Unruly Days: Territory Life 1911 – 1921

The Northern Territory has always been an impossible land to master. From its monsoonal Top End to its arid Centre, it promises bountiful resources, but almost every attempt to exploit them has failed. It is too immense, too remote, its resources too inaccessible.

By 1900, the Territory had been largely neglected by its South Australian administrators. Few Europeans ventured there. The first peoples, the Aboriginal population, were the majority, and Chinese people outnumbered white Australians.

To Australia’s statesmen the Territory’s vast unpopulated reaches invited unwelcome foreign interest. So, in 1911, the Commonwealth took control. They invested in industries and infrastructure, bringing an influx of workers. It seemed the Territory might finally prosper.

But cracks soon appeared. World War One diverted the Commonwealth’s funds, and the Territory’s climate and isolation, as always, proved difficult to surmount. The government’s own policies led to trouble in race and labour relations and threatened the investment they had made. Four governments and eight different ministers would take responsibility for the Territory over the next ten years. Ruling from Melbourne, the Commonwealth never understood the unique conditions at play.

Territorians grew restless with the new order, which had left them with no say in their own affairs. Conflict was inevitable, and the first decade of Commonwealth rule would prove to be the Territory’s most unruly to date.

30 Jun - 17 May