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Salisbury founder John Harvey's African descent left out of history books

John Harvey built the city we know today as Salisbury, in Adelaide's north. (Supplied: Paul Harvey)

The name John Harvey used to be synonymous with the City of Salisbury — after all, he was the founder.

But there was one fact about Mr Harvey that most never knew — a fact that even came as a surprise to his descendants.

John Harvey was a man of African descent, but history often leaves out that detail.

In 1839, Mr Harvey journeyed from Wick, a small town in the far north of Scotland, to South Australia.

He was only 18 when he arrived on Australian shores and nine years later, he began constructing the city we know today as Salisbury.

He was a landowner and built a number of prominent buildings, including the Salisbury Hotel and St John's Church, and he sunk the first well in Gawler.

John Harvey (left) was a member of the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society of SA. (Supplied: Salisbury District Historical Society Inc South Australia)

His African heritage came as a surprise to his great-great grandson, Paul Harvey.

"In the early years I found out that John Harvey was interviewed not long before he died back in 1899, and he mentioned about his parents being of St Helena origin, which is an island off of South Africa," Mr Harvey said.

"And ... that was a bit of a surprise to us."

Paul Harvey, pictured in 1972, grew up in the city his great-great-grandfather helped build. (Supplied: Paul Harvey)

As time went on, the knowledge of the Harvey family and John's heritage seemed to have gotten lost in the growth and development of the city he founded.

"I think nowadays because Salisbury has expanded so much, that it's probably not common knowledge but back in my days, everyone knew about John Harvey," Mr Harvey said.

Mr Harvey recalled growing up and going into shops and owners asking if he was related to John Harvey — and often getting great service as a result.

But he said it was a small community back then and times have changed.

John Harvey built a number of prominent buildings in Adelaide's north. (Supplied: Paul Harvey )

Heritage not yet acknowledged

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Salisbury's population as of 2022 was 148,003.

Mayor Gillian Aldridge, who has held the role for 15 years, said she credited this growth to the "warm and welcoming" attitude of the community.

"There's about 34 per cent of people [in Salisbury] who are born overseas, and for the new arrivals that come to the state, 70 per cent choose to make Salisbury their home," Ms Aldridge said.

Salisbury Mayor Gillian Aldridge says the council's website needs to be updated. (ABC News)

The diversity of the City of Salisbury is something for which it is well known.

But the council website has not yet acknowledged the multicultural background of its founder, which the mayor said needed to be revised.

"It's about time it changed, we've only just come to realise and accept the fact," Ms Aldridge said.

Uncovering multicultural history 

Acknowledging the diverse backgrounds of Australian history makers has not been common practice in the past.

In fact, historian and filmmaker Santilla Chingaipe said there was a large number of cases where the culturally diverse heritage of contributors to Australia's history was ignored.

"The numbers are astonishing, every time I mention this to people, people just get surprised when I tell them we're talking about in the thousands," Ms Chingaipe said.

Ms Chingaipe's work explores settler colonialism, slavery, and post-colonial migration in Australia.

Two years ago, she produced a documentary called Our African Roots, looking at the role people of African descent played in Australia's history. 

This house, pictured in 1976, was passed down through several Harvey generations. (Supplied: Salisbury District Historical Society Inc South Australia)

Ms Chingaipe's film was sparked by a visit to an exhibition in Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria.

"At the opening of the exhibition, it was about the convict period, and they sort of said, 'The first fleet had x number of people of European descent and there were also people that were Jewish and people that were African'," Ms Chingaipe said.

"But that was it. There was no other mention."

She said what happened next changed the way she saw herself as an African-Australian.

"[It] led me to the archives and it was there where I got to see the names of these people and I could verify them and say for certain that there were about 10 people [of African descent] on the First Fleet and subsequently hundreds of others that came in the years that followed," Ms Chingaipe said.

Santilla Chingaipe produced a film looking at the role people of African descent played in Australia's history.  (Supplied: Warsan Mohammed )

She said highlighting the diverse backgrounds of the nation's contributors of the past mattered.

"That would be lovely if we were living in a time when people weren't being discriminated against because of their race," Ms Chingaipe said.

"But also, these things matter to people that come from these backgrounds to be able to know that someone who looked like you, came before you and in some way contributed."

Ms Chingaipe said she hoped the practice of omitting identities would soon become a thing of the past.

"I'm hoping that things will start to change and that we'll start to be able to acknowledge the complexities and the nuances of the people that arrived during colonisation," she said.

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