nearest landmass by over 90 kms of ocean and humans had not yet discovered how to build boat or rafts, nobody is quite sure exactly how they came to Australia.

It is most likely that the Aboriginals arrived in Australia unintentionally. They were probably carried across the ocean on drifting debris as a result of a major flood or even a tsunami from a land somewhere further to the north.

The Aboriginals were hunt-gathers who did not farm or build cities or towns. It is estimated that there were about 300,000 Aboriginals living throughout Australia at the time the first Europeans settlers arrived in 1788.

The arrival of European settlers had a catastrophic effect on the Aboriginals. Read about it on our Aboriginals page.

Related Article: Aboriginals — The First Australians

The Convicts - First European Settlers in Australia

Reasons for a Penal Colony in Australia

Britain in the late 1700s was undergoing a huge social upheaval. Subsistence farmers were being evicted from their small plots of land by rich landowners and forced to work as labourers without steady incomes. The Industrial Revolution was gaining pace and replacing many cottage industries with large factories, displacing many workers from these labour-intensive industries. Also, after losing the American War of Independence, there was a large number of recently discharged soldiers without work.

It was a grime and nasty time with massive unemployment, grinding poverty and crime. With no gainful employment, people were forced to steal and resort to other criminal acts just to survive.

The laws, in turn, were harsh and punishment severe. Stealing a loaf of bread could earn a person a life sentence or even death. For example, Henry Kable was convicted of burglary and was condemned to death. This sentence was later commuted to transportation to America for 7 years. His wife, Susannah Holmes, had been condemned to death for stealing. Her sentence had then been commuted to 14 years transportation to America.

The loss of the American colonies, where criminals had been transported to before, was now causing severe overcrowding of the prisons in Britain. The situation was so bad that old ships, known as 'hulks', were being used as floating prisons.

In 1784 the British government was in desperate need of a solution to its overcrowded prisons. Joseph Banks, who had been with Captain James Cook when he 'discovered' Australia 1770, suggested just the place - Botany Bay in New South Wales – Australia. After all James Cook had claimed ownership of the land for Britain (totally ignoring the fact that it was already occupied by the local inhabitants, the Aboriginals). Why not ship the prisoners off to Australia to set up a settlement there before some other European nation such as France did, he suggested. The British government saw merit in this suggestion as it addressed both its long-term strategic interests of colonising Australia and also the more immediate social problem of prison overcrowding at home.

Convicts – Who Where They?

The vast majority of convicts transported to Australia were from England and Wales (70%), Ireland (24%) and Scotland (5%). However, there were also convicts from America (including blacks), India, Canada, Hong Kong, and the Caribbean. Most convicts were from the cities and sentenced for petty crimes such as theft. Some were as young as 11 years of age. Contrary to popular folklore very few hardened criminals (only 77 murderers) and no prostitutes were sent to Australia.

Transportation was an integral part of the penal system of Britain at the time. Initially over 60,000 convicts had been shipped off to America but after American Independence, Australia became the place of choice to ship these petty criminals.

At this time, poor city dwellers lived in abject poverty. Starvation was a fact of life. In these circumstances petty crime was rampant. Laws and punishment were severe. Flogging was a common form of punishment for even the smallest infraction. Simple larceny (stealing without the use of violence) of an item worth less than a shilling ($50 today) could mean transportation for 7 to 14 years. Stealing an item worth more than a shilling could mean death by hanging which was usually commuted to transportation 'for the term of their natural life'. Men made up 82% and women 18% of the convicts. Men transported to Australia were usually repeat offenders. Women on the other hand could be transported for a first offence.

Between 1788 and 1868, approximately 164,000 convicts were transported to the Australian colonies on board 806 ships.

First Fleet – Forcibly 'Transported' Convict Settlers to Australia

On the 13th May 1787 a fleet of eleven ships sailed from Britain with two years supplies and 1530 people on board. These consisted of 736 convicts, 17children of convicts , 211 marine guards, 27 marines' wives, 14 marines' children and about 300 officers and ships' crew. They were to set up the first British colony in Australia.

The little fleet, led by Captain Arthur Phillip, sailed from Portsmouth, England to Tenerife, then to Rio de Janeiro and from there they set across the Atlantic through the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Town and on to Australia. The journey took eight months, during which time there were 48 deaths and 28 births on board. The first ships of the fleet, lead by H.M.S. Supply, sailed into Botany Bay in New South Wales on the 18th of January 1788.

Captain Phillip quickly decided that this wasn't a suitable place to start a settlement and moved further up the coast. They chose a place then called Port Jackson, which had a natural harbour and a reliable water supply. Phillip established the new settlement there on the 26th of January 1788 and named it in honour of Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney. (We know this site today as the city of Sydney and we celebrate the 26th of January as "Australia Day").

