In recent times King Island has gained an extraordinary reputation for its dairy products. King Island butters, cheeses and creams (particularly clotted cream) have found their way into fashionable suburban delicatessens on the mainland and have become a by-word for dairy quality.
This is just the latest chapter in a long history of agricultural activities on the island. In the late 1790s sealers, often accompanied by Aboriginal women who they had taken into slavery, were attracted to the lonely island. Within a decade they decimated the island's population of seals and sea elephants.
The island was first sighted by Captain Campbell in 1797 and later that year Captain Reid sailed the Martha along the coast at the southern end of the island.
In the early years of the nineteenth century a number of explorers passed the island. In 1801 Captain John Black, the commander of the Harbinger, sheltered near two small islands which he named the New Year Isles. He then sailed on and named the larger island after Governor King. In January 1802 John Murray, captain of the Lady Nelson, surveyed the coastline and later that year a surveyor, Charles Grimes, walked across the island.
In 1802, as part of a concerted effort to keep the French from establishing a base on Australian territory, Lieutenant Robbins was sent to formally take British possession of the island. The incident, which occurred near the present site of Naracoopa, was notable for the fact that it was done while the French explorer, Nicholas Baudin, was moored offshore. Robbins, in his haste to beat the Frenchman, raised the Union Jack upside down. It is claimed that Baudin, amused and annoyed by the absurdity of the incident, observed that the flag looked as though 'it was hanging out to dry'. Before sailing off Baudin tartly remarked that he had 'no intention of annexing a country already inhabited by savages'.
The first leases on the island were taken up in the 1830s and the first permanent European settlers arrived on the island in 1855. For the 50 years after 1830 the population of the island was tiny. Most of the settlers did not prosper. Conditions were harsh and lonely. However, slowly they established the agricultural base - beef and dairy cattle and sheep for both wool and fattened lambs - which is still the mainstay of the island's economy.
Although the island had only a small population it became quite famous during the nineteenth century because it was the site of numerous shipwrecks. In fact the wreck of the Cataraqui in 1845 resulted in the loss of 406 lives, one of the worst maritime disasters in Australian history. The incident is recalled in the naming of Cataraqui Point at the south end of Fitzmaurice Bay.
In an attempt to prevent such shipwrecks no fewer than five lighthouses were built around the island's coastline. The most important lighthouse was built at Cape Wickham in 1861. Granite was quarried nearby and the stones were hauled to the top of the hill on a horse-driven tramway. It was a suitable, if somewhat ghoulish irony, that while constructing the lighthouse skeletons, thought to be survivors from the Neva which had been wrecked on the coast in 1835, were found in the area.
In total there have been 57 shipwrecks along the island's coasts. The unreliability of the weather is Bass Strait was obviously the main factor. It is still possible for skindivers to explore the wrecks of the Neva (1835), Cataraqui (1845), Netherby (1866), British Admiral (1874) and Blencathra (1875).
The island's population expanded dramatically after J. Brown carried out an extensive survey in 1887. The island was opened up to settlement and a number of families, who still live on the island today, took up holdings.
In 1904 scheeite, Australia's chief source of tungsten, was discovered and, with the advent of war, it was first mined in 1917. It was initially mined by the open-cut method but subsequently two underground mines were established at Grassy which today is little more than a company mining town dominated by the mining giant, Peko Wallsend.
Soldier settlements were established on the island after both the world wars thus giving the island's population an important boost. In 1911 there were only 766 people on the island. A total of 50 soldier settler farms were established after World War I, Although the soldiers were each given 60 ha and £625, most were unable to survive the Depression in the 1930s.
The soldier settlement after World War II was more carefully conceived. The CSIRO advised settlers on soil enrichment programs, a total of 161 farms were developed right across the island at Egg Lagoon, Reekara, Yarra Creek, Pegarah and near Mount Stanley. With the settlers came an infrastructure of roads and small settlements which did much to improve the island's facilities.
In the 1970s rutile and zircon were mined on the island's east coast beaches.