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Reporting on the Colonization of South Australia

Striking, detailed map of South Australia prepared as part of a report from the Select Committee on South Australia to Parliament.

The addition of the words “Ordered to be Printed June 1st 1841” and the number “(174)” indicate that this printing of John Arrowsmith’s map was intended as part of a Select Committee report from the Commons to the Lords.

The map shows the vast interior of South Australia, a subtle reminder that much in the area remained to be explored by Europeans. The River Murray snakes through the eastern half of the map, making its way to the sea at Lake Alexandrina and Encounter Bay. The coastline continues north, showing Adelaide and Port Adelaide.

Numbered plots are outlined in pink. These are land surveys completed under the order of General Surveyors of South Australia Charles Charles Sturt and Charles Edward Frome, who were tasked with surveying the lands that the commissioners of the colony had sold, so that white settlers could claim their holdings. The claimants are listed in a key to the left.

Green dotted lines outline the districts of the new colony. Narrative notes explain the nature of the terrain, noting how arid is the interior. To the west, mountain ranges line the landscape.

A dotted line sets out from Camp Elbow on the River Murray and heads northwest to Mt. Bryan, a “Slate formation.” The party, led by Governor Gawler, returned southeast via a slightly different route.

George Gawler was the second governor and resident commissioner of the colony. A career soldier and devoted evangelist, Gawler was approached by the commissioners of the colony to replace its first governor, John Hindmarsh. Finding the colony is dire straits, Gawler took on the Survey Department himself until the second surveyor general, Charles Sturt, could arrive. Sturt was moved to the position of assistant commissioner to make way for the commissioners’ pick for surveyor general, Charles Edward Frome.

Gawler produced results. Within twelve months of his arrival in late 1838, 200,000 acres (80,938 ha) had been surveyed, including many of the plots seen here. By May 1841, 7000 sq. miles (18,130km²) were surveyed and more than 500,000 acres (202,345 ha) were divided into sections. 

Exploration of Southern Australia to 1820

Indigenous peoples have lived in Australia for 40,000 years. As was common with maps and charts of the nineteenth (and earlier) centuries, their presence is not recognized here.

The first Europeans to contact southern Australia were the Dutch. En route to the East Indies, many Dutch traders decided to brave the fierce winds of the Roarin’ Forties (latitude) to speed their journey. However, this gamble sometimes resulted in being blown too far, onto an unknown (to Europeans) shore. While these first encounters, with the west coast, were largely accidental, later voyages sought to see what the continent had to offer.

The first European associated with southern Australia was Pieter Nuyts. Nuyts was an employee of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). In the Gulden Seepaert (Golden Seahorse), and captained by Francois Thijssen, Nuyts sailed nearly 800 nautical miles along the southern coast in 1627, reaching present-day Ceduna. As the highest-ranking officer on board, the land was named for him, Land van Pieter Nuyts.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the VOC had largely abandoned the idea of a colony or outpost in Australia. By the turn of the eighteenth century, in contrast, all of Australia was hotly contested by both France and Britain; the latter had already established their penal colony in eastern Australia. In 1801, the French ships Géographe and Naturaliste, under the command of Nicolas Baudin and Emmanuel Hamelin, surveyed much of the coastline.

Louis-Claude de Freycinet was the main hydrographer on the Baudin voyage who oversaw the publication of its account and atlas. Freycinet and the Baudin expedition were charting Western Australia at the same time a British expedition, under the command of Matthew Flinders, was doing the same; Flinders would eventually complete the first circumnavigation of Australia. He was detained by the French, however, and delayed in publishing his findings. Louis de Freycinet returned in command of his own expedition in 1818.

The early exploration and settlement of South Australia

Inland exploration of South Australia began in earnest only two decades prior to this map’s production. In 1819, a sealing captain named George Sutherland crossed Kangaroo Island on foot. Ten years later, from 1828-30, Charles Sturt traveled upriver on several voyages, locating the Darling and following the River Murray to its mouth. The surrounding area was fertile and led many to see South Australia as a viable new colony.

