K. I. Birthplace of S. A.


by Vickie Chapman MP

The three masts at the memorial near Reeves Point represent the Duke of York, the Lady Mary Pelham and the John Pirie, the first three ships to arrive on the 27th July 1836 to establish the settlement of Kingscote. Even before this first official settlement, Aboriginal communities had occupied Kangaroo Island, and then abandoned it at least 2,000 years ago. Then there were unofficial settlers, largely between 1825 and 1836. Possibly they hold the key as to why Kangaroo Island was chosen for the first settlement ahead of Port Lincoln and the Adelaide plains. It is quite well documented why Kangaroo Island was ultimately abandoned namely the lack of fresh water and accessible land in favour of Holdfast Bay. The proclamation of Government on the 28th December, 1836 was duly declared at Holdfast Bay.

Why it was chosen in the first place? In short the events between 1802 and 1834 in England, on Kangaroo Island and in Sydney, New South Wales provide some answers to this question.

Let us start with England. In 1826 Edward Gibbon Wakefield was sentenced to three years imprisonment for the abduction of a fifteen year old school-girl. While in prison he published a paper setting out his ideas on the theory and practise of colonisation. He proposed a colony based on the sale of wasteland and the application of the proceeds or “land fund” to finance immigrants from Britain. The Wakefield plan would encourage immigration and there would be no convicts. The southern coast of Australia presented excellent prospects for settlement, as it was officially far from the convict colonies where existing political and economic systems would interfere with the founder’s ideas.

In 1832 the South Australia Company was established with the Chairmanship of Edward G Wakefield, with members George Fife Angas, Robert Gouger, William Hutt, Colonel Torrens, W MacKinnon, W Whitmore, Jacob Montefiore and George Grote. Messrs Angas, Smith and Kingscote floated the company with contributions of £3,000 each. The first settlement at Nepean Bay, Kangaroo Island was called Angas. He objected, and the name was later changed to honour Henry Kingscote.

An Act of the British Parliament was passed in 1834. The Duke of York and John Pirie left England in February 1836. The newspaper Christian Advocate described the John Pirie’s departure on the 23rd February 1836 as follows :-

“Yesterday morning, at 5 o’clock the South Australian Company’s Ship, John Pirie, was towed down the river, bound for Nepean Bay, Kangaroo Island. John Brown Esq, Commissioner of Immigrations, and Samuel Stephens Esq, the Company’s Colonial Manager, accompanied by a party of gentlemen, boarded the vessel off Blackwall, and spent about a quarter of an hour inspecting her, and conversing with the immigrants. They all appeared to be high spirits and expressed themselves well pleased with the arrangements made for their accommodation. Mr Stephens then delivered a letter of introduction to the gentleman in charge of the expedition, and on putting off was saluted with three times three hearty British cheers which himself and party returned from their boat. This is the first ship which left a British port for the new colony and we understand she will be followed tomorrow by the Company ship Duke of York in which Mr Stephens intends to sail”.

The Lady Mary Pelham set off on the 30th March 1836 and the Emma set off on the 21st April 1836. The Rapid commanded by William Light and Cygnet with the rest of the surveyors sailed some weeks later, and then the HMS Buffalo on the 4th August 1836 with Captain John Hindmarsh. The Africaine and Tam O’Shanter, private charters, also departed.

On the arrival of the first ship the Duke of York, the Captain arranged for a sailor, Robert Russell to carry Elizabeth Beare, the two year old daughter of the Company’s Deputy Manager and place her feet on the shore. Of course Russell had to step ashore first to do this, but the little girl was “the first white female to set foot on that strand”.

It was not long before the new settlers dreams turned to nightmares. The hope of a few ships, already fitted to start whaling and providing financial rewards, had to wait while finding fresh water and providing shelter for the care of the sick presented urgent problems. The hardship and ill health was unbearable. Mrs Beare later died after being described as “was in a deranged state of mind with four helpless babes to look to her as a mother”.

So what information had the South Australia Company Directors relied on to select Kangaroo Island?

