For tens of thousands of years, Australia’s Indigenous peoples lived and thrived on this continent. Their complex Dreaming stories connect plants, animals, people and landscape. There was little knowledge of the continent or its inhabitants in the European world. This changed forever 250 years ago.
More than 60,000 years ago
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples lived in what is now known as Australia.
26 February 1606
Willem Janszoon, a Dutch navigator and colonial governor, sailing in Duyfken, landed at the Pennefather River on the western shore of Cape York in Queensland, near what is now the town of Weipa. This is the first recorded European landing on the Australian continent.
Luís Vaz de Torres, a Spanish maritime explorer, took a route close to the New Guinea coast to navigate the 150-kilometre strait that now bears his name. The Torres Strait consists of 18 islands scattered over a geographic area of 48,000 square kilometres, from the tip of Cape York, north towards the borders of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.
25 October 1616
Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog, sailing in the Eendracht, made landfall at an island off the coast of Western Australia which is now called Dirk Hartog Island. Hartog was the second documented European to make landfall in Australia.
The English ship Tryal, under the command of John Brooke, was wrecked on a reef, now known as Tryal Rocks, approximately 100 kilometres off the West Australian coast. The oldest known European ship wreck in Australian waters, survivors landed on Barrow Island, becoming the first British people known to set foot on Australian soil.
24 November 1642
Abel Janszoon Tasman, a Dutch seafarer, explorer and merchant was the first known European to reach Tasmania, which he claimed for the Dutch and named Van Diemen’s Land.
4 January 1688
William Dampier, an English explorer and former buccaneer, was likely the first English navigator to land on the Australian mainland, when he anchored the Cygnet on the coast of Western Australia, near King Sound.
Sailing in Roebuck, Dampier returned to the West Australian Coast, anchoring in Shark Bay. Dampier took detailed notes about Australian flora and fauna and the Bardi Aboriginal people of the Dampier (Ardi) Peninsula. His subsequent publication in 1703, A voyage to New Holland, carries the first depictions of Australian birds and plants.
From at least 1700 until 1907, hundreds of Makassar fishermen sailed each year from the island of Sulawesi to the northern Australian coast. The fishermen arrived each December and camped along the Arnhem Land coast, catching, boiling and drying trepang (sea cucumber). They met, traded and worked with the local Yolŋu Aboriginal people.
Cook’s First Voyage (1768-71)
25 May 1768
James Cook is commissioned First Lieutenant of the HMB Endeavour. As First Lieutenant, Cook is set the task of observing the transit of Venus in Tahiti by the Royal Society of London.
30 July 1768
The Lords of the Admiralty sign a set of secret instructions for the Endeavour voyage, which require Cook and his crew to search for the ‘Great Southern Continent’. These instructions are sealed, and are for Cook alone to open, which he does not do until he has completed the observation of the transit of Venus.
25 August 1768
Endeavour sets sail from Plymouth, in the south west of England.
3 June 1769
Cook and Charles Green, Endeavour’s astronomer, observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti.
8 October 1769
Endeavour arrives at Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, Aotearoa New Zealand, which Cook later names Poverty Bay. Over the next six months, Cook circumnavigates New Zealand establishing that it is two separate islands and not part of the Great Southern Continent, before leaving New Zealand on 1 April 1770. Tupaia plays a pivotal role as an intermediary between the crew and the Maori people, particularly through his skill as an interpreter.
19 April 1770
Endeavour sights land on the Australian mainland – then known as New Holland. Cook names the southernmost point in sight ‘Point Hicks’, after Lieutenant Zachary Hicks.
29 April 1770
Endeavour anchors in Kamay (Botany Bay), which Cook initially names ‘Sting-Ray Harbour’ due to the large size and number of stingray caught there. Upon landing ashore, Cook and members of the crew of the Endeavour are confronted by two Gweagal men, armed with spears, who oppose the landing. In the standoff that follows, Cook fires three shots from his musket, hitting one of the men and causing them to leave. Over the next week, Cook and his crew explore the surrounding land and waters.
