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Two sides of the wire: how the Overland Telegraph brought colonial triumph and Aboriginal devastation | Northern Territory

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In 1872, 150 years ago on Monday, Australia celebrated its connection to the world. A heroic effort had conquered the tyranny of distance, and the Overland Telegraph, stretching more than 3,000km from Adelaide to Darwin, was heralded as a triumph.

In 1872, 150 years ago on Monday, the devastating effects of colonisation were being felt through the middle of Australia. The telegraph line brought settlers, the destruction of the environment and death for Aboriginal people.

Both stories are true.

The idea to link Australia by telegraph to the world took shape as Britain began to send undersea cables across vast portions of the globe from the 1850s, but the task of crossing the continent from south to north appeared too daunting for many years, not least after the disastrous Burke and Wills expedition of 1861.

But the following year the Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart travelled from South Australia to the north coast and back, demonstrating that the journey was eminently possible, however arduous.

With imperial cable connections by then stretching to India and beyond, Australia eyed the prospect of communicating with Europe in mere hours, instead of the months needed for a sea voyage. Newspapers could be printed with actual news from around the world.

Robert Charles Patterson (second from left) and Charles Todd (second from right)
Robert Charles Patterson (second from left) and Charles Todd (second from right) were instrumental in the construction of the telegraph. Photograph: National Archives of Australia

The government of South Australia, which had “acquired” the Northern Territory, built the first leg, from Adelaide to Port Augusta. The government then offered a contract to build the rest of the line, all the way to the tiny outpost of Darwin, by 1 January 1872.

The budget was £128,000 (though that blew out to £239,588), and the SA superintendent of telegraphs, Charles Todd, was appointed to manage construction.

“In such a large, dry continent with so little communication infrastructure, this was one of Australia’s greatest ever engineering undertakings,” the National Museum of Australia declares.

“The Overland Telegraph changed the way Australia related to the world and the country’s extreme isolation was broken.”

Julian Todd, Charles Todd’s great-great-grandson, points to the “extraordinary” scale and speed of the accomplishment. The decision, the relevant legislation, the tenders and construction of the line itself were all completed within two years.

“That’s 36,000 holes you have to dig, 3,000km of telegraph wire, a track that’s 10 metres wide,” he says.

“You have to not only find the workers – blacksmiths, carpenters, cooks, storekeepers, linemen, surveyors, telegraphists … there are horse wagons, bullock drays and Afghan camels brought to the centre of Australia.”

Charles Todd’s great-great-grandson Julian Todd
Charles Todd’s great-great-grandson Julian Todd says his ancestor had ‘a deep respect for the Aboriginal community’. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

A couple of months after the line from Adelaide to Darwin was connected, it was linked to an underwater cable that went to Java, and from there all the way to London.

“In those days, SA was the wheat capital of Australia,” Todd says. “The entire wheat crop was sold to England because of that wire.

“It was extraordinary technology for a country that had experienced, up until then, the tyranny of distance. Socially and economically, it made a huge impact in Australia.”

‘Through the very centre of Australia’

The line follows Stuart’s route, which itself followed a “traditional trade route created and travelled by Aboriginal people for millennia”, the museum says.

If you were to travel from Adelaide to Darwin today, with your eyes peeled for what’s left of this great endeavour, you would see remnants of some of the 36,000 telegraph poles or their old holes. About every 200km or 250km, you can see what’s left of the repeater stations that boosted the electrical signal along the line – some in ruins.

Derek Pugh is the author of Twenty to the Mile: The Overland Telegraph Line, a history of the line that is about to be made into a documentary. He has travelled its length.

Overland telegraph map

“We found stretches of the line in the Simpson Desert, with the wire still up,” Pugh says. “They call it the whispering line, because when the wind blows it wails in the wind.

“SA has the best ruins and the NT has some that have been renovated, but Alice Springs is the best. Someone was living in the Barrow Creek one up until 15, 20 years ago.

“The territory has four stations that are still there in various states of preservation, others are long gone. Darwin was bombed, so that went in the second world war.”

At Barrow Creek, north of Alice Springs, you can visit the old telegraph station, and you might spot the graves of two of the linesmen – James Stapleton and John Franks – buried under a headstone that reads “killed by natives”.

Up to 100 Aboriginal people were killed in the Barrow Creek massacre in 1873, in revenge for the deaths of Stapleton and Franks, which was itself a reprisal for settlers stealing Aboriginal women.

One account, recalled many years after the fact by a man named Alec Ross, was recorded in an unpublished manuscript in the 1950s and highlighted the central role of the telegraph in what happened.

