Tasmania was originally discovered by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642. He gave it the name of Van Diemen's Land. It came to the attention of the British once they had set up their penal colony in New South Wales in 1788. In its earliest years that colony struggled to survive. Besides, whilst Sydney itself was a good site for a settlement it was hemmed in by the Blue Mountain Range and with a lack of other sources of water. Besides, the climate was far hotter and drier than the Europeans and their crops were used to. Consequently George Bass and Matthew Flinders were given permission to explore further South to see if the could discover any alternative sites for colonies.
In 1798 the discoverd that Van Diemen's Land was an island and not joined to the mainland as had originally been thought. They also discovered that the climate and soil were infinitely richer and more productive than those of Sydney. The relative isolation of the colony with particularly treacherous currents also meant that it could become a dumping ground for the most intractable of convicts. By 1804, the settlements of Hobart, Risdon and Launceston had all been founded.
Van Diemen's Land developed in population but did gain a particularly bad reputation due to the hard core convicts that ended up there. By 1824 it was clear that the island would need to administer itself and it was formally separated from New South Wales. Its new Lieutenant Governor George Arthur made it clear that he intended to initiate a new and harsh regime. He believed that their work should be 'hard enough to bring home to the miscreants all the abomination of their wrongdoings, while at the same time setting them the example of a righteous master from whome their black hearts might well pick up a sense of goodness.' Van Diemen's Land became a penal colony within a penal colony. The very name of the place could send a shudder down convicts' backs.
In fact the association of Van Diemen's Land with harshness meant that the authorities deliberately changed the name of the colony in 1856 to try and shake off the association. The colony had stopped taking new convicts from Britain in 1853 and wished to attract free settlers instead. It therefore underwent something of a makeover to try and shake off its poor reputation. The last penal settlement in Tasmania at Port Arthur was closed in 1877.
Democracy of a sorts was introduced in 1850 based on the New South Wales' model. This meant that only one third of the legislative council was appointed the other two thirds were elected. However the franchise was restricted on a property basis and so a lot of freed convicts could not qualify to vote. However, it was another attraction for settlers from Britain.
By the 1890s, Australians were beginning to consider themselves as part of a distinct island. Strategic concerns were becoming an issue as worldwide international tensions grew. The Germans, French and Americans were slowly claiming the islands of the Pacific. The Germans actually claimed some of New Guinea which was very close to Australia. It was felt that it was time to consider pooling their resources in a Federation but it was also an expression of early Australian nationalism. The British were eager to help share the costs and burden of defending the island and eagerly agreed to the request for self-government made to them in 1900.