23 May 1770
Endeavour anchors in Bustard Bay. Cook, Banks and Solander go ashore on the south point of the bay, near Round Hill Head, near the present day town of Seventeen Seventy. It is the second place on the voyage that they set foot on Australia.
10 June 1770
At 11pm, Endeavour runs aground on the Great Barrier Reef and begins taking in water. Only 3 of the 4 pumps on board are working. The crew throws cannons and ballast overboard in an attempt to lighten the ship. Almost 24 hours later, Endeavour is pulled free from the reef, but has sustained considerable damage.
17 June 1770
A month after landing, the crew and the Guugu Yimithirr people meet, and members of the crew begin to record some Guugu Yimithirr words. This includes the word ‘gangurru’, from which ‘kangaroo’ is derived.
19 July 1770
There is conflict when Cook refuses requests from Guugu Yimithirr men to hand over turtles caught by the crew for food. Angered by this, a Guugu Yimithirr man uses a fire stick to light the settlement area on fire. Cook shoots a man in the shoulder during the fray, and the crew takes spears belonging to the Guugu Yimithirr people. The groups reconcile soon after, with Cook noting in his journal that the Guugu Yimithirr people ‘lay down their darts and came to us in a very friendly manner’, prompting Cook to return the stolen spears. Cook wrote: ‘We now return’d them the darts we had taken from them which reconciled every thing.’
22 August 1770
Cook lands on Possession Island and takes possession of the east coast of Australia in the name of King George III, naming it ‘New South Wales’.
11 October 1770
Endeavour anchors at Batavia (now known as Jakarta, Indonesia) for repairs and supplies. Approximately one-third of the crew, including Tupaia and Taiato, die from dysentery and malaria there, and on the final leg of the voyage.
16 July 1771
Endeavour anchors in the Downs, England.
Cook’s Second Voyage (1772–75)
13 July 1772
Resolution under Cook and Adventure under Tobias Furneaux set sail from Plymouth, England.
30 October 1772
The two ships anchor at the Cape of Good Hope to take on supplies, before sailing south towards the Antarctic.
17 January 1773
Cook becomes the first mariner known to cross the Antarctic Circle; reaching 66° 36’ South.
8 February 1773
The Resolution and Adventure lose contact with each other in dense fog. A rendezvous had previously been agreed at Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand.
11 March 1773
Adventure stops at Tasmania on the way to New Zealand.
18 May 1773
Resolution arrives at Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound; Adventure had arrived several weeks earlier.
13 July 1773
Having explored New Zealand and repaired Resolution, Cook heads north.
15 August 1773
Cook sights Tahiti. Spends time exploring the islands and Adventure agrees to take Mai, the Raiatean man from Tahiti to England. The Resolution and Adventure leave Tahiti and sail south west towards New Zealand
The ships are separated in a storm off New Zealand. Resolution returns to Queen Charlotte Sound and Adventure puts into Tolaga Bay.
25 November 1773
Resolution leaves Queen Charlotte Sound and heads south towards the Antarctic.
Adventure arrives 10 days later and after an altercation with Maori, sails for England (arrives 14 July 1774).
20 December 1773
Cook crosses the Antarctic Circle for the second time. Thick ice forces him to return north.
26 January 1774
Crosses the Antarctic Circle for the third time. Four days later, Resolution reaches latitude 71°10’ South.
Cook makes landfall at various South Pacific islands: Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Tahiti, Tonga, New Hebrides, New Caledonia, Norfolk Island. Voyage artist William Hodges, records the people met in chalk drawings now held in the National Library of Australia's collection.
Resolution returns to Queen Charlotte Sound. Takes on provisions before heading east across the Pacific.
21 December 1774
Resolution anchors at Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America.
21 February 1775
Cook crosses his outward track of 15 December 1772, circumnavigating the earth for the second time.
