History of South Australia

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First Sighting Settlement New Colony
Failure ?? Gold & Politics Economic Success
Economics Saved Political Reform Great Depression
South Australia as Seen Today



First Recorded Sighting of South Australia

In 1627 the Dutch ship, Gulden Zeepaard, sailed along the southern coast of New Holland and reached the area around Ceduna in South Australia before turning back and making its way north to Batavia. This was the first recorded sighting of South Australia by Europeans.

The coastline remained unexplored until 1792 when the French explorer, Bruni d'Entrecasteaux sailed and up into the Great Australian Bight. He was followed in 1800 by Lieutenant James Grant and 1802 by Matthew Flinders who, during his circumnavigation of Australia, chartered much of the future state's coastline. These explorers did little to encourage settlers to the area. Their reports of a difficult coastline with a dry, harsh hinterland were not designed to create a rush of interest. In fact in 1804 a government survey ship sailed along the coast of Kangaroo Island and concluded that it was unsuitable for human habitation.

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Settlement of South Australia by Europeans

The eventual settlement of South Australia by Europeans was the result of an experiment in social engineering. In the early part of the nineteenth century, with people pouring into the overcrowded cities of England, social reform became increasingly important. Against this background the tireless social reformer, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, developed a theory of systematic colonisation. He rejected the notion of colonies being a dumping ground for Britain's prison overflow and advanced a scheme where the money raised from the sale of crown land could be invested in the cost of shipping labourers to work on the newly privatised land. Here was a plan for the development of Australia which did not rely on convict labour.

In the early stages it seemed that bureaucracy would conspire to ensure that it failed. However in May 1835 ten commissioners were appointed to oversee the sale of land in the new colony of South Australia. Before the colony could become a reality they needed to sell land to the value of 35 000. This was achieved in seven months.

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The NEW Colony of South Australia

In rapid succession Captain John Hindmarsh was appointed governor of the new colony, William Light was appointed surveyor-general, James Hurtle Fisher was appointed Resident Commissioner and eight ships sailed from England bound for the shores of South Australia.

By March 1837 William Light had surveyed the site of Adelaide and land had been allotted. It looked as though the colony would be an unqualified success. Livestock and settlers were pouring into South Australia and there was a sense of entrepreneurial enthusiasm in the air. Unfortunately most of the new settlers seemed more interested in land speculation than in clearing land, growing crops and trying to make their allotments economically viable.

Acrimony between the governor and resident commissioner resulted in their recall to England and the appointment of Colonel George Gawler to both positions. Gawler tried to control what was rapidly becoming an uncomfortable free-for-all. By 1840 there were 14 000 people in the colony and the government were effectively bankrupt. Money had been poorly spent, only 7500 labourers had been sent to the colony, and there were accusations of serious financial mismanagement.

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Colony a Failure ??

By 1842 the British government had deemed the experiment a failure and South Australia had reverted to an ordinary Crown colony. In spite of this turnaround the experiment did eventually work. Two years later under the governorship of Captain George Grey, the colony had resolved its financial problems and the farmers (landowners who, in many instances, had been persuaded to go and work their land) were actually producing more wheat than the colony could use.

The colony's economic base expanded during the 1840s when silver was discovered near Adelaide and huge copper deposits were located near Kapunda. This mining activity, when added to the successes in the rural sector, attracted new immigrants and by 1850 the population of South Australia had grown to 64 000.

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The Discovery of GOLD Effects Politics

The discovery of gold the following year saw the colony's population drop by 25 per cent as men rushed to the goldfields. In a particularly astute move the colony's parliament passed the Bullion Act which offered a range of incentives to miners to return to South Australia with their wealth. So successful was the legislation (which offered high local prices for gold and regular gold escorts) that more than 2 million returned to Adelaide in two years.

The miners who returned wanted a more democratic political process and in the mid-1850s they successfully petitioned Britain to establish two elected houses of parliament to administer the colony. In this they reflected the political radicalism which was sweeping Australia at the time.