Firstly, they had the reports of Captain Matthew Flinders when he landed on Kangaroo Island on the 26th March 1802. He wrote in his record

“I saw a number of dark brown kangaroos feeding upon a grass plot by the side of a wood and our landing gave them no disturbance. I killed 10 and the rest of the party made up the number to 31 taken on board during the day. The least of them weighed 69lbs and the largest 125lbs. A delightful regale afforded us, after 4 months privations from almost any fresh provisions – in gratitude for so seasonable a supply I named this southern land Kangaroo Island”.

Flinders observed but did not kill any emus. However, Nicholas Baudin visited later and a Cassowary specimen from Kangaroo Island is still in the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Flinders later returned and named Prospect Hill, Pelican Lagoon, Freshwater Bay (now Hogg Bay), Christmas Cove and Backstairs Passage. [Nicholas Baudin named sites along the South Coast including D’Estree Bay, Cape Gantheaume Bay, Vivonne Bay, Cape De Couedie, Maupertiuss Bay, Cape Bedout, Ravine des Cassoris, Casuarina Isles, Cape Bouger, Cape Kersaint, Cape Forbin, Cape Borda and Cape D’Straing, Cape Cassini].

No doubt Flinder’s discoveries created a great deal of interest in England.

Secondly, the Directors placed great reliance on a Mr George Sutherland’s evidence. He spent seven months on Kangaroo Island in 1819. He reported that he had seen hundreds of acres of fertile open land with plenty of fresh water, kangaroo and emu. That twenty ships could moor within 100 yards of the shore and the same number anchor further off in the harbour. Later it was claimed that he had never crossed the Island at all and that he had formed a fanciful picture of the inland region based upon what appeared a pleasant landscape when viewed from off shore. He stated that prospects in whaling were good and perhaps this was the only accurate information conveyed.

Undoubtedly the Directors would have also had reports of the extensive whaling and sealing industry that had flourished along the whole of the South Coast of Australia. With the ready supply of salt in Nepean Bay it was not surprising that the South Australia Company had fitted two of their ships ready to commence fishing upon arrival. There were even dreams of a ship building industry in the future.

What really happened in the years following the discovery of the new Island by Flinders was that fishermen would visit and stay for periods, collect water and fresh meat. Sealing gangs would visit and stay for a year at a time, but with the abundance of salt, kangaroo and emu were harvested. Records claiming up to 800 kangaroos a month were killed.

The Island also became a haven for people who escaped penal colonies in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Some arrived with Aboriginal concubines and others raided mainland South Australia. [The treatment of Aboriginal women in this early period was appalling and one early record records this period as “life of one of the most savage white communities that the British Empire, in recent years, has seen”].

The isolation by geography and circumstances resulted in the Islanders taking every opportunity to avoid officialdom and become a law unto themselves. This apparently exasperated authorities in Sydney and Hobart and provoked attempts to control Island activities. The Governor of New South Wales was theoretically in command of the area. By the mid 1820s the traders feared that it would be too unsafe to land on the Island. Sydney traders hoped that Governor Darling would ask the Lords of the Admiralty to

“have a swift-sailing armed cutter stationed near Kangaroo Island, which, sweeping around the Island at unexpected times, would awe and annihilate these irregular characters”.

A detachment of the 40th Regiment in Hobart was sent to apprehend runaway convicts living on the islands, but the apparent lawless activities continued. Later that year Major Lockyer travelled to King George’s Sound and reported:

“The lawless manner in which these sealing gangs are ranging about requires some immediate measures to control them. From what I have learned and witnessed they are a complete set of pirates going from island to island along the South Coast of Rottnest to Bass’s Straights, having their chief resort or den at Kangaroo Island, making occasional descents on the mainland and carrying off by force families”.

