James Stirling, who founded Western Australia [by Professor Ernest Scott, 10 June 1939]

[Editor: This is part four of the “Men who made Australia” series written by Professor Ernest Scott.]

Men who made Australia — No. 4

James Stirling, who founded Western Australia

By Professor Sir Ernest Scott

The British Government displayed a curious unconcern about the future of Australia when colonisation was in progress, and was inclined to leave the portion of the Australian continent west of the New South Wales border for any country which might be inclined to annex it.

Captain James Stirling was the man who, in the face of a reluctant, and even antagonistic, Colonial Office, insisted on the necessity for colonising Western Australia, and at last had his way.

The fact that the whole of Australia was colonised by people of British stock, is due to a series of historical incidents with the last of which Captain James Stirling was intimately connected. But for his energetic action it is possible that Western Australia would not have become a British colony, and, if that had been so, the political integrity of this continent, which in itself is a very remarkable achievement, would not have been attained. One can never be sure of what would have happened if events had shaped themselves differently from what actually occurred, but inasmuch as the British Government in 1828 officially intimated that it was undesirable to occupy Western Australia, it is reasonable to assume that that policy would have been continued except for some strong agency which induced a change of mind. Stirling provided that agency. Hence his importance as one of the founders of the political structure of Australia as we know it today.

When Cook discovered the east coast of Australia in 1770, he, as is well known, landed on Possession Island, hoisted the British colors, and took possession in the name of King George III. Eighteen years later, when Phillip landed at Sydney Cove, he acted on the authority of a commission which appointed him Governor of the whole territory from Cape York to South Cape and of all the country inland as far as the 135th degree of east longitude. It was assumed by Cook, by the British Government, and by Phillip, that discovery gave a title to possession.

But on what authority did that assumption rest? In the reign of Queen Elizabeth, when Spain claimed the American continent by virtue of discovery, and Portugal made a similar claim to West Africa and a large part of the east of that continent, the English Government refused to recognise that the Spaniards and the Portuguese had any rights over more territory than they actually occupied. Both Elizabeth and her successor. James I., agreed not to permit the English to settle on lands already in the possession of “any Christian prince or people,” but the pretence of any nation to sovereignty over more territory than it colonised and effectually governed continued to be vigorously disputed. The eastern seaboard of America from the New England Puritan colonies in the north to the plantation settlements in the south, could not have been settled by English people if the Spanish contention had not been successfully resisted.

Restricted settlement

Cook’s taking possession of a vast coastline extending over 27 degrees of latitude could scarcely have been maintained if there had been at the end of the 18th century any rival colonising power which disputed the English claim as firmly as England had disputed that of Spain in the 16th. For about 30 years after the establishment of New South Wales the only settlement was that based upon Sydney, with a few small farming patches extending to the fringe of the Blue Mountains. There was little apparent probability of effective use being made of the thousands of miles of territory marked on paper as British, but which Great Britain did not occupy.

The position was evidently insecure, and the governing authorities felt anxious about it. Shortly after the dawn of the 19th century, therefore, we find little bits of British settlement being projected here and there, not because more land was required for use, but to prevent foreign occupation. Colonel Collins’s abortive occupation of Port Phillip in 1803 was the first attempt at pegging out a claim at a substantial distance from Sydney. The foundation of Hobart in 1804 and of Launceston a little later, made fairly sure of Tasmania. Brisbane was settled in 1824. In the same year Bathurst and Melville Islands and the Coburg Peninsula in the extreme north were occupied, chiefly by desire of the East India Company, in the belief that it might thereby protect its Far Eastern trade. The Westernport and King George’s Sound settlements in 1826 continued the process. All of these were in the first instance strategic occupations rather than genuine colonising efforts. They were evidently not made because there was real immediate need for absorbing more territory around the coastline of Australia. There was more than enough room in New South Wales for many thousands of people in excess of the numbers contemplated at that time.

