Chapter 12 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

Chapter XII

The founding of Western Australia

Stirling’s examination of the Swan River — Proposals for colonization — Thomas Peel’s project — The Peel River colony — The site of Perth — Early difficulties — Peel’s failure — Stirling’s governorship — Western Australia and the eastern colonies — Shortage of labour — New land regulations — Desire for convict immigrants — A penal colony — Dissatisfaction with the transportation system.

The scene shifts to the western lobe of the continent, to the shores which the Dutch navigators had so often seen on their voyages to and from the East Indies, and which Dampier had dismissed with the cold disparagement that ‘if it were not for that sort of pleasure which results from the discovery even of the barrenest spot upon the globe, this coast of New Holland would not have charmed me much.’

Here, as elsewhere in Australia, the explorer pointed out the way to the settler. It has previously been shown that suspicions concerning French designs — afterwards designated ‘false rumours’ by Lord Ripon — induced Governor Darling to send Major Lockyer to occupy King George’s Sound (Albany) in 1827. At the same time, Captain James Stirling, in H.M.S. Success, made an examination of the Swan River — which the Dutchman Vlaming had named (‘Swaenerevier’) because he found there a species of black swan (‘een soorte van swarte swanen’). Stirling was charmed with what he saw, and the botanist who accompanied him, Fraser, gave a glowing account of the beauties of the river and the capabilities of the soil. Not only in his official report, but also in private letters to influential persons, did Stirling proclaim the value of his discoveries. In one such letter he said that the land on the banks of the Swan, ‘of all that I have seen in various quarters of the world, possesses the greatest natural attractions.’ It was a spot ‘so eligible for settlement that it cannot long remain unoccupied; it is not inferior in any natural essential quality to the plain of Lombardy.’

As soon as Darling received the report he was anxious that a settlement should be founded on the Swan River. Lockyer’s little colony at Albany had not much good back country, but Stirling’s report indicated boundless possibilities. The Governor therefore sent him to England in order that he might present it to the Government in person, and back up Darling’s very strong recommendation that the Swan River should be peopled without delay.

Some people were still imbued with ideas as to French designs. Curiously enough, too, the Secretary to the Admiralty pressed the point that there was a danger lest the ‘French or the Americans should assume possession of the only safe anchorage on the west coast of Australia’ — though it is not apparent that America, in 1828, took any interest in Western Australia apart from the profit which a few whalers might make. But the Government, however willing it might be that the Swan River should be occupied, was determined not to incur expense. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was cutting down expenditure, and his colleagues did not see any advantage in extending the area of British occupation in Australia. The Colonial Secretary, Huskisson, suggested that the East India Company might found a colony, the Government promising every facility; but the Company would not undertake the venture. Then Stirling undertook to form a company of private capitalists to colonize under a Royal Charter; but the Government would not entertain that proposition. Indeed, they did not seem to see any particular reason for exerting themselves. There was, it was now abundantly clear, unbounded scope for expansion in New South Wales. As long as foreigners could be kept off other portions of the coastline by waving the Union Jack, dumping down a few convicts at points like Westernport, Albany, and Melville Island, and saying firmly in diplomatic language, ‘This is all ours’ — that was sufficient. The lion lay couchant after a heavy meal, with his paws on what he intended for his supper.

But there were Englishmen who, attracted by Stirling’s account of the Swan River, believed in the possibility of making a profitable investment and at the same time of performing valuable Imperial service there. Following the flow of free immigration to Australia, masses of English capital were awaiting scope for investment in the country. The Australian Agricultural Company, with a capital of £1,000,000, commenced to operate in New South Wales in 1824; in 1825 the Van Diemen’s Land Company acquired a great estate in the southern island. News about the Swan River came to hand just at the time when these enterprises had been taken in hand.

Mr. Thomas Peel, a cousin of Sir Robert Peel, was the prime mover in the new scheme. He undertook, on behalf of a syndicate formed for the purpose, to convey 10,000 immigrants to Western Australia and settle them there, at an estimated cost of £30 per head, or a total of £300,000, in return for a grant of 4,000,000 acres, valued at 1s. 6d. per acre, which would exactly recoup this outlay. Peel had sundry interviews with Colonial Office officials, from which, being a man of extremely sanguine disposition, he drew the inference that the syndicate’s terms were accepted. He even went so far as to purchase a ship for conveying his first batch of immigrants.

