The Territory Connection
South Australia's interest in the north regions of Australia quickened after the return of John McDouall Stuart from his epic transcontinental journey to the north coast. Stuart's glowing report that the northern land possessed the potential to become 'one of the finest colonies of the Crown' led the South Australian Government to seek control of the newly discovered territory. Queensland had also express initial interest in it, and may well have been granted the territory, but had withdrawn the bid on the grounds of distance and expense. Thus, in 1863, South Australia gained the 1.35 million square kilometres between the 126th and 138th meridians under the title The Northern Territory.
Almost immediately, the South Australian Government drew up a scheme for settlement which resembled the original scheme for South Australia. The Northern Territory capital was to incorporate the main features of the Adelaide city plan; the immediate environs, surveyed into Hundreds, were to be utilised for the cultivation of crops; and the remaining hinterland leased for pastoral pursuits.
Initially, the site for the capital was by the Adelaide River at Escape Cliffs, the district and river praised so highly by Stuart. However, the settlement there soon foundered, and the Surveyor-General, G.W. Goyder, was sent to the Territory to select a new site. He chose the Port Darwin district, selected the site of Palmerston to be the capital and, by August 1869, had surveyed about 270,000 hectares around it for declaration as Hundreds. Land sales progressed slowly and scepticism grew as to South Australia's ability to manage this distant land.
The construction of the Overland Telegraph Line was the most important single project undertaken during the South Australia's control of the Territory. The line, from Port Augusta to Port Darwin, together with a submarine cable connection, provided the first telegraph link between London and the Australian capital cities, and enabled messages to be sent in only a matter of hours, whereas previously that had taken months by ship. Under the leadership of Charles Todd, the Postmaster-General and Superintendent of Telegraphs in South Australia, a single-wire line spanning some 2800 kilometres was constructed between 1870 and 1872.
The only people to realise much benefit from gold mining in the Northern Territory were the Chinese coolies who were recruited from 1874 onward to provide cheap labour for the white miners. The continued influx resulted in a Chinese population of 4388 by 1880, compared with only 713 Europeans. As racial tension mounted, the South Australian Government was persuaded to enforce a poll tax on Chinese immigrants to restrict their entry.
The Chinese played an important role in a number of early developments within the Territory. Their labour was extensively used on the Pine Creek railway - the first section of the proposed great transcontinental railway from Palmerston to Adelaide. The Pine Creek railway provided an essential link between Palmerston and its hinterland. The transcontinental railway, which was intended to spark an economic revival in the Territory, has not eventuated, but is still topical with recent proposals for its completion put by the Northern Territory and South Australian governments to the Commonwealth Government.
Two major schemes were adopted by the South Australian Government to extract wealth from the northern lands. The establishment of great sugar plantations was encouraged in the 1870s when large and inexpensive blocks were offered for sale, but few met with success. It was the pastoral industry which, after initial struggles with livestock disease and Aborigines, finally managed to establish itself. By 1910, over 500,000 cattle were grazing on pastoral leases in the Territory.
This partial success was not enough to make fast South Australia's hold on the Territory; the connection had clearly become a great liability. In 1910, after expenditure of over £6 million, the Territory had a total non-Aboriginal population of about 2800 persons; of whom 1200 were Europeans. On 2 January 1911, South Australia finally gave up the land which had promised so much, and the Commonwealth Government took control of the Northern Territory.
Many reasons have been put forward for South Australia's failure to realise any benefit from the Territory. No rich resources of soils or minerals were discovered. Climatic conditions were a handicap, particularly for a colony with no experience of the short wet season and the prolonged dry season in the Territory. Other factors which played a part in the failure included isolation from potential markets and the home colony, conflict with Aborigines, transport difficulties, and the failure of South Australian governments to identify clear goals for their administrators.