Sydney History - History of Sydney


The days when the continent of Australia was deemed to have been "born" in 1788 have long since past. With the belated acceptance of Aboriginal people as the original inhabitants of the land, came a greater understanding of the history of the Australian continent above and beyond the 200 odd years that white Europeans have dominated.


Until the arrival of the Endeavour at Sydey Cove, the continent had been inhabited by somewhere in the region of three hundred thousand Aboriginal people, who were sub-divided into a myriad of different groups, with many talking completely different languages to one another.


A good place to find out about this complex and fascinating period of Australian history is at the Australian Museum, 6 College Street, nr Hyde Park, Sydney 2000, Tel. (02) 9320 6000, Fax (02) 9320 6050, email: [email protected] .


The museum is home to thousands of Aboriginal artefacts which are explained in the context of "Spirituality", Cultural Heritage", "Family Land" and "Social Justice". The displays give an understanding of a rich cultural heritage, and the difficulties that the Aboriginal people faced with the arrival of the White man from 1770. Prices are reasonable at $AUD 5, $AUD 2 for children and there is a family ticket for $AUD 12. Seniors go for free.


The Dutchman Abel Tasman was the first European to go ashore on the "Great Southern Land" way back in 1642. He found what we now know today as Tasmania and named it Van Dieman's Land. His initial charts were a little sketchy to say the least, and the area to the east, namely what we know today as New South Wales and Queensland, remained uncharted altogether.


The world had to wait another forty six years before another European set foot on the continent. The intrepid pirate William Dampier went ashore in the north west and recorded that New Holland, as the Dutch had called the place, had little to offer with poor pasture land and primitive and godless inhabitants.


Thus for a century, New Holland stayed the great disappointment of the Southern Hemisphere, and it was only when Captain James Cook, on a scientific trip to Tahiti, stumbled across the more hospitable pastures of the east coast that the picture looked a little rosier. He set men ashore at Botany Bay on the 28th April 1770 and some time later the Union Flag was raised for the first time and Cook declared the land for Britain as New South Wales.


These developments came at a fortuitous time. In the latter part of the 18th century, Britain was facing the problem of grossly overcrowded prisons, following the forced abandonment of the transportation of criminals to the Americas, who had just revolted and rejected British rule through civil war.


British justice at the time could at best be charitably described as "interesting", with people sent to prison for relatively minor offences. With the Americas off the agenda, a new place for the spiralling convict population had to be found.


And so in 1787, Captain Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales, set sail with the 1500 British exiles of the First Fleet, landing at Port Jackson in 1788. The initial few years were a stark contrast to the city that we know today. The convicts had to adjust to the change in climate, and work crops in a completely different way to how they had become accustomed.


As one might expect, the free settlers held the convicts in very low esteem, making them live in squalid conditions and build the infrastructure that was vital to the creation of a successful colony, which was to grow out of the area known today as The Rocks.


But if the convicts thought that they had it bad, the Aboriginal people fared far worse. Acting with a veracity that would raise more than a few eyebrows at today's United Nations, the British systematically cleared the area of indigenous people, either by firepower, or through the inadvertent introduction of foreign diseases from which the Aboriginal people had been insulated for up to fifty thousand years.


It is to Australia's (and Britain's) great shame that official attitudes towards the indigenous people only began to turn in 1967, when basic human rights were granted, and white Australians began to learn what had been done to the Aboriginals. Recently, the country's conscience has been focussed on "the disappeared" - Aboriginal children who were taken away from their parents and placed with white families in an effort to assimilate the Aboriginals into a white, middle class utopian ideal.


Transportation of convicts to New South Wales continued until 1852, a time which had seen the birth of a fledgling colony, which then went on to see the few prosper at the expense of the many, a mutiny by the all powerful New South Wales Corps, the descent into decadence and debauchery, the development of industries such as wool and crops, and the hotch-potch development of a city, at odds with the latter planned cities like Melbourne and Adelaide.


By the end of the celebrated Governor Macquarie's term of office, the convicts who were still the driving force of the economy, were granted basic rights upon completion of their sentences, and were at liberty to lead their lives as they wished.


It transpired in February 1851, that Sydney had conveniently been sited near large gold reserves at Bathurst. It was Californian gold run veteran Edward Hargreaves who made the discovery, and just as had happened in other parts of the Empire, thousands of prospectors descended on the area to claim their fortune. In fact, so great was the rush that the southern city of Melbourne was almost entirely emptied of able bodied men, and ships remained fully laden as their was no-one left to take the goods off them at the port.


It wasn't just prospectors from New South Wales and Victoria who showed up in Sydney with their panning equipment, however. People flocked to the Great Southern Land from as far a field as Britain and China.


Sydney grew rich on the back of the gold-rush and it was around this time that it began to grow into the city that we know today. By 1901, Australia was felt to be mature enough to largely govern its own affairs and the colonial days were drawn to a close on 1st January when different colonies were brought together under federation.


Today, after enthusiastically supporting Britain and the Commonwealth in two world wars, in which it suffered devastating losses (you will doubtless see many references to Gallipoli and Tripoli on your visit - see the War Memorial & Museum just in front of the Amex building in Sydney's Hyde Park, Elizabeth Street), the country is on the verge of becoming a republic in its own right. Australians went to the polls in November 1999 to decide whether or nor to drop the British Queen as their head of state. The issue was hotly contested, and the result was a close call. However, although the queen won, she may not be so lucky next time.


Sydney itself plays host to the 2000 Olympics at the purpose built Homebush complex. The City is taking its position as host city very seriously indeed and has, for the last couple of years, closely resembled a building site as hotels, public buildings, roads and pavements get a radical facelift to present the best possible image abroad. There will doubtless be a big effort to ensure that troublesome issues such as Aboriginal land rights and their appalling social problems are kept well and truly off the agenda.


All in all, you will find Sydney a modern, cosmopolitan and welcoming place with all the trappings of a first rate city, in a gorgeous harbour setting. Whilst you are there, take the time to visit the Australian Museum, and also the innovative Museum of Sydney, at 37 Phillip Street, jctn with Bridge Street, Tel: (02) 9251 5988, Fax: (02) 9251 5966, email: [email protected], which is built on the original site of Government House, some of the original foundations of which are still visible. The Museum of Sydney is open daily from 10am 'til 5pm (except Xmas day and Good Friday) and is $AUD 6, $AUD 3 for children and $AUD 15 for a family.


Nearby, on Macquarie Street, up near Hyde Park, you will find the main government buildings, principally Parliament House, which resembles a cross between a grand colonial house and a large corporate pub and is home to the Parliament of New South Wales. Variously built between 1816 and the mid 1980s, you can take a tour of the Parliament buildings for free between 9.30am and 4pm. You can take a peek at the chambers at 10am, 11am and 2pm when the House is not in session, and there is a public gallery available so you to see Aussie style democracy when business is being conducted.


If the tour of the Parliament has whetted your appetite for some full scale delving into Sydney's history, try the State Library of New South Wales, also in Macquarie Street, or if you fancy another museum experience then you could do worse than to visit Sydney's Hyde Park Barracks, next to the Parliament. True to the city's convict roots, it was designed by the celebrated convict architect Francis Greenway and was originally home to convicts and then, in later years, to a court.


In short then, if people tell you that Sydney is far too young a city to hold any interest for the historian, then they should think again.


The Aboriginal history of the area should be enough to satisfy those with an interest in all things anthropological, whilst the European, colonial and federation history is truly fascinating. Come to Sydney and discover it for yourself !!



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