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A brief history of Australian immigration

Australia is a multicultural nation. In 1788 an estimated Aboriginal population of around 314,500 saw the arrival of the First Fleet. The First Fleet had 6 ships with 1,483 mostly Europeans on board (or 1,044 depending on your source) including 696 convicts, 7 horses, 29 sheep, 74 swine, 6 rabbits and 7 cattle. Things have changed a bit since then…

We are constantly told that Australia is a multicultural society. I was keen to check out the numbers and get a little historical perspective on who we are and where we have come from. I have collated (massive wrangling exercise) data from the collective Australian census’. The orginal source can be found at the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the wrangled data is available on Truii. These census’ are snap shots in time, and each are a bit different in how they collect data, countries have come and gone, but in terms of a longitudinal data set, it is a great summary of how our immigration has changed over time. My plan is to do a few blogs on this dataset, especially to show off some of the Truii mapping functionality that we are working on – but for now I want to give a quick overview of our immigration history.

The base data used here is a little patchy through time, starting with 1788 estimates, then the first consistent census across all the colonies in 1861, and then about every 10 years until the 1950s and then every 5 years. The Aboriginal population data are estimates from the Australian Bureau of Statistics , and are subject to argument about the method of estimation for early numbers. However, you cannot dispute the dramatic shape of Figure 1. From the initial estimate of 314,500 in 1788 to 180,000 in 1861 when the first comparable census across the colonies tallied up the non Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population to be around 1.2 million. More on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander story in a future blog.

From 1788 the population has grown dramatically from 320,000 to around 23 million in 2011. However we still remain a nation that is dominated by immigration. From the 2011 census, 28% of Australians where born in another country (Figure 1). That is pretty staggering; almost 1/3 of Australians are first generation migrants. What is also interesting is how that has grown over the last century, from a low point of 11% in 1947. There was a rapid increase in immigration through the nation building years of the 1950’s and 1960’s such that 21% of Australians where first generation migrants by the 1971 census. This boom period coincided with a period of great agricultural wealth for Australia, we were ‘riding on the sheep’s back’ in the post World War 2 boom period.

Figure 1: where did you come from? percent of population by origin.

Maybe an area chart is strictly speaking not the best visualisation – but I’m sure you realise that the straight lines are really just joining the dots of different sampling times – i.e. I don’t know what happened to the population between 1788 and 1861 so I just joined these points with a straight line.

Where do we come from?

In 2011 First Australians (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders) where about 2.5% of the Australian population. So that means 97.5% of us have ancestors from elsewhere; 29% were born elsewhere and 68.5% where born in Australia but with ancestory from another country.

Where did the 6.3 million in the 2011 census who were not born in Australia come from? Figure 2 shows that Australia is still a popular place for the Poms to resettle (20.2%). About 32% were from different parts of Asia. Australia still has a strong connection to Southern Europe -10% (dominated by Italian and Greek migrants). And of course we welcome plenty of Kiwis (8.6%).

Figure 2: Country/region of birth for the 28% of Australians not born in Australia (2011)

How has immigration changed?

Australia’s immigration numbers where pretty stable from 1861 (670,000) to 1947 (745,000). Then things really took off. In the 2011 census there were 6.3 million people born elsewhere (Figure 3). You can see the ongoing dominance of UK and Ireland immigrants, which accounts for Australia’s basic social system. From the 1954 census you can see the expansion in the ‘rest of Europe’ which is dominated by Southern Europe (Greece and Italy). Since the 1960s Australia has opened its doors more widely, such that by 2011 less than 40% of new Australians were from Europe.

Australia really is a global community, but this is relatively recent. Up until 1970 Australia was antipodean Europe. However since that time we really have become a rainbow of cultures. This tremendous cultural diversity must really give Australia a unique international quality, the trick is now what does Australia do with that cultural advantage? Other than a vast array of exquisite culinary experiences.

Figure 3:Australian immigration numbers through time.

The complete data set (including all countries) is available on – in the ‘Example Data’ library, in the ‘Blog data’ folder. Simply log in to access the data set and a whole bunch of wrangling and visualisation tools.


About the data visualisations

The visualisations in this post are contained within their own Dashboard. You can link to the dashboard, or use the shortcode from each viz to embed or link to specific Viz’s in another web page. You can simply ‘like’ any of the visualisations to post them on your social media feed.
The viz’s are easy to make . All you need to do is create a free Truii account to create and publish your own data visualizations.
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