Related Article: The First Fleet - First European Settlers Arrive in Australia

First European Settlement in Australia

On 7 February 1788, Phillip officially proclaimed his new settlement and became its first governor. He reaffirmed Britain's claim of all of the land, even though at the time he had no idea of its enormity and the that it was actually an island - a whole continent in fact, 31 times bigger than Britain itself.

An inventory taken by Phillip recorded that his little colony consisted of 1030 Europeans, 7 horses, 29 sheep, 74 swine (pigs and hogs), 5 rabbits, 7 cattle, 18 turkeys, 29 geese, 35 ducks, 122 fowls, 87 chickens, 19 goats, provisions to last two years and tools to establish a settlement. . One bull and 4 cows strayed from the settlement and were lost only to be found alive 7 years later.

Life in the new settlement was very hard and most of the people didn't have the skills (like farming, carpentry, etc.) to tame the new land. Starvation was always a major problem.


Ownership and Distribution of Land

Because the native Aboriginals were hunter gathers and did not engage in farming; the British conveniently declared them to be uncivilised and not owning any land. On this premise they declared that all land in the new colony was Crown Land. That is; public land owned by the government.

In order to expand the colony and make it self-sufficient the government actively gave away crown land to ex-convicts and marines on the proviso that they demonstrated that it would be used for some productive purpose. Because of this condition of use, only small parcels of land were distributed in the first five years or so of settlement.

The first land grant was issued on the 3 January 1792 to Isaac Archer and John Colethread in the area of today's City of Ryde. Contrary to folklore it was not James Ruse who had been the first person to successfully grow a crop of wheat in the harsh environment of the new colony. James Ruse was, however, the first registrant in the New South Wales Lands Registry. (James Ruse had been sentenced to 7 years prison for breaking and entering and transported to Australia).

Ex-convicts and free settlers were entitled to 30 acres with an addition 20 acres if they were married and 10 additional acres for every child. Non-commissioned marines were entitled to an additional 100 acres above that given to ex-convicts and free-settlers.

The Establishment of the Limits of Location & Nineteen Counties

In order to manage the spread of settlements and minimize conflict with the native Aboriginals who were being displaced by the rapid expansion of the colony, the government, in 1826, established the limits of location in the colony of New South Wales. This was the area within which settlers could seek free land grants. This proved ineffective and in 1829 a newer area, which formed an arch around Sydney, was designed and referred to as the Nineteen Counties. Land use beyond the boundaries of these counties was forbidden.

This restriction proved ineffective too as graziers openly flaunted these restrictions and ran their sheep and cattle deeper and deeper into the interior, ironically in some situations onto grasslands the Aboriginals had created over the centuries by burning forestland. The government was powerless to stop this expansion as it lacked the resources to police these vast areas.

End of Transportation

By 1846 the population of the new colonies was shifting away from being predominately convicts to that of free men. As a consequence there was much agitation by the local population for the democratisation and gentrification of their society. One of their key demands was the cessation of transportation.

Transportation of convicts to Sydney ended in 1840. The last ship carrying convicts arrived in Western Australia in 1868 by which time over 162,000 prisoners had been transported from Britain to Australia in 806 ships.

Mark Twain - Following the Equator

With us, when you speak of a squatter you are always supposed to be speaking of a poor man, but in Australia when you speak of a squatter you are supposed to be speaking of a millionaire; in America the word indicates the possessor of a few acres and a doubtful title, in Australia it indicates a man whose landfront is as long as a railroad, and whose title has been perfected in one way or another; in America the word indicates a man who owns a dozen head of live stock, in Australia a man who owns anywhere from fifty thousand up to half a million head; in America the word indicates a man who is obscure and not important, in Australia a man who is prominent and of the first importance; in America you take off your hat to no squatter, in Australia you do; in America if your uncle is a squatter you keep it dark, in Australia you advertise it; in America if your friend is a squatter nothing comes of it, but with a squatter for your friend in Australia you may sup with kings if there are any around.


Meaning of 'Squatter'

Originally the term Squatter was a derogatory reference to a person who or occupied (squatted) public land without the legal right to do so. In other words they were on the land illegally.

By the mid-1820s squatting was widespread across the colony as more and more land was used for grazing sheep, the most lucrative business in the colony. Often it was members of the upper echelons of colonial society with considerable political clout who were the most flagrant culprits. Huge tracts of land referred to as 'runs' were illegally staked out. As there was no legal basis for these run neighbours had to reach agreement amongst themselves as to where their boundaries lay and there was no legal recourse in case of a dispute. The under-resourced government of the colony was powerless to stop this land-grab.

Squatting become so entrenched and the wool trade so profitable that in1836 the government shifted its position from one of opposition to that of regulation by allowing squatters to pay a minimal fee of £10 per year for the grazing rights and to occupy the land under a lease or licence. As the squatters were now legitimised their wealth and power soon gained them respectability in the community.

The Squattocracy

Over time some of these families became extremely wealthy, respectable and powerful. Their land holdings called "stations" in some cases were larger than some countries. They were the colony's nouveau riche - the Squattocracy. Mark Twain summarised the position of the Squatter eloquently below.

