A nation subdivided, When Australia divided into States W.A, NSW, VIC, QLD and SA

The dotted lines that mark the borders of Australia’s states and territories, learned by  many of us from plastic templates that we arduously drew around in primary school, may seem long-fixed and of little interest. But each of these lines has a story that reflects a stage in our history as a nation, as David Taylor writes.

Soon after the colony at Sydney Cove was settled in 1788, the Deputy Judge-Advocate, Captain David Collins read the royal commissions to Captain Arthur Phillip, appointing Phillip as the governor and defining New South Wales and its dependencies thus:

“… extending from the Northern Cape or extremity called Cape York in the latitude of ten degrees thirty-seven minutes south to the southern extremity of the said territory of New South Wales or South Cape in the latitude of forty-three degrees thirty-nine minutes south and of all the country inland westward as far as the one hundred and thirty-fifth degree of east longitude reckoning from the meridian of Greenwich including all islands adjacent in the Pacific Ocean within the latitudes aforesaid of ten degrees thirty-seven minutes south and forty-three degrees thirty-nine minutes south.”

The extent of British territory in New South Wales until 1825. Image copyright “Atlas of NSW 2010”.

The question as to why the western boundary at 135ºE was chosen has been a topic of controversy for many years. It is unlikely that it was an arbitrary choice; the reason, no doubt, has much to do with the international politics of the day.

The Portuguese had been in Timor since 1516, and the Dutch since 1686. Both had clear rights by settlement, and Britain had to consider just how far these rights extended in Australia.

Britain had two reasons to be cautious. First, Portugal was even then Britain’s oldest ally (since 1703), and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger hoped to make Holland Britain’s newest ally. The cooperation of both Portugal and Holland was seen as absolutely essential to the success of the First Fleet and the settlement at Port Jackson.

Secondly, it was felt that the closer the British-defined boundary was to that settlement, the more precarious it became, not only from the west but in every direction. A definite western boundary therefore had to be drawn. 129º East Longitude was considered too close to Timor, and in any case, it could be challenged by resurrecting Cook’s initial claim. 135º East Longitude, on the other hand, was a true antemeridian of the Tordesillas Line, defined in the treaty between Spain and Portugal in 1494, and it kept the north-south boundary of New South Wales a reasonable distance from Timor.

It was not until 1824, when the British established the settlement of Fort Dundas on Melville Island to deter any Dutch or French ambitions for Australia’s north coast, that the western boundary again became an issue.  Five degrees to the west of 135º East Longitude, Fort Dundas fell outside the colony, so when the New South Wales Governor, Ralph Darling, was appointed on 19 December 1825, Earl Bathurst saw to it that the next commission extended the western boundary of New South Wales to 129ºE.

Concerns about Britains claim to Australia’s northern coast prompted Governor Darling to push the boundary westward. Image copyright “Atlas of NSW 2010”.

The next significant change to British colonial holdings in Australia occurred on 9 January 1826 when the Sydney Gazette reported the separation of Van Diemen’s Land from New South Wales in the form of a proclamation dated 12 December 1825. The new colony encompassed “…the said Island and all Islands and Territories lying southward of Wilson’s Promontory, in Thirty-nine degrees and Twelve minutes of South Latitude…” Most modern atlases show this boundary depicted between 142°30’E and 150°E, so as to cover the east-west extremity of Tasmania.

Having set the western boundary of the colony of New South Wales, both the 1788 royal commission and the subsequent 1825 left unanswered the question of sovereignty over the western half of the Australian continent that lay beyond. The Dutch had explored much of the western coast long before the British arrived, but they had made no attempt to claim sovereign rights to it. The French, on the other hand, had sent a number of scientific and exploratory expeditions, one of which, under the command of Louis Francois Marie Aleno de Saint Alouam, had in 1772 claimed the land for King Louis XVI.  It was only the death of Saint Alouam on Mauritius before the end of that year and the chaos of the French Revolution that distracted French interest in colonising the new territory.

With lingering concerns about the intentions of the French in the region, on 5 November 1828, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Sir George Murray, requested that the British Admiralty take formal possession of the western coast of New Holland. Captain Charles Howe Fremantle, captain of the frigate HMS Challenger which transported the first settlers of the privately financed Swan River Colony, took formal possession on 2 May 1829 of the land of New Holland not included in the Colony of New South Wales.

