A dinner for old male colonists at Glenelg in 1919.
Image courtesy State Library of South Australia

FROM KANGAROO ISLAND TO HOLDFAST BAY  TO THE NORTHWEST PARKLANDS, European settlement of the colony solidifies into limestone


SOUTH AUSTRALIA'S FIRST OFFICIAL EUROPEAN SETTLERS set sail in 1836 on board nine ships and landed at Kangaroo Island. But problems such a water supply forced the need for the alternate Adelaide plains site that was picked by surveyor-general Colonel William Light.

While Light and his team searched for an actual site for the city, the immigrants from the first seven ships camped in the sand dunes at Holdfast Bay, the site of Glenelg. This is where first governor John Hindmarsh proclaimed the province of South Australia on  December 28, 1836.

When the pioneers moved to the new city site, they camped on the banks of the River Torrens, opposite the site of the future Newmarket Hotel and Town Acre 1. The grassy slopes between the hotel and the river became the railway yards and now the biomedical precinct.

From January-March 1837, migrants camped in tents and wooden huts in two camps named after two of the first migrant ships, the Buffalo and the Coromandel. When Light completed surveying the city, the town acres not purchased before settlement were auctioned in one-acre lots, and the temporary campers who could afford to buy quickly claimed their new town lands.

The first building material was wood from lands around the River Torrens. The Adelaide Aboriginal tribe, the Kaurna, earned income from selling timber. The use of timber was quickly made illegal but persisted covertly into the 1840s.

Legal timber cutting as an early industry was done in wooded areas beyond the city, particularly the Adelaide Hills. Timber getters – “tiersmen” brought their supplies to several merchants on the north eastern side of the cityThe Woodman’s Hotel in Grenfell Street, established in 1838 (later rebuilt and known as The Producers), was named after the large wood yards nearby. There was also another timber yard on the Botanic Hotel site.

Many early homes were built of timber or had roofs of shingles, but the Building Act 1858 outlawed this due to fire hazards fires and termite damage. Prefabricated timber Manning houses also were shipped to South Australia by early colonists. Limestone was one of the first main materials used for building. In most cases, it was easy to obtain as most of Adelaide area sits on a bed of nodular limestone (calcrete).



ABORIGINAL WOMEN NABBED BY 'PIRATES' IN THE WILD DAYS of seal/whale kills, after Matthew Flinders finds Kangaroo Island

Aboriginals arrive in arid areas 49,000 years ago; leave Kangaroo Island 5000 years ago

Aboriginals left Kangaroo Island 5,000 years ago. That's recent compared to the 49,000 years since they arrived in the arid interior of what is now South Australia. That 49,000 years  – 10,000 years earlier than previously thought – was confirmed from artefacts and fossils found in 2016 at Warratyi, a rock shelter in the Flinders Ranges, 550 kilometres north of Adelaide. Among the Aboriginal groups who aligned themselves to different areas were the Adnyamathanha, Akenta, Amarak, Bungandidj, Didyari, Erawirung, Kaurna, Kothatha Mula, Maralinga, Tjarutja, Mirning, Mulbarapa, Nurungga, Ngaanyatjarra, Ngadjuri, Ngarrindjeri, Nukunu, Parnkalla, Peramangk, Pitjantakatjara, Ramindjeri, Spinifex people and Warki. Extended family groups, from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara of the central desert to the Ngarrindjeri of the Coorong, maintained a complex tradition of oral history, trade and industry.

Matthew Flinders finds Kangaroo Island in 1802; Nicholas Baudin and the Americans follow

Captain Matthew Flinders found what he called Kangaroo Island in March 1802. The name honoured the animal that supplied the soup and steaks for his hungry crew of HMS Investigator. Shortly after Flinders left, French naval captain Nicholas Baudin found and mapped the whole island he named L’Isle Decres. A chance meeting with Baudin led to American captain Isaac Pendleton, involved in the seal skins and oil trade, wintering at Kangaroo Island in 1803 at the area now called American River.


‘Pirates’ and ‘savages ’among hunters that nearly wipe out seals on Kangaroo Island

“Pirates” and “savages” made raids along South Australia’s coasts in the early 19th Century and carried off Aboriginal females. The “pirates” and “savages” were Kangaroo Island’s sealers, ship deserters and runaway convicts from Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land. Reports of lawlessness on the island followed the arrival of more sealers from 1806. Apart from the kangaroos that they killed and ate, Kangaroo Island sealers were attracted by the island’s supply of salt that preserved the seal skins and made them much more valuable.


Lure of whaling profits hastens shipping out first colonists by South Australian Company

Profits from whaling encouraged the South Australian Company to quickly send out its ships, the Duke of York and Lady Mary Pelham, carrying the first colonists. After leaving their passengers on Kangaroo Island, both vessels went to Hobart Town to refit as whalers. Other company emigrant ships, the South Australian and Solway, were involved with whaling until wrecked at Encounter Bay in an 1837 gale. The John Pirie made several trips bringing whaling hands from Hobart to Encounter Bay where the company had its whaling station.




British government agrees to colony but only with conditions that led to later strife

On August 15, 1834, royal assent was given to the British parliament’s act for South Australia to be colonised. But this wasn’t a wholehearted move by the British government. The influential Duke of Wellington saw the South Australian colony venture as a dubious speculation. Robert Gouger (who convinced the duke to change his vote) and others had devoted years trying to persuade the government to support the colony. The government at last agreed only with conditions that divided authority in a way that led to trouble.


