The strategic former port of Somerset was established at the tip of Cape York in 1864, backed by grand visions of protecting shipping and trade in the area as well as acting as a beacon of British power and prestige. However, despite some successes, Somerset failed to fully achieve its original aims, and only operated until 1877. What went wrong and why did Somerset only operate for such a relatively short period?
There was good support promised at the beginning. Somerset was to operate as a joint imperial-colonial facility with the British government providing a small contingent of marines as well as a naval surgeon. Queensland’s part in the arrangement was to provide nine colonial officers including a police magistrate who would act as the senior officer. John Jardine, previously the Police Magistrate at Rockhampton, was appointed to this position and acted as the Government Resident at the new port.
But operations were not to go as planned. A severe financial depression rolled through the economy from 1866 and the Queensland government, no doubt with more pressing issues to deal with, neglected the Somerset outpost. As well, the British government withdrew its marine contingent in 1867, leaving the settlement weakened and exposed, a real issue in the face of on-going conflict with the local Indigenous peoples. In terms of local issues, the pearl shell industry was also developing at the time and this industry was tending to centre itself at Thursday Island. The anchorage in Albany Passage had long been criticised as being difficult and at times dangerous, which was a further negative for Somerset.
But perhaps the final blow for Somerset was that its strategic geographic position was lost when the Queensland Government legislated to extend the colony’s boundary to include all of the islands between the coast and the Barrier Reef. This border change made Thursday Island a far better strategic location for a northern port and settlement. The Government resident was therefore moved from Somerset to Thursday Island and Somerset was closed in 1877.
This image shows John Jardine, the first Government Resident at Somerset.
Brian Randall, Queensland Places Coordinator, State Library of Queensland.