Since the First Fleet dropped anchor in 1788, close to 10 million settlers have moved from across the world to start a new life in Australia.
They have arrived in waves, encouraged by developments like the 1850s gold rushes, or to escape adverse conditions at home such as the Industrial Revolution’s social upheavals in 19th-century Britain, the two world wars and the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Collectively these migrants have helped shape a unique British-based and now multicultural society on the perimeter of Asia.
Image: Group of migrants on MV Toscana at Trieste, 1954. ANMM Collection Gift from Barbara Alysen
From 1788 to 1868 Britain transported more than 160,000 convicts from its overcrowded prisons to the Australian colonies, forming the basis of the first migration from Europe to Australia. When these first Europeans arrived they did not find an empty land as expected. They were outnumbered by more than 500,000 indigenous Aboriginal people whose ancestors had lived in Australia for at least 50,000 years.
Between 1793 and 1850 nearly 200,000 free settlers and assisted immigrants chose to migrate to Australia to start a new life. The majority were English agricultural workers or domestic servants who outnumbered the Irish and Scottish migrants.
Image: SS Great Britain leaving Prince’s Pier, Liverpool, for Australia, 1852. ANMM Collection
Did you know the Chinese were the third largest migrant group in Australia [GR3] after the British and Germans by 1901?
Thousands of Chinese people came to Australia during the 1850s gold rushes. When the gold was exhausted many took up market gardening or established businesses such as restaurants or laundries. In the second half of the 19th-century South Sea Islanders were recruited to work on Queensland sugar plantations, Afghan cameleers played a vital role in the exploration and opening up of the Australian outback, and Japanese divers contributed to the development of the pearling industry.
Following Federation in 1901 Australia’s newly-formed Federal Parliament passed the Immigration Restriction Act, which placed certain restrictions on immigration and aimed to stop Chinese and South Sea Islanders from coming to Australia. These laws, known as the White Australia policy, were administered by a dictation test and informed Australian attitudes to immigration for the next 50 years.
Populate or perish
In the years after World War 2, Australia stepped up its immigration with the catchphrase ‘Populate or perish!’ It negotiated agreements to accept more than two million migrants and displaced people from Europe, offered assisted £10 passages to one million British migrants, nicknamed ‘Ten Pound Poms’, and finally, in the 1970s, repealed the restrictive White Australia policy framed in 1901.
In the late 1970s, just as the last migrants to travel by ocean liner arrived in Australia, a new wave of seaborne refugees docked in Darwin, firstly from East Timor and then from Indochina. The Vietnamese ‘boat people’ in particular arrived at a time of dramatic social upheaval in Australia, with spirited public debate about our involvement in the Vietnam War, the new concept of multiculturalism, the breaking of many of Australia’s traditional ties with Britain, and the forging of new links with Asia. Despite some opposition from the wider community, the relaxation of immigration restrictions meant that most of the refugees were allowed to settle in Australia. They were followed by a second wave of boat people from Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Since the late 1990s increasing numbers of asylum seekers fleeing conflict in the Middle East and Sri Lanka have arrived in Australia by boat. They are distinct from the previous two waves of boat people in that they usually involve larger numbers of arrivals and their passage is often organised by people smugglers. Today the question of how to deal with asylum seekers arriving on unauthorised voyages remains one of the most polarising debates in contemporary Australia.
Milestones in Australian democracy
This timeline of Australian democracy includes key milestones in Australia’s immigration history.
1851 – 1852
Gold was discovered in Victoria, and a law was passed in Victoria forcing all gold miners to have a license. However, miners had no say in who ruled them.
1854 – 1855
In 1854, the Eureka Stockade (lead by Peter Laylaw) began when miners demanded voting rights, and the day after it was started, British soldiers stormed the Eureka Stockade. Shortly after, mining licenses were abolished.
All Men Allowed To Vote
1856 – 1857
In 1856, all men over 21 were permitted to vote, instead of only wealthy land-owners. However, women still couldn’t vote.
Women’s Suffrage League
1888 – 1889
In 1888, the Women’s Suffrage League was formed, and voting rights were pursued.
1900 – 1901
In 1900, the Australian Constitution was formed, and on the first of January 1901, the nation of Australia was created.
Women Allowed To Vote
1901 – 1902
Indigenous Australians Allowed To Vote
1961 – 1962
In 1962, a referendum was held to alter the Constitution to permit Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people to vote; before this, they were actually classed as fauna.
Age To Vote 18
1972 – 1973
In 1973, the age to vote was lowered to 18, as part of a worldwide campaign.
[GR1]Between 1788 and 1868, about 162,000 convicts were transported from Britain and Ireland to various penal colonies in Australia. The British Government began transporting convicts overseas to American colonies in the early 18th century. When transportation ended with the start of the American Revolution, an alternative site was needed to relieve further overcrowding of British prisons and hulks.
[GR2]Between 1793 and 1850 nearly 200,000 free settlers and assisted immigrants chose to migrate to Australia to start a new life. The majority were English agricultural workers or domestic servants who outnumbered the Irish and Scottish migrants. Image: SS Great Britain leaving Prince’s Pier, Liverpool, for Australia, 1852.
The history of Chinese Australians possible predates the arrival of James Cook in the eighteenth century. Chinese Australians are the oldest continuous immigrant group to Australia after those from the British Isles. Significant Chinese emigration only began in earnest after the discovery of gold and the subsequent gold rushes in Australia. This migration shaped and influenced Australian policies on immigration for over a century. Despite facing societal discrimination and restrictive immigration policies, Australians of Chinese descent have made a substantial contribution to the culture and history of the country.
[GR4]between 1901 and 1958 migrants had to pass a dictation test in any European language in order to enter Australia. in 1901 Australia’s newly-formed Federal Parliament passed the Immigration Restriction Act, which placed certain restrictions on immigration and aimed to stop Chinese and South Sea Islanders from coming to Australia.
Vietnamese boat people, also known simply as boat people, refers to the refugees who fled Vietnam by boat and ship following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. This migration and humanitarian crisis was at its highest in 1978 and 1979, but continued through the early 1990s. The term is also often used generically to refer to the Vietnamese people who left their country in mass exodus between 1975 and 1995. This article uses the term “boat people” to apply only to those who fled Vietnam by sea.
[GR6]An asylum seeker is a person who has fled their home country because of war or other factors harming them or their family, enters another country, and applies for asylum (i.e., international protection) in this other country. An asylum seeker is an immigrant who has been affected by forced displacement and may become considered a refugee. The terms asylum seeker and refugee are often confused.