Australia, or “The Land Down Under” as it is affectionately known, is a country, an island and a continent. It is a land of diverse physical beauty, unique wildlife and some historical similarities to the United States. Join us as we explore the history and landscape of this key U.S. ally. We will review Australia’s beginnings as a prisoner settlement, its role in numerous global conflicts and its modern challenges, including the impact of climate change and its relationship with China.

Key Lecture Points

  • Australia is both an island and a continent, located in the southern hemisphere between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean. It is the world’s smallest continental land mass, yet the world’s largest island. It is the sixth-largest country in the world, composed of the expansive mainland, the island of Tasmania as well as thousands of small fringe islands.
  • As a nation, Australia is the legacy of European exploration of the Pacific Islands.  In the early 17th Century, explorers mapped this “Terra Australis Incognita” (in Latin: unknown southern land), setting the stage for later settlement. Notwithstanding exploration by the Portuguese and Dutch, it would be the English who would lay claim to the land and in 1788 (soon after losing its North American colonies) would begin using various parts of Australia as penal colonies.  Given its vast resources, many non-convict English settlers soon followed seeking land and fortune. In 1901, Australia gained its independence, albeit as a part of the British Commonwealth, obligating Australian soldiers to serve in British conflicts, including WWI and WWII.
  • Since the end of WWII, Australia has been a vital ally and partner of the United States in the Pacific . The United States and Australia maintain a robust relationship underpinned by shared democratic values, common interests, and cultural affinities.
  • Historically, Australia has a checkered past as relating to matters of race. For decades, it maintained policies that oppressed its aboriginal populations while maintaining immigration laws that restricted immigrants to European populations only. Currently, Australia’s strict refugee policies are criticized by many and applauded by some.
  • With its incredible biodiversity including koala, kangaroo and wallaby, platypus, and Tasmanian devils, and the vast coral reefs along its eastern coast, Australia is a tourism hotspot. Australia, however, has increasingly come under pressure from natural disasters including cyclones, drought-causing bush fires and heat waves of increasing intensity, which threaten the Australian populace and environment.

Exploration Questions

  • What are the similarities and difference in U.S. and Australian histories? What do you think accounts for these similarities and differences?
  • How do you think Australia should manage conflicts in economic and political interests? How do you see environmental concerns impacting economic and political challenges?

Reflective Questions

  • Have you traveled to Australia? What was the most memorable thing you saw or did?
  • How do you think living in a physically vast country like Australia or the United States changes the way you experience the world? Do you think living on an island also provides a different perspective?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Keneally, Thomas. A Commonwealth of Thieves: The Improbable Birth of Australia. Anchor, 2005. 400 pages. An engaging history of the first four years of the convict settlement of Australia, told from the perspective of Arthur Phillips, the captain of the First Fleet and the new colony’s governor.
    Click here to order
  • Pilkington, Doris. Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. University of Queensland Press, 1996. 160 pages. The true story of three Aboriginal girls forcibly removed by Australian government assimilation policies and their escape along the rabbit-proof fence to return to their homelands.
    Click here to order
  • Bryson, Bill. In a Sunburned Country. Broadway Books, 2001. 352 pages. A funny and fact-filled account of comedic writer Bryson’s travels in Australia.
    Click here to order