Early European History of Kangaroo Island

Learn about the early Kangaroo Island settlers and the island’s past

The captivating heritage and history of Kangaroo Island is a story of resilience, struggle and willpower. The origins of the island go back 10,000 years when rising sea levels separated a piece of land from continental Australia. The island was known as ‘Karta’ or ‘Island of the Dead’ by mainland Aboriginal tribes. A small group of Aboriginal people lived there up until 2,000 years ago, but the reason behind their disappearance remains a mystery. At the turn of the 19th century, the first European explorers arrived.

The First Europeans on Kangaroo Island

British Captain Matthew Flinders

Captain Matthew Flinders was commissioned by the British government to explore and map the southern coast of what was then known as ‘Terra Australis’ aboard the HMS Investigator. Flinders and his 94 crew members discovered the large island in March 1802. They were met by mobs of kangaroos, which they eagerly hunted and ate after going for months without fresh meat. Thus they called the land ‘Kanguroo Island’. Flinders took kangaroo meat, seals and timber back on board with him to the mainland, and he journaled about the fresh water they found oozing from a rock.

French Commander Nicholas Baudin

A few months later, French explorer, Commander Nicholas Baudin, aboard the Le Geographe, arrived at Encounter Bay, South Australia. Here Baudin met Flinders, who shared information about the island with him. The two explorers had an amicable relationship despite their countries being at war. In January 1803, Baudin mapped the entire island over three weeks, and gave some south and west coastlines French names—Cape du Couedic, Vivonne Bay and D’Estrees Bay.

Baudin collected specimens of flora and fauna, including kangaroos and emus, some of which survived the journey back to France. Before returning to France, Baudin released pigs and hens into the wild as a source of food for future explorers. The pigs survived, and to this day the genetically unique ‘Baudin Pig’ species still roams the island.

Frenchman's Rock

While on the island, a crew member of Baudin’s carved a message on a rock in Hog Bay, by present-day Penneshaw Beach. The English translation reads: ‘Expedition of discovery by Commander Baudin on the Le Geographe 1803’. A replica can be viewed next to the beach at Hog Bay, while the original relic is housed at the Visitor Information Centre.

Frenchmans Rock Kangaroo Island

The Arrival of the Early Kangaroo Island Settlers

Interested in taking advantage of the rich coastal waters and Kangaroo Island seals, American whaling and sealing vessels arrived. There are stories of sealers and escaped convicts who set up base from 1802 until South Australia was colonised in 1836. The sealers kidnapped several Aboriginal women from Tasmania and South Australia, and held them as prisoners, wives and slaves. They also built the first ship ever to be constructed in South Australia, the schooner Independence.

Kangaroo Island was pivotal to the early foundation of South Australia. The first free settled colony was created here in 1836. However, settlers soon discovered that island living had many challenges, including the lack of a reliable water source. Many settlers relocated to the mainland of South Australia, but a few remained behind in small holdings along the bays and river flats.

Early Farming Activities

Early farmers grew wheat and barley, farmed sheep and cattle, and fished. They also started wool farming on Kangaroo Island and exported small amounts to the mainland. Tough conditions persisted, and as farmers struggled to clear the land they diversified by felling timber, selling possum skins, collecting yacca gum and distilling eucalyptus oil. Soon they began selling kangaroo and wallaby skins on Kangaroo Island. Other industries included salt harvesting and shore-based whaling on Kangaroo Island in the 1800s, with stations in D’Estrees Bay and Hog Bay established by the 1840s.

Soldier Settlers in Kangaroo Island

After World War II, the Australian government set up a Soldier Settlement Scheme to provide war veterans with employment and provided each of them with 1,200 acres to farm as a way to develop the land. Kangaroo Island became the home of the first soldier settlers in 1952. The settlers, returned servicemen who were recovering from the war, arrived with their families and lived in a basic camp at Parndana, working hard and long hours. By 1964, all settlers occupied their new farms. What was once considered unworkable land due to a lack of population and rising costs now became economically viable, and encouraging results began to appear.

Kangaroo Island Population Growth Until the 1960s

When Kangaroo Island was first settled, the population grew extremely slowly. Once the Soldier Settlement Scheme began, the population doubled to almost 3,000 people from 1948 to 1954. The town of Parndana became a hub for the farming community and by 1962, all the blocks had been cleared and 174 farms were allocated.

Today, Kangaroo Island is home to a population of 5,000 people. The results of the Soldier Settlement Scheme are evident within the close-knit Kangaroo Island community, through the bonds between the islanders and family friendships that are still alive. Currently, about 20 farms are still run by descendants of the original families.

Kangaroo Island Lighthouses and Shipwrecks

More than 50 shipwrecks have occurred around the island since the first settlers arrived in 1836. This led to establishment of the first lighthouse at Cape Willoughby in 1852. Six years later, a unique square-shaped lighthouse was built at Cape Borda in 1858, perched on top of some 30-metre-high cliffs in Flinders Chase National Park. Lighthouses in Cape St Albans and Cape du Couedic followed between 1906 and 1909.

Cape Willoughby Lighthouse during winter by Quentin Chester