The first people to inhabit the Limestone Plains, upon which modern Canberra is built, were the Ngunnawal (or Ngunawal) people. They hunted, gathered, followed the paths of the Bogong moth from the coast to the highlands, marked their sacred sites — some of which remain to this day — lived where Canberra now stands and continue to live in Canberra now, contributing and adding to the city’s cultural life.
Radio-carbon dating establishes the occupation of Aboriginal people back at least 21,000 years. Many Aboriginal names have survived, including Molonglo, Ginninderra, Tuggeranong, Weetangera, Narrabundah, and, of course, Canberra itself.
European settlement disrupted Aboriginal patterns of land use and movement. Many died from diseases brought by Europeans like influenza, smallpox and tuberculosis.
The extent of the dispossession was described at the opening of the Tharwa Bridge across the Murrumbidgee River south of Canberra in 1895. The guest of honour was a Ngunnawal woman, Nellie Hamilton. She was quoted as saying, “”I no tink much of your law. You come here and take my land, kill my possum, my kangaroo; leave me starve. Only gib me rotten blanket. Me take calf or sheep, you been shoot me, or put me in jail. You bring your bad sickness ‘mong us.”
The first Europeans arrived in October 1820. Dr Charles Throsby brought Governor Lachlan Macquarie to Lake George (named by Macquarie after the King). The forward party got as far as what is now the ACT’s northern boundary. Several more exploratory trips in the 1820s were followed by unauthorised settlement and finally formal land grants in 1829.
Among the earliest was Joshua John Moore who had a run at present day Acton, near the city centre, which he called Canberry, after the local Aboriginal name for the place, believed to mean meeting place. From 1858 the word Canberra was used in the records of St John’s church and became generally accepted.
By 1828 the total European population was 171 — only 8 of whom were women and 73 were convicts still under sentence. In the next five years, the population grew to more than 500. By 1836 it was 1700. In the 1830s the first wool was exported out of the area. By 1834, Duntroon had 20,000 sheep. By 1838 Yarralumla had 25,000 sheep. But there was no significant increase in population until Charles Scrivener arrived in 1909 to select and survey the precise site of the new capital.
In the 1890s when the vision of federation spread, the question of a capital was hardly on the agenda. By the end of the decade it threatened to wreck the whole project. At unelected constitutional conventions held in 1890 in Melbourne and in 1891 in Sydney, the early drafts of the Constitution merely said that it would be a matter for the new Federal Parliament to determine.
But at the elected Adelaide convention in 1897 the debate got very heated, and exposed the petty jealousy of the colonial representatives. NSW delegate William Lyne pressed a vote that would have the Constitution stipulate that the capital be in NSW to ensure the people of NSW supported federation, but the vote failed. Very sensibly, pro-federationist Alexander Peacock moved that the capital be in Victoria, knowing the move would be defeated and the convention left with rejections of both colonies, so people in NSW would not feel slighted. Tasmania’s Edward Braddon mocked Lyne by saying the capital should be in Tasmania with a bridge built across Bass Strait. And South Australia’s John Cockburn said capitals must be on great rivers, so Adelaide was the obvious choice. The debates read like a modern Hansard – full of childishness, petty jealousy, parochialism and self-serving point-scoring.
The issue was finally decided at a conference of the six colonial Premiers in 1899 conference. That conference met in secret. There were no minutes, just a memorandum at the end. It fixed upon the compromise that ultimately came about. The capital was to be in NSW, more than 100 miles from Sydney, more than 100 square miles (255 square km) in area on land owned by the Commonwealth as a federal territory. And Parliament would meet at Melbourne until the new capital was ready.
Ownership by the Commonwealth became an essential element of the new capital. At the Adelaide convention, delegate Bernhard Wise proposed the Constitution prevent any Commonwealth land being sold as freehold. He held to the principles of American Henry George who said that if the people, through Government, could capture all of the increase in land value which was created by population increase, settlement and infrastructure improvement, there would be no need for other taxes and land speculation would end. Wise said that if leasehold were not mandated in the Constitution, “people will rush in a get the land beforehand”.
Soon after the first Parliament of the new Commonwealth of Australia met in 1901, the contest began between high ideals and political expediency as to the site of the new capital. Lyne, by now Minister for Home Affairs, proposed Albury the main city in his electorate of Hume. In 1903 the House or Representatives voted for Tumut while the Senate voted for Bombala. The following year the House of Representatives swapped to Dalgety. The Senate agreed to that, and Dalgety would have been the site but the Government changed a few days later and nothing happened for four years. Then new votes were taken and the House voted for Yass-Canberra and the Senate tied 18-all for Tumut and Yass-Canberra. The Senate had a re-vote in which one Senator changed his mind to Yass-Canberra and so the site was agreed and fixed by the passing of the Seat of Government (Yass-Canberra) Act in 1908.
It took until January 1, 1911 for the boundaries to be determined and passed into law in the Seat of Government Acts of Surrender and Acceptance which created the Federal Capital Territory, later named the Australian Capital Territory. It took five years – from 1910 to 1915 – to mark out the boundary of the 2359 square kilometre territory with a variety of wooden, concrete-pipe and metal markers. Many still remain, especially in the high country where the border reaches 1911 metres above sea level at Mount Bimberi.
NSW Government Surveyor Charles Scrivener was commissioned to determine the actual site of the capital city. He was told by the then Minister for Home Affairs that it “”should be a beautiful city, occupying a commanding position, with extensive views and embracing distinctive features which will lend themselves to a design worthy of the object, not only for the present but for all time”.
They were prophetic words.
Scrivener’s site was accepted by the Secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Colonel David Miller, who moved to the site in October 1912 as a self-appointed resident administrator. Miller set about organising the function for the official laying of the foundation stone.
By then the town had a workforce of less than 1000 working on the powerhouse and the Cotter Dam for a water supply. They mostly lived in tents. There were a couple of stores and not much else. But it was enough for Miller and the NSW MPs who wanted to get the capital out of Melbourne as quickly as possible.
Within a few months Miller was ready for the ceremony. So it was that on Wednesday March 12, 1913, the attention of Australians was upon what is now Capital Hill where Lady Denman, wife of the Governor-General, opened a gold case carrying a single card and announced: “I name the capital of Australia Canberra”. And the news of the new name was flashed by reporters around the continent via telegraph.