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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

1 The Northern Territory of South Australia, 1863–1911

The Northern Territory is an area of approximately 1,349 million square kilometres (521,000 square miles). Its eastern, western and southern borders are fixed by latitudes and longitudes shared with the States of Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia respectively, while the northern border joins the Arafura Sea. The Territory was originally part of New South Wales until ceded to South Australia in 1863, and then to the Commonwealth in 1911. The Commonwealth granted the Territory limited self-government in 1978.

The Territory has two very different climatic regions. In the north, Darwin and the hinterland (also known as the 'Top End'), the climate is tropical with distinct wet and dry seasons. The nature of the climate has had a limiting effect on both pastoral and agricultural pursuits. The southern half of the Territory has an arid or desert climate. The propensity for extended droughts across this area has also had a considerable impact on primary industries.

The three largest urban centres in the Territory are Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine. Darwin – originally called Port Darwin and later Palmerston – was named after the British naturalist Charles Darwin. Alice Springs was named after Alice Todd, the wife of Charles Todd, a postmaster-general of South Australia. Katherine was named by explorer John McDouall Stuart in honour of Katherine Chambers, the daughter of his benefactor James Chambers.

The harshness of the Territory's climate and its remoteness from the remainder of Australia for many years retarded its development. Government reports from the 19th and early 20th centuries often refer to stagnation and lament the lack of development and progress within the Territory. At the same time the characteristics of distance and remoteness, and the Territory's closeness to Asia, have helped to create a distinct identity. Darwin is closer to Singapore than it is to Canberra, Sydney or Melbourne.

For several hundred years traders from Macassar (located on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi) came to the Territory searching for trepang. Dutch and French explorers sailed along the northern coast and gave Territory locations names such as Groote Eylandt, Arnhem Land, and Vanderlin Island. The British established a series of northern forts in the 1820s, primarily to ensure that no other country laid claim to the area. Chinese immigrants came to the Territory in large numbers from the 1870s onwards in response to the first gold rushes, but Asian immigration was curtailed from Federation with the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901.

Most Australians living in the southern states knew little about the Territory. It was too remote to warrant their concern. It was only as a result of World War II, with the perceived threat of invasion and the substantial build-up of defence forces, that many Australians began to experience and understand the Territory, and concern for its development began to increase, as did tourism to the area in the 1950s.

The Territory's population also began to increase and in 2010 it stood at 220,000. When the Commonwealth assumed responsibility for the Territory in 1911, the non-Aboriginal population was less than 3,300. The numbers remained similarly low until the war.

For much of its early years the pastoral industry was the only industry of any note in the Territory. Following World War II, and with substantial financial assistance from the Commonwealth Government, both mining and tourism have increased dramatically, and the pastoral industry is today third in order of economic importance to the Territory


Chapter 1
The Northern Territory of South Australia, 1863-1911