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Queensland's History

Queensland has had a colourful past over the centuries. It’s seen indigenous Australians, natives from Papua New Guinea, Dutch, English and possibly even Spanish Explorers land on its shores, all before it was even colonised by the British.

The state’s been part of New South Wales, an independent colony, a penal settlement, war time training grounds, and of course, a favourite with tourists.

While Queensland is a popular holiday spot now, it’s important to know where it all started. There are still signs of old colonial and prison life throughout Queensland, and if you head to the right places and ask the right people, you’ll hear some pretty spectacular stories about this great state’s past too.

Early History

Australia1817, Aaron Arrowsmith [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsFor thousands of years, before European explorers ever caught a glimpse of Australia, the Aboriginals called Australia home. Because of its warmer climate and abundant wildlife, Queensland was the most populated region of the country prior to colonisation.

It was in the 1600s that the first recorded explorers noticed Australia. Dutch explorers landed on Cape York Peninsula and the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland in the early 1600s, as well as Portuguese and Spanish explorers, even the French came within sight of Queensland’s coast line.

However, none of these nations ever settled. It was Lieutenant James Cook that first took claim of Australia for England when he sailed the HMS Endeavour up the east coast in 1770.

Colonial History

Sketch of the Convict Barracks in Brisbane, 1832At first, Queensland was considered part of the British administered Colony of New South Wales. Brisbane was established in 1825 as a convict settlement for the more uncontrollable convicts. By 1839 the Brisbane penal settlement was closed, and later opened up to free settlement in 1842.

With the influx of farmers and other free settlers in Brisbane, the state became quite productive and a separate identity began to emerge. The port of Brisbane became important primarily for wool, but was also a source of plenty of other produce.

In 1951 a public meeting was held to consider the separation of Queensland from NSW. Queen Victoria gave her approval and by June 6 of 1859 the new colony of Queensland was established, with its own constitution, Legislative Council, Assembly and Governor. To this day June 6 is acknowledged as the birth day of Queensland.

More and more towns were founded and explorers begun setting out in central and north western Queensland. Some of them found new places to settle, some of them didn’t survive, and some became legends. If you travel around and visit the museums you'll hear tales of John Oxley, the Archer brothers and the extraordinary journey of Burke & Wills.

Ships in dry dock Brisbane 1910

The latter half of the 1800s saw a series of small Gold Rushes in Queensland, with discoveries made in Canoona, Gympie, the Palmer River and plenty of other locations, bringing an influx of people into the state, as well as Chinese settlers arriving to work in the gold fields. It was this time that saw the growth of a number of industries, particularly sugar production, and by 1888 sugar plantations had made it as far north as Cairns.

On the 1st of January 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was created. The majority of Queenslanders had voted ‘yes’ in a referendum asking if Queensland should join the Federation. The result was Queensland losing its colonial status to become a state in the new country of Australia. The colonial era was over.

Twentieth Century

historical ruins on poruma islandAt the start of the twentieth century the population of Queensland was at the half a million mark.

It was a time of establishment for the new state; Brisbane was proclaimed a city in 1902, women voted in state elections for the first time in 1905, the first National Park was declared in 1908 (now Tamborine National Park), in 1909 the University of Queensland was established, and 1920 saw a small airline called Qantas founded to serve outback Queensland.

In World War II thousands of Queenslanders volunteered for the Army, Navy and Air Force as the outbreak of war with Japan made the state a virtual frontline amid fears of invasion. 

A number of cities in northern Queensland were bombed during air attacks including Horn Island, Townsville, Cairns and Mossman. There was a massive build-up of Australian and US forces in the state as MacArthur established his headquarters in Brisbane.

In 1974 a major flood devastated the city of Brisbane causing widespread damage. The people rebuilt though and by 1982 Brisbane hosted the Commonwealth Games. Later the city hosted the World Expo 88 on the southern bank of the Brisbane River.

The site was due to be developed for commercial interests but a public campaign successfully lobbied for the site to be redeveloped as parkland for the enjoyment of all people of Brisbane. Today, the South Bank Parklands is a popular place for tourists and locals alike.

Surfers Paradise 1970The 1990s saw a massive population growth, particularly in Brisbane as a result of interstate migration led by the appeal of Queensland’s buoyant economy. In 2003 Townsville and Brisbane co-hosted the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

Devastating floods hit Queensland once again in 2011, this time striking Emerald, Toowoomba, Brisbane and several other towns in the state.

However, the people of Queensland are resilient and the weeks after the floods saw the community rally in the clean-up and most of the damage has now been rebuilt.