Chapter 22 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter XXII

The Northern Territory

Adjustment of boundaries — Queensland secures the Barklay Tableland — South Australia undertakes to administer the Northern Territory — Darwin founded — The overland telegraph line — Port Essington.

The mode of the foundation of the six States of Australia has now been related; but there remained an area of over half a million square miles, wedged between three but belonging to no one of them, nor yet having a separate political existence of its own. The Northern Territory is, notwithstanding its misleading name, the very central region. It includes Central Mount Sturt and the Macdonnell Ranges. But when the boundaries of South Australia, Western Australia, and Queensland were defined, this piece of land, as large as France and Germany combined, was left outside the limits of all of them. It occurred in this way.

When the western boundary of New South Wales was extended from the 135th to the 129th meridian the intention was to bring within the scope of British possessions Melville Island, which was occupied in 1824. The whole of the Northern Territory was thus, at that time, within the jurisdiction of New South Wales. When Western Australia was founded, its inland boundary was naturally drawn at the 129th parallel, which thus became the eastern boundary of Western Australia and the western boundary of New South Wales. These two colonies, therefore, absorbed the whole continent.

Then South Australia was founded, on a large tract of country carved out of New South Wales, and having its northern boundary at the 26th degree of south latitude. Still the Northern Territory remained technically part of New South Wales.

Next Queensland was formed, in 1859, with its southern boundary at the 28th parallel of south latitude, whilst the western boundary, under the somewhat ambiguous terms of the letters patent, was interpreted to be the 141st meridian of east longitude, which was also the eastern boundary of South Australia. So that now the Northern Territory, though still technically part of New South Wales, was no longer contiguous to any portion of the country over which that colony exercised governing functions.

The question therefore arose, — What was to be done with this vast central slice of Australia?

Queensland very soon formed the shrewd conclusion that it would be to her advantage to secure more of the Gulf country than she already had. A. C. Gregory, the explorer, who was Surveyor-General of the young colony, pointed out that the 141st meridian would cut off Queensland from ‘the Plains of Promise,’ as he called the fertile tropical flats at the head of the Gulf. So in 1860 the Parliament of Queensland requested the Imperial Government to allow the western boundary to be defined, not at the 141st degree, which was mentioned in the letters patent constituting the colony, but at the 138th degree. The granting of the request in 1862, by shifting the boundary westward, enabled Queensland to annex 120,000 square miles, including the Barklay Tableland and a fine belt of fat pastures which in good seasons formed a very valuable possession.

Another slight change of boundaries was made in 1861, when the strip of country between South Australia and the Western Australian border, that is, between the 132nd meridian and the 129th — about 70,000 square miles — was transferred to the first-named province.

But the Northern Territory was still unappropriated. New South Wales could not administer it, and the Imperial Government did not wish to undertake the control of it. Sir Charles Nicholson, the Speaker of the Queensland Parliament, writing in July 1862, suggested that it should be temporarily annexed to Queensland. But that colony was not prepared to undertake financial responsibility on account of the Territory, and it did not suit the Colonial Office that there should be control without responsibility. The Permanent Secretary, writing in August 1862, observed that it would be necessary that some measures should be adopted for conferring protection and enforcing order among the squatters, who were already examining parts of it with a view of depasturing their stock upon its grass lands. The Government desired ‘to avoid expense, risk, and inconvenience,’ such as would be entailed in founding a tropical colony. They did not mind whether Queensland or South Australia assumed control, as long as the Territory was provided for in some way.

While the matter was under consideration, in the second half of 1862, McDouall Stuart was making his successful overland journey from Adelaide to Port Darwin, and South Australia was eagerly awaiting his return. If he came back and reported that the Territory contained valuable pasture land or mineral deposits, South Australia wanted to get control. Very much depended upon his report. In September 1862 the Colonial Secretary, the Duke of Newcastle, had intimated that he was willing to annex to South Australia all that portion lying south of the tropic of Capricorn, leaving the remainder to Queensland. But South Australia did not want that. She desired to get control of the whole Territory if she assumed any responsibilities at all on account of it.

