People often joke about Australia the country’s origins as a British penal colony. Presented with the Aussie stereotype of swashbuckling outback pioneers, it’s common to humorously point to Australians’ felonious beginnings as a rationale for their wild character.
In fact, the colonies of British America served this purpose until 1776, when the United States declared independence from the crown. Only in 1788 was a colony founded at present-day Sydney, Australia, meant specifically as a destination for criminals and undesirables exiled from the United Kingdom. Even among the founding members of the colony, however, was a similar number of British, officials, marines, sailors, and their families. In the coming years, more convicts, soldiers, and settlers alike would arrive.
The first arrivals shared the Sydney region with several thousand aboriginal people who had likely inhabited the land for many millennia. The early colony sought good relations with their indigenous neighbors, but within a year disease introduced from the outside world devastated the aboriginal population.
Life for the early colonists was also grim. Efforts at agriculture failed and starvation reigned until the early 1790s. Sydney was ruled as a penal colony, and was isolated from most trade with Europe or other colonies. Rebellions and conflict erupted multiple times into the early 1800s, over land, the economic structure of the colony, and among convicts seeking freedom. Meanwhile, the colony evolved as more convicts completed their sentences and were progressively treated as equal citizens, capable of owning land and participating fully in the economy.
During the 19th century, Australia and Sydney developed a system of parliamentary democracy, moving away from roots as a penal colony. In the 1850s, Sydney grew at a spectacular rate after gold was discovered nearby. Around the same time, convict arrivals were finally halted. And toward the end of the 19th century, Sydney was already coming into its own as a capital city and cultural hub. Gardens, cathedrals, exhibitions, art galleries and schools, sports teams, newspapers, and all the other hallmarks of civilized life grew up rapidly and with increasing vigor from around the 1820s onward.
In 1901, Australia officially became a country of its own, and seemingly as an affirmation of a unique national identity, Sydney embraced sunbathing and surfing for the first time. The 20th century would see Australians face up to two world wars. During World War II, Japanese submarines twice attacked Sydney’s harbor. But the war was nevertheless a great boon to the nation’s and the city’s economy.
In the post-war period, Sydney diversified culturally and economically, becoming a major financial and educational magnet in the broader region. The explosion of commercial activity and a multicultural national identity culminated in the 2000 Summer Olympics, which many considered the best Olympic Games ever, and still a benchmark for subsequent Games.
The skin-conscious should remember sunscreen in Sydney—its gorgeous location, vibrant sun-and-sand culture, and bounty of nearby national parks demand long days outdoors swimming, lazing about, chasing adventures, and partying. A magnificent consumer culture—with humongous, acclaimed malls, high-end chains, and singular gems alike—adds shopping to the to-do list in what must be the best former prison on Earth.