Queensland Places - Somerset - Part One

The former port of Somerset, at the tip of Cape York, was formally established in August 1864, for predominantly strategic reasons related to the protection of shipping as well as trade.  In this article we briefly discuss the initial establishment of Somerset with the next article looking at its operations as well as why it eventually closed.

By the early 1860s, the Torres Strait had become a vital commercial shipping channel, but despite this channel being well charted by this time, it was still dangerous and ship wrecks were common.  As there was no port between Cardwell, some 900 kilometres to the south and Timor, across the Arafura Sea, survivors of shipwrecks had to make long voyages, often in open boats, to reach safety.

Queensland’s first governor, Sir George Ferguson Bowen, suggested that a government outpost at the tip of Cape York would alleviate some of the on-going maritime problems and dangers.  Such an outpost would act as a harbour of refuge, a supply station and a coaling facility.  As well, Bowen argued that the new port could act as a centre for geographic research, as a base to assist missionary activities as well as a staging post for the colonisation of northern Australia, New Guinea and even parts of the Indonesian archipelago.  With such grand aims, Bowen’s vision for the new settlement included the hope that it would prosper to the point when it would become a symbol of the prestige and power of Great Britain.

On-going shipping tragedies finally tipped the government’s hand and the scheme was approved.  The new port was to be known as Somerset and a site was chosen on the mainland opposite Pabaju (Albany Island), about eight kilometres from the tip of Cape York.  Somerset was to act as the administrative centre of the area, including Torres Strait for some thirteen years, until its closure in 1877.  During this period its success fluctuated and a range of problems and obstacles hampered the achievement of its original vision.

This brief story of Somerset will be continued in the next post.

This image, dating from 1869, shows the main buildings at Somerset, only some five years after it was originally established.

Brian Randall, Queensland Places Coordinator, State Library of Queensland.

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