South Australia was officially proclaimed a colony in 1836, with the new planned settlement of Adelaide as its capital. Its location was decided thanks to a route from the Murray to Gulf St. Vincent, which was blazed by Collet Barker in 1831. Barker was later named the first Surveyor General of South Australia. From 1836 to 1844, other explorers sought more information about the inland areas, including Johann Menge, who conducted geological investigations, and Robert Cock, who led several trips to find resources. Joseph Hawdon and Charles Bonney traced the Murray corridor in 1838; Bonney continued on the Coorong the following year.

In 1839, Charles Edward Frome was appointed Surveyor General of South Australia. Frome was a trained soldier who served in the Royal Engineers. He proved adept at surveying and wrote a text on the subject that ran to four editions. Frome suggested that Thomas Burr be named his Deputy.

Burr traveled to Australia, arriving in December 1839 to find that Governor Gawler had also appointed a Deputy, B. T. Finniss. Perhaps to prove himself, Burr threw himself into the work, embarking on an expedition with Gawler and John Hill to be the first Europeans to probe the east coast of the Eyre Peninsula. Hill and Burr then charted the northern Yorke Peninsula. He led several later expeditions as well.

Edward John Eyre led an expedition in 1839 to Mount Arden and the Flinders Ranges. Via Adelaide and Port Lincoln, he sought an overland route westward over the Eyre Peninsula. Then, in 1840, he led the first official expedition to uncover the secrets of the interior, although he was thwarted by Lake Torrens, which Eyre named.

Frome continued to survey the lands that the commissioners of South Australia had sold, as settlers wanted to start their farms and ranches. He also led several expeditions, including a 1843 venture that named Lake Frome.

These trips found that, only a little way into the interior, the climate turned arid and the land dry. Combined with the later 1844 expedition of George Grey, these sorties delimited the fertile “island” of South Australia.

States of the map

The first state of this map was printed by Arrowsmith on March 1, 1841. This augmented state, printed for the House of Lords as part of a Select Committee report, was ordered printed on June 21, 1841.

R. Hetherington, 'Gawler, George (1795–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 26 October 2022. KAP
John Arrowsmith Biography

The Arrowsmiths were a cartographic dynasty which operated from the late-eighteenth century to the mid-nineteenth. The family business was founded by Aaron Arrowsmith (1750-1823), who was renowned for carefully prepared and meticulously updated maps, globes, and charts. He created many maps that covered multiple sheets and which were massive in total size. His spare yet exacting style was recognized around the world and mapmakers from other countries, especially the young country of the United States, sought his maps and charts as exemplars for their own work.

Aaron Arrowsmith was born in County Durham in 1750. He came to London for work around 1770, where he found employment as a surveyor for the city’s mapmakers. By 1790, he had set up his own shop which specialized in general charts. Arrowsmith had five premises in his career, most of which were located on or near Soho Square, a neighborhood the led him to rub shoulders with the likes of Joseph Banks, the naturalist, and Matthew Flinders, the hydrographer.

Through his business ties and employment at the Hydrographic Office, Arrowsmith made other important relationships with Alexander Dalrymple, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and others entities. In 1810 he became Hydrographer to the Prince of Wales and, in 1820, Hydrographer to the King.

Aaron Arrowsmith died in 1823, whereby the business and title of Hydrographer to the King passed to his sons, Aaron and Samuel, and, later, his nephew, John. Aaron Jr. (1802-1854) was a founder member of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and left the family business in 1832; instead, he enrolled at Oxford to study to become a minister. Samuel (1805-1839) joined Aaron as a partner in the business and they traded together until Aaron left for the ministry. Samuel died at age 34 in 1839; his brother presided over his funeral. The remaining stock and copper plates were bought at auction by John Arrowsmith, their cousin.

John (1790-1873) operated his own independent business after his uncle, Aaron Arrowsmith Sr., died. After 1839, John moved into the Soho premises of his uncle and cousins. John enjoyed considerable recognition in the geography and exploration community. Like Aaron Jr., John was a founder member of the RGS and would serve as its unofficial cartographer for 43 years. Several geographical features in Australia and Canada are named after him. He carried the title Hydrographer to Queen Victoria. He died in 1873 and the majority of his stock was eventually bought by Edward Stanford, who co-founded Stanford’s map shop, which is still open in Covent Garden, London today.