South Australia was the first place in the world to be colonised under the “systematic colonisation” model that became known as the Wakefield Plan.

As Edward Gibbon Wakefield developed the bulk of his plan from within the infamous 19th Century English prison system, it’s fitting that it was also the first colony to be planned and established in Australia by free settlers, without the use of forced convict labour.

Wakefield, along with fellow members of the National Colonization Society including John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham and Adam Smith, were strongly influenced by the values of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that swept Europe in the preceding century. Part of the broader movement of thinkers known as the Philosophical Radicals, the National Colonization Society championed ideals that became central to modern democratic societies: separation of church and state, universal suffrage, gender equality, the secret ballot, Aboriginal rights and the abolition of slavery.

The systematic colonisation model aimed for long-term self-sufficiency, based on free settlement, the sale of land at a reasonable price, and the deliberate selection of young families to ensure gender balance and a sustainable workforce.

South Australia was the first colony to be established under Wakefield’s plan, which he described as “the first attempt since the time of the ancient Greeks to colonise systematically”.

“the first attempt since the time of the ancient Greeks to colonise systematically” – Edward Gibbon Wakefield

Wakefield’s vision of a secular, democratic society that recognised Indigenous rights and the importance of long-term income equality influenced global thinking and practice for more than a hundred years, and directly influenced the establishment of new societies and the reform of existing ones across the globe.

Key to Wakefield’s theory was the need to sell land at a sufficient price. He had observed problems in existing colonies in Australia and believed they stemmed from cheap, unproductive land and labour shortages. In 1829, with the assistance of Robert Gouger, he anonymously published A Letter from Sydney, the Principal Town of Australasia. In this influential document, Wakefield held that free or inexpensive land grants in British colonies encouraged settlers to claim their own land rather than offer their labour for hire.

By setting land prices at a fair rate, Wakefield argued, settlers would be encouraged to work for wages until they could save enough to buy land, and then only buy as much land as they could profitably use. With land sales contingent on detailed surveying prior to sale, and urban and rural settlement contained within surveyed areas, the colony would then expand in a sustainable manner.

Crucially to its acceptance, Wakefield’s plan required no funding from the English Treasury, as land sales would fund the passage of further immigrants, making the colony financially self-sufficient from the outset.

Although the South Australian colony did not adhere to Wakefield’s plan in its entirety – and in the case of recognising and upholding the rights of the Indigenous population was a failure – South Australia is the original and most enduring expression of systematic colonisation.