Captain Sutherland's appraisal of Kangaroo Island

It is well recognised that Captain Sutherland might have been wearing rose-coloured glasses when writing this glowing account in 1831, of his visit to Kangaroo Island in 1819. Some even say that much of his account is a fiction. Unfortunately, many believed him, including the South Australian Company who decided Nepean Bay was the site for the capital of a new colony. And the ill fated expedition from the Africaine who relied on his writings, with disastrous consequences. If you were a potential immigrant, how might you react to this report?


Report of a voyage from Sydney to Kangaroo Island, and of observations made during a stay of seven months on, and near the Island, by Capt. Sutherland, who, in the year 1819, was employed by some merchants of Sydney to command a vessel of 140 tons, expressly fitted for the purpose of obtaining a cargo of salt and seal skins from Kangaroo Island.

London, Oct. 4, 1831. "On the 8th Jan., 1819, [? the Governor Macquarie departed Sydney for K.I. 15 January 1819 - Hallett Sheard, "The Forgotten Men"] we arrived at Kangaroo Island from Sydney after a pleasant passage of 14 days, during which nothing particular occurred to attract our attention. We anchored in Lagoon Bay [now known as Eastern Cove— Ed.], in about four fathoms water (sand and mud), close in shore, our first object being to secure salt to ballast the ship and cure skins. To facilitate this object two boats were dispatched with five men in each to discover the salt lagoon, and ascertain where seals resorted to round the island. While the two boats were thus engaged, our other boat and three men were engaged in searching for water, and examining the various bays and anchorages.

During our ramble on this occasion we discovered a well with a small supply of water, near which we observed a flat stone with some writing on the surface. This appears to be the place where the French navigator watered, the ship and captain's names with the particular dates, were cut on this stone ; but being in French, we paid little, or no attention, to it, not at the time imagining it would be of consequence at any future date [sic].

Close to Point Marsden in Nepean Bay, about 20 yards from the sea at high water, behind the bank washed up by the sea, we dug a hole about 4ft. deep, it immediately filled with water. We put a cask into it, which was always filled as fast as two bands could bale it out. The water was excellent, as clear as crystal, and I never tasted better. This hole supplied us whilst we were in Nepean Bay, and so plentifully, that we had no occasion to look further for fresh water thereabouts. When on the south and west coasts of the island, we had no occasion to dig for water, having always found plenty in lagoons close to the beach. The water of the lagoons though not bad, is not so good as that of the springs ; the people settled on the island (mentioned hereafter) had not dug for water until I arrived there, but depended entirely on the lagoons, they however followed my example, and I was told had no difficulty in obtaining excellent water by digging in various parts of the island.

On return of the boats in three or four days, we weighed anchor and stood farther into the bay, in a much more more safe anchorage, being sheltered from all winds. We moored ship, and each individual took part in pursuing the objects of the voyage; my own lot with another person, was to stay by the ship, during which time I had many opportunities of examining the bays, harbors, sands and different anchorages, with many other occurrences and incidents which I could not now relate from lapse of time. [remember that 12 years had passed ]. From a point five miles south of Point Marsden a sand spit runs out at least six miles in a south-easterly direction, which is not mentioned in any of the English charts. I have corrected this in my own, and called it Sutherland's Shoal.

I made a regular sketch of the island as near as I could, having due regard to all the bays with the best anchorages, and all the probable dangers I could discover. Having sailed twice round the island, I have placed several small reefs and rocks on the chart as I discovered them and drawn the south side of the island, and shown the direction of the land.

Near the Bay of Shoals I planted cabbages, having brought the seed from Sydney, and they proved good and useful. While here we had abundance of fish of several kinds, the best we found were the snapper, some weighing about 7 lbs . they are excellent eating, and preferable to some of our English fish ; oysters and every other species of shellfish were abundant. These with our daily supply of kangaroos, enabled us to live in plenty. Indeed, I was never on a voyage which pleased me better, or on which we were better supplied.

Harbours and Roadsteads.

