Kangaroo Island History

Aboriginal Inhabitation

Kangaroo Island separated from mainland Australia around 10,000 years ago, due to rising sea levels. It is believed that Aboriginal people inhabited the island as long as 16,000 years ago, the existence of stone tools and other implements supporting this theory.  Mainland Aboriginal Tribes called the island ‘Karta’ which translates to ‘Island of the Dead’. It is not known why Aboriginals referred to the island as Karta.

The first European explorers’ believed the Island to be uninhabited as the wildlife was tame and they found no signs of campfires or other civilization. Since the 1930s however, Aboriginal campsites have been discovered in a number of areas around the Island.

Modern Exploration

In 1800 the British Government commissioned explorer Captain Matthew Flinders to explore and map the southern coastline of Australia. In 1802, Flinders made the first recorded European sighting of the Island. He named it Kanguroo (sic) Island in recognition of the Kangaroo meat that fed his very hungry sailors and replenished meat supplies. Kangaroos were found in abundance on the north coast of Dudley Peninsula where he landed the HMS Investigator.

Flinders was followed closely by French explorer Nicolas Baudin who commanded the French corvette, Le Geographe. Baudin was the first European to circumnavigate the Island and after returning a year later mapped much of the island, resulting in many of the French names we still know on Kangaroo Island today.  

While the British and French were at war at the time, Flinders and Baudin amicably exchanged information and shared fresh water at Hog Bay. Baudin named the Island Île Borda, in honour of Jean-Charles de Borda, although the French chart published by Louis de Freycinet after Baudin's death referred to the Island as Île Decres.

Kangaroo Island may be considered the most significant region in South Australia for the period of early European contact. Not long after formal settlement, however, the island’s limitations for large scale commercial and industrial development were apparent and much of the population and almost all interest shifted to the mainland. For this reason much of the island’s natural and cultural heritage has survived.

Early European Settlement

The first non-Aboriginal people to live on Kangaroo Island were a community of sealers, escaped convicts and runaway sailors, who led a self-sufficient, lawless existence from the early 1800s to the time of South Australia's colonisation in 1836.

Australia's First Free Settlement

In 1834, The South Australian Company was to establish the first colony somewhere along the coast between the Great Australian Bight and Port Phillip Bay. By 1836 the company had acquired a fleet of ships and chose Kangaroo Island to start Australia's first free settled colony. On 27 July 1836 the barque, Duke of York anchored in Nepean Bay and began the first formal settlement in South Australia at the place now known as Reeves Point. Several other ships soon joined the Duke of York. Passengers were 'Capitalists' (as defined in the Company Prospectus) or carefully selected workers, many with families. Challenged by a shortage of water and building timber, the formal settlement was to last less than four years. At its peak some 300 people lived there, and 42 dwellings and other buildings were constructed.

Some persistent individuals stayed on and formed the basis of a community that prided itself on a strong sense of independence. Reeves Point remains testimony to the hopes and aspirations of the early pioneers. In 1982 the site was placed on the South Australian Heritage Register. Poignant reminders of the first settlement include the first European cemetery, site of the first post office, early house sites, original jetty remains, and the mulberry tree that grew from a cutting brought out from England with the first settlers.

Agricultural History

In the early days, as farmers battled to clear the land, their livelihood was principally derived from the bush. They felled and sold timber, snared possums, kangaroos and wallabies for their skins, collected yacca gum and distilled eucalyptus oil. At the end of the 19th century, the Island's pastoral industry was growing around sheep farming and grain. After World War II, this was consolidated when the government established a war service land settlement scheme. Ex-soldiers were to farm the undeveloped land on the Island's heartland. 174 soldier settlers and their families came to the Island and were each allocated 1,200 acres with boundary fencing, two dams, a small house and implement shed, and were required to clear and develop 800 acres for pasture. The cost of the house, shed and fencing had to be paid back over 30 years.


The first lighthouse to be built in South Australia was in 1852 at Cape Willoughby. The 27-metre high tower is located on a property along with Cape Willoughby lighthouse keepers cottages and offers stunning coastal views. The lighthouse assisted the safe operation of the expanding coastal shipping trade between the eastern and South Australian colonies via Backstairs Passage in the mid-1800s. The lighthouse is still open daily for tours.

Cape Borda Lighthouse in the Flinders Chase National Park opened in 1858. Before the days of radio, a small cannon was used to signal ships of danger. Tours of the lighthouse and museum are conducted daily and include the firing of the restored signal cannon. The nearby lighthouse keepers' cemetery offers a fascinating insight into the isolation and hardships of the lighthouse keepers and their families.

Cape du Couedic lighthouse opened in 1909. The remains of a jetty, water tank and storeroom can be seen at Weir's Cove, a spectacular site, from where the building materials and other supplies were hauled by zip wire to the top of the cliffs.


Since the first recorded shipwreck in 1847, over 50 ships have been lost around the coast of Kangaroo Island, many with loss of life. The largest vessel to be wrecked off the coast was the 5,800 tonne Portland Maru in 1935, which began taking water near Cape du Couedic before sinking close to Cape Torrens. One of the more notable, tragic events occurred to the Loch Vennachar, which sailed into cliffs on the west coast in 1905 with the loss of all 27 crew.

The Ligurian Bee

In the early 1880s August Fiebig brought 12 hives from the Italian province of Liguria, and established an apiary near Penneshaw. Since then, no other breeds of bee have been introduced to Kangaroo Island. Because of the Island's isolation, all present-day honeybees are descendants of those 12 hives. These bees are pure Ligurian and as such, are unique.

Ligurian bees are renowned for their gentle nature and productivity. These characteristics, and the purity of the strain, make them a valuable genetic pool for breeding purposes. Mated queen bees are regularly exported interstate and overseas. In recognition of the bee sanctuary status legislation was introduced in 1931 prohibiting the importation of bees and second-hand bee-keeping equipment to the Island. Since then, the identification of Foul Brood Disease in mainland hives has necessitated the banning of all bee products to the Island, to ensure that the Ligurian bee remains disease free.

Facebook TripAdvisor YouTube Instagram