Much of Australia was an inhospitable and uninhabitable country to the first Europeans, but to Aboriginal people the inland offered a rich and habitable landscape. The linguistic map illustrates that, with few exceptions, all of Australia was occupied by Aboriginal people. The interior deserts and the tropical north, largely shunned by Europeans, have always been productive regions for Aboriginal people. In contrast with the European perception of the land, these areas gave a good living to the relatively large numbers of Aboriginal people. In South Australia, only Kangaroo Island was unoccupied at the time of European arrival, although archaeological studies have shown the Aborigines lived there in earlier times.
Although the coastal areas of South Australia now contain substantially larger populations than they did in Aboriginal times, the interior of the State has considerably fewer occupants that it did under Aboriginal ownership. For example, the 1881 census of South Australia recorded an Aboriginal population of 2182 persons within the vicinity of the mission on Cooper Creek in Diyari country in the north-east. Today, the region numbers less than 200 people including Aboriginal and European.
It is difficult to determine accurately either the size or the distribution of the Aboriginal population in Australia prior to 1836. The linguistic map above may be the closest we will ever come to understanding the distribution of Aborigines in pre-European times. Two main theories have been put forward to explain the origin of Australian languages. One theory suggests that initially a number of unrelated languages were spoken across Australia. The other theory postulates that all languages are interrelated and derived from one proto-language. These two views may be compatible. It is possible that earlier diversification was gradually overlain some 10,000 or so years ago by the spread of a common language from which today's languages have all been developed. By the time of European settlement there were six groups of languages and more than thirty individual languages in daily use within the borders delineated for South Australia and many of these languages were further divided into dialects. Boundaries are omitted on the map where paucity of information has made it difficult to distinguish between languages and dialects.
The size of the area covered by a language reflects the density of population and the degree of communication between people in that region. Thus, the Western Desert linguistic area covered a major section of central Australia with relatively few languages separated only indistinctly - a feature that reflects the wide ranging seasonal movements and extensive communication among desert peoples.
Australia had a European population of about 117,000 when the South Australian Company's first ships arrived at Kangaroo Island in the winter of 1836. There were about 77,000 colonists in New South Wales, 38 000 in Van Diemen's Land and a scanty 2000 in the struggling settlement of Western Australia. About 31,000 of the Europeans were convicts, but only 6000 were directly maintained by the government in prisons and camps; the others were assigned to work for settlers and townsfolk. Since 1788, about 87,000 convicts had been transported from Britain and Ireland to Sydney or Hobart; 6000 more were to land from twenty-five ships in 1836. However, transportation of convicts to New South Wales was soon to cease as opinions changed in England about transportation as a punishment.
Naturalist Charles Darwin visited Sydney in 1836 in the course of a round-the-world scientific voyage on HMS Beagle. He found Sydney a thriving town of 23,000 people, sustained by its local agriculture, a growing wool export, and its lively and far-reaching commerce based on sealing, whaling, timber cutting and trading in the Southern Ocean, New Zealand and Fiji. In 1836, the Australian Gas Light Company was founded in Sydney. Now, 150 years later, it is a major distributor of natural gas from South Australia's Cooper Basin, and has contracts to supply Sydney and Canberra until the year 2006.
In 1836, the Australian coastline was known, and shown in detail in an atlas of Admiralty charts published in 1825. Nearly fifty years of settlement had revealed little of the interior; however, exploration was proceeding rapidly along the inland rivers of New South Wales. Thomas Mitchell's 1836 journeys across what he called 'Australia Felix', later to become Victoria's Western District, made known a great extent of potential grazing land. The approximate area of Australia that was then known to Europeans is shown in yellow.
The areas in red had been sold or given to settlers as Crown Grants. Here were the mixed farms whose grain and livestock were the colonists' food supply, and the initial breeding grounds for merino sheep. Van Diemen's Land in the 1830s was the most productive 'food bowl' of Australia, exporting wheat to Sydney, whereas in New South Wales, scarcely 2% of the alienated land had been cultivated.
Governors in New South Wales attempted to restrict settlement to within proclaimed 'Limits of Location' close to Sydney. However, by 1836 the booming pastoral industry was attracting men with capital, and their convict or ex-convict shepherds and stockmen, on to the grassy plains and tablelands beyond the 'Limits'. These new pastoral areas are shown in green, although their boundaries can not be known precisely. Along this expanding pastoral frontier European and Aboriginal Australian sometimes clashed, but sometimes co-operated. Aborigines saw the pastoralists as usurpers of their lands, and attacks on sheep and cattle sparked off occasional massacres by Europeans. The spread of European diseases, notably smallpox, and the damage to traditional food support systems, caused a rapid decline of Aboriginal populations.
By 1836 the surviving 100 or so Aborigines in Tasmania had been sent to Flinders Island in Bass Strait to face a lingering extinction, while in coastal New South Wales the Aborigines depended on the government for food and protection.
Almost all European emigrants to Australia, convict and free, arrived by a route prescribed for the First Fleet in 1788 which called at Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, and thence eastwards roughly along the 40° south parallel of latitude. Ships were close, cramped and small, usually of under 300 tonnes. Of the thirty recorded voyages in 1835-36 to Hobart and Sydney, the average duration from Britain was 120 days, the shortest, 100 days, and the longest, 169 days.
In 1836, a long overdue change in the United Kingdom Navigation Act revised the methods of measuring ship tonnages (the basis of harbour dues), and thus allowed owners to adopt the sharper lines of the American clipper ships.
By 1840, passages of 100 days were common. By 1850, Australia-bound ships were following routes nearer to a great circle, avoiding calls at Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town, and reaching 55° or 60° south in the Indian Ocean. In 1850 the ship Constance reached Adelaide from Plymouth in the hitherto unheard-of time of seventy-six days.