— Twenty ships could moor within 100 yards of the shore, and the same number anchor in safety further off, the water being always smooth, sheltered by the land from the north-west, and from the southward by Kangaroo Head, and from the north-east by Sutherland's Shoal, extending from the point below Point Marsden about six miles, always dry at half ebb for nearly the whole distance. The shore is thickly lined with wood and shrubs, interspersed with several high hills protecting the anchorage, the opposite coast on the main is Cape Jervis, which I should judge to be about fourteen or fifteen miles from the first anchorage, but nearer to Kangaroo Head by three or four miles. The mainland here is very high, and at the head of the bay wears every appearance of an inlet or river.

The Soil.

— I had an opportunity of seeing much of the interior of the island, having crossed the country in company with two sealers, who had been residents of the island for several years. The land wears every appearance of being fertile, a deep loam with course grass, abounding with kangaroos and emus, where these animals feed. The grass is much better for pasture. Occasional ponds of rain water are seen, and a plentiful supply of pure spring water is always obtainable by digging for it. The land here is as good as any I have seen in Van Diemen's Land. In the neighbourhood of Sydney I have not observed any equal to it.

Trees are scattered everywhere over the plains, the Swamp Oak or Beef Wood, and the Wattle (both of which indicate good land), are growing in abundance here. Close on the shore, within from quarter to half a mile from the sea, the wood is very thick, but when this belt of wood is passed, you come on to an open country, covered with grass, where there are often hundreds of acres without a tree. I calculated by comparison with New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, there might be on this plain, on the average, three or four trees to the acre.

I once crossed the Island a distance of about sixty miles in two days. Once past the belt of wood which surrounds the Island, we walked straight on and over the plains, found plenty of water in ponds, saw abundance of kangaroos and emus, and met with no difficulty or trouble. As we crossed the Island I looked to the right and left, and saw everywhere the same open plains, now and then changed in appearance by close timber of great height, on high points and ridges of land. In some places we found the grass very high and coarse in patches, but where the greatest number of kangaroos and emus were found, the grass was short and close. In other places close short grass was found between the coarse high patches. While crossing the Island we saw plenty of parrots and wild pigeons, and black swans on the lagoons.


— With the exception of salt, the timber appears the principal production we have observed of this place. The trees are the same as at N.S.W. and Van Diemen's Land ; some run exceedingly high and large in circumference, and may be converted into every domestic purpose as well as maritime ; as many may be found and selected for ship's spars and other purposes of ship building. Twenty years ago an American ship was cast away on the coast, and the crew built a schooner in Lagoon Bay, which enabled them to get away, after a residence of several months on the island. Salt is produced here in abundance, I should say between two and three hundred tons could be collected from the lagoon with a little attention ; the distance to the beach is about three quarters of a mile, and from the beach to where the ships anchor about four miles. This lagoon is a perfect circle of about three miles in circumference.

The prospect about this lagoon is very pleasant, Close to the salt-water lake is another of fresh, but considerably smaller. It was at this spot our people erected their tents while collecting the salt. Pigeons and kangaroos make their appearance here regularly morning end evening for water, so we were well supplied with fresh provisions for very little trouble.

My attention was next directed to the limestone of the island : in several places I found it plentiful, but not general over the country. Freestone and granite are also in large quantities, so that people emigrating to this country would find every necessity as in Europe and both the other colonies. I make no doubt but some more valuable productions might be found on examination and enquiry — my attention and time were of course more particularly devoted to the object of my voyage.

The climate appeared to me very temperate, and not subject to oppressive heat, nor do the rains fall in torrents as at Sydney ; the dews are heavy, but not injurious to health, which we had ample opportunity of proving, owing to the frequent exposure of our men, many of whom have slept under trees and bushes for several nights together, and though almost wet through, never experienced any ill effects. I had fifteen men under my command, and though they were a class of people who take no care of themselves [sic], not one of them was ill during our stay, nor did my own health suffer at all, though I was exposed to all weathers both night and day. January, when I reached the island, is the middle of summer ; and the autumn and winter elapsed during our stay. In the winter it appeared to me much less cold than in Van Diemen's Land, and I observed generally that the changes of temperatures are less sudden and frequent than in N.S.W.