30 July 1775
Resolution returns to Portsmouth. In one of the greatest voyages of all time, Cook had disproved the idea of the great southern continent. He became the first recorded explorer to cross the Antarctic Circle. He charted many Pacific islands for the first time.
Cook’s Third Voyage (1776–80)
12 July 1776
Resolution under Cook sails from Plymouth.
10 November 1776
Discovery under Charles Clerke joins Resolution in Cape Town.
30 November 1776
The Resolution and Discovery leave the Cape, sailing south-east, and head for New Zealand on 30 December.
26 January 1777
The Resolution and Discovery arrive at Adventure Bay, Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).
12 January 1777
The expedition arrives at Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound, New Zealand. Cook leaves to explore the islands of the South Pacific, visiting the Cook Islands (April), Tongan Islands (April-July), and Tahiti (August–December 1777).
18 January 1778
Sights islands of Oahu and Kauai, Hawaii (named the Sandwich Islands by Cook). Two days later, a party lands at Waimea Bay, Kauai.
7 February 1778
Cook leaves the Sandwich Islands and sails east to ‘New Albion’ (Pacific coast of North America).
30 March 1778
The Resolution and Discovery anchor in Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, for an overhaul. Head north on 26 April.
12 May 1778
The Resolution and Discovery enter Prince William Sound, Alaska, for repairs and to take on supplies.
Cook explores the northern Pacific, searching for the Northwest Passage. Crosses Bering Strait on 9 August and Arctic Circle on 14 August. Reaches highest latitude 70° 44´ North on 18 August, but the Arctic ice sheet prevents further progress north.
26 October 1778
Cook turns south, intending to winter in Hawaii (Sandwich Islands).
17 January 1779
The Resolution and Discovery anchor at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii where Cook is well received.
4 February 1779
Cook departs Kealakekua Bay, but is soon forced to turn back after Resolution’s mast is damaged in a storm.
11 February 1779
The Resolution and Discovery return to Kealakekua Bay.
14 February 1779
After a dispute over a stolen boat, Cook is killed on the beach at Kealakekua Bay along with four marines. More than a dozen Hawaiians are also killed.
21 February 1779
Charles Clerke assumes command of the expedition (later dies of consumption and is replaced by John Gore).
15 March 1779
Expedition leaves Hawaii, heading north.
30 July 1779
Ships pass once more through the Bering Strait, but are soon forced back by the ice. After visiting Kamchatka in western Russia and China, the expedition returns to England via the Cape of Good Hope.
7 October 1780
Resolution and Discovery return to England. News of Cook’s death had proceeded them travelling overland from Kamchatka.
European Settlement to the Present
18 years after James Cook first made landfall in Australia, the First Fleet arrives at Kamay (Botany Bay) and moves to Port Jackson to set up a penal colony.
7 February 1788
Colony of New South Wales established.
Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy leads resistance against the incursion of white settlers onto his people’s traditional lands.
A Kuringgai man named Bungaree was the first Indigenous Australian to circumnavigate Australia. Bungaree accompanied a British explorer, Matthew Flinders, on the HMS Investigator, and was described by Flinders as a ‘worthy and brave fellow’.
Colony of Van Diemen's Land established. On 3 December 1825, Van Diemen's Land—which had existed as a territory within the colony of New South Wales—was proclaimed a separate colony, with its own judicial establishment and Legislative Council. Transportation to the island ceased in 1853 and the colony was renamed Tasmania in 1856.
An expedition on behalf of the New South Wales colonial government, led by Major Edmund Lockyer lands at King George Sound, Western Australia. On 21 January 1827, Lockyer formally took possession of the western third of the continent of Australia for the British Crown.
12 August 1829
Colony of Swan River (Western Australia) was established, including the site of the present-day capital, Perth. Western Australia gained the right of self-government in 1890, and joined with the five other states to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.
