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, a place to send prisoners from overcrowded jails in Britain. The new arrivals – murderers, thieves, political prisoners, and poor people sent away for failing to pay their debts – were put to work farming to feed the colony. Convicts worked by day on community farms and spent the night under guard. British officials granted land to prisoners who had served their time and to the soldiers who had guarded them.
Australia remained a prison colony for 80 years. Brought by ship, thousands of convicts cleared the land and built farms and roads. The colony grew steadily as free settlers followed prisoners for a fresh start in a new land. In 1851, British settler Edward Hargraves found gold in southeastern Australia. Over the next half century, gold fever drew fortune hunters, known as diggers, from all over, especially Britain. Though few found riches, many stayed on to settle in the Land Down Under.