Great Central State, the foundation of the Northern Territory

Great Central State
The Foundation of the Northern Territory

Great Central State,
The Foundation of the
Northern Territory

by Jack Cross

Great Central State tells the somewhat bizarre story of the founding and precarious existence of the Northern Territory up to its constitution as a separate entity in 1911. Acquired by South Australia in 1863, the early years of the Northern Territory are a case study in planned colonisation, a world-wide movement in the mid-nineteenth century which, at its most ambitious, aimed at spreading civilisation around the world. This grand vision was marred by human folly, pride and hubris, overarching ambition, petty jealousy and murderous payback.

The idea of South Australia having a northern boundary besides the Indian Ocean is even older than South Australia itself. After settlement of South Australia in 1836 it wasn’t long before agitation started to move the northern boundary even further north. During the 1850s James Chambers, William Finke, John McDouall Stuart and Governor Richard Graves MacDonald in particular supported it.

George M. Waterhouse and his government made the first move in October 1860 to acquire the Northern Territory. The pastoralists were especially interested in the Victoria River area whereas Governor Day, amongst others, favoured an area near the Gulf of Carpentaria. When South Australia did acquire it on 6 July 1863, the two areas were referred to as the Great Central State. This, according to some, would lead to gaining entry to the ‘Unlimited Asian Market’.

The first Northern Territory Expedition left Adelaide on 4 ships early in 1864 with Colonel Boyle Travis Finniss appointed Government Resident at £1,000 per annum. The early period of the new settlement was marked by troubles among the expedition members and between them and the local Aborigines. Within months Finniss had despatched a punitive expedition with unwritten instructions to shoot every sanguinary native in sight and looting their property to give them a taste of their own medicine.

By the end of 1864 Adelaide knew that the settlement was not doing well. Relief ships were despatched sailing via the east coast and when they reached Adam Bay on 5 December nearly everyone got thoroughly drunk. Within 2 weeks the site was surveyed by Robert Henry Edmunds and renamed Palmerston at the request of Governor Daly. Finniss was recalled in November 1865 and the settlement almost abandoned. At the end of 1866 it was wound up completely and everyone returned to Adelaide via Sydney.

Meanwhile attempts to settle the Territory were also made by pastoralists who came via the overland route from South Australia and from the east from Queensland. Ralph and John Milner set out from Adelaide in 1863 with a large number of sheep via Cooper Creek, where they were held up for 6 years waiting for the end of the drought. While there they established outstations at Kopperamanna and Killalpaninna, where Ralph’s wife Phoebe died in 1868.

A second Northern Territory Expedition was mounted in 1868. This time George W. Goyder was in charge and saved the day, even though he was hated and feared by many pastoralists. Goyder had picked his own men, some 130 of them, all known to him and with bush experience. He also selected his own stores and equipment as well as the expedition’s ship the Moonta, which departed on 27 December 1868 for Port Darwin via Cape Leeuwin.

This time the survey was completed and most of the men back in Adelaide in early 1870. Unfortunately due to the South Australian land laws it took some ten years before the first farmers could get onto their land. Squatting was often the only way out. As a result of absenteeism only 4 city allotments, out of 1019, were occupied by their owners in 1882.

On 28 April 1870 the newly appointed Government Resident, William Bloomfield Douglas left on the Gulnare for Port Darwin. Along with him came his wife Ellen, seven children, Irish maid, piano and billiard table. On his stopover in Brisbane he telegraphed the South Australian Government for permission to go direct to the Dutch East Indies to recruit planters and coolies, which was refused.

Gulnare at Southport 1871 (SLSA)

After his arrival Douglas was informed that an undersea cable would be landed at the port by the British Australian Telegraph Company if the government completed an Overland Telegraph from Darwin to Port Augusta by January 1872. This had come about after the forceful representation of Charles Todd. Douglas got to work and on 12 August his daughter Harriet laid the foundation stone for the Residency. He also started an experimental garden, planting cane, coffee and coconut trees. The coconuts were planted with the help of the local Larrakia who later dug them up and ate them as the need arose.

Little was done during his time in the Northern Territory to advance its settlement or economy. Almost all finance and effort was used to complete ther overland telegraph. When Douglas was blamed for anything and everything that had gone wrong, he resigned and became a gold digger. It took some time to find a new Government Resident until George Byng Scott from Robe agreed to take the job.

Progress of any kind remained slow, a hospital was completed in 1874, a school in 1880 which had previously been opposed by the Downer family because it might block the outlook to the sea and decrease the value of their investment. There were several pubs and brothels and most of the alcohol consumed was Holland schnapps imported from Timor. A major setback occurred in 1874 when one seventh of the Territory’s population drowned when the Gothenburg was wrecked on the Barrier Reef.

The discovery of gold was seen as an excellent way to attract population, without the need for the South Australian Government having to pay for it. In fact it proved a win-win situation for the government and the Territory as not only did it result in a substantial increase in population but also in development and government income, at least for a few years until the bubble burst in 1875 and it all decreased at a faster rate than it had increased.

Following this disaster the South Australian Government tried a new policy, the Laissez-Faire and appointed a new Minister specifically for the Northern Territory. It also started to advertise for trade, plantation owners and settlers from the Dutch East Indies and the Asian mainland. This soon backfired as too many Asians responded, particularly from China. To make matters worse in 1879 a fever epidemic hit the Territory and within a few months of 1880 about ten per cent of the Chinese died.

Not short on ideas, the next attempt to populate the north was to attract religious communities. They included the Santals of India, Mennonites of Southern Russia, Christians from Japan and Jews from Russia. However, as with previous schemes, after years of negotiations nothing eventuated.

By the 1880s it was clear to most South Australians that the dream of a self-supporting colony and a bridge to Asia would be very difficult to achieve. With the overland telegraph in place and working and pastoralists settled throughout the Territory it was once more decided to build a transcontinental railway from Adelaide to Darwin, first discussed even more Stuart’s journey in 1862.

By the turn of the century most, but not all, South Australians had enough of the Territory and the expenses it incurred. They wanted to get rid of it. In the end they did get their way and it was transferred (sold) to the Commonwealth in 1911 for £3,931,086 plus £2,239,462 for the railway from Port Augusta to Oodnadatta with the promise that it would be completed, which it was…. in 2004.

According to its author Jack Cross, the book is several histories wrapped into one. At one level it is the colourful story of the foundation years of the Northern Territory at another level it is the tale of South Australia’s attempt to replicate its own planned colonisation on the north coast. At the same time it is a history of the South Australian way of doing things. According to Philip Jones the Northern Territory had from its murky beginnings in the 1860s become the exotic locus of South Australia’s best utopian dreams and worst administrative nightmares.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Written by Jack Cross,
the book, with extensive footnotes, index and many photographs by Paul Foelsche,
is available at $39.95, from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


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