By the 1830s, Frontier violence around New South Wales had become so widespread that the murder of Aboriginal people by British colonial stockmen, settlers and convicts was generally accepted, despite British law clearly articulating that it was a crime punishable by death.
15 August 1834
Colony of South Australia established. The land which now forms the state of South Australia was claimed for Britain in 1788 as part of the colony of New South Wales. On 15 August 1834, the British Parliament passed the South Australia Act 1834 (Foundation Act), which empowered His Majesty to erect and establish a province or provinces in southern Australia. The act stated that the colony would be convict-free.
26 January 1838
Waterloo Creek Massacre. Major James Nunn, the Commandant of the New South Wales Mounted Police, had been sent from Sydney to lead a punitive expedition against the Aboriginal people who had killed stockmen in separate incidents of Frontier conflict. Nunn and his men massacred up to 50 Aboriginal people camped at Waterloo Creek. They also encouraged nearby stockmen and settlers to murder any Aboriginal person they came across.
10 June 1838
Myall Creek Massacre. A group of Wirrayaraay people, of the Gamilaraay nation had camped on Henry Dangar’s property at Myall Creek station near present-day Bingara, in May 1838. On the evening of 10 June, a group of convicts and settlers murdered at least 28 Wirrayaraay people. Seven of the men responsible were found guilty in the Supreme Court, sentenced to public execution and hanged at the Sydney Gaol. They were the first British subjects to be executed for massacring Aboriginal people.
1 July 1851
Colony of Victoria established. Writs issued for the election of the first Victorian Legislative Council and the absolute independence of Victoria from New South Wales established, proclaiming a new Colony of Victoria.
Colony of Queensland. In 1851, a public meeting was held to consider Queensland's separation from New South Wales. On 6 June 1859, Queen Victoria signed Letters Patent to form the colony of Queensland. A proclamation was read by George Bowen on 10 December 1859 whereupon Queensland was formally separated from New South Wales.
Pearling boomed in far north Queensland in the 1870s and 1890s. It had a massive impact on coastal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The industry was exempted from the White Australia Policy, bringing labour from the South Pacific and Asia. By 1872, many Torres Strait Islanders were working in the marine industry (pearling and trochus fishing) alongside Pacific Islanders.
The Torres Strait Islands were formally annexed by the Queensland government.
Petition to colonial authorities in Victoria from Aboriginal people at Coranderrk protesting their lack of rights.
1 January 1901
Federation of Australia. The British Parliament passed legislation allowing the six Australian colonies to govern in their own right as part of the Commonwealth of Australia.
1 January 1911
Northern Territory separated from South Australia and transferred to federal control. The land now occupied by the Northern Territory was part of colonial New South Wales from 1825 to 1863, except for a brief time from February to December 1846, when it was part of the short-lived colony of North Australia. The Northern Territory was part of South Australia from 1863 to 1911, when it was separated from South Australia and transferred to federal control.
The area of land that was to become the Australian Capital Territory is transferred to the Commonwealth by New South Wales. Canberra was named as the national capital in 1913.
New South Wales Government gains power to remove Aboriginal children from their families. The 1915 amendments to the Aborigines Protection Act 1909 gave the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Board the power to remove any Indigenous child at any time and for any reason.
Formation of Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association in Sydney, the first all-Aboriginal political organisation. William Cooper, founder of the AAL, drafted a petition to send to King George V, asking for special Aboriginal electorates in Federal Parliament. The Australian Government believed that the petition fell outside its constitutional responsibilities.
26 January 1938
‘Day of Mourning’ Australia Day protest in Sydney, held on the sesquicentenary (150th anniversary) of European settlement in Australia. The Day of Mourning was held annually on the Sunday before Australia Day and was known as Aborigines Day.
Aborigines Day was moved to the first Sunday in July, after it was decided the day should become not simply a protest day but also a celebration of Aboriginal culture.
Formation of the National Aborigines Day of Observance Committee (NADOC).
