Learn about the fascinating history of Kangaroo Island, including both Indigenous history and the more recent European discovery.
Exactly 100 years after Flinders’ visit, the discovery of Aboriginal stone tools in an excavation at Rocky River was the first revelation of a rich and extensive indigenous occupation and cultural connection to Kangaroo Island, so the claim of “firsts” was very much a Euro-centric concept.
Today our understanding of the indigenous connection to Kangaroo Island is deeper and multi-faceted. There have been archaeological investigations of cave shelters on the coast and alongside inland waterways. Other evidence includes many thousands of artefacts, middens (ceremonial sites marked by piles of shells and animal bones), campfire hearths and stone tool industrial sites characterized by aggregations of stone tools and discarded shards of sharp stone flakes.
Cultural elements support this physical evidence, with oral histories of adjacent mainland Aboriginal people referencing locations on Kangaroo Island and recording long-term environmental change. One such change is the rising sea levels which ultimately cut the Island off from the mainland after the last Ice Age. Geological evidence marks this event at about 12,000 years ago which is just a fraction of the time Australian indigenous people have lived in this land.
After a long period of isolation from human contact, Kangaroo Island experienced a series of visits by people of different nationalities in rapid succession. English, French and American sailors visited in 1802, 1803 and 1804 respectively.
These visitors had no reason to suspect that the Island had previously been inhabited by Australian Aboriginal people. In terms of how history reported contact with Kangaroo Island to European audiences, the first visitors were an English crew onboard The Investigator. They were delighted when they discovered and consumed large numbers of unsuspecting kangaroos on the shoreline. Their Commander, Captain Matthew Flinders, recorded in his log “…in gratitude for so seasonable a supply, I named this southern land Kanguroo (sic) Island”.
Flinders observed “neither smokes nor other signs of inhabitants had as yet been perceived…along seventy miles of its coast”. He later commented that the distance from the mainland, lack of fear of the kangaroos, and numbers of seals present “concurred with the absence of all traces of men to show that it was not inhabited”.
When The Investigator left Kangaroo Island, it continued east and at what is now called Encounter Bay, encountered a French ship commanded by Nicolas Baudin. The two Captains, despite France and England being at war, possessed passports from their opposing administrations, dined together peacefully and shared much information.
This shared intelligence resulted in the French learning about Kangaroo Island, its’ tasty kangaroos, and good water available right on the shoreline. Their visit soon after included a circumnavigation of the Island and the first recorded exploration of the southern coastline. The number of French placenames such as Vivonne Bay and Cape du Couedic around the Island is a direct result of this early French connection.
The French sailed west and upon meeting an American sealing crew on a Brig called the Union, continued the generous sharing of information regarding Kangaroo Island, its’ location and resources. In this case, their interest went beyond the water source and kangaroos for meat and included the fur-seals and sea-lions as they had a quota of 12,000 seal skins to collect.
The subsequent discovery of “The place for fat meat 1800” carved in a large tree on the Cygnet River shows that other English-speaking visitors had beaten Flinders to claim first visiting rights.