Impact of Squatters on the Economy

Wool was spectacularly profitable for these early squatters. From 1820 and throughout the nineteenth century Australia's economic growth was based almost entirely on the sale of wool. From 1871 to the 1960s wool was Australia's main export. The wool industry gave Australia one of the highest standards of living in the world.

There was a famous adage that "Australia rode on the sheep's back".

Free Settlers Early Voluntary Migration to Australia

Meaning of 'Free Settler'

In its truest sense the term Free Settler refers to any person who wasn't forcefully transported to Australia as a convict and chose to settle down in the new colony. By this definition marines, ship's crew and other persons who chose to remain in the colony after the end of their contracts (commissions) were free-settlers.  

The term is usually used, however, to refer to those people who intentionally left their homelands and arrived in Australia to settle down and make a new life in the colony.

First Free Settlers Arrive in Australia

The first free settlers arrived on board the sailing ship Bellona on 16 January 1793. They were a farmer named Thomas Rose, his wife and four children and seven others. These first settlers received free passage, agricultural tools, two years provisions, and free grants of land from the government. In addition they were also provided with convict labour free of charge. For each convict labourer provided the government also gave 2 years' worth of rations and one year's supply of free clothing. Thomas received 120 acres of land free from the government. The others too received free grants of land on which to farm. The settlers called the area Liberty Plains. It is today the Sydney suburbs of Strathfield and Homebush. During the early 1800's as life in Australia improved substantially as a result of huge increases in agricultural production and the spectacular success in sheep and cattle grazing.  Progress, however, was severely hampered by the shortage of skilled labour.

Influx of Free Settlers to Australia

Initially few people wanted to make the arduous journey to Australia; a land they envisioned as a rowdy backwater on the other side of the world. However, poverty and unemployment in Britain together with an active promotion campaign by the government encouraged people to migrate to Australia. Public meeting were held in towns and cities throughout Britain to promote the benefits of the new colony. As an added incentive the government offered to pay for their passage to Australia. (This was called "assisted passage").

Despite the hardship they would endure on the long and arduous sea voyage, new settlers were attracted by the prospect of escaping the grinding poverty at home, a better life and the free land being offered to them in the colony. Many of these new migrates prospered beyond their wildest dreams.

Some of these new settlers too laid claim to vast tracts of land on which they started grazing cattle and sheep. They too became "Squatters".


Fortune Hunters

The discovery of gold in 1850 changed Australia radically. In the space of a few years the population increased astronomically. People came from England, Ireland, Scotland, China and even the USA in search of gold. Cities emptied as people rushed off to the gold fields. New shops, factories and farms were opened up to cater for the new people. Only a few miners ever became rich. It was the merchants and shopkeepers who really got rich.

These people digging for gold came to be called the"Diggers".

The Displaced

The Early Refugees from Europe

The potato famine in Ireland in the 1850s brought an influx of Irish immigrants.

After the end of World War II many displaced people from Europe found their way to Australia. They came mainly from Britain, Holland, Germany, and Italy.

Factory Fodder

Workers for Australia's Factories

Rapid industrialisation in the early 1960's meant that there was a great demand for unskilled labour for the new factories, industries and civil engineering projects opening up in Australia. A large number of new immigrants arrived from Britain, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

The new immigrants also brought with them their cultures, customs and cuisines. Australia started to become cosmopolitan - a truly multicultural society.

Migration to Australia Today

New Australians come from Around the World

Australia is a multicultural society today with migrants from almost every country in the world. Even with all these people, with different cultures and customs arriving each year, Australia maintains a welcoming and harmonious society.

Twenty-eight percent of people living in Australia today were born in a foreign country and migrated here. Nearly 50% of all Australians living today are from an overseas country or have at least one parent who was born overseas. Nearly 7 million immigrants have arrived since 1945. The tables below shows where the largest groups of migrants came from.

Of the 250,000 people who arrived in 2014 nearly 52,000 were from New Zealand but they are not included in these statistics because they come under a special agreement between the Australian and New Zealand governments.


Immigration Policy

Australia accepts about a quarter of a million new immigrants each year under a quota system set by the Australian government. There are two immigration programs.

Migration Program

This program addresses the intake of skilled migrants and family reunions. Currently approximately 190,000 people arrive each year under this program.

Humanitarian Program

This program resettles refugees and other needy people from around the world. Australia accepts about 6,000 people a year under this program.

In 2015 however the government increased the intake in order to help people displaced by the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. It also made an extra special allocation of 12,000 places for refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq.


Displaced People of the World

More than 1,000,000 refugees have settled in Australia since 1945. Many came in the aftermath of World War II and the Vietnam War.

The latest groups have come from war ravaged Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka.

Australia accepts about 20,000 legal refugees each year. There are also many who arrive without the permission of the Australian government. These people are called "illegal immigrants".