English radical philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham's ideas thread through South Australia's history.

longer-term shaping of South Australian colony


IN THE MIX OF IDEAS THAT FED INTO FOUNDING SOUTH AUSTRALIA, those promoted by Jeremy Bentham and his followers turned out to have the longest lasting influence.

The colonisation system devised by Edward Gibbon Wakefield for South Australia barely survived the province's early years. Wakefield envisaged a middle class society in the colony without demoracy to the extent advocated by Bentham.

Bentham’s vision for South Australia was culled and distorted by a confluence of factors. But tracing back to find what is truly remarkable about the South Australian experience makes more sense by using Bentham’s influence as a starting point and a continuing thread – even if it was kept relevant unconsciously by the confluence of factors that shaped South Australia from the start.

As a philosopher and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism (that the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people is the measure of right and wrong), brought radical thought, with its roots going back to Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth, to 19th Century England.

Bentham was radical in calling for slavery, the death penalty and physical punishment (including for children) to be abolished. Bentham's students included his secretary, the atheist philosophic radical James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill, as well as Robert Owen, a founder of utopian socialism.

But Bentham also influenced the emergence of welfarism. He believed in democracy, in individual and economic freedoms, separating church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and decriminalising homosexual acts.

This is where South Australia is the child of his ideas. The province was one of the most democratic in the world by the 1850s. South Australia also led the British empire in resolving the issue of separating church and state. It led the world in granting women both the right to vote and to stand as candidates for state office. It was also, in the late 20th Century, the first place in the Australia to decriminalise homosexuality.

These radical leaps within the colony and state's social conservatism are testimony to the effect on Benthamite ideas on South Australia's distinctive thematic quality, especially in politics, of producing a fertile middle ground.



in its 19th Century personalities, characteristics, achievements

Jeremy Bentham among authors of radical first proposal for the colony of South Australia

Jeremy Bentham was one of four guiding authors – with Robert Gouger, Anthony Bacon and Charles Grey – of the first Proposal to His Majesty's Government for founding a colony on the Southern Coast of Australia submitted to the British government Colonial Office in 1831. Proposals of free trade, self government through a legislative assemby and the power for local authorities to select the colony's governor were all seen by  the British Colonial Office as too radical and republican.


Bentham and Wakefield align on prisons and convict transportation but not on democracy

The ideas of Jeremy Bentham and Edward Gibbon Wakefield merged on the subject of prison reform and the transporting of convicts from Britain to the colonies.  In 1831, Bentham incorporated Wakefield’s ideas for systematic colonisation as a way to move away from convict settlement. In his proposal, Bentham argues for a free democratic colony with South Australia in mind. But Wakefield, a “social conservative”, saw democracy as a threat to stability that could destroy society.

South Australia's women achieve Jeremy Bentham's wish for their legal equality

Jeremy Bentham’s desire to correct the legally inferior position of women prompted him to choose, at age 11, a life as a social reformer. Bentham wanted complete legal equality between sexes yet he thought women were inferior in “strength of intellectual powers” and “firmness of mind”. But South Australian women achieved legal equality by being the first in the world to gain both the right to vote and stand for parliament in the 1890s – plus honours in education – by being intellectually strong.


Protestant Dissenter South Australians find common ground with atheist Bentham

As an atheist and determined opponent of religion, Jeremy Bentham might be seen as alienated from a driving force in the founding of South Australia: Protestant dissent and nonconformity. But South Australia’s middle class Dissenters found plenty of common ground with Bentham in areas such as separating church and state and winning democratic rights denied to them in Britain by the aristocratic establishment. The Dissenters strongly agreed with Bentham on separating church and state.


and Edward Gibbon Wakefield ideas but their relationship sours 

Robert Gouger converts to middle class land system of Edward Gibbon Wakefield

Robert Gouger, the most ardent and active promoter of setting up South Australia, embodies the politically progressive yet socially conservative blend that would characterise the colony. Gouger’s conservative side could explain why he became such an enthusiastic supporter of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s ideas in 1829.
Quaker Wakefield’s system for colonising was based on a vision for a stable pious middle class bourgeois society, unlike other Australian colonies.


Robert Gouger spreads Wakefield's ideas but also submits his own plans for colony

Robert Gouger became the chief publicist of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s concept of systematic colonisation. Wakefield published his “Letters from Sydney” in the Spectator in 1829 and these later appeared as A Letter from Sydney edited by Gouger. In 1831, Gouger submitted proposals to the Colonial Office: his own plan for assisting pauper children to emigrate, and another, edited by Wakefield, for a new colony at Gulf St Vincent, stressing the advantages awaiting early land buyers.

Gouger forms South Australian Association with success; chosen as colonial secretary

After abandoning the idea of a South Australian Land Company to set up the colony, Robert Gouger in 1833 formed the South Australian Association. The proposal now was to secure a charter for a colony belonging to the Crown but administered by trustees. The Colonial Office also rejected this. Gouger pressed on, gathering support with meetings and lobbying members of parliament. With success in 1834, Gouger's efforts were rewarded by being appointed colonial secretary of South Australia.

Wakefield denigrates efforts of Gouger who endures family tragedy at Glenelg in 1837

When Edward Gibbon Wakefield broke away from the promoters of South Australia in 1835, he claimed that Robert Gouger had been merely his delegate on the many committees set up to establish the colony. This ignored Gouger’s efforts and persistence in the face of constant rejection but also Gouger being left to pay for the South Australian colony campaign. Gouger faced family tragedy, soon after arriving in South Australia as colonial secretary, when his new wife and baby son died in 1837.


