A brief guide to the history of Sydney


Pre-colonial Sydney

One of the most well-known facts about Australia is that the country was first inhabited by Aboriginal people. It is believed that they arrived in Australia from Indonesia around 40,000-60,000 years ago and at that point they ventured across the nation, setting up settlements in places that include where Sydney sits today.

A number of tribes of Aboriginal people lived around Port Jackson, known today as Sydney Harbour, which mostly consisted of members of the Eora tribe and the Cadigal tribe. The Eora people lived on Sydney's coast whilst the Cadigal tribe occupied the area that is now Sydney's CBD. Some fine examples of Aboriginal stone tools and Aboriginal artwork have been found in recent years in Sydney, which includes the world's finest collection of rock carvings.

British settlement in Sydney

One of the most commonly repeated facts about Australia is that Captain James Cook was the first European to sail along its east coast. He was in command of the HMS Endeavour in 1770 at the time of discovery and led the ship into the bay that is now the south of Sydney, naming it Botany Bay in honour of the amazing fauna and flora that existed there. Cook went on to tour Australia along the east coast before claiming the land in the name of King George III in August 1770, sending word to England that Botany Bay held promise for creating a British colony.

Many years after this message, the First Fleet of British ships landed in 1788, led by Captain Arthur Phillip. Over a thousand settlers arrived, many of whom were convicts, and they settled at Port Jackson and established a colony there, rather than at Botany Bay. The colony was named 'New Albion' by Captain Phillip, but soon was renamed Sydney after Thomas Townshend, otherwise known as Lord Sydney, who was the British Home Secretary at the time. It is unknown why the name changed but the decision could be linked to Lord Sydney's role as the person who issued the charter that authorised the beginning of the colony.

The date of the establishment of the colony, 26th January, is now known as Australia Day and is marked by celebrations across the country, although many Indigenous Australians feel that the day instead marks the loss of the culture that is so important to the Aboriginal people.

One little known fact about Australia is that Captain Phillip tried incredibly hard to create harmony between the Aboriginal people and the settlers; however, he did so by attempting to reform the indigenous tribes. Despite these good intentions, Aboriginal people undoubtedly suffered from the arrival due to food shortages and the introduction of new diseases which they were unprepared for. Many Aboriginal people died in 1789 after an outbreak of smallpox, with some sources suggesting that the indigenous population was halved due to this single outbreak.

Early Sydney

Life in early Sydney was difficult for all who lived there, with the settlers finding it challenging to grow crops. Their success was further hampered by the lack of skilled labourers; many of the settlers were professional criminals and lacked the necessary skills. More ships came from Britain and often carried sick passengers who were not fit enough to carry out labour but still needed feeding. It was not until 1791 that their fortunes changed when healthy settlers arrived and trade began.

The colonial government relied heavily on the army, which consisted of the New South Wales Corps, who were also known as the Rum Corps for their heavy involvement with the profitable trade of rum. Conflicts between the governors and the officers of the Rum Corps came to a head in 1808 when the Rum Rebellion saw the Corps successfully take over the government, who had tried to stop the Corps from trading with rum.

There was then a short period of military rule before Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived from Britain in 1810; he was influential in turning Sydney from a penal colony into the thriving free society that we know today. He introduced churches, banks and charities to Sydney and aimed to patch up relations with the Aboriginal people.

Progress: the 19th century and the establishment of cultural institutions

Governor Lachlan Macquarie envisioned Sydney as a cultural capital and many buildings and streets began to take shape under his leadership. Impressive public buildings appeared along Macquarie Street and the famous Royal Botanic Gardens were founded. Alexander Macleay established Sydney's Australian Museum in 1826, which is the country's oldest such institution. The University of Sydney opened its doors in 1850 and the Royal National Park became a site of much interest in 1879.

The Sydney gazette, Sydney's first newspaper, also found its footing in the 19th century and appeared irregularly between 1803 and 1842, and The Sydney Morning Herald was established as a daily publication in between these years in 1831. This paper is still published today.

Sports in Australia also took off, with the establishment of the Sydney University Football Club in 1863 and the New South Wales Rugby Union in 1874. The first cricket match in Australia, meanwhile, was held at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1878.

Progress continued into the 20th century, as industrialisation emerged along with domestic tourism. Australia's beaches became popular holiday destinations, which paved the way for the country's holiday industry to develop into what is now one of the biggest in the world. The eradication of strict daytime bathing restrictions saw beachside holidays boom, and another milestone emerged: Bondi Beach is believed to be the home of the world's first surf lifesaving club, which was established in 1906. In 1915, surfing trully took off in Australia thanks to Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku bringing his surf board to Freshwater Beach.

Although the Great Depression significantly affected Sydney, a ray of light came in the form of the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932, which linked the northern and southern shores of the city.

Post-war Sydney

Australia was heavily involved in World War II and Sydney came under attack from Japanese submarines in 1942. Defences were increased after the attack, which killed around 21 navy personnel as well as the Japanese submariners. Another attack followed just days later but had little success. By the end of 1943 submarine attacks on Sydney were abandoned by the Japanese.

After WWII, an immigration programme set up by the government saw the country's population boom, with many people choosing to settle in Sydney. As a result, Sydney's famously diverse culture was born, accompanying its economic boom that saw the creation of skyscrapers, the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Tower. Sydney has since hosted the 2000 Olympic Games, the 2003 Rugby World Cup and the 2007 APEC Leaders conference, cementing its status as one of the world's most influential cities and cultural hubs.



Image Credit: Rob & Jules (flickr.com)