Robert Torrens, as head of the colonisation commission, oversees collapse of land system

The colony of South Australia was founded on the principle of all land, belonging to the crown, being surveyed and sold systematically at a minimum price to discourage speculation. Land sales would pay for labourers and artisans to migrate. There’d be no transported convicts to provide unpaid labour. In 1835, Robert Torrens became chairman of a colonisation commission that managed land sales and emigration to South Australia. Torrens oversaw a collapse of the land system after abandoning crucial planks of Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s ideas on land sales. 


The South Australian Company the key to developing colony after its big land purchase

The South Australian Company, formed in London in 1835 by George Fife Angas and other wealthy British merchants, was pivotal in physically developing the colony with roads, bridges, ports, warehouses and mills plus agriculture, whaling, banking and mining enterprises. But the company’s first task was to encourage the advanced sale of crown land being offered by the colonisation commission. To this end, board members Angas, Thomas Smith and Henry Kingscote formed a stock company to buy 13,000 acres of prime land at a reduced price.


James Stephen at the Colonial Office steers a more enlightened attitude to Aboriginals

Shortly before  the South Australia Act was passed in the British parliament in 1834, a Whig (liberal) government under Lord Melbourne came to power and the Colonial Office in London was now dominated by humanitarians. Men such as Lord Glenelg, George Grey and James Stephen, campaigners against slavery, now expressed their concerns about the rights of Indigenous people. This explains the instances of enlightened attitude to Aboriginals expressed officially in South Australia’s early years. The South Australia Act, which didn’t mention Aboriginals and declared the region “waste and unoccupied”, had been criticised by James Stephen, the permanent under secretary for the colonies. The influence of the Colonial Office, and the changed attitude of men like James Stephen, lobbied by the Aborigines Protection Society, has been given as the reason for South Australia’s first governor John Hindmarsh making the legal rights of Aboriginal people the centrepiece of his proclamation speech at Holdfast Bay on December 28, 1836.



FIRST COLONIAL SETTLERS ENDURE MONTHS AT SEA IN 1836 and face more delays during disputes over city site and authority

Kangaroo Island fails to sustain the colony’s first official emigrants; Light looks to mainland

Interest in South Australia was stimulated by explorations in the early 1830s by Charles Sturt, Collet Barker and John Jones, who all noted fertile country between St Vincent Gulf and the River Murray. But ship captain George Sutherland’s glowing description of Kangaroo Island must have fed into the South Australian Company selecting land around Nepean Bay near present-day Kingscote as its South Australian colony headquarters. But the first ships of settlers sponsored by the company found the site unsuitable soon after they arrived in July 1836.


William Light picks the site for Adelaide before first governor John Hindmarsh arrives

After rejecting Nepean Bay on Kangaroo Island, surveyor general William Light explored eastern Gulf St Vincent for a capital city site. Rapid Bay impressed him but he sailed north to seek the harbour reported by the explorer Captain Collett Barker and whaling captain John Jones. Settlers from the first seven ships began arriving and started camping in the sand dunes near the Oatawalonga creek at Holdfast Bay two weeks before Light found the entrance to the Port Adelaide river on November 21, 1836. The colony was proclaimed when governor John Hindmarsh arrived on December 28, 1836.

Hindmarsh and James Hurtle Fisher in a violent dispute over their separate powers

South Australia’s first governor John Hindmarsh and resident commissioner James Hurtle Fisher cemented their dislike for each other during the five-month journey to South Australia on HMS Buffalo in 1836. Fisher was second in charge to the governor but had been given entirely separate powers regarding sale of land and emigration. This power division led to disputes between Hindmarsh and Fisher rising in colony’s council of government, and so violently outside, that in 1837 the resident magistrate's court bound them over to keep the peace towards each other. 

Fisher stays on after 1838 dismissal to make long and distinguished contribution to colony

James Hurtle Fisher stepped down as the South Australian resident commissioner in October 1838 when the colony’s second governor George Gawler arrived. When Gawler also took on the resident commissioner role, it was a radical departure from the colony’s founding principles. Fisher later had a long and distinguished political career. In 1840, he was elected the first mayor of Adelaide, and held the office again in 1852-54. He became a member of the Legislative Council in 1853, its speaker 1855-56 and president 1857-65.



opens the way for the other key characters to play part in colony

Major land dealer John Morphett opposed to Hindmarsh on the vote for Adelaide city site

Major land owner and dealer John Morphett’s votes were decisive in confirming the site of Adelaide chosen by William Light at the crucial meeting of settlers in February 1837. Supporting resident commissioner James Hurtle Fisher against South Australia’s first governor John Hindmarsh, Morphett joined the committee that started the Southern Australian newspaper in 1837.  At the age of 21, Morphett had worked at the counting house of Harris & Co., in Alexandria, Egypt, before returning to London in 1834. Through Dr Edward Wright, Morphett became interested in the South Australian Association push for a colony. When South Australian Act passed the British parliament, Morphett issued a pamphlet on Reasons for the Purchase of Land in South Australia, by Persons Resident in Britain; With a View to the Removal of Labourers, and the Profitable Employment of Capital. He advertised that he was migrating to the colony and would act for land buyers. By 1834, he was on the South Australian Literary Association committee and one of the province’s most energetic advocates. Sailing in the Cygnet, Morphett arrived in South Australia in September 1836. Two months later, with Lieutenant W.G. Field and George Kingston, he discovered the River Torrens valley –  vital to William Light’s choice of the city site. Morphett backed many causes. In 1840, he became treasurer of Adelaide's Municipal Corporation, helped found the Agricultural Society in 1844, supported the Collegiate School of St Peter and was attorney for the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts.

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