When the Lieutenant-Governor James Stirling arrived at Swan River three weeks later, it was to take control of Britain’s largest southern colony, but without any government support or convict labour. On 28 April 1831, Letters Patent defined the limits of Captain Stirling’s authority as being “…from Hartog’s Island to 129° East longitude”. This is the extent of the state of Western Australia today.

In 1831, Captain James Stirling arrived to take control of the new colony of Western Australia. Image copyright “Atlas of NSW 2010”.

The Colony of South Australia had its origins in private negotiations between a group of entrepreneurs and the Colonial Office in 1831. On 15 August 1834, without any apparent consultation with the New South Wales Government, a piece of legislation, Act 4 and 5 William IV c.95, was passed in the British parliament defining the new colony as follows: “On the North the 26° of South Latitude, on the South the Southern Ocean, on the West the 132° of East Longitude and on the East the 141° East Longitude…” 

The settlement of South Australia was to be a social experiment based on Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s scheme for ‘systematic colonisation’ involving land sales, free labour and concentration of settlement. Like the Swan River colony, it was approved only on the grounds that it entailed no cost to the British Government.

Governor Captain John Hindmarsh proclaimed the colony on 28 December 1836, by virtue of the Letters Patent of 19 February 1836. As a result of the 1834 legislation, a strip of land – “No Man’s Land” – existed between 129°E (the eastern boundary of Western Australia) and 132°E (the western border of South Australia).  This was finally transferred to South Australia in May 1858.

A third new colony was formed in 1836 when Colonel William Light arrived at Kangaroo Island on the brig Rapid. Image 
copyright “Atlas of NSW 2010”.

Meanwhile, seeing the progress of these new colonies and frustrated by lack of support from the Sydney administration, the people of Port Phillip had been pressing for independence from New South Wales. The definition of borders had been a matter for dispute from the outset, with argument as to whether the Murray or the Murrumbidgee Rivers would define the boundary between New South Wales and the Port Phillip District. The matter was resolved in 1842 when Queen Victoria assented to an act defining the border by the Murray River, continuing to Cape Howe on the east coast.

Finally, after years of lobbying, a despatch from Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies, to the New South Wales Governor, Sir Charles Fitzroy, dated 31 July 1847, announced the decision to separate Victoria from New South Wales.

Under legislation to create the new colony (Act 13 and 14 Victoria, c.59, 1850), the borders were defined as follows:

“… the said district of Port Phillip, including the town of Melbourne and bounded on the north and north-east by a straight line drawn from the nearest source of the River Murray and thence by the course of that river to that eastern boundary of the colony of South Australia, shall be separated from the colony of New South Wales… shall be erected into and henceforth form a separate colony to be designated as the colony of Victoria.”

Not long after the separation of Victoria, Act 18 and 19 Victoria c.54, 16 July 1855 (The New South Wales Constitution Act) determined: “… that the whole watercourse of the said River Murray from its source therein described to the Eastern Boundary of the Colony of South Australia, is and shall be within the Territory of New South Wales…

State rivalries delayed until much later the proclamation of the eastern part of the boundary between Victoria and New South Wales, the “Black-Allan Line” that runs between the source of the Murray at Forrest Hill and Cape Howe. The line was named to commemorate the two surveyors, Alexander Black and Alexander Allan, who in 1870 independently commenced running, clearing and marking the boundary line, finishing in March 1872. It was not until 16 February 2006 that the Governors of both states finally signed a commemorative proclamation of the Black-Allan Line at Delegate River.

Port Phillip settlers took their lead from the three colonies already independent of New South Wales. Image copyright “Atlas of NSW 2010”.

The separation of Queensland has its roots in the activities of Rev John Dunmore Lang, who on 13 December 1854, as Member of the NSW Legislative Council for the seat of Brisbane, presented a petition from residents requesting the establishment of a colony extending northwards from 30ºS, to be known as Cooksland. In 1855, the Secretary of State for the Colonies called for a full report on the separation issue from the NSW Governor, Sir William Denison. Denison was then asked by Henry Labouchere at the British Colonial Office to suggest a boundary other than 30ºS. Denison suggested the McPherson Range, which runs along 28ºS and 29ºS, outlining his proposed boundary, as follows:

“Starting at Cape Danger and following the range of hills which now separate the district of Clarence River from that of Moreton Bay, it should continue along that ridge forming the boundary of the basins of the Richmond and Clarence until it reaches the Parallel of 29 degrees of south latitude, along which it should continue westward till it reaches the meridian of 141 degrees east…”

Though he had previously been in favour of the border at 30ºS, the  Colonial Secretary, Edward Deas-Thomson agreed to Denison’s proposed boundary. In December 1856 Denison tabled a despatch dated 21 July 1856 from Henry Labouchere before the Legislative Council of New South Wales, suggesting that the time was right for Separation.

