Territorial separation movements in colonial Australasia

The borders of Australia and New Zealand were not inevitable. Britain’s colonies in the region were not set out on arbitrary whims, nor were they mere accidents. They were the result of complex historical processes, and vigorous campaigns promoted new colonies passionately.

Australasia could have ended up with twice as many freestanding colonies; it could have had fewer. New Zealand might have grown up to become two separate countries. Territorial separation movements capture the contingency of history and show that the political contours of Australia and New Zealand have always been contested. By studying the choices faced and paths not taken, we can more clearly understand how both countries took shape.

My research encompasses separation movements from the first separatist agitation in Van Diemen’s Land in the early 1820s through to the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. I am a proud recipient of an Australian Academy of the Humanities Travelling Fellowship to pursue research in New Zealand archives.

Colonial separation

Movements for colonial separation sought to remove a region from the control of a distant capital and establish it as a freestanding colony within the British Empire. These movements typically anticipated that the new colony would from the outset enjoy responsible self-government with a representative parliament. There were no formal mechanisms to obtain separation; each campaign had to persuade the Colonial Office in London of its merits.

Three campaigns succeeded:

  • Van Diemen’s Land: separated from New South Wales in 1825. The campaign was at an early stage and initiative for separation lay largely with the imperial authorities.
  • Port Phillip District: separated from NSW in 1851 and named Victoria.
  • Moreton Bay: separated from NSW in 1859 and named Queensland.

The other campaigns:

  • Auckland: active from 1853 until the late 1860s, it sought to separate either Auckland Province or the entire North Island from the rest of New Zealand.
  • Auralia: a “separation for federation” campaign of the late 1890s in Western Australia. Its goal was to create a new colony containing the Eastern Goldfields and southwestern WA, which would join the Commonwealth of Australia if the rest of WA rejected federation.
  • Central Queensland: active in the 1880s–90s, it would have created a colony with Rockhampton as its capital.
  • Champion Bay/Gregory’s Land in northern WA during the 1860s and early 1870s. For more, see Jess Barratt’s overview, which brought the movement to my attention.
  • New England and the Northern Rivers: this began in the 1850s allied with the Moreton Bay movement. After the Queensland border was drawn north of the region, various proposals were made to either create a new colony or join Queensland. This movement, however, flourished greatest after federation (beyond my scope)—a referendum on statehood failed narrowly in 1967.
  • North Queensland: active in the 1880s–90s, it would have created a colony with Townsville as its capital. It came close to success and a statehood movement remains active today.
  • Otago: active from 1861 until the 1870s, it sought to create a colony named Southern New Zealand, comprising either the entire South Island or all the territory south of the Waitaki River.
  • Princeland: active in the early 1860s in western Victoria and southeast South Australia, and most popular in Portland, the proposed capital.
  • Riverina: the very name “Riverina” derives from this campaign of the late 1850s and early 1860s to create a colony between the Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers—some versions envisaged much larger borders including much of the Western Division of NSW.

If you are aware of any other colonial-era separation movements in Australasia (i.e. pre-1901), please let me know. I have been surprised to not yet find evidence of one in northern Tasmania. My research focuses on the pre-federation movements; there were some proposals for new colonies that never inspired any local agitation, so they feature only in passing in my research. John Dunmore Lang, for example, proposed numerous sub-divisions of Australia, but only some of these inspired separation campaigns.

I take a general interest in post-federation campaigns for new states, but they do not currently form part of my academic research. Federation quite significantly changed both the course of separation movements and the means of obtaining success.

Provincial separation

One of the buildings that the Southland provincial council used after obtaining separation from Otago.

New Zealand possessed a quasi-federal system of provincial governments from 1853 to 1876. It began with six provinces but the rapid spread of Pākehā settlement rendered their borders inadequate rather quickly. These movements shared personnel and tactics with colonial separation movements. Moreover, in 1858, New Zealand’s central parliament created a formal mechanism that permitted separation—but framed it in such a way as to weaken the entire provincial system. New Zealand’s system of provinces later inspired proposals to divide Queensland into provinces in the 1880s–90s as an alternative to the colonial separation of Central and North Queensland.

There were six prominent provincial separation movements in New Zealand:

  • Hawke’s Bay: separated from Wellington Province in 1858.
  • Murihiku: separated from Otago Province in 1861 and called Southland, a name not in use locally beforehand. (Insolvent, it rejoined Otago in 1870.)
  • South Canterbury: active throughout the 1860s, it possibly had the best claim for new province status; the region had to settle for the creation of the Timaru and Gladstone Board of Works in 1867 instead.
  • Wairau: separated from Nelson Province in 1859 and called Marlborough, a name not in use locally beforehand.
  • Westland: separated from Canterbury Province in 1868 as an autonomous county. It became a fully-fledged province in 1873.
  • Whanganui: sought separation from Wellington Province in the early 1860s. One petition obtained a sufficient number of signatures to meet the threshold for automatic separation, but enough signatories withdrew their names before it was tabled in parliament that it fell short and the movement failed.

