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Australia, island continent located southeast of Asia and forming, with the nearby island of Tasmania, the Commonwealth of Australia, a self-governing member of the Commonwealth of Nations. The continent is bounded on the north by the Timor Sea, the Arafura Sea, and the Torres Strait; on the east by the Coral Sea and the Tasman Sea; on the south by the Bass Strait and the Indian Ocean; and on the west by the Indian Ocean. The commonwealth extends about 4,000 km (about 2,500 mi) from east to west and about 3,700 km (about 2,300 mi) from north to south. The area of the commonwealth is 7,682,300 sq km (2,966,200 sq mi), and the area of the continent alone is 7,614,500 sq km (2,939,974 sq mi), making Australia the smallest continent in the world, but the sixth largest country. The capital of Australia is Canberra, and the largest city is Sydney; both are located in the southeast.
The Commonwealth of Australia is made up of six states—New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia—and two territories—the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. The external dependencies of Australia are the Territory of Ashmore and Cartier Islands, the Australian Antarctic Territory, Christmas Island, the Territory of Cocos Islands (also called the Keeling Islands), the Coral Sea Islands Territory, the Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands, and Norfolk Island.
The first inhabitants of Australia were the Aboriginal people, who migrated to the continent some 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. The continent remained relatively unknown to most of the outside world until the 17th century. The first permanent European settlement was established in 1788 at Port Jackson, in southeastern Australia, as a British penal colony; it grew into the city of Sydney. Australia developed as a group of British colonies during the 19th century, and in 1901 the colonies federated to form a unified independent nation, the Commonwealth of Australia.
Powell, Joseph M., B.A. Hons., M.A., Ph.D., D.litt.
Emeritus professor, School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University. Fellow, Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia; corresponding Fellow, British Academy. Past president, Institute of Australian Geographical Studies. Author of "An Historical Geography of Modern Australia (1988)".