Australia was uninhabited until stone-culture peoples arrived, perhaps by boat across the waters separating the island from the Indonesia archipelago more than 40,000 years ago. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English explorers observed the island before 1770, when Captain Cook explored the east coast and claimed it for Great Britain. (Three American colonists were crew members aboard Cook's ship, the Endeavour).
On January 26, 1788 (now celebrated as Australia Day), the First Fleet under Captain Arthur Phillip landed at Sydney, and formal proclamation of the establishment of the Colony of New South Wales followed on February 7. Many, but by no means all, of the first settlers were convicts, some condemned for offenses that today would often be thought trivial. From the mid-19th century convict transportation to Australia significantly declined; the last ship to arrive was in 1868. The discovery of gold in 1851 led to increased population, wealth, and trade.
The six colonies that now constitute the states of the Australian Commonwealth were established in the following order: New South Wales, 1788; Tasmania, 1825; Western Australia, 1829; South Australia, 1836; Victoria, 1851; and Queensland, 1859. Settlement preceded these dates in most cases. Discussions between Australian and British representatives led to adoption by the British Government of an act to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia in 1900, effective January 1, 1901. In 1911, control of the Northern Territory was transferred from South Australia to the Commonwealth. Also that year, the Australian Capital Territory (where the national capital, Canberra, is located), was established. The Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory were granted self-government in 1978 and 1988, respectively.
The first federal Parliament was opened at Melbourne in May 1901 by the Duke of York (later King George V). In May 1927, the seat of government was transferred to Canberra, a planned city designed by American Walter Burley Griffin. The first session of Parliament in Canberra was opened by another Duke of York (later King George VI). Australia passed the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act on October 9, 1942 (with effect as of September 3, 1939), which officially established Australia's complete autonomy in both internal and external affairs and formalized a situation that had existed for years. The Australia Act (effective March 3, 1986) eliminated almost all remaining vestiges of British legal authority, including the ability to appeal to the British Privy Council.
Information by U.S. Department of State