JAMES STEPHEN, WILLIAM WHITMORE AND GEORGE GROTE join the liberal influencers on colonisation of South Australia

James Stephen brings humanitarian oversight to the South Australia colonising project

James Stephen, British Colonial Office under secretary (1836-47), credited with playing a big role in abolishing slavery, also affected the colonising of South Australia through his criticism of Edward Gibbon Wakefield and for promoting the rights of Aboriginals in the province. Stephen, a lawyer who joined the Colonial Office in 1825, followed his father, a friend of Wilbur Wilberforce, in his fight against slavery and as a member of the evangelical Christian philanthropists called the Clapham Sect.


William Whitmore guides bill to start colony through the British parliament

William (Wolryche-) Whitmore, a founder of the South Australian Association, guided the South Australia (Foundation) Act 1834 through the British parliament. Elected in 1832, Whitmore was a major spokesman for the liberal causes of parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation and ending slavery. He also wanted opportunities for working-class people through emigration. Whitmore brought on the second reading of the bill for the South Australian Colonisation Act at 2am on June 24, 1834.


George Grote, scholar, reformer and radical, supports colony plan in the House of Commons

An influential voice in the founding of South Australia was George Grote, a wealthy banker and scholar, known chiefly for his History of Greece.  Grote worked with Robert Gouger in the early 1830s on the South Australian Association and, as MP for the City of London in the British House of Commons, supported the South Australia Colonisation Act 1834. An energetic writer, reformer and radical, he was aligned with political economists Jeremy Bentham, James Mill and John Stuart Mill.  


House of Lords makes controversial change for Church of England chaplains in the colony

Among 40 changes the House of Lords made to the bill for South Australia (Foundation) Act was to appoint “Chaplains and Clergymen of the Established Church of England or Scotland” to the colony. This overrode the bill’s promoters who were concerned about religious freedom. Robert Gouger (of Huguenot heritage) and Edward Gibbon Wakefield (a Quaker) had objected in 1833 when the Colonial Office pointed to the lack of support for religion in the 1833 proposal to colonise South Australia.


EDWARD GIBBON WAKEFIELD SEES RIVAL ROBERT TORRENS gain control of early colonisation and corrupt Wakefield's ideas

Wakefield model aiming to balance capital, labour and land disliked within Colonial Office

The importance of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s legacy in the founding of South Australia is clouded. With Robert Gouger’s help, Wakefield’s ideas became the  centre of debate about colonisation systems. Wakefield’s system was corrupted and lacking government support to judge whether it could have worked properly in South Australia. But when Whig liberal administrators started to taking constructive action within the lethargic Colonial Office, they didn’t favour Wakefield's system.


Robert Torrens grabs control as chairman of the colonisation commission in 1835

Edward Gibbon Wakefield met his match in Robert Torrens who promoted his ideas through pamphlets and books. Even as a marines officer, the ambitious Torrens had started writing on political and economic reforms he believed Britain needed. Wakefield and Torrens had parallel input into how South Australia should be colonised. But Torrens won control of the early shaping of the colony when appointed chairman of the South Australian colonisation commission in 1835.


Torrens abandons Wakefield's high price and the limit on amount of colony's land for sale

As chairman of the South Australian Colonisation Commission from 1835, Robert Torrens further corrupted Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s ideas for systematic colonization. Torrens lowered the price of land sold in the colony from the fixed 20s. an acre to 12s. an acre for land bought by the South Australian Company. Torrens also abandoned Wakefield's principle of concentration, extending land available from the 518 km² around Adelaide to a free choice of land covering of 20,720 km².

Robert Torrens self- supporting colony suits British government but disaster is looming

The concept of a self-supporting colony, opposed by Edward Gibbon Wakefield but pursued by Robert Torrens, suited the British government that didn’t want to spend anything on the South Australian settlement. This penny pinching, dividing authority between the colony governor and colonial commission in London (represented by a resident commissioner in South Australia), set up an impending disaster. South Australia's economy had no sole community body to hold its common assets.



GEORGE FIFE ANGAS AND THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN COMPANY snap up big slice of colony's land at reduced 12 shillings an acre

The South Australian Company buys the bulk of colony's unsold land at cheaper price

The South Australian Company took over as a driving force in the colony after it was formed in London in October 1835 by George Fife Angas and other wealthy British merchants. Angas, a member of the South Australian colonisation commission, saw an chance to buy land that remained unsold because of the fixed price of 20 shillings an acre that had been written into the South Australia Act. The company was able to buy more than 13,000 acres of the land at 12 shillings an acre.

George Fife Angas's vision for colony as bastion of pious Christian capitalism

For South Australian Company founding chairman George Fife Angas, the South Australian colony was more than a business venture. For Angas, it would be a bastion of pious Christian capitalism. Angas wanted freedom for middle class Protestant Dissenters but strongly opposed democracy for the poorer classes. He cared for  Aboriginals but with the aim of civilising them. He brought German Lutheran refugees to the colony but became hostile to Catholics and Irish pauper emigration.


Jacob Montefiore helps make ships safer for emigrants to South Australia and beyond

South Australia indirectly impacted world innovative reform even before it was settled. Jacob Montefiore, a colonisation commissioner, helped Colonel William Light prepare the ships Rapid and Cynet for their journey to South Australia in 1836. Montefiore and Lieutenant-Colonel George Palmer trialled a code that included requiring an emigrant ship with more than 100 passengers to have a doctor on board. Such reforms were adopted for all British colonial emigrant ships.


Inventor of postage Rowland Hill hurts William Light with criticism of survey

Rowland Hill, famous for devising Britain’s modern postal service, was secretary of the South Australian Colonisation Commission. Hill, who also had a major impact on English education, saw his family’s legacy of reform extended to South Australia through his sister Caroline Emily Clark, who started the colony’s boarding out system to stop children being institutionalised. Hill’s other impact on South Australia was his criticism of the colony’s surveyor general William Light

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