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From top to bottom today's Australia of 20 million people is a multicultural and
prosperous society with a casual, egalitarian character.

The majority of Australians reside in urban centers and suburban sprawl stretching along the eastern and southeastern seaboards: between Brisbane, Queeensland and Adelaide, South Australia. Another population pocket is clustered around the coastal region near Perth, Western Australia. New South Wales is the most populous state, with seven million people, and Sydney is the largest city in the country.

Like the United States, Australia's demographics have been shaped by immigration. Most Australians are of Western European, overwhelmingly white English-speaking Anglo-Irish descent. About one in ten Australians is now of Asian and Middle Eastern stock.

The indigenous inhabitants of Aboriginals and Torres Straits Islands total about two
percent of the population. The Northern Territory is home to most Aboriginals.The
Torres Straits Islanders, a Melanesian people, live in North Queensland and on islands located in the Torres Straits between the Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea.

White Settlement

Sections of Australia's shoreline were eyeballed and surveyed by a roster of European sea explorers until 1770 when a British naval expedition captained by the intrepid James Cook sailed along, probed and mapped out the east coast and claimed it for the Crown. Fast forward 17 years: a convict cargo of about 900 Anglo-Celtic crooks with their guards, known as the First Fleet, sets foot on this distant edge of Empire that eventually would become Sydney, launching a penal colony that also represented the first permanent white settlement.

During the 1800's immigration to this imperial backwater boiled down to the banishment of convicts (which ended at mid-century); savvy explorers and hapless adventurers scouting the perilous Outback; waves of frenzied foreigners, swelled in large part by the inflow of Chinese, dashing in to cash in on the gold rushes; and free settlers and freed prisoners, families in tow, filling up scruffy towns and pastoral countryside.

The population went up and so did six separate colonies, which in 1901 formally united in Federation, inaugurating the nation of Australia. From the end of World War I until well into the post-World War II, Cold War era, immigration was defined by the White Australia Policy, which almost across the board limited entry to applicants of Anglo-Irish origin. Discriminatory border controls and quotas loosened around the end of the Vietnam War, opening the door for newcomers and refugees coming from a long list of geographic, ethnic, racial class and religious backgrounds.

First Australians

Historians and anthropologists estimate that at least 40,000 years ago the dark-skinned Aborigines moved in several phases to Australia by boat or via land bridges that at the time connected Australia to the Indonesian archipelago.

They belonged to numerous tribes and clans and spoke many different languages and dialects. While some customs differed, the basic philosophies and traits of all tribes were similar. The Aborigines developed an enduring attachment to the land and an intricate understanding of their natural surroundings.

Although the Aborigines did not devise a form of writing, their culture was highly
sophisticated. Knowledge and folklore were handed down orally from generation to
generation through stories, rituals and music. Important beliefs and legends were
recorded and are still visible as rock carvings, paintings and bark designs.

The Aborigines lived a semi-nomadic existence. They crafted tools, implements and
weapons for use in hunting, fishing, trapping and foraging. They weren't random
meanders, but followed set patterns of travel according to the seasons and availability of food, water and shelter.

Not unlike the plight of the Native American Indians whose lands and way of life were usurped during the relentless expansion of "Manifest Destiny", the Aborigines weren't powerful enough to fend of the progressive encroachment of imperial incursions. Hostilities and the introduction of diseases decimated many tribes.

Under white Australian domination during the first half of the 20th century, the
Aborigines were compelled to forsake their heritage and assimilate. Tribes were removed from traditional territories and confined to reservation-like tracts. Customs, ceremonies and languages were lost.

To make matters worse, Aboriginal children, nowadays referred to as the Lost or Stolen Generation, were taken away from their family homes and stashed in forlorn government-run shelters, missions or orphanages where their imposed upbringing was regarded as "appropriately civilized" by the white Australian order of the day.

The 1970's ushered in a prolonged stint of public awareness and acknowledgement of the appalling injustices suffered by the Aborigines, which in turn spurred a reconciliation process, although by all accounts it remains a work in progress. Nonetheless, the confluence of legislation, court edicts, bureaucratic rulings, media spotlight, private sector amends and community outreach programs have been moving, with periodic bursts of momentum, in the direction of restoring Aboriginal realms and rights.

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