But though the Government did not wish to incur financial obligations in behalf of the Swan River, the Colonial Office considered that Peel’s terms were extravagant. They knew from their experience of conveying convicts that the cost per head would not run to £30, and a grant of 4,000,000 acres — a larger area than Yorkshire — of unknown value, was rather a stiff price to pay; though the Company undertook to grant 200 acres to each of the immigrants, thus disposing of one half the total domain. The Colonial Office cut down the land grant to 1,000,000 acres. Each immigrant was to get 40 acres for every £3 invested by him in land — that is, one acre for every 1s. 6d. invested; and this land was not to become the freehold property of the settler unless he spent 1s. 6d. per acre in improving it within the first three years.

Peel’s partners did not see much prospect of profit in these terms. But he himself aspired to be one of the founders of ‘new majesties of mighty states,’ and to make a name for himself, like Penn and Delaware in America, as well as to invest his money to advantage; and, as he was to get 250,000 acres for himself as the founder of the colony — and that area, after all, was a bigger piece of territory than the county of Huntingdon — he decided to proceed.

Peel invested £50,000 of his own money in the scheme, and lost most of it. Stirling was appointed Governor, and he arrived in the Parmelia with fifty-five passengers on June 1, 1829.

Exactly where the administrative centre should be located had not yet been determined. The port of Fremantle was deemed unsuitable, and, until the beautiful site of Perth was chosen and the foundation of a township laid (August 12), Stirling encamped his people on Garden Island, a sandy waste a few miles from the mouth of the Swan. Here they endured severe privations for several months, many living like black-fellows, sheltered from the sharp ocean winds only by brushwood screens. From this place exploring parties were sent out to look for cultivable land. Meanwhile, more immigrant ships in quick succession brought their living freight, the hopeful colonists having been induced to leave England by the attractive reports circulated by Peel’s agents. Peel himself took out 300 people, whom he engaged to work upon his own land. By January 1830 twenty-five ships had landed 850 persons in the Swan River colony, there was a total population of 1,300, and 525,000 acres of land had been allotted. During that year about a thousand more arrived. There were cattle, sheep, horses, fruit-trees, plants, seeds, tools, and all the necessary equipment of a colony.

But Peel’s experiment was a failure; and the philanthropic investor burnt his fingers. It failed for several reasons. To plant some hundreds of settlers upon large areas of land necessarily meant creating a very scattered community. Every man lived miles away from every other man. He was monarch of all he surveyed, but he surveyed only solitude. There were no roads. These English people had not been accustomed to a life of that kind. Some, it is true, were bravely venturesome. ‘Acting under the impulse of novelty,’ reported Stirling, ‘there were many who at once established themselves on their land, regardless of danger from the natives and of the difficulty they encountered in removing their goods from the coast.’

Then, the Western Australian aboriginals resented the occupation of their happy hunting-grounds by this horde of white people who had descended suddenly upon the country. Dampier had not liked the look of the Western Australian blacks — ‘the Hodmadods of Monomatapa,’ he said, ‘though a nasty people, are gentlemen to these’ — and Peel’s settlers liked them less. They attacked the intruders, and the few soldiers whom Stirling had with him were forced to shoot some.

Further, the task of building houses in the wilderness, of clearing land, cultivating, and tending stock, was desperately hard work. Western Australia is a country four and a half times as big as France, three times as big as Germany, a country of huge forests and bush land, and of immense, waterless plains. It was not easy for immigrants from a thickly populated country to make homes for themselves there, especially as there was nobody to take them in hand and show them the way of it. Very stout-hearted men were required to succeed in such circumstances, and not a very large proportion of the settlers were of that kind. ‘Many of the settlers who have come,’ said Stirling, ‘should never have left a safe and tranquil state of life.’ Naturally, many gave up the attempt in despair, and clung to the centre of the settlement, Perth, where they had to be fed from the Government stores. Others left the Swan River altogether, to try their luck in other parts of Australia. One such family, as we shall see, became the first settlers in Victoria.