21 May 1962
The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962 granted all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people the option to enrol and vote in federal elections. Enrolment was not compulsory for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, unlike other Australians. Once enrolled, however, voting was compulsory. It was not until 1984 that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gained full equality with other electors under the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment Act 1983, which made enrolling to vote at federal elections compulsory for Indigenous Australians.
The Yirrkala bark petition was presented to the Federal Parliament by members of the clan groups living in the area of Yirrkala. The petition is written in both Yolngu Matha and English and presented on painted bark boards depicting country. The petition protests the excision of land from the reserve where they live, where they hunt and where their sites of significance are situated, following Bauxite mining leases being granted on traditional lands without consultation of the Yolgnu people.
Charlie Perkins leads the ‘Freedom Ride’ through western New South Wales. The ride led to the inception of the Student Action for Aborigines Organisation, involving students from the University of Sydney who travelled across western New South Wales towns to witness the poor living conditions of Aboriginal people and the racism being experienced. The ride received global coverage with Charles Perkins claiming ‘the problem is out in the open now’.
23 August 1966
Gurindji ‘walk-off’ and strike at Wave Hill Station, Northern Territory. 200 Gurindji stockmen, domestic workers and their families initiated strike action at Wave Hill station in the Northern Territory. This led to the return of a portion of their homelands to the Gurindji people in 1974. In 1976, the first Land Rights Act was passed, which allowed for Indigenous people in the Northern Territory to claim land title if they could prove a traditional relationship to the country.
27 May 1967
Australians vote in favour at Referendum to make laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census. Turnout for the referendum was almost 94 per cent, and the result was a strong ‘Yes’ vote, with a significant majority in all six states and an overall majority of almost 91 per cent.
29 April 1970
Re-enactment of the landing of Cook in Botany Bay, attended by Queen Elizabeth II. While Queen Elizabeth watched the re-enactment, Aboriginal protesters across the bay at La Perouse threw funeral wreaths into the water, aiming them to drift into Her Majesty’s view. Indigenous Australians mourned death, whilst the re-enactment celebrated the ‘birth’ of modern Australia. In Melbourne, protesters descended on Cooks’ cottage, transported to Australia brick by brick to celebrate the centenary of Victoria in 1934. They surrounded the cottage and called for the return of land to Aboriginal people.
20 August 1971
Federal Senator Neville Bonner becomes the first Indigenous Australian to sit in the Australian Parliament. Bonner served in the Senate until 1983, and was named Australian of the Year in 1979.
26 January 1972
Aboriginal Tent Embassy established in front of Parliament House in Canberra. Four Indigenous men set up a beach umbrella on the lawns opposite Parliament House, describing the umbrella as the Aboriginal Embassy, the men were protesting the McMahon government’s approach to Indigenous land rights. The embassy operated in a number of locations and took many forms before its permanent establishment on those same lawns in 1992. The goals of protesters have also changed over time, and now include not only land rights but also Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.
NADOC was composed entirely of Aboriginal members for the first time. The following year, it was decided that the event should cover a week, from the first to second Sunday in July.
3 June 1992
High Court Mabo decision was made, recognising native title in Australia for the first time. The Mabo decision was named after Edward Koiki Mabo (1936-1992), who challenged the Australian legal system and fought for recognition of the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners of their land. In 1993, the Federal Parliament passed the Native Title Act 1993, establishing a system for native title claims to be made across Australia.
NAIDOC Week. With a growing awareness of the distinct cultural histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, NADOC was expanded to recognise Torres Strait Islander people and culture. The committee then became known as the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC). This new name has become the title for the whole week, not just the day. Each year, a theme is chosen to reflect the important issues and events for NAIDOC Week.
23 December 1996
Wik vs. Queensland Case. The Wik People of Cape York Peninsula and the Thayorre People of South Cape York Peninsula, made a claim in the High Court that Native Title co-existed with pastoral leases. The High Court determined that pastoralists did not have exclusive rights to the land, and the Wik and Thayorre people were then granted the right to Native Title in two areas of land.