“They sent out messages on the wires everywhere, and the police and parties of men came up from the Tennant and the Alice and from lots of other places,” Ross said.

“And I can tell you, they did some pretty serious shooting too – taught the blacks a lesson they’ve never forgotten … and for quite a few more months blacks would get shot in twos and threes in the whole of this district. The blacks had needed a good lesson and they got it right in the neck; they never attacked another white man along the line after that.”

Barrow Creek was not the only colonial massacre of Aboriginal people that shadowed the telegraph line.

A man climbs up a telegraph pole in 1921
A man climbs up a telegraph pole in 1921. Not much of the line has remained. Photograph: Jack Laver/State Library of South Australia

As you continue to Tennant Creek, you might find shards of ceramic from the line’s insulators, sometimes carved into spearheads by local Aboriginal people.

At Frew Ponds, a plaque commemorates the spot where the two wires of the line were finally joined, on 22 August 1872.

Pugh recounts the story of that joining, as told by Robert Charles Patterson, who oversaw the completion of the northern part of the line. The line was in fact complete, but Patterson cut it so he could ceremonially join it again.

However, he had some trouble and a little shock.

“Half the party seized hold of me and the wire and the other half the other end and stretched with all might and main to bring the two ends together. All our force could not do this,” he wrote, as Pugh recounts.

“I then attached some binding wire to one end. The moment I brought it to the other end the current passed through my body from all the batteries on the line. I had to yell and let go.

“Next time I proceeded more cautiously and used my handkerchief to seize the wire. In about five minutes I had the joint made complete, and Adelaide was in communication with Port Darwin.”

To celebrate this great triumph, Patterson had his men fire their guns 21 times, and smash a brandy bottle (filled with tea) against the final pole.

The first message sent was a sober one from a bureaucrat to the governor, ending in “God save the Queen!”.

Todd’s first message was: “We have this day or within two years from the date it was commenced, completed a line of 2,000 miles long through the very centre of Australia a few years ago a terra incognita and supposed to be a desert.”

‘A really brutal history’

Robyn Smith, a lecturer at the University of Newcastle, works on the colonial frontier massacres map that informed the Guardian’s Killing Times project. She says as well as the massacres directly associated with the Overland Telegraph line, there was a slower shock wave that devastated Aboriginal lives.

The bullocks, horses and camels brought in to build the line trampled the landscape, as did the cattle that came later. Settlements and towns sprang up around the telegraph stations, and pastoralists claimed the land for themselves.

pastoralists
The pastoralists who came with the telegraph ‘just took matters into their own hands’, says Robyn Smith. Photograph: Library & Archives NT

Smith says the Overland Telegraph line was the first catalyst for the colonisation of the Northern Territory. It enabled the second, which was pastoralism.

“Todd’s instructions were that the camps and repeater stations were to be located close to two things: water and suitable timber to cut and use for poles,” she says.

So those working on the line and their animals were competing for water and other resources with the local Aboriginal people.

Todd instructed his men to have “minimal impact” on Aboriginal people, but that was always unrealistic. More like a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Smith says.

That meant the liberal use of euphemisms by the overseers and pastoralists as massacres continued. “Dispersals” meant not the scattering of Aboriginal people, but their deaths. “Stern reprisals” was the same. Then there was “teach a lesson”, and “justice was done”. All mean “killed”, Smith says.

“So that’s what happened along the line. Then the pastoral stations fanned out from that. And pastoralists are a different breed. They just took matters into their own hands.”

Smith says the dominant narrative of the line is that of pioneering triumphalism, which overshadows the harsh reality of the project.

“There’s a really brutal history attached to both the Overland Telegraph line and the pastoral stations,” she says.

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There’s no doubt Charles Todd was enormously accomplished – a brilliant meteorologist, astronomer and public servant.

Julian Todd says his great-great-grandfather (for whom the Todd River was named) and his wife, Alice, (for whom Alice Springs was named) had “a deep respect for the Aboriginal community”. He acknowledges what he calls the “dark side of Australia’s pioneering past”, but says values were different then, and Charles Todd was focused on only one thing – “building the line”.

“His message to everyone on the line was to respect the Aboriginal community,” Todd says.

Pugh says there were some friendly encounters between line workers and Aboriginal people, but also obviously “troubles”.

“It opened up the highway through the centre of Australia,” Pugh says.

“It brought cattle and miners and tourists. And it changed the lives of the local Aboriginal people for ever.”

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