Difficulties of settlement in Western Australia [chapter 42 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 42 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 14 April 1935.]

The story of Australia — XLII

Difficulties of settlement in Western Australia

From the first things did not go well with the new settlement formed at Perth. Most of the settlers were unfit for the pioneer work that faced them. They had been attracted to Western Australia by the prospects of obtaining large tracts of land at little cost.

For a few pounds they were to become landed proprietors. But they had no idea of the vastness of the land, and they had not taken into consideration that the value of land depends upon local circumstances. It had not occurred to them that 10 acres of English land might be worth considerably more than thousands of acres in Western Australia.

The Government also, to attract settlers, offered a grant of 20 acres for every three pounds’ worth of goods brought from England. This seemed a wonderful offer, and the colonists were not slow in accepting it. They brought out great numbers of costly articles, by means of which the grants were obtained. Much of the material was useless in the bush, and as it was found too difficult to convey this property to the town, a good deal of it was left stacked up on the beach, where it was soon destroyed by the weather.

Influx of immigrants

Meanwhile Peel’s agents were still spreading attractive reports in England, and ship after ship arrived with immigrants. By the end of the year 1830, the population had risen to nearly 4000 and 525,000 acres had been divided up among the newcomers. But the experiment proved a failure. Officials and wealthy speculators held blocks of land as large as an English county, thus creating a very scattered community.

The lands remaining for selection by small farmers were generally far in the interior. Some attempted to settle in these distant regions, but many of them perished, either from disease and hunger, or from the spears of the natives, who resented their presence. There was little or no attempt to till the ground, and the costly implements which had been imported from England were left to rust on the beach. 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.

The depression now became acute, and many of the colonists left the Swan River altogether to try their luck in the other colonies. One such family — the Henty brothers — became the first settlers in Victoria. Others

returned to England, and the gloomy reports they gave of the colony prevented any further immigration to that part of the world. In 1830 there had been nearly 4000 persons in Western Australia. The greater part of them drifted away, and in 1832 there were only 1500.

Early exploration

It was about 10 years after the founding of the colony that Captain (afterwards Sir George) Grey made two expeditions on the north-west coast. During the first Prince Regent’s River was explored; but the most important result was the discovery of the River Glenelg, which was described as one of the finest in Australia.

It was in this district that Grey discovered some remarkable rock paintings. Their origin is a mystery, but it is certain that they were not drawn by Australian aborigines of the race known to us. The second expedition was reached in February, 1839. The most important discovery during this journey was the River Gascoyne. Terrible misfortunes overtook the expedition, and his return to Perth was completed under very tragic circumstances.

Meanwhile, the prospects of the colony showed no improvement. Even after 20 years’ existence the population was less than 4500. Its total area under crop was 4836 acres, and its revenue £15,000. There was no money available for road construction or other public works; even if there had been, labour was lacking.

Introduction of convicts

In 1843 the colonists were asked if they were willing to receive convicts in their midst. Other colonies had refused them, but it was thought that Western Australia might be glad of them. The colonists, too, saw the material advantages which other colonies had reaped from the presence of convicts, and felt that their only hope of progress depended upon the introduction of the same element. They considered the matter for three years and then agreed to receive them.

In 1849 the first shipload of convicts arrived. From time to time new gangs were received, and the place began to be much more populous than before. There were also signs of progress.

Much criticism has been levelled at the colonists for introducing penal labour, but it undoubtedly relieved the depression which prevailed at the time. It was especially valuable in providing labour for the construction of roads through the settled districts and the erection of public buildings.

It was during this period that the Government house and the Perth town hall were erected.

But in the long run convictism injured the progress of the colony.

Free settlers would not enter the colony, and the eastern colonies refused to admit any person who came from Western Australia. The system continued for 16 years, and during that period 10,000 convicts had been introduced.

In 1868 the transportation of criminals from Great Britain altogether ceased, and Western Australia no longer received its yearly supply of convicts. In 1870 a representative government was granted to the colony, and in 1890 on October 21, a responsible government was proclaimed in Western Australia.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 14 April 1935, p. 33

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