Some were taken into custody, others had learned to survive the harsh conditions. They were usually able to avoid the official vessels and hide in the dense bushland. Doubtless they survived with the help of their Aboriginal “wives”. When the colonists arrived in 1836 they met local inhabitants Henry Wallen, known as “Governor”, (also known as the first farmer in South Australia), who deserted a ship in 1819, George (Fireball) Bates who came in 1824, and Nathaniel Thomas who also came that year with two Aboriginal wives. Early residents Wallen, Bates and Thomas did ultimately help the new settlers by catching wallabies for them to eat. Other visitors were William Dutton, who commenced whaling from Kangaroo Island in 1832, and George Meredith a Tasmanian trader who had an interest in whaling and settled at Western River on Kangaroo Island’s North Coast. In 1834 while on a sealing trip he was murdered by an Aboriginal while camped at a beach at Yankalilla. Other Islanders searched for his murderer, but were unsuccessful. He was believed to possess between £4,000 and £5,000 and to have buried his gold at Western River, but apparently this was never found.

The Rapid anchored in Nepean Bay on the 18th August 1836. William Light had been given supreme authority in the selection of the site of the capital, but had apparently decided to accept Sturt’s opinion as to the probable superiority of the eastern shore of Gulf St Vincent. Light noted that the Company had selected an excellent position (referring to Nepean Bay) for repairing whaling vessels and storing oils and goods, but it was most unsuitable for a colony. Light with the assistance of George Bates and his two native women moved his surveying party to Rapid Bay. Late in October 1836 the Africaine arrived off the West Cape of Kangaroo Island with 79 migrants. A party of six were sent and put ashore at Harvey’s Return. Days later four survivors reached Nepean Bay. They had relied on Sutherland’s report and track, and found for themselves that his report was “a massive falsehood”.

Of the immigrants, Jeremiah Calnan, 38 and his wife Mary Ann aged 32 and four children, John 12, Charles 8, Michael 7 and Mary Ann 2 arrived in the Africaine. Jeremiah set off for Adelaide, but died shortly after reaching Encounter Bay. Probably his widow, Mary Ann, had nowhere else to go. Her sons started trapping and this courageous woman worked to provide for her family. Her descendents remain on Kangaroo Island today. Charles and Michael did well at the Victorian gold mines. To outsmart the bushrangers when returning home they hollowed out the axle in their wagon to hide their gold and money. The family built the houses “Faith”, “Hope” and “Charity” at Kingscote and had substantial land at Wisanger. “Hope” is now home to the Kangaroo Island museum.

Charle’s daughter Eliza married George Snelling and their daughter Sarah Mary married my great-grandfather Richard William Chapman. They had seven boys and seven girls. Mary Ann Calnan later married Charles Thompson. He was found guilty of smuggling and his boats and tobacco were confiscated. Thompson later took cargo ships to Adelaide. Although he had some “interesting” cargo, it was the local view that the Thompsons were “merely living by the only law they all recognised – the law of survival”.

Finally land was offered and the first occupation license granted to Charles Oliver on 7th January 1847. The Calnan family took over from Oliver when their Pastoral Lease was issued in 1851 (Brownlow).

In 1838 the Africaine stopped at Harvey’s Return and let off four men intending to walk to Kingscote. Only one, a Russian, succeeded. Dr Fraser was one who disappeared. Many years later Richard Chapman grandson of William Chapman who had immigrated on the Rajasthan in 1838, found the doctor’s gun and it is now in the Adelaide Museum.

The settlement pressed on and more immigrant ships arrived. On 28th June 1838 Nepean Bay was proclaimed a legal port. Kangaroo Island’s importance to the colonising Commissioners was not entirely overlooked, but Kingscote would never be the capital of the new colony. Agricultural operations progressed slowly. By early 1838 the Commissioners were being urged to press on with land surveys so that preliminary purchasers could make selections. Many of the immigrants had transferred to the main settlement at Holdfast Bay.

In 1840 basalt (stone) quarried from Kangaroo Island was sent to build the new Port Road (now Old Port Road) and later provided stone to build the Port Adelaide wharves. During the 1840s, American whalers found it convenient to call into Kingscote to reprovision. It was not long before Kangaroo Island became closely involved in smuggling tobacco and spirits supplied by American vessels. By the 1840s, agriculture had expanded and cutters were taking supplies of tea, sugar, flour, building materials and livestock to the Island and returning to Adelaide with wheat, barley, wattle bark, wallaby skins, potatoes, onions and salt.