The result was a new constitution for South Australia which was widely regarded as the most forward-looking and democratic in the British Empire. Unfortunately the constitution was not accompanied by the establishment of political parties and, with independents dominating, the power base changed no fewer than 37 times in the next 33 years.

The most important reform brought about during this volatile period was the establishment of the Torrens Title system of registering land. This piece of legislation, introduced by Sir Robert Torrens in 1858, eventually would be adopted throughout Australia.

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The Economic Success of Goldrushes

By the 1860s the economic success of the goldrushes had given way to a period of economic hardship. In spite of this the state prospered. John McDouall Stuart became the first person to cross the continent from south to north. In the process he opened up valuable grazing lands in the north of the state. Huge copper reserves were found at Moonta. South Australia gained control of the Northern Territory in 1863 and the state's sheep and human populations nearly doubled in the decade. This prosperity and success continued until the depression of the 1880s.

The boom of the 1860s collapsed in the 1880s when the state's population growth slowed and its agricultural productivity, hit by drought, was greatly reduced. This was to become a pattern for future decades. The problem was that so much of the state was marginal land. The slightest change in climatic or economic conditions had the consequence of decimating what had previously been valuable and economically viable.

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Economic Fortunes Saved by Silver, Lead and Zinc

As with the depression of the 1860s the state's economic fortunes were saved by the discovery of silver, lead and zinc at Broken Hill. Although the mine was in New South Wales the economic benefits flowed into South Australia where huge treatment works were constructed at Port Pirie, bringing work and prosperity to the area.

Combined with this windfall the state committed itself to expanding arable agricultural land through the use of superphosphates, the clearing of marginal swamp land and the establishment of communities along the Murray River.

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South Australia at the Forefront of Political Reform

During the 1890s the United Labor Party, a party formed by the local trade union movement, saw South Australia at the forefront of political reform. In 1891 free education was introduced and in 1894 the state granted full suffrage to women. The state also pioneered compulsory industrial arbitration during this period.

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The Great Depression

Economic prosperity was maintained through to the Great Depression. Iron ore was discovered to the west of Port Augusta at Iron Knob, a steelworks was built at Whyalla, the state's approach to land management and agricultural productivity was forward looking, and a strong secondary industry base was established during the first two decades of the twentieth century. After World War I the state actively settled returned soldiers on the Murray River floodplains and Adelaide grew rapidly.

The Depression decimated the state's economy. By 1931 12 per cent of the state's population (24 per cent of its workforce) was unemployed. In 1933 the Labor government was defeated. It would not regain power until 1965. During this period the state's conservative forces, led from 1938 by Thomas (later Sir Thomas) Playford, would push the state's economy to new levels of success. This success was fuelled firstly by the manufacturing demands of World War II and secondly by the stable, and booming, economy which emerged in the post-war years. The list of achievements during this period is impressive. The Morgan-Whyalla pipeline was completed. The huge Whyalla steelworks and ship building yard were constructed. The Mannum pipeline bringing water from the Murray River to Adelaide was built. The city of Elizabeth, named after the Queen, was created in 1955. Oil refineries, cheap electricity, munitions factories and successful mining operations all helped to boost the state's economy. Although this was an enviable economic base it was still vulnerable to international forces.

Sir Thomas Playford's government was defeated by Labor in 1965. Playford had been state premier for 28 years. It was the end of the state's political stability. The Labor Party ruled until 1968 when Steele Hall regained power for the Liberal Party. He was swept from office in 1970 when Don Dunstan, a symbol of a newly emergent Adelaide arts-based fashionability, became premier. In turn the Liberals regained power in 1979 under David Tonkin. They lost it in 1982 to John Bannon who, forced from office by a scandal involving the gross mismanagement of the state bank, was duly replaced by the Liberal Party in the early 1990s.

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South Australia as Seen Today

Today South Australia has a reputation as a forward-looking, modern and innovative state. In the eyes of most Australians it is seen as the home of the country's wine industry and the Adelaide Festival, an arts festival of international repute.


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