When the first Europeans arrived in Australia in the beginning of the 17th century, the indigenous population counted approximately 750,000 people. Four hundred years later more than 25 million people live in Australia. I was wondering what has fascinated people so much about this big, dry continent that they were willing to give up their lives at home and leave their countries for good? Join me on a time-travel through Australia’s migration history.

Building a colony: anything but volunteers

Although the Dutch and the Spanish had been there before, it were the British who set up the first colony. The first colonists were anything but volunteers. The industrial revolution left many British jobless, hungry and desperate. So desperate that criminality increased so much that British prisons were overcrowded. The British government had the brilliant idea to introduce a very special form of life sentence. For stealing as little as a hairbrush one could find him- or herself on a ship to the other end of the known world.

Inside Fremantle prison

If they survived the voyage, they were to serve their prison time building their own prison and other important buildings and infrastructure (like the first bank of Sydney, which was later robbed by convicts). On release the majority was forced to settle in the colony. This solved two problems at once: The prisons were less crowded, and it was an easy way to find “volunteers” to inhabit Australia. No one with a sane mind was willing to give up their home for good to live in a far away, undeveloped country.

A better life

The convicts transformed that wild, arid land into a livable, economically striving place. Suddenly, Australia became attractive for other migrants. In the Immigration Museum in Melbourne we read stories from many different immigrants who came to Australia at some point in the past 150 years. The individual paths of lives and reason to migrate were all very different, but they all had one thing in common: They were looking for a better life.

For most of these migrants Australia meant a new beginning. Some fled from starvation (during the Great Famine in Ireland) or followed the call of the gold during the Australian Gold rush. Others like the Vietnamese boat people escaped war at home, while another hoped to find a place of religious freedom, like the first non-British settlers. A group of German Lutherans, a religious group persecuted by the Prussian king, came to Australia in search of a safe haven. 52 German families settled close to Adelaide and founded the first German community Hahndorf. Unfortunately, except for the German Migration Museum in the old school our visit there was rather disappointing. They have turned it into a half Bavarian, half hippie village for Chinese tourists. I doubt that the early settlers wore Dirndl and ate Hotdogs. Prussia was namely anything but Bavarian.

Read-ons about Australia’s migration history

‘Survive or die trying’

Another example of immigrants in search of religious freedom and economic security was a Dutch family who came in the late 1940s. Back home the country led in ashes after World War II. The economic situation was so bad that the Dutch government supported immigrants financially by paying a ‘oprot-premie’ (literally: piss-off bonus). Poor families who couldn’t afford to emigrate got their visa fees and traveling costs covered and even received some ‘landing money’.

Left: Travel blogs haven’t changed much in the last two centuries – Right: Dutch advertisement to emigrate to Australia

It took these Dutchies one month to travel by boat from the Netherlands to Australia. Logically, they believed they would never see their home country and loved ones again. Knowing that it was ‘Survive or die trying’ they made a big effort to convince other Dutch families to follow them. This had not only practical reasons, but as well a spiritual one: They needed more members for their church. The Dutch protestant landscape was (and still is) so diverse and divided, even in their new country they would never consider joining another protestant church. Against all odds more church members followed and they together established the first Free Reformed Church of Australia.

Next generations

The Free Reformed Church has grown from a handful of members to more than 2,000. Many members are second- or even third-generation Australians and somehow related to the founding members. During our first month in Australia we stayed with a second-degree cousin of the highwayman. Hearing the stories from his cousins in Australia Ben dreamt of opening his own restaurant down under. He immigrated to Australia with his wife in the late 90s. They hoped that having relatives in Australia would make it easier for them not only to get a permanent visa, but as well to settle in.

They quickly felt welcome in the community and are active members of the church. By coincidence I got hold of a member’s list of the church and it was funny to see that all last names except one were Dutch. It is nothing special that the older members of the church still talk Dutch and are very happy to have a conversation partner when they hear you speak Dutch. I guess this is the same in other migrant communities across the country.

Left: Free Reformed Church in Armadale – Right: Self-made Dutch Oliebollen

Immigrants today

Statistically speaking, every 50-something seconds a new immigrant arrives to Australia with the intention to stay.  Its long migration history makes Australia one of the most multicultural countries in the world. In 2016, 1 in 4 Australians was born outside Australia and half of Australians were second-generation migrants. That Australia is a place where many different cultures meet, becomes evident as soon as you step outside. For example, in Footscray, a suburb of Melbourne, most signs were in Vietnamese. In Adelaide’s China Town we had the best Asian meal since we left SE Asia. During our first Workaway experience our host bought fresh Sfogliatelle which made even my Italian friends jealous.

The reasons for people to come to Australia are just as diverse as these people themselves. For some it is the beginning of a new adventure, for others the happy ending of a seemingly desperate endeavor. Fleeing war and disaster, searching economic stability or religious freedom, pursuing their dream or serving an unwanted verdict – whatever the reason was that brought them to Australia, they have shaped this country. They have contributed to Australia’s undefeated popularity among migrants.

 I’ll leave you some recommendations for your next Australia trip and photos from the Moomba Festival parade, Melbourne’s community festival. See ya!

Fascination down under - Australia's migration history: Migrant communities - Moomba parade 2019
Fascination down under - Australia's migration history: Migrant communities - Moomba parade 2019
A highwaygirl signature

Things to add to your Australia itinerary