There were nebulous calls for North Auckland’s separation, with a capital in the Bay of Islands, and also some proposals to move one region into another province. Gisborne and Tairāwhiti toyed with leaving Auckland Province to join Hawke’s Bay Province. There were regular suggestions to separate Nelson South-West (today Buller and the upper Grey District) from Nelson and join it to Westland. By contrast, some Greymouth residents, dissatisfied with the Westland government in Hokitika, proposed the entire Grey District become part of Nelson—the Grey River proved an inconvenient provincial border.

Note: in my book Acknowledge No Frontier, I distinguish between (colonial) separation and (provincial) secession. Although somewhat anachronistic, I felt that it provided analytical clarity. I have now abandoned this. Some advocates did use the terms “secession” and “independence”, but they were much less common than “separation”, the normal term for colonial and provincial movements alike.

What about the other colonies, how were they created?

Britain’s original claim of New South Wales in 1788 encompassed two thirds of the Australian continent. It did not include Western Australia. Britain pushed NSW’s western border six longitudinal degrees west in 1825 to what is now the border of SA/NT with WA. It then claimed Western Australia as an entirely separate colony in 1829. Britain made both claims by right of discovery; the disregard for Indigenous ownership is now, rightly, infamous.

The original boundaries of NSW were sufficiently vague as to include all of New Zealand down to about Banks Peninsula near present-day Christchurch. Britain later downplayed this claim; it did not confirm NSW’s control over all of New Zealand until 1839. Organised settlement began after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840, and New Zealand was part of NSW until November that year, when Britain made it a separate colony before any separation movement emerged; the decision took months to reach New Zealand, and was proclaimed in May 1841. (Note that Britain did not claim Rēkohu/Chatham Islands or annex them to New Zealand until 1842, so that small archipelago was never part of NSW.)

Britain had likewise excised South Australia from NSW in 1836 before the first European settlers landed. A short-lived colony of North Australia in 1846, encompassing all of NSW north of the Tropic of Capricorn, was entirely a creation of the Colonial Office. William Ewart Gladstone designed it as colonial secretary shortly before Robert Peel’s government fell; when the 3rd Earl Grey took over the role, he had the letters patent creating the colony revoked—although, by the time the news reached Australia, an advance party had landed at Port Curtis near the present-day city of Gladstone and the first lieutenant-governor had been sworn in!

Norfolk Island forms a curious and complex case. Originally part of NSW, the Colonial Office transferred it to Van Diemen’s Land in 1844. The settlement of the Pitcairners in 1856 prompted another change: it was removed from the direct control of any other colony and the governor of NSW became the governor of the Norfolk Islands. This was an entirely separate position, but one held by virtue of governing NSW. Then, in 1897, despite some discussion of incorporating Norfolk Island into New Zealand, London abolished the post of governor of Norfolk Island. The governor of NSW thereafter administered the island as a duty of that office—though the island remained administratively separate from NSW. After federation, an act of the Commonwealth parliament in 1913 formalised Norfolk Island as an external territory of Australia, effective from 1914.

My publications on separation movements


Acknowledge No Frontier: The Creation and Demise of New Zealand’s Provinces, 1853–76. Otago University Press, 2016. Buy here. (See, especially, chapters 5–9.)


‘Colonial and Provincial Separation Movements in Australia and New Zealand, 1856–1865’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 47:1 (2019), 51–75. Read online (paywalled).

‘Did War Cause the Abolition of New Zealand’s Provincial System?’, History Australia, 12:2 (2015), 166–88. Read online (open access).

‘Dreaming on a Railway Track: Public Works and the Demise of New Zealand’s Provinces’, Journal of Transport History, 36:1 (2015), 77–96. Read online (paywalled).

‘The Great Kiwi (Dis)Connect: The New Provinces Act and its Consequences’. Melbourne Historical Journal, 40 (2012), 129–48. Winner, 2013 Fellows’ Essay Prize. Read online (open access).

Other media

‘Bob Hawke’s Narrative on Abolishing the States Is Nonsense’. Guardian Australia, 4 January 2017, read online (open access).

‘A Colony Divided’. Otago Daily Times, 2 July 2016, 6–7. Published online 4 July 2016 (open access).

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