Early South Australian History

Discovery of Australia

Due to the domination by Europeans and the tendency for history to be recorded subject to the biases of the dominating early writers, many still consider Australia to be a relatively young country.

It is theorised, however, that the first Australian settlers came from Asia. It has been suggested that during the Pleistocene ice ages between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago, ocean waters were partly taken up by ice and consequently lower sea levels existed. The lower sea levels exposed greater areas of land to the north west of Australia. This would have facilitated different generations of people to make land and shorter sea journeys. Thus, gradually making their way from Asia to Australia.

Carbon dating has indicated that an Aboriginal Skeleton found at Lake Mungo in western New South Wales was approximately 30,000 years old and it has been suggested that the Aboriginals may have arrived more than 50,000 years ago.

In 1606,many years after the arrival of the first Australian settlers, the Dutch navigator, Willem Janszoon made what is the first recorded official sighting of Australia and made landfall on the western coast of Cape York Peninsula. Ten years later another Dutchman, Dirk Hartog made his landfall at shark bay in Western Australia. Others also came however no attempts to establish settlement were ever made.

The Endeavour

In 1768 Lt. James Cook set sail on His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour, with its crew of 94 men. They were officially bound for Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus (an astronomical phenomenon), for the purposes of gathering data in the hope that it could be used to assist in measuring the size of our solar system. Unofficially however, the voyage was to be one of discovery – to search between Tahiti and New Zealand for a land of great extent.

Upon gathering the relevant data in Tahiti the crew set sail and continued their voyage until discovering the east coast of Australia and making first landfall at Botany Bay in 1770.

American colonies had eventually refused to receive the British convicts after the American revolutionary war. The industrial revolution saw an increase in petty crime in Europe due to the displacement of much of the population, leading to pressures on the government to find an alternative to confinement in overcrowded gaols. The situation in Britain was so dire in fact, that derelict ships known as hulks were used as makeshift floating prisons and penal overcrowding became a major problem in Britain. The favourable reports on the land discovered by Lt. James Cook’s expedition upon there return to England generated interest in its offered solution to the problem of penal overcrowding in Britain. Accordingly in 1787 11 ships set sail from Portsmouth England, bound for Botany Bay. The British Crown Colony of New South Wales started with a settlement and penal colony at port Jackson by Capitan Arthur Phillip on 26 January 1788.

For further information regarding subsequent divisions of Australia refer to the wikipedia changing history map of Australia.

Beginning of South Australia

Many colonies were established around Australia to hold British convicts. South Australia’s history is however very different and was to be settled as a free colony

Enthusiastic men in early 19th century England wanted to begin a new British colony free of the mistakes of previous colonies. A South Australian Association was formed in 1833 and the secretary of state for colonies approved a scheme for a crown colony with a difference.

The principals on which the new colony was to be founded revolved around land administration. All the land which was considered to be Crown land, was to be surveyed and sold systematically to encourage people with some capital to make South Australia their new home. The proceeds of land sales were to be used to pay the passage of labourers and craftsmen who could not otherwise migrate. There were to be no convicts transported to South Australia and therefore no forced or unpaid labour. The population was to be concentrated in a self-contained community to avoid the uncivilizing effects and the dissipation of resources that would result from uncontrolled scattering. South Australia was founded in 1836.

Colonel William Light

Colonel William Light was appointed as surveyor-general. He had been instructed to examine Nepean Bay, Port Lincoln and the coast from encounter bay to the head of Saint Vincent Gulf, choose a site for the capital, lay it out in one acre blocks, with necessary streets and public places. He was given sole responsibility for the choice of the city site.

He had decided that Kangaroo Island and Port Lincoln had inadequate water supplies and that encounter bay was too exposed. He was delighted with the harbour now know as Port Adelaide but decided that the city (Adelaide) should be placed 10km away because the land in between was subject to flooding.

At the beginning of January 1837 Light began to plan how Adelaide should be laid out. Within 2 months he completed preliminary survey of the 1042 acres in the city of Adelaide. The preliminary purchasers were now able to obtain their town land. Light had laid Adelaide out in a sensible way. There were 700 0ne-acre lots in Adelaide south of the Torrens, and 342 one-acre lots in North Adelaide.

Perhaps one of the most momentous acts of any South Australian Parliament was the Real Property Act instigated by Robert Richard Torrens. The old system of land transfer was cumbersome to say the least. Under the old system, an individual’s title to land was dependent on a complete chain of documents recording each owner back to the original land grant from the Crown. Whenever a property was sold, the purchasers lawyer would be required to examine the complete chain to determine that it was sound and a carefully worded deed of sale would need to drawn up and added to the chain. As time passed and the land passed from one owner to another the chain would continue to grow. The problem with this system was that the security of property ownership, which we enjoy today, did not exist back then. A flaw in a document or a fraudulent document accepted as genuine, could enable some one else to challenge the owner’s title and it was not unknown for a person who had purchased a property in good faith, to be removed from that property when it was found that previous deeds were legally un-acceptable.

Sir Robert Richard Torrens

Torrens’s knowledge of a simpler law relating to sailing ship ownership which had been used in Germany for 600 years earlier, was to be the catalyst for change.

Under the Torrens system the government issues a certificate of title for each parcel of land and guarantees its validity. The original certificate is held by the Registrar-General and a duplicate is given to the owner. Subsequent dealings such as mortgages or sale, are recorded on the certificate. If a parcel of land is divided and sold in separate lots, a new certificate is issued for each lot. With this system the previous dealings are not recorded on the certificate and a single document proves the title to land.

All land sold by the Crown after 1 July 1858 was subject to the Real Property Act and people with the old system could convert them to the new if they wanted to. By 1978 The Torrens system had been adopted by all the Australian colonies and New Zealand and many other countries around the world have now adopted this system. Torrens retired to England, and was knighted in 1872.

Further information about the history of South Australia can be obtained from the book “A History of South Australia” by R.M. Gibbs.