Peel’s own company of selected immigrants melted away from him. Others who had obtained large grants of land and had brought their own labourers from England endured a similar experience. These servants had not been chosen with care. ‘Many indented servants,’ Stirling reported, ‘were recommended to their employers by parish officers,’ and ‘their habits were of the loosest description.’ Indeed, the ‘greater part’ of the servants were the ‘outcasts of parishes’ in England, persons who, being a constant charge on the poor-rates at home, parish officers were very glad of the chance of sending abroad. At the same time it must be said that some of Peel’s people were competent farm workers and were willing to give him loyal service. But he had indentured them for a wage of 3s. per day, and they could earn more by working for other settlers; and though he did secure the punishment of some for breach of indentures, he gave permission to others to leave his service. ‘A number of them,’ wrote Captain Irwin, who published a little book about the colony, ‘were excellent men who would have conscientiously adhered to him had he not given them the option of working for others.’ But Peel, though his aims were good, was not a successful leader of men. The magnitude of the task he had undertaken was beyond his powers. He knew nothing of pioneering work in an untamed wilderness, and his personal characteristics were not those of an organizer. Finally, when brought to the verge of ruin, he made the best of a bad job, at his home in Mandurah, where for thirty years, until his death, he lived the life of a solitary and disappointed man.

But though Peel’s experiment failed, and his settlement was described as ‘the scarecrow of civilization,’ the colony of Western Australia endured; and the very failure brought into existence another colony on the southern coast of Australia.

That Western Australia was not abandoned after the collapse of the first mistaken endeavour was due principally to the energy and resource of Stirling. It was on his recommendation that the Swan River Settlement was founded, and, though he had had no experience of colonizing, and had both seriously underrated the difficulties and inadequately prepared to encounter them, he did not mean to let the colony die on his hands. He was in the prime of life, thirty-eight, and his training as a naval officer had made him an adept in leadership and in finding expedients. He had brought his young wife of twenty-two out with him, to ‘rough it’ in the wilderness, and she, with her refinement and social tact, was no inconsiderable factor in making possible a tolerably agreeable life for the people over whom her husband ruled. He was indefatigable in personally conducting exploring parties and in directing the efforts of intending settlers into probably profitable channels. For nine years (till 1838) he was at the head of the government, except for two years when he was in England explaining to the Colonial Office the causes of the initial failure and securing support for his future efforts. Patience and an intelligent optimism were his guiding lights, and with these and his administrative ability he pulled the colony through the troubles of its infancy.

There was no suspicion as yet of the gorgeous deposits of gold which lay under the sands of Western Australia. The colony had to endure from the products of its soil. Stirling realized that it was hopeless at this stage to establish a thriving community on small holdings. It was no country for peasant proprietors. It had magnificent timber resources, but there was at present but a small market for that commodity. The only chance of success was to offer inducements to those who could take up fairly large areas for mixed farming and grazing. Agriculture alone offered no fruitful prospects, but sheep and cattle raising and horse breeding could be made to pay. In more recent times, when a larger population has created more demands for land for wheat farming and fruit culture, the large holdings have been felt to be an embarrassment; but it has to be remembered that the creation of these estates in the earlier years of Western Australia’s existence was the policy which saved it from bankruptcy and abandonment.

The curve of the population figures shows how the colony fared. In 1830 there had been as many as 4,000 persons in Western Australia. The greater part of them drifted away, and in 1832 there were only 1,500. Then, little by little, a period of growth commenced. It was a very slow process, truly, but the corner had been turned. In 1840 there was a population of 2,350; in 1850 it numbered over 5,000.

These people were separated from the other Australian colonies by vast trackless deserts and 2,000 miles of ocean. It was easier to trade with London than with Sydney. Nearly everything produced in Western Australia was also produced in larger quantities in the older settlements. Consequently there was little scope for trade with them. The colony came to feel that it was divided in its interests as well as geographically from other colonies on the same mainland; and it showed that feeling in an acute fashion when it asked for convict immigration several years after transportation to New South Wales had ceased, and the public conscience had revolted from it. The story of the ending of the convict system elsewhere will be told in a later chapter; here it is necessary to explain why it was inaugurated in Western Australia.

In the beginning there was a distinct determination that convicts should not be introduced, and a feeling of pride that the western colony had come into existence by other means than New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land had done. Captain Irwin, in his State and Position of Western Australia, 1835, spoke of the ‘feeling of disgust’ aroused by a proposition to bring convicts to King George’s Sound; it was, he said, a ‘monstrous project,’ which was ‘not likely to gain many adherents in the country.’ Peel had stipulated that convicts were not to be taken to the Swan River, and the home Government never violated this condition. Anxiety was even expressed lest convicts who had served their sentences in the penal settlements should come westward, and in 1845 there was a demand that expirees should be prohibited from landing at Perth.

