Kangaroo Island before 1836

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Kangaroo Island, sailors and servants, 1802. by William Westall. Image courtesy of NLA [575487

The earliest documented non-Indigenous habitation in what is now known as South Australia was the overwintering in 1803 at American River, Kangaroo Island, of the American brig Union. Captain Isaac Pendleton and the crew were sealing. Within a few years, a small number of sealers, and others, including deserters from ships and possibly runaway convicts, were living on Kangaroo Island. Similar sealing communities were located on the islands of Bass Strait and on other islands near Eyre Peninsula and in Western Australia. 

There were no Indigenous people living on Kangaroo Island when Flinders charted the Island’s coast in 1802, although archaeological evidence attests to earlier occupation.

By the mid-1820s the sealing, hunting and salt trading was at its height, and the community living permanently on Kangaroo Island numbered approximately thirty European men, forty Aboriginal women, and numerous children. The women, abducted or brought from Van Diemen’s Land or the South Australian coast, were a vital part of this economy, providing hunting  and other bush skills.  As well as large quantities of seal and kangaroo skins and salt; meat, vegetables, firewood and water were also traded with calling vessels. This community was based at Three Wells River – later re-named the Morgan, and later again the Cygnet River.  They had established small farms with livestock and vegetable gardens, as well as some cereal crops.

By early 1836 the number of residents on Kangaroo Island had declined to about ten men (including two young Aboriginal men) and sixteen Aboriginal women. Among the men were Nat Thomas,George Bates, John Day and  ‘Governor’ Henry Wallan. Among the women were those remembered by the names Betty, Fanny, Sal and Suke.

Many of the historical sources about the pre-colonisation sealers, and settlers, of Kangaroo Island draw on the romantic literary conventions of the castaway to describe the ‘wild white men’ dressed in skins and living outside convention. Reliable information about these men and their Aboriginal companions is fragmentary.

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One Response to “Kangaroo Island before 1836”

  1. Richard Irving May 6, 2012 at 10:31 pm #

    I am very interested to know if Captain Pendleton used native timber to build the Independence in circa 1804-5?

    Richard Irving
    Mitcham Historical Society Inc.

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