Bringing them Home Report. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission published the Bringing them Home report, which revealed the horrifying extent and legacy of Australia’s past policies of removing Indigenous children from their parents. These people are known as the Stolen Generations. The report recommended that the Australian Government make an apology to Indigenous people and in particular the Stolen Generations.
1 July 1999
Indigenous Senator Aiden Ridgeway is elected to Federal Parliament. Ridgeway served as an Australian Democrats Senator until 2005.
28 May 2000
Corroboree 2000. Comprised of two events over two days, the first was a meeting of dozens of high-profile Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders at the Sydney Opera House on 27 May 2000. This meeting was described as ‘a ceremonial gathering of Australians to exchange commitments in the lead up to the centenary of Federation in 2001’. The second event was the Corroboree Walk for Reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge, where about 250,000 people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, made their way across the famous Sydney landmark in a continuous stream that lasted nearly six hours. It was the largest political demonstration ever held in Australia.
13 February 2008
Prime Minister, the Hon Kevin Rudd’s National Apology to the ‘Stolen Generations’. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a formal apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, particularly to the Stolen Generations whose lives had been blighted by past government policies of forced child removal and Indigenous assimilation. The journey to national apology began with the Bringing Them Home report in 1997.
7 September 2013
Indigenous Olympian Nova Peris is elected to the Federal Senate, representing the Northern Territory until 2016. Peris was the first Indigenous Australian to win an Olympic gold medal. She was named Young Australian of the Year in 1997.
21 May 2015
Indigenous Australian Joanna Lindgren is chosen by the Parliament of Queensland to represent them in the Federal Senate. She was defeated in the 2016 general election. Lindgren was awarded the Australian Defence Medal for her service in the Army Reserve, and is the great-niece of Senator Neville Bonner.
2 May 2016
The Parliament of Western Australia appoints Senator Patrick Dodson to the Federal Senate. In 1975, Dodson was the first Indigenous Australian to become a Catholic priest in Australia.
2 July 2016
The Hon Linda Burney becomes the first Indigenous Australian woman to be elected to the Australian House of Representatives. Burney was previously a member of the Parliament of New South Wales from 2003-2016.
2 July 2016
Indigenous Australian Malarndirri McCarthy is elected to the Australian Senate, representing the Northern Territory. McCarthy was previously a journalist and television presenter, and a member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly from 2005-2012.
26 May 2017
The Uluru Statement from the Heart was released by delegates to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Referendum Convention, held near Uluru in Central Australia. The statement calls for a ‘First Nations Voice’ in the Australian Constitution and a ‘Makarrata Commission’ to supervise a process of ‘agreement-making’ and ‘truth-telling’ between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
8 May 2018
$2 million is allocated to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) in the Federal Budget for the Return of Cultural Heritage (RoCH) Project, which seeks the return of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material from overseas collecting institutions to original custodians and owners. This initiative is part of the Government’s activities to commemorate the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s voyage.
1 July 2019
National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) established. The Agency is committed to implementing the Government’s policies and programs to improve the lives of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
29 May 2019
The Hon Ken Wyatt AM becomes the first Indigenous Australian appointed Minister for Indigenous Australians in the Federal Government. Elected in 2010, Ken Wyatt was the first Indigenous Australian elected to the House of Representatives, the first to serve as a government minister and the first appointed to Cabinet.
30 October 2019
Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt announces plans for a senior advisory body to lead talks on developing an Indigenous voice to government.
15 July 2020
The Australian Government announces that it will invest almost $10 million to extend the Return of Cultural Heritage initiative to 2024. This followed a successful pilot project by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, which secured the unconditional return of 42 objects from the United States of America, and 43 objects from the United Kingdom to their traditional owners – the Aranda, Bardi Jawi, Gangalidda and Garawa, Nyamal and Yawuru peoples.