But at this very time a change was brewing. Labour was scarce. The population increased by immigration, but at the same time the colony lost labourers by emigration to the eastern and southern colonies. The supply of hands was inadequate to work the farms and tend the stock. Western Australia was threatened with stagnation just when the preliminary rough work of pioneering had been done, and an era of prosperity had seemed to be within sight. Moreover, the Imperial Government had lately introduced a new land policy. Acting on ideas which will be explained later, ministers raised the minimum price of land to £1 per acre throughout the Australian colonies without regard to differences in quality. This regulation hit Western Australia in three ways. First, it deprived the colony of the opportunity of attracting settlers by the offer of very cheap land. If an immigrant to Australia had to pay at least £1 per acre, he would be likely to go elsewhere than to the Swan River. Secondly, by thus decreasing the land sales it deprived the colony of the fund which it had been using for bringing out labourers. Thirdly, it prevented the inflow of fresh capital, which every immigrant brought with him to a greater or lesser degree. Depression and gloom hung over the Swan River. Trade was at a standstill. Land was unsaleable.

In 1848 the English Government inaugurated a new system of treating convicts. What the conditional pardon system was, and why it was brought into being, will be explained in Chapter XVIII. Here it is sufficient to indicate that in the year mentioned Governor Charles Fitzgerald, who had just assumed office in Perth, inquired among the leading colonists whether they would be willing to relieve the situation in regard to the shortage of labour by receiving convicts under this plan. The subject was much canvassed for several months, and early in 1849 a public meeting held at Perth passed a resolution asking the Imperial Government ‘to erect this colony into a regular penal settlement.’ Fitzgerald forwarded the resolution to London with the expression of his opinion that the majority of the people would gladly learn that Western Australia had been chosen for the reception of convicts. Accordingly, on May 12, 1849, Orders in Council were passed appointing Western Australia a place to which such persons might be despatched, and the first batch arrived in June 1850.

In these circumstances Western Australia became a penal settlement after the other Australian colonies, except Van Diemen’s Land, had by their own determined efforts thrown off the incubus of convictism. The system endured for sixteen years. It resulted in nearly 10,000 convicts being introduced; but, at the same time, in accordance with an understanding made at the commencement, and scrupulously carried out by the Imperial Government, an equivalent number of free immigrants were conveyed to the Swan River. Thus, in the nine years from 1855 to the end of 1863, 4,800 convicts and 4,850 free immigrants, whose passages were paid from England, arrived. Some of the participants in the Irish rebellion of 1848 were amongst the convict class.

The system ended very largely in consequence of vigorous protests made by the other Australian colonies against the continued shipping of British felons to any part of the continent. The last convict ship to bring its unhappy freight to these shores arrived in 1868.

The introduction of a labour supply, even from this muddied source, did undoubtedly relieve the depression in 1840 and the following years, and it was especially valuable in providing the Government with labour for the construction of roads and bridges and the erection of public buildings. Moreover, the maintenance of the system on the banks of the Swan cost the Imperial Government £98,000 per annum, and the expenditure of a large part of this money on commodities produced in the colony necessarily benefited the settlers. But in the long run the system was not advantageous. The deposit of 600 convicts per annum in Perth soon made the portion of the population who had been sentenced more numerous than the free settlers. Many of those whose term of service expired drifted to the other colonies, or, as a memorial forwarded to the Imperial Government from those colonies stated, ‘Western Australia is, in fact, a mere conduit pipe through which the moral sewage of Great Britain is poured upon those communities.’ The expirees who remained in Western Australia entered into competition with the free people and made them discontented with the system, which constantly tended to drive out the free class. From England’s point of view convictism, as practised in Western Australia, was a costly failure. As the Under-Secretary for the Colonies said, ‘Our experiment has been anything but successful; the establishment has been enormously costly in proportion to the relief which this country has enjoyed.’ England, indeed, would have dropped the system before 1867 had it not been believed that its continuance was a convenience to Western Australia. When it became clear that such was no longer the case, and that the eastern and southern colonies very deeply resented the further contamination of the country, it ceased.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 132-142

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