Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.
Australia is a country in the southern hemisphere and the world's smallest continent. Originally inhabited by an indigenous people, Australia was discovered by the Dutch in 1606, and in 1770 claimed and settled by the British, first as a penal colony and called New South Wales. Australia's indigenous population, its settlement as a penal colony, and the 1850 gold rush which brought changes in government, are unique features of the country's early development.
As with any country, its history and settlement is important to genealogy research. Australia's indigenous population, known as Aborigines, meaning "the first" or "earliest known" is believed by some to be the world's first human population, predating the first humans in Europe by some 12,000 years. As one source observes, since the first fleet of Europeans arrived in 1788 there have only been 8 generations of settlers; whereas there have been in excess of 18,500 generations of aboriginals. The British transportation of convicts was viewed as the humane alternative to execution, a likely fate for many owing to overcrowding of British prisons and prison ships. Penal colonies were essentially forced labor, including twenty percent who were women. In addition to the convicts were those who came to administer the affairs of the colonies and their families. Some areas of Australia never were penal colonies; thus, researchers may find reference to "assisted" and "unassisted" immigrants, referring to transported convicts as opposed to those who came to the country voluntarily. The National Library of Australia is a good place to begin family history research, with its many links to resources covering the primary aspects of Australian genealogy, including the country's military history.