European colonization of Australia began in New South Wales. European ships navigated around the country -- then called simply Terra Australis Incognita, or "unknown southern land" -- starting around the same time the first settlers arrived at Jamestown in North America. Not until 1770, did Captain James Cook (acting on orders from King George III) claim the Australian coast for England, naming the area New South Wales. Several French mariners also sailed and explored in the region; their discoveries are reflected in numerous place names, such as the Furneaux Islands.
Barely more than a thousand English settlers, some of them convicts being forced to relocate, arrived on the First Fleet, a group of 11 ships, in 1788. Like settlers in the New World, they faced problems of starvation and disease. They attempted to start farms; they also traded with local Indigenous Aborigines. The Second Fleet arrived with supplies in 1790, but so many of its passengers were themselves ill that it is often called "the Death Fleet." NSW remained a penal colony until 1823 [source: Australian Government Culture and Recreation].
British policy (similar to the American Homestead Act) encouraged settlers to spread out and begin farming in the new territory. The new land was rough, and competition for favorable tracts was fierce; legitimate colonists frequently had to battle it out with squatters.
As settlements spread, Indigenous Aborigines recognized the threat to their land and way of life, and began to resist British colonization. Some clans led attacks on British settlements. British lawmakers proclaimed that no one had owned the land prior to British claims; these legal battles were not settled until the 1990s [source: MSN Encarta].
The cultural conflict between colonists and Indigenous Aborigines would culminate in the 20th century with widespread disenfranchisement, discrimination and forced assimilation through the separation of Aborigine families, practices now recognized as a national shame. Not until the 1960s, when the Reconciliation movement gained official recognition, were Indigenous Aborigines counted in the Australian census, permitted to vote or granted social benefits [source: Australian Government Culture and Recreation].
What can you grow on a land so divided? Read on.