Europeans: The Entry Phase
The entry of Europeans before 1836 to the land which later became South Australia was haphazard and unplanned. From 1803 onwards Kangaroo Island was visited by parties of sealers contracted by the season to merchants in Hobart Town, Sydney and Launceston.
Cargoes of sealskins, kangaroo and wallaby skins, and salt were collected by small vessels, operating out of eastern Australian ports and ranging as far west as King George South in Western Australia and as far east as New Zealnd. Salt, scraped from lagoons near Nepean Bay, was used for curing the skins before dispatch to the warehouses of Canton, Calcutta and London.
Sealing along the South Australian coast reached its peak in the late 1820s. A number of sealers, runaway sailors and ex-convicts, together with several Aborigines from Van Diemen's Land, and Aboriginal women abducted from the mainland, lived for lengthy periods on Kangaroo Island.
In the 1830s the winter migration route of the black or 'right' whale traversed the southern coast of the Australian continent westwards from Bass Strait and passed close to Kangaroo Island and Encounter Bay. Seizing the opportunity to combine quick profits from whaling with its longer term land investments, the South Australian Company, in 1836, selected Nepean Bay on Kangaroo Island to be the seat of its commercial and shipping operations.
Two fully-equipped whaling ships, the Duke of York and the Lady Mary Pelham, were the first of the 1836 colonisation fleet to arrive. After landing their emigrants, they departed for whaling grounds in the Pacific. Henceforth the company operated from shore whaling stations on Kangaroo Island, Fleurieu Peninsula and the entrance to Spencer Gulf. Commercially, the South Australian Company's whaling operations were disappointing, and by 1842 its whaling stations had been disposed of to private parties. Foreign deep-sea whaling vessels sometimes came inshore and competed with land-bases whalers for the diminishing black whale. The shore station at Rosetta Head, Encounter Bay, operated intermittently until 1872.
Sole responsibility for determining the site of the settlement and first land surveys was given by the Colonisation Commissioners to Colonel William Light as Surveyor-General. Light left England on the brig Rapid on 4 May 1836 and arrived at Nepean Bay on 20 August. He faced the daunting task of evaluating alternative sites for the capital before the expected arrival of emigrant ships within two months.
Light was quickly convinced that, of all the sites he was instructed to consider, the essential combination of a safe harbour, good water supplies and productive soil lay on the eastern side of Gulf St Vincent. However, the spring weather was unexpectedly tempestuous and changeable, delaying the surveys but providing excellent confirmation of the safety of Holdfast Bay for vessels riding out storms. There were also delays in finding the vital southern arm of the Port River, and a further three weeks of diversionary exploration to reject Port Lincoln as a contender for the first site.
Finally, on 17 December, Light determined on the choice of the Adelaide Plains as the area in which the capital should be sited. On 22 December the Rapid and the emigrant ship Tam O'Shanter entered the tidal inlet that would later be known as the Port River, preceded by Light in a small boat, He wrote, "… it was really beautiful to look back and see two British ships for the first time sailing up between the mangroves, in fine smooth water, in a creek … which at some future period might be the channel of import and export of a great commercial capital".
The first governor, Captain John Hindmarsh, arrived at Holdfast Bay in the Buffalo on 28 December after first calling at Port Lincoln. That afternoon, with some 200 colonists assembled ashore, Hindmarsh announced the commencement of government in South Australia.