Other industries were attempted, some flourished, others failed. Coal mining was attempted by the 1850s; 1895 yakka gum was harvested and a valuable commodity during WWI to provide picric acid to make explosives; 1906-1908 silver and lead mining at Western River, later gold mining to the South East and in 1912 attempts at mining petroleum and oil at the eastern end; 1920 Eucalyptus oil; 1958 gypsum mining for plasterboard.

The Census on 16th February 1851 showed a population on Kangaroo Island of 55 males, 32 females (19 of them children under 14). Pastoral pursuits were to dominate the lives of Kangaroo Island inhabitants as recorded “they developed as individualists, able to survive with minimum support from the mainland colonists and proud of their independence”.

It may be that the thirst for riches and reward and profit for the shareholders that motivated the South Australia Company to select Kangaroo Island. Clearly the information they relied on, an abundance of water, fertile land and fishing opportunities was at best exaggerated, at worst completely false. The influence of the desire of the authorities in Sydney, to be rid of the unsavoury inhabitants that were already assembling on Kangaroo Island was obviously significant. Not only were ships sent out to capture the renegades but reports of their behaviour was affecting the commercial viability of traders and the whaling and sealing industry, along the southern coast of Australia.

However, the strategic position of Kangaroo Island outside of Spencer Gulf and Gulf St Vincent as a factor should not be overlooked. At various times since the establishment of the colony, Kangaroo Island played an important role in transport, communications and security. For several years in the late 1850s mail from England was left at Kangaroo Island. It was then transferred to Adelaide on a local ship to avoid mail being further delayed getting to the eastern states. Then there was the Crimean War. In 1857 the threat of foreign territorial interests resulted in keepers at Cape Willoughby lighthouse being required to maintain gun powder magazines because of fears the Russian were coming! The Government of the day reached the conclusion that Kangaroo Island would be the means to prevent any foreign power from entering undetected the Spencer and St Vincent Gulfs. For defence reasons the lighthouse was built at Cape Borda and completed in 1858.

By 1861 the population of Kangaroo Island was 95 males and 80 females. 69 of the 86 adults were English and 11 Scottish. 56 were or had been married. During the 1860s South Australian agriculture faced a shortage of good land when the Kangaroo Island pastoral industry was well established. The sheep were of prime importance as wool could usually be shipped to the mainland in ketches.

So why was Kangaroo Island chosen to be the birthplace of South Australia and to establish the first settlement? Probably the reasons are many. What we can be assured of is that women, both pre official settlement, particularly Aboriginal women stolen from Tasmania and mainland South Australia were brave and pioneering. Post official settlement it was women like Mary Ann Calnan who stayed on in the face of adversity while others left for greener pastures on the Adelaide plains.

Captain G W Woodward was the first keeper and some months later he tripped in the lighthouse piercing his right eye on a stake and tearing away the lower lid. Incredibly he continued his duties for some weeks, but later died. Life at that end was isolated, lonely and very dangerous. In 1868 a young boy went missing and was never found. In 1877 a young boy fell to his death at the bottom on the cliffs. Some babies and women died in childbirth and a graveyard now restored is at Harvey’s Return. Goods including livestock were delivered and taken by horseback and later a pulley system. There were tensions in the small community about work conditions and

“there was a day, faithfully recorded, when the second keeper’s wife actually put on a new hat, and promenaded up and down in front of the Head-keeper’s cottage, in a fashion parade of one, allegedly to taunt and annoy the Head keeper’s wife. She did it.”

The resourcefulness and sheer determination permeates many of these stories and I will leave you with just one. In 1871 a Captain Martini lived at Western River. He built ketches from local timber, one of which was sold at Port Adelaide. “Later Martini became ill suddenly and died while his wife was alone with him. As Martini weighed 16 stone she dug a grave beside the bed and rolled the body in”.

So in this year of our State’s 175th Birthday, I hope that you are inspired to find a piece of South Australia that is precious to you, learn about its history, love it even more and rejoice in this celebration.

Acknowledgement: Many of these stories and records were carefully researched and recorded by Jean M Nunn (wife of a WWII Soldier Settler and former Deputy Principal at Parndana Area School).