Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 1, 2011

Great Central State The Foundation of the Northern Territory (2011), by Jack Cross

Great Central State: the Foundation of the Northern TerritoryWhen I travel, it seems as if – as far as the rest of the world is concerned – Sydney and Melbourne are the only cities in Australia. Hardly anybody has heard of our capital city Canberra and only sun-lovers have heard of Surfer’s Paradise (as a place where one can lie about in the sun and drink cocktails). Occasionally they know about The Rock, known by those who respect Aboriginal culture as Uluru and as Ayers Rock by those who don’t.  They know nothing about our other cities, capital or otherwise.

So it’s fascinating to read about the grand ambitions of Adelaide in Australia’s colonial period when its realm extended to the northern coastline of Australia.  South Australia was going to be the premier colony and it looked not to England the mother-country for economic security, but to Southeast Asia.  Colonialism was in unabashed full swing, and there was little inhibition about acquiring land that had belonged to indigenous people for millenia; the critical issue was to acquire it before the other states realised its value.  (Or so they thought).

In complete ignorance of thousands of miles of hostile landscape which defies even dryland farming methods to this day, the grand plan was to open up a stock route linked by a chain of wells from Adelaide to the Timor and Arafura Seas in the north, with dry pastoral management farming where feasible.  Exports were to depart Palmerston (later renamed Darwin) for the markets of the then Dutch East Indies, the Malay States, India and China.  You only need to view a couple of ABC docos to know just how daffy this was: while the fertile strip in the south includes some of the loveliest places in Australia, the rest of it is mostly arid desert.  Mean, inhospitable desert that still claims the lives of foolhardy or unlucky visitors.  As you can see from the NASA Satellite photo at right (via Wikipedia Commons) these grand plans were hatched for the ‘driest colony in the driest inhabited continent on earth’ (p4).  Exploration and settlement in this part of the world is not for the faint-hearted.

But it wasn’t just the land that defeated these dreams, it was human nature itself.

Founded in 1834 as a province by free settlers and proclaimed a planned colony in 1836, South Australia wanted to differentiate itself from convict colonies elsewhere in Australia.  It was to be a centre of civilisation, championing free enterprise, civil rights and tolerance.  Although the enabling Act recognised prior ownership by the indigenous inhabitants, of course their rights were ignored in practice and squatters fanned out wherever there was arable land.  Before long that was not enough and the burghers of the capital soon began their grand plans to trump New South Wales and Victoria as the premier state on the continent.

The grand vision of commercial greatness began with a confusion of campaigns to extend the original border.   It was part of their plan to set up an overland north-south telegraph line and be first to connect with Singapore and from there to London; this meant controlling the land all the way through to the north to prevent any interference from NSW and Queensland.  It was for this reason that the government finally backed the explorer John McDouall Stuart’s expedition to reach the Top End and map a route, but greed, chicanery, internecine squabbling and British government disinterest hampered progress.  South Australia finally got what they wanted in 1863, but the deal was never intended by the Colonial Office to be permanent.

For reasons that were apparent to some like Hart and Ayers from its inception, it was beyond the capacity of South Australia to manage such a vast tract of land.  They had a tiny population, and there were both philosophical and practical objections to the concept of a colony itself colonising a new settlement on the Victoria River.  There were misgivings in England, and anxiety about the expense of setting it up.  A change of government muddied the waters of the initiative further.

Part of the problem was the concept of planned colonisation.  Having lured investors with the promise of cheap land that would never be cheaper, the government had few options when the first settlements failed due to lack of knowledge about the land, hostility from the indigenous people, a lack of enthusiasm from potential south-east Asian coolies to staff the would-be plantations, and bad leadership.  The investors wanted their money’s worth –  and the government couldn’t sell land to other buyers at a price that would attract emigrants.  Not only that, the government was preoccupied with getting the north-south telegraph in place before the other states could, and they overspent the budget leaving little in the kitty to help solve the muddle in the Territory.

The only thing that went right was the brief Gold Rush which did increase the population and bring in some revenue – but of course the gold eventually ran out in 1875 and progress ground to a halt again.

The next strategy was no strategy at all: laissez-faire.  In xenophobic times, this policy was considered to have turned out a disaster because adverts inviting trade, plantation owners and settlers brought ‘too many’ from Asia.  Then in 1879-80 a flu epidemic in the Territory reduced the fragile population again.  Efforts to build a north-south railway line got nowhere.  (The line wasn’t actually built until 2004.)

In the end South Australia sold the Northern Territory back to the Commonwealth in 1911, and a century later the NT hasn’t achieved statehood yet.

This history is a beaut read for anyone interested in the history of our country, and an object lesson in hubris.  Apart from overlooking the moral issues associated with the appropriation of indigenous land ( an aspect of Australian history across the continent) the ambitious burghers of SA had little grasp of the realities they were playing with.   They overestimated their own capacity to implement their plans, and many people and reputations suffered as a consequence.  Parts of this saga read like a comic opera!

Other reviews are by Nic Klaasen and at The Australian.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Jack Cross
Title: Great Central State: the Foundation of the Northern Territory
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2011
ISBN: 9781862548770
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Fishpond: Great Central State: the Foundation of the Northern Territory or direct from Wakefield Press


  1. Sounds like a good read Lisa that would make coherent the scattered bits of knowledge I have about SA and NT.


    • I think you’d love it!


      • Haha, Lisa, now I’ve explored that particular part of the north and learnt more of its history, I know I would love this book.

        Another interesting story is that Victoria was the third settlement tried. The second, Fort Wellington (,_Australia ), was apparently closed down because of bad reports. But by the time it was closed down the new commandant Collett Barker was apparently making a go of it – our guide said. Communications and timing!


        • Isn’t it amazing… it just shows you how letting the Sydney settlement dominate our history has short-changed us. It’s so much more complex than that, and then when we restore Black History to its rightful place, Australian history is absolutely fascinating:)


  2. As a former Adelaide girl it sounds very interesting. Your post reminded me of the plan to get the railway line all the way from Adelaide to Darwin which was originally put in place many years ago, but only actually happened in the 90s if my memory serves me correctly.


    • Oh, that railway line is a joke. Why can’t we do high-speed rail like they do everywhere else in the world?? It makes me cross. (I love travelling by TGV and in the Chunnel in Europe!)


  3. This sounds fascinating- I hadn’t heard of this book at all. I was aware of the early settlement of Adelaide under the Wakefield scheme, but I had no idea of the Commonwealth ambitions that SA harboured. Thanks for the review.


    • I thought of you as I was reading it, Janine!


  4. Interestingly enough my History Challenge Extension group this year researched the completion of the railway line from Oodnadatta to Stuart as it was called back then and this happened in 1929. Typical of government funding at the time they did it on the cheap and used a narrow gauge line which caused immense problems given the harsh environment that the train had to travel through each week.


    • Hi Jo, and a warm welcome to you here!
      And isn’t it mamzing that as late as 1929 they were still building gauges of all different sizes!
      By coincidence I was chatting with a friend earlier today about these great outback rail lines – it’s still the great romantic dream of many of us to travel those trains…


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