The Australian cities of Sydney, Hobart, Perth, and later Melbourne and Brisbane were all founded with the use of convicts, but Adelaide was different.  South Australia has often been represented as completely different from the other colonies. It was established on rational economic principles, there were no transported convicts, it was more enlightened in its attitudes towards Aboriginal people, and more progressive in its social and political development.  South Australians have taken great pride in their history, especially in the nineteenth century, but this article will explore how different South Australia and Adelaide really is from the rest of Australia.

  • South Australian history:

The land where Adelaide was settled was explored British Commander Matthew Flinders, the first person known to have circumnavigated Australia, and by French Captain Nicolas Baudin, who independently charted the southern coast of the Australian continent, with the notable exception of the inlet later known as the Port Adelaide River. In 1802 Flinders named Mount Lofty, but recorded little of the area which is now Adelaide, and it was not until later, in 1830, that Charles Sturt explored the Murray River and was impressed with what he briefly saw, later writing:

“Hurried ….as my view of it was, my eye never fell on a country of more promising aspect, or more favourable position, than that which occupies the space between the lake (Lake Alexandrina) and the ranges of the Gulf St Vincent, and, continuing northerly from Mount Barker stretches away, without any visible boundary”.

Captain Collet Barker, sent by New South Wales Governor Ralph Darling, conducted a more thorough survey of the area in 1831, as recommended by Sturt. After swimming the mouth of the Murray River, Barker was killed by natives who may have had contact with sealers and escaped convicts in the region. Despite this, his more detailed survey led Sturt to conclude in his 1833 report:

“It would appear that a spot has at last been found upon the south coast of New Holland to which the colonists might venture with every prospect of success … All who have ever landed upon the eastern shore of the St. Vincent’s Gulf agree as to the richness of its soil and the abundance of its pastures.”

  • Australian tourism – Edward Wakefield’s story:

This report was latched onto by a group in Britain led by Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who were looking to start a colony based on free settlement rather than convict labor. After problems in other Australian colonies arising from existing settlement methods, the time was right to form a more methodical approach to establishing a colony. In 1829 Wakefield wrote a series of letters about systematic colonization which were published in a daily newspaper.

Wakefield suggested that instead of granting free land to settlers as had happened in other colonies, the land should be sold. The money from land purchases would be used solely to transport laborers to the colony free of charge, who were to be responsible and skilled workers rather than paupers and convicts. Land prices needed to be high enough so that workers who saved to buy land of their own remained in the workforce long enough to avoid a labor shortage.

These letters and Wakefield himself, became founders of a group that then sought approval and financing from the British government to set up a new colony in South Australia.  The colonists first landed on Kangaroo Island, but finding little water there, government officials finally established the city of Adelaide in its current location.

It is ironic, however, that while the colony of South Australia was established without any convicts, the person behind the plan to build the city of Adelaide, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, came up with the plan while he was imprisoned for three years in 1827 for kidnapping a fifteen-year-old girl.

Born in London, Great Britain, in 1796, Wakefield was educated in London and Edinburgh. He was the brother of William Hayward Wakefield, Arthur Wakefield and Felix Wakefield.  He served as a King’s Messenger, carrying diplomatic mail all about Europe during the later stages of the Napoleonic Wars, both before and after the decisive Battle of Waterloo. In 1816, he ran off with a Miss Eliza Pattle and they were subsequently married in Edinburgh. It appears to have been a “love marriage,” but no doubt the fact that she was a wealthy heiress did “sweeten the pot,” with Edward receiving a marriage settlement of £70,000, (US$6,790,000 in 2017 money) with the prospect of more when Eliza turned twenty-nine.

The now married couple, accompanied by the bride’s mother and various servants, moved to Genoa in Italy, where Wakefield was again employed in a diplomatic capacity. Here, his first child, Nina, was born in 1817. The household returned to London in 1820 and a second child, Jerningham Wakefield, was born. Four days later Eliza died, and the two children were brought up by their aunt, Wakefield’s older sister, Catherine.

Although wealthy by contemporary standards, Wakefield was not satisfied. He wished to acquire an estate and enter Parliament, for this he needed more capital. He almost managed to wed yet another wealthy heiress in 1826 when he abducted 15-year-old Ellen Turner, after luring her from school with a false message about her mother’s health. Wakefield was brought to trial for the case known as the Shrigley abduction in 1827 and, along with his brother William, sentenced to three years in Newgate prison. He then endeavored to overturn his father-in-law’s will and get his hands on the remainder of his dead wife’s money. He did not succeed in this either, and in fact, the entire affair did a lot to tarnish his reputation – there were strong suspicions that in order to strengthen his case he had resorted to forgery and perjury, although he was never tried for these.

Nevertheless, once out of prison, in 1831 Wakefield became involved in various schemes to promote the colonization of South Australia. He alleged that many of the social problems existing in Britain at that time were caused by overcrowding and overpopulation and he envisaged emigration to the colonies as a solution to these woes. It was thus that he set out to design a good colonization scheme, one with an effective blend of laborers, artisans and capital. It would be a colony without convicts.

It took several attempts to get the South Australia colony going. Although initially Wakefield was a driving force, he found that as it came closer to reality he was allowed less and less influence. Eventually he was frozen out almost completely whereupon he took offence and severed his connections with the scheme. It was during this period that his daughter, Nina, died. He had taken her to Lisbon hoping the warmer climate would improve her health. This also meant that he was away from the scene of negotiations for several months.  He later resurfaced as a backer of colonization to New Zealand, and it is there that his descendants live today.

“It is interesting then to note that while South Australia was in fact the only part of Australia that was not colonized by convicts, the colony of South Australia was, nevertheless, designed and started by a criminal who was at worst a kidnapper and at best an opportunist.”