The Letters Patent dated 6 June 1859 were sent to both New South Wales Houses of Parliament. On 1 December 1859 the jurisdiction of New South Wales was to cease over:

“…so much of the said colony of New South Wales as lies northward of a line commencing on the seacoast at Point Danger, in latitude 28°8′ south, and following the range [McPherson Range], which divides the waters of the Tweed, Richmond and Clarence Rivers, from those of the Logan and Brisbane Rivers, westerly, to the great dividing range, between the waters falling to the east coast and those of the River Murray; following the great dividing range from those of the main head of the Dumaresq River; and following that river downward to its confluence with the Macintyre River; thence following the Macintyre River, … which becomes the Barwon, downward to the 29th parallel of south latitude, and following this parallel westerly to the 141st meridian of east longitude which is the east boundary of South Australia ….. to be called the Colony of Queensland.”

When Queensland became a separate colony on 10 December 1859, the proclamation by the new Queensland Governor, Sir George Bowen, stated that the western boundary of the newly-formed colony of Queensland be extended as far as the Gulf of Carpentaria, that is the 141st degree East Longitude. A despatch dated 14 December 1861 from the Secretary of State for the Colonies advised that the proposed annexation to the 138th Meridian of Longitude should be revoked under Act 24 and 25, Victoria, c.44. This immediately prompted a despatch from Sir George Bowen, dated 18 January 1862, stating that Queensland had taken provisional control of this area. The revised definition of the extent of Queensland was subsequently proclaimed on 23 June 1862.

The transition from a remote penal settlement at Moreton Bay to the independent colony of Queensland took place with Queen Victoria’s blessing. Image copyright “Atlas of NSW 2010”.

After numerous failed attempts to found settlements on the northern coast, it was not until July 1862 that any further action was taken regarding the large section of the continent that would become the Northern Territory. The South Australian Governor, Dominick Daly, had suggested to the Secretary of State for the Colonies that the portion of territory that lay to the north of South Australia be either erected into a separate colony or added to South Australia. In response, by Letters Patent dated 6 July 1863, the following was decided:

“And we do hereby annex to our Said Colony of South Australia …as lies to the Northward of the twenty-sixth Parallel of South Latitude and between the one hundred and twenty-ninth and one hundred and thirty-eighth degrees of East Longitude”

Thus it fell to South Australia to survey and settle the Northern Territory, a task which fell largely on the competent shoulders of the colony’s Surveyor General, George Woodroffe Goyder. The annexation remained in force until 1911, when the Federal Government took over administration what then became known as the Northern Territory. Self-government was granted to the Northern Territory in 1978.

The formation of the Australian Capital Territory was first formally considered  at the Adelaide Convention of 1897, at which the proposed Australian constitution was tabled. The intercolonial debate over where the federal territory should be located was finally settled at a meeting of the six proposed states held in Melbourne in January 1899. The agreed location was defined as being within New South Wales, provided it was at least one hundred miles from Sydney.

A Capital Sites Enquiry Board was established to select a site, but it was not until 8 October 1908 that the political stalemate was broken and Yass-Canberra was chosen. The Seat of Government (Yass-Canberra) Act became law on 14 December 1908, and surveyor Charles Scrivener was directed to undertake a topographical survey of the district. In his subsequent reports, Scrivener would define the Australian Capital Territory including the catchments of the Cotter, Queanbeyan and Molonglo Rivers.

The Premier of New South Wales, CharlesWade, was initially unwilling to see the town of Queanbeyan and its river catchment handed to the Commonwealth, but finally agreed to exchange this area for all the land east of the railway line together with the catchments of the Gudgenby, Naas and Paddys rivers. The Prime Minister reluctantly agreed to Wade’s offer.

New South Wales passed a Seat of Government Surrender Bill and the Commonwealth Government legislated a complementary Seat of Government Acceptance. The Australian Capital Territory was proclaimed on 1 January 1911, and the final component of the federated states and territories of Australia was in place.

Image copyright “Atlas of NSW 2010”.

The Author: David Taylor is contributing author of a NSW Department of Lands publication, The States of a Nation : The Politics and Surveys of the Australian State Borders. The book, from which this article is extracted, can be obtained from the Land and Property Management Authority, Bathurst, N.S.W.

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