McDouall Stuart returned to Adelaide on December 17, 1862, and his report whetted the appetite of the colony. South Australia was now eager to annex the Territory. The real value for pastoral and other purposes of the region through which the exploring expedition had passed was now fully made known, and Sir Dominick Daly, the Governor of South Australia, reported to the Imperial Government that its importance was so well recognized that ‘applications have been forwarded to my Government by stockholders of this province with a view to secure the earliest claims to parts of the pastoral lands which have thus recently been made known on the Victoria River and Arnhem’s Land.’

The Imperial Government was very glad to have the Territory taken off its hands, and promptly announced to the South Australian Government (May 26, 1863), that their wishes would be acceded to. Letters patent were accordingly issued in July, annexing the Territory to South Australia ‘until we think fit to make other disposition thereof.’ That is to say, the Territory was not actually added to South Australia, but that province was entrusted with the administration of it.

The Government Resident, B. T. Finnis, who was sent up by the South Australian Government, selected as the seat of administration a site at Escape Cliffs, Adams Bay. The choice was adversely criticized, and the dissatisfaction led to the recall of Finnis. The opposition party wished the capital to be located on the Victoria River. But a place at Port Darwin was preferred, and the township was named Palmerston, after the Prime Minister. That name, however, did not come into general use. People preferred to speak of the place as Port Darwin, and when the Territory passed under the control of the Commonwealth the name of the town was formally changed to Darwin. When Dilke was in Australia collecting material for his book Greater Britain, he was invited by the commander of a British ship to make a voyage with him to the Northern Territory. If he would go he was promised that a cape or a town should be named after him; but he was advised to prefer a cape, as that would remain, though whether the town would retain its name, or even its existence, the officer could not guarantee. The case of Escape Cliffs was probably in his mind.

The burden of the administration of the Northern Territory continued to be borne by South Australia for close upon half a century. There was one dangerous period, in 1876-7, when the South Australian Government was in negotiation with the Government of Japan for the introduction of Japanese settlers. But the scheme broke down owing to political disturbances in Japan in 1877, and it was not revived after order was restored. (See Roberts, History of Australian Land Settlement, pp. 359-60.) In 1911 the Territory became a dependency of the Commonwealth. No less than £3,431,000 of debt was incurred on account of its development, responsibility for which was taken over by the Commonwealth.

The history of the Territory has been uneventful. The most important piece of work done in it was the construction of the overland telegraph line in 1872. McDouall Stuart had pointed out that his own route ‘could be made a straight line for telegraph purposes,’ and this idea was taken up by the electrician, Charles Todd, who superintended the erection of the line from Adelaide to Port Darwin, connecting with the submarine cable to Singapore and the East.

Brief mention should be made here of the abortive settlement made by the British Government at Port Essington, on the extreme north-central tip of the continent, in 1838. A small station had been established at the port in 1831, in the expectancy that it would become a convenient harbour for ships. But it was very little used. When Bathurst Island was abandoned, troops were stationed at Port Essington. The Government kept up the station from 1838 to 1849. But settlement was not attracted to the spot, and the troops did not find the climate to be healthy or agreeable. An old aboriginal was still living near Port Essington in 1915, who remembered the soldiers, with whom, as a little black boy, he had been a pet seventy years before; and a traveller (Miss E. Masson, in An Untamed Territory, 1915, p. 127) who saw him relates how, at the mention of the old settlement, ‘his back straightens, a curious change comes into his voice, and he feebly attempts to shout the old words of command — ’Shon! eyes right!’ So did the tones of some long-forgotten Cockney Sergeant-Major linger ghostlike by the shores of the Arafura Sea,’ and recall a failure of the long ago.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 242-249

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