The winds there are regular land and sea breezes, with occasional calms; during the winter months strong south-westerly winds prevail, but are not of any duration, and cannot throw any sea into the anchorages to injure the shipping, they being completely land locked ; a vessel on making for the island, must be careful in not standing too close to the shore, until they ascertain their true position, as several dangers are still unexplored on the southern part of the island. This I would leave entirely to the judgement of the navigator, who always ought to be guided by circumstances, There are no harbours on the south side of the island, but in fine weather a ship may anchor for a few hours in any place along the coast, but must always be ready to slip in case of the appearance of bad weather. It was the case with me at the south-west side of the island,

There are no natives on the island, several Europeans assembled there ; some who have run from ships that traded for salt, others from Sydney and Van Diemen's Land, who were prisoners of the Crown. These gangs joined after a lapse of time, and became the terror of ships going to the island for salt, etc., being little better than pirates. They are complete savages, living in bark huts like the natives, not cultivating anything, but living entirely on kangaroos, emus and small porcupines, and getting spirits and tobacco in barter for the skins which they lay up daring the sealing season. They dress in kangaroo skins without linen, and wear sandals made of seal skins. They smell like foxes. They have carried their daring acts to extremes, venturing on the mainland in their boats, and seizing on the natives, particularly the women, and keeping them in a state of slavery, cruelly beating them on every trifling occasion, and when at last some of the marauders were taken off the island by an expedition from New South Wales, these women were landed on the main with their children and dogs, to procure a subsistence, not knowing how their own people would treat them after a long absence. There are a few men still on the island, whom it would be desirable to have removed, if a permanent settlement were established in the neighbourhood.

The period during which I stayed on and near the island, was from the 8th January to the 12th of August [1819]. [? the Governor Macquarie returned to Georgetown, Van Diemans Land, 10th May 1819 before continuing on to Sydney arriving 15 July 1819 - Hallett Sheard, "The Forgotten Men"]. I myself only landed once on the main, in the bight between Point Riley and Corny Point. The soil was thickly covered with timber and brushwood. Some of my men landed at several different places on the main, being sometimes absent three weeks at a time in search of seals. On these occasions they carried with them bread and some salt meat ; but having a musket and a dog with them, they always obtained fresh meat (kangaroo) when on the main as well as on some of the islands. On these expeditions they never took fresh water with them. They often spoke of the places they had seen as being very pleasant.

I never saw or heard of any native dogs on the Island of Kangaroo ; and from the very great number of kangaroos, do not believe there are any. Some of the kangaroos I killed on the island weighed 120 lbs. Our men used to go to hunt them at sunrise, when they leave the woods to feed on the grassy plains. I have known as many as fifteen taken by my men in one morning. We never touched any part but the hind quarters.

- George Sutherland, Commander of the Brig "Governor Macquarrie [sic]," of Sydney, 1819.

In a course of interrogations put to Captain Sutherland by a Committee appointed, to examine into the evidence as to the soil, etc.. he further stated that the kangaroos were larger and fatter than any he had seen on the mainland, and that during his stay on the island, he and his men killed 1500 of them. From having cultivated land in Van Diemen's Land he was able to form a tolerable judgement as to the character of the soil, and he thought the land of Kangaroo Island superior to that of Van Diemen's Land ; the soil of the island is a deep loam on a bed of blue clay. The climate is better also ; it is milder, and the rains are more regular, There was no ice daring his stay there, which included the whole winter, The prevailing winds in winter are westerly.

Kangaroo Island is five or six days' sail from Circular Head, the establishment of the Van Diemen's Land Company ; and a vessel calling at the Island from England would not be delayed more than five or six days. The wind would be fair if she kept along the coast. Nepean Bay can be entered at all times, and the anchorage is safe all the year round. The rise of the tide in the Bay of Shoals is ten to eleven feet. Snakes are numerous, but Captain Sutherland was not annoyed by them, nor did he see any venomous ones. There are many guanas [goannas] as large as a small alligator, but they are quite harmless. Capt. Sutherland declared his intention was of settling at Kangaroo Island, if the colony were founded, and he proposed to follow the whale fishery, for which the locality is, in his opinion admirably adapted.

EARLY HISTORY. (1924, October 18). The Kangaroo Island Courier (Kingscote, SA : 1907 - 1951), p. 2.