Sydney is one of the most famous and iconic cities in Australia. It's also the state capital of New South Wales on Australia's southeastern coast. The city is best known for landmarks like the Sydney Opera House, often regarded as one of the architectural wonders of the modern world. The area of modern-day Sydney has been occupied by humans for at least 50,000 years. So unsurprisingly, the city has a rich and fascinating history.
Read on to explore the history of Sydney.
The earliest evidence of human habitation in the area of modern-day Sydney dates from 50,000 years ago. We know this from stone tools discovered in some of Sydney's suburbs. These early inhabitants were the Aboriginal Australians, who originally migrated to Australia from somewhere in Southeast Asia.
Modern-day Sydney occupies a coastal basin that connects with several major rivers. The region also has several bays, including Botany Bay. Therefore, it's not surprising that these intrepid migrants settled in the area. The new inhabitants also had ready access to the Pacific ocean.
The Aboriginal Australians were hunter-gatherers who lived in several tribes. Even today, New South Wales is home to the country's largest concentration of Aboriginal Australians. Some of the known tribes to inhabit the area include the Dharawal, Dharug, Eora, and Gweagal peoples.
The people of these tribes had complex ceremonial beliefs and rituals. Their belief system combined beliefs in ancestral spirits, supernatural beings, and totems. Each clan also had its own language and different styles of music, body decorations, and hairstyles.
By the time of their first contact with European explorers, the area's population is estimated to be as high as 8,000 people.
The Arrival of James Cook and First Contact
Even after the Age of Discovery, European explorers still sought out new lands across the oceans throughout the 18th Century. One of these explorers was James Cook, who led three Pacific voyages from 1768 until hie died in 1779.
On 29th April 1770, Cook and his crew made landfall at Botany Bay. As Cook came ashore, two Aboriginal inhabitants from the Gweagal plan tried to stop him from landing. During the scuffle, Cook's men shot and wounded one of the islanders.
After the incident, Cook tried to foster relations with the local tribes but unsurprisingly didn't find much success. Instead, he and his crew remained for a single week as they resupplied and collected a few botanical specimens. Then, Cook and his men left to continue their voyage.
But the British would return nearly 20 years later for a different reason. After losing the American Revolutionary War, Britain no longer controlled its American colonies. That meant that criminals and prisoners could no longer be deported to the New World. Instead, the British made plans to create a new penal colony in Australia.
From Penal Colony to Colonial Settlement
In January 1788, a fleet of 11 vessels led by Captain Arthur Phillip – known as the “First Fleet” – reached Botany Bay. Over 1,000 settlers had made the journey, including over 700 convicts. The colonists disembarked and built a settlement on the southern shore of Sydney Harbor now known as Sydney Cove. With a sheltered harbor and access to fresh water, it was the ideal site.
Intended to be self-sufficient and focused on agriculture, the settlement struggled for the first two years. At first, the crops failed thanks to the poor soil. However, fresh supplies arrived in 1790 and 1791 with the Second and Third Fleets. Gradually, the penal farms gave way to private land, and by 1804, the colony could support itself.
However, the arrival of the Europeans took a deadly toll on the indigenous Aboriginal population. After being isolated for thousands of years, the natives had no resistance to European diseases. In 1789, approximately half of the area's indigenous population was annihilated by a particularly virulent smallpox outbreak.
In 1789, a prominent member of the Eora tribe named Woollarawarre Bennelong had been kidnapped by Phillips and forced to act as an intermediary between the colonists and the local tribes. Bennelong quickly escaped. After the smallpox outbreak, Bennelong returned to the settlement with a band of indigenous survivors.
As Phillips went to greet Bennelong, Phillips tried to shake the hand of another indigenous man. The man responded by stabbing Phillips in the shoulder with his spear and a brawl broke out. However, Phillips ordered the settlers not to retaliate despite his wound. After a few days, Bennelong and Phillips began negotiating.
The settlement gradually expanded, and by 1796 the population had reached almost 3,000. In 1797, a new suburb named Prospect defined the boundary between the settlers and the Aboriginal tribes. This border was the site of frequent clashes between the two societies.
However, conflicts also occurred between the settlers and convicts. In 1804, over 200 Irish convicts escaped from their penal colony. Their goal was to reach Sydney and commandeer ships so that they could return to Ireland. However, the uprising was quickly suppressed by around 100 British troops. Nearly 40 convicts were killed in what became known as the Castle Hill rebellion.
In 1808, the New South Wales Corps – the local army regiment – staged an armed coup against Governor William Bligh. Known as the 'Rum Corps', the regiment controlled the area's illegal rum trade. Bligh tried to crack down on the trade, earning the ire of the soldiers and several of Sydney's wealthiest citizens.
The coup became known as the Rum Rebellion. Bligh was arrested by 400 soldiers and imprisoned for the next two years while military rule was in effect. In 1810, control of the settlement passed to Major-General Lachlan Macquarie.
Macquarie would become one of the driving forces behind Sydney's continued expansion. Under his watch, the settlement constructed a network of planned roads along with a bank and a hospital.
Sydney's Royal Botanic Garden was opened in 1816 and remains Australia's oldest scientific institution.
From Settlement to City to State Capital
As the 1800s progressed, more and more settlers migrated to the area from England. From 1836 to 1840, nearly 30,000 new settlers arrived in Sydney and the surrounding area. In 1842, Sydney was officially incorporated as a city.
In 1851, gold was discovered in the territories of New South Wales and Victoria. Workers flocked to the mines, causing unemployment problems in Sydney and other cities. However, a steady wave of immigrants quickly solved the issue. In 1861, Sydney and its suburbs were home to over 95,000 inhabitants. By 1891, the population had grown to over 385,000.
Thanks to the wealth it gained from the gold trade, Sydney invested extensively in modern transport and communication services from railways to telegraph poles. Several of Sydney's historic buildings were constructed using local sandstone, including the Sydney Observatory in 1859 and the Town Hall in 1878.
Despite a severe economic depression during the 1890s, Sydney would be key to the foundation of a new government. George Reid, a Sydney native, became one of the leading voices of the federal movement. In 1901, New South Wales and the other self-governing colonies of Australia united to become the Commonwealth of Australia.
Now a young nation, Australia had full sovereignty over its own affairs. Sydney became the state capital of New South Wales and continued to expand.
20th Century to Modern Sydney
After the creation of the Commonwealth, Sydney's star continued to rise. When the First World War erupted in 1914, thousands of Sydney's men volunteered for service, overwhelming the processing facilities. As these men returned home after the war, Sydney constructed several new suburbs. Unsurprisingly, the population continued to rise and eclipsed a million in 1926.
However, Sydney was hit hard by the Great Depression during the 1930s. The average unemployment rate for men soared to 28%. Construction of new buildings effectively stopped cold and many residents were forced out of their homes and into shanty towns.
The start of the Second World War in 1939 galvanized the city. Unemployment dropped rapidly as industry expanded to fuel the war effort. But as part of the brutal Pacific theater, Sydney wasn't immune to direct attacks.
During the summer of 1942, three small Japanese submarines launched an attack on Sydney's harbor. The HMAS Kuttabul, a depot ship, was sunk and 21 crew members died. Two of the Japanese submarines were disabled within the harbor. The third escaped but sunk close to Sydney's northern shoreline.
After the war, Sydney's population continued to grow thanks to a baby boom. As Sydney continued to expand, one of the city's most famous landmarks was built. The Sydney Opera House opened in 1973 and has since become one of the most iconic architectural marvels of the modern world. Sydney also hosted the Olympics in 2000, further cementing its place as one of the most important cities in the world.