Troublesome times in South Australia [chapter 46 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 46 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 12 May 1935.]

The story of Australia — XLVI

Troublesome times in South Australia

It has already been mentioned that Sir John Hindmarsh, the first Governor of South Australia, officially proclaimed and established the colony on December 28, 1836. This ceremony took place under the eucalyptus at Holdfast Bay, and though a century has nearly elapsed since that event the old tree, arched and bent, may still be seen.

Almost immediately sharp differences arose between the Governor and J. H. Fisher, the Commissioner of Crown lands. The former had made an examination of the land that had been chosen for forming the new settlement, and he was strongly convinced that the site was an impossible one.

The only landing place for vessels was in the midst of a mangrove swamp at the mouth of a small creek, and all goods would have to be conveyed six or seven miles inland to the capital.

Officials quarrel

From a sailor’s point of view the choice was ridiculous, and he at once determined to remove the settlement much nearer the shores of the gulf.

His scheme met with great opposition, not only from Commissioner Fisher and Colonel William Light, surveyor-general, but also from the majority of the settlers, and a violent quarrel took place.

The commissioner, who had powers equal to the Governor, would not give way, and for 14 months a bitter fight was raged between the two parties. In the end the Imperial Government interfered, and it was decided to recall both Hindmarsh and Fisher, and to give the next Governor full powers in every branch of administration.

Hindmarsh accordingly left the colony in July, 1838, and Colonel Gawler, his successor, arrived in October of the same year.

The Wakefield scheme fails

The new Governor was soon immersed in trouble of his own. The Wakefield scheme, which had proved so attractive in England, had proved unworkable in practice. Men and women of the upper classes, who had bought land before leaving England, were disgusted on their arrival in the colony to find that their homes, for the time being, were tents pitched on a grassy plain, which was called a city, and that the only indication of streets was a few painted boards nailed on to the trunks of gum trees. Their hearts failed when they viewed the land they had bought. Years must elapse before they could hope to sec the beautiful gardens and terraces which made an English country house delightful. It was hopeless to attempt the task, they said, and instead of taking up their land and employing labour to clear and cultivate it, they remained in Adelaide, with the result that the city was turned into a scene of reckless speculation and gambling in land.

The tragedy of the Wakefield scheme was soon felt. Labouring men and women, who had crossed the seas to work for the landowners, who had bought land at “sufficient price,” found on their arrival that the idea of employing them had been abandoned, and that they had to depend on their own resources to make a living.

This proved a hopeless task; work was scarce in Adelaide, and they had no land on which they could commence farming. The settlement, instead of being self-supporting, had now to be fed from outside, and most of its cash went away to pay for food.

The Governor, in order to give employment to those who were really destitute, found himself obliged to start relief works near Adelaide. Roads and bridges were built, harbour works were commenced, costly buildings, including the Government House, were erected.

Now, these were all in themselves very desirable things, but it was very difficult to see how they were to be paid for. The Governor spent the whole of his private means to pay the wages of the persons he employed. But more was required, and to obtain it he gave bills to merchants and others in England, who were told that the British Treasury would pay them.

These were honoured for a time, but when larger amounts began to be presented they refused to pay. Gawler had spent £291,000 more than the colony earned.

A Crown Colony

The commissioners had not prevented Gawler from carrying out his relief scheme, but when the bills were dishonoured they at once procured his recall. The first intimation he had of it was conveyed in a letter from Sir George Grey, his successor, who sent Gawler a warning unofficially the very evening he arrived in the colony. The blow was severe, and though subsequent inquiries resulted in his complete exoneration, Gawler never recovered from it.

Gawler’s failure ended the control of the Commissioners, and an Act passed in 1842 placed the administration on the footing of a Crown Colony.

Better times

Sir George Grey found the colony bankrupt. He at once took means to discover why over 2000 unemployed were receiving support from the public funds. He cut down the dole until those receiving it were practically forced to take employment in the country districts.

At the same time the financial crisis forced many of the men who had bought land for speculation to sell at a reasonable price to squatters and farmers, who willingly provided employment for the labourers from Adelaide.

By the end of 1842 every able-bodied labourer was employed, and in 1845 the colony was able to open up a thriving export trade in foodstuffs with the eastern colonies.

Its prosperity was increased by the discovery of copper at Kapunda (1842) and Burra Burra (1845), and there was an increasing flow of assisted and unassisted emigration.

Grey’s memorable governorship of South Australia ended when he was appointed Governor of New Zealand in 1845.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 12 May 1935, p. 35

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