Australia has been populated as an island for thousands of years. Archaeologists generally suggest humans have been on the island for 40,000 to 50,000 years. In the grand scheme of the island continent, European settlement has been remarkably brief. Europeans first recorded landfall on the island in 1606. It very quickly became a set of six British colonies. The colonies derived their name from the Latin phrase Terra Australis meaning “southern land”. That is how Australia got its first flag.
Early in the existence of Australia as a political entity, it was a set of colonies controlled by the British crown. Ever since then it shared the same flags as the British government. In fact, you can still see that influence quite clearly in the present Australian flag. As the flags of the United Kingdom changed, so did the flag for Australia. However, Australia became an independent commonwealth in 1901. Due to its newfound independence, Australia needed a flag all its own. For that, the government decided to hold a flag contest.
The 1901 Contest
A flag contest involves contestants entering several different designs for the flag and judges voting on them. For the 1901 flag contest, the Australian government offered a £200 prize. Adjusted for inflation, that would be $25,000 in the present-day Australian economy. So overall it was a pretty sizeable amount of prize money, which inspired hundreds of people to submit their ideas.
Ultimately, the judges picked five winners. They chose five winners since their flag designs were so similar that it would not have been appropriate to choose just one. There were some differences in their designs such as the number of points on the stars, but they all were significantly similar. Allan Pidgeon in Brisbane, head of the Australian Flag Association, is currently leading the hunt for the original flag that was produced from these designs.
The designs were all based on elements that you still see in the Australian flag today. They featured the Union Jack, the Southern Cross, and the commonwealth Star. The Union Jack is the flag that represents the United Kingdom. It is a combination of the original flags for England and Scotland to represent the union.
As an homage to their former status as a set of colonies and to emphasize their ongoing loyalty to the United Kingdom, the Union Jack was included in the flag. The Southern Cross was then included to represent Australia itself. The Southern Cross, one of the most prominent constellations in the southern hemisphere, had long been used informally to represent Australia. Since it could not be seen in the other British colonies north of the equator, it was a very unique feature of Australia.
Finally, the commonwealth star was originally a six-pointed star. The star had one point for each of the six British colonies that came to comprise the current country of Australia. Soon after the design was accepted and the flags were flown, a seventh point was added to the star. The seventh point represents Papua and any further states that might develop.
The overall flag design brings together a large amount of Australian history.