European explorers first reached Australia in 1606. British explorer Captain James Cook sailed to Australia’s eastern coast in 1770.
Cook claimed the land for Britain and called it New South Wales. Eighteen years later, the first British settlers arrived. They crossed the ocean in a fleet of 11 ships. The British had decided to make Australia a penal colony. That’s a place to send prisoners. They came from overcrowded jails in Britain. The new arrivals were murderers and thieves. They were political prisoners and poor people sent away for failing to pay their debts. These people were put to work farming to feed the colony. Convicts worked by day on community farms. They spent the night under guard. British officials granted land to prisoners who had served their time. They also gave land to the soldiers who had guarded them.
Australia remained a prison colony for 80 years. Thousands of convicts were brought by ship. They cleared the land and built farms and roads. Free settlers followed prisoners for a fresh start in a new land. And the colony grew steadily. In 1851, British settler Edward Hargraves found gold in southeastern Australia. Over the next half century, gold fever drew fortune hunters. Known as diggers, they came from all over, especially Britain. Though few found riches, many stayed on to settle in the Land Down Under.