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Nationalism in Australia is believed to have emerged within the society of emancipists during the early 19th century. It has evolved, and continues to evolve, over time as events shape Australia's national identity. This chapter addresses the origins of nationalism in Australia from the colonial era through to Federation.

What is nationalism?

Nationalism is defined as a devotion, or sense of loyalty, to one's country. While the definition of nationalism is relatively straightforward, in reality, the concept of nationalism in Australia is quite complex and ever-changing. To some people, nationalism is associated with a loyalty to Britain or to both Australia and Britain. There are others, however, who are what historians refer to as radical nationalists. Radical nationalists believe that Australia should become completely independent from Britain. Some of them even believe that Aboriginal people and Asian migrants do not fit their perception of a 'typical Australian.'

British patriotism

In 1788, the British First Fleet sailed into Sydney Cove to establish a penal settlement in the Colony of New South Wales. The settlers not only brought with them a number of supplies but the traditions and beliefs of their homeland. They had every intention of maintaining their close ties with Britain and, consequently, their British identity.

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For many decades, the settlers continued their attempts to replicate the British way of life in the new colony. They introduced European plants and animals to make the 'barren' Australian landscape seem more familiar. Settlers released rabbits as game so that they could enjoy the traditional British sport of hunting. British settlers also imported books which were written and published in Britain. They used these books, which often reflected British life, to encourage their children to learn the British culture. Despite the semi-arid climate of Australia, the settlers even wore traditional British clothing, which was highly impractical.

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The colony established for convicts

While the British settlers attempted to transform the colony into an exact replica of British society, it was not always possible. The most significant difference between Britain and New South Wales was that the Colony of New South Wales was not a free society. As a penal colony, for the first few years, convicts comprised around three-quarters of the New South Wales population. As the years went on, however, many convicts became free settlers after serving their sentences or being granted a pardon before their sentence had expired. Both types of ex-convicts later became known as emancipists. By 1830, the number of free settlers exceeded the number of convicts.

Aside from the convicts, colonial society also comprised a number of exclusives (free settlers from Britain). Despite many emancipists having achieved a high level of social and economic standing, the exclusives looked down upon their convict backgrounds. Emancipists, however, believed that they were the only people with the right to be in the colony since it had been specifically established for the transport of convicts. Emancipists identified themselves as the only true Australians. As the children of emancipists grew up, they too inherited this belief to substantiate their legitimacy in the face of oppression by the exclusives. While Australia was still a long way away from becoming a nation, this sense of loyalty to the colony was possibly the earliest form of a separation from British nationalism.

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Towards Australian nationalism

This distinction between Australian nationalism and British nationalism began to develop during the 19th century in the lead-up to Federation (1901). This transformation was assisted by an increase in the independence of colonial governments, the number of Australian-born subjects and national pride.


As the remaining five colonies (Tasmania, WA, SA, Victoria, Queensland) were established, they began to achieve an independence from Britain. From their origins of being ruled by a military government and British colonial government, during the 1850s the colonies were granted the right to self-govern under the Australian Constitutions Act (No.2) 1850 (UK). This meant that the colonies no longer had to rely on the British Parliament to make laws for them.


By the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Australia had reached 3 874 365. While the ethnic composition of the Australian population was mostly of British descent, only 17.2 percent were from Great Britain. Around 75 percent of the non-Indigenous population were Australian-born. These people comprised a relatively rich variety of ethnic backgrounds, since migrants from all over the world had come to Australia during the 1851 gold rush. As more generations were born in Australia, the majority of the population began to consider themselves as something other than British.

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National pride

Even before the colonies were united and Australia had become a nation, national pride had begun to form. The people living in the colonies were no longer as interested in wearing the British fashion, for example. Colonists began to compose artworks, poems and songs about the Australian landscape and culture. The nation's current national anthem ('Advance Australia Fair') was first performed in 1878, despite it being another two decades before Australia would officially exist as a nation. Cricket also instilled a feeling of national pride in Australians when, prior to the colonies being federated, the best cricketers from each colony went on to play in a Test match in London in 1882 where they defeated England by seven runs.

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White Australia

Federation consolidated feelings of nationalism among the Australian people. Nationalism, however, has sometimes encouraged people to think that their country is superior to another country. This was particularly evident around the time of Federation. Part of the reason that the colonies supported Federation was out of fear of being invaded by non-white immigrants. Despite the fact that several colonies already had implemented laws which restricted immigrants from certain countries, all of the colonies were keen to strengthen their immigration policies by uniting to keep non-whites out of Australia.

The first Australian Federal Parliament was opened on 13 May and it did not waste any time in fulfilling its pre-Federation intentions. As a consequence of racist views of white-superiority and fears of non-whites taking white workers' jobs, lowering wages and working conditions, the federal government passed the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth) and the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901 (Cth). These two pieces of legislation marked the beginning of the White Australia policy.


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