French interest

After the termination of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars there arose in France a colonial party, numerically not strong, but very influential, which desired to build up a new colonial empire. France, after losing Canada in 1763, had during the later wars suffered the further disaster of having to sacrifice a large part of her overseas possessions. When, therefore, in the first quarter of the 19th century, two French exploring expeditions came into Australasian seas, it was believed that their aim was to find places where colonies might be planted. Those expeditions, commanded respectively by Louis de Freycinet and Dumont d’Urville, were splendidly equipped, and each carried a large staff of men of science. Research, not occupation of territory, was their undoubted purpose. But whether there was an ulterior design on the part of the French Government is not so clear.

It is manifest that by about the year 1824, those men in England who had most to do with British colonial policy had come to the conclusion that enough of Australia had been occupied. The Colonial Office did not desire to take responsibility for any considerable extension. Even when plans were made for occupying Bathurst and Melville Islands, the commander of H.M.S. Tamer, Captain Bremer, was instructed that “in the event of any other power having anticipated His Majesty’s intention with regard to this part of New Holland, and having actually taken possession of either of the islands, or the peninsula” — that is, Coburg peninsula — he was to “abstain from any act of hostility and proceed forthwith to plant a settlement on some part of the country adjacent to Liverpool River.”

It was during this period of reluctance on the part of the Imperial Government to extend possession of Australian territory, that James Stirling came into the foreground with the proposition that Western Australian should be annexed. A man needed to be a natural optimist to hope for success in such a direction.

Up to this time Stirling had been a naval officer of the usual service pattern, doing his duty capably, expecting promotion according to the rules, with no special claim upon the notice of history. One supposes that he never dreamt of becoming famous as the founder of a State.

Stirling’s persistence

In December, 1826, Stirling, commanding H.M.S. Success, was under orders to remove part of the garrison from Melville Island to a temporary camp on Croker Island, with a view of searching for a more suitable situation somewhere on the mainland or northern Australia. He reported that it was not desirable to expose men to the arduous labor of clearing ground and building houses during tne rainy season. His advice having been taken on that point, he occupied his time in examining the coast of Western Australia. He paid particular attention to the Swan River. That situation, he considered was far more advantageous for furthering the designs which the Government had in mind, than Melville Island was. It was preferable from the military and naval point of view, the climate was “healthy and bracing” and, though the quality of the soil and the natural productions were as yet unknown, it was, he thought, fair to assume that as the Swan River country was situated in the same latitude as New South Wales, it would be similarly capable of development.

Stirling’s dispatch describing the Swan River was a little masterpiece of concise argument and subdued enthusiasm. He believed in the future of the freshly-examined territory from the moment when he first saw it, and henceforth became its steadfast champion.

At first, Stirling made no impression upon the Colonial Office. The short-lived Administration of George Canning had ended with the death of that brilliant statesman, and the new Government of Lord Goderich came into office, with William Huskisson as Secretary of State for the Colonies. Huskisson, though admitting that the Swan River appeared to possess “many of the advantages required for a settlement,” was opposed to its occupation as a British colony. Its distance from Sydney was so great that the machinery of a distinct Government would have to be set up. “I am of opinion,” wrote the Minister in January, 1828, “that it would be inexpedient on the score of expense to occupy this part of the coast, and that it is unnecessary, with the view to any urgent interest,” to attempt any new settlement at present in that quarter.”

Huskisson promised, however, that he would apprise the East India Company of the discovery of the Swan River, in case they should, in the interest of their eastern trade, think it advisable to establish a station there, though he confessed that he was not aware of any sufficient motive to induce them to embark in an undertaking of this nature.”

That, then, was the chilling view of the Colonial Office, which, be it noted, was not then under the direction of any Manchester-school Radical, but of a Tory of the Canning-Peel school of thought.

But Stirling was not to be deterred by a dash of official cold water. He had gone to London to advocate the merits of the Swan River, and placed himself in touch with influential persons. He wrote a letter pointing out that the land which he had examined possessed the greatest natural attractions of all he had seen in various quarters of the world. “It is not inferior,” he maintained, “in any natural essential quality to the Plain of Lombardy.”

Ruin for promoter

One of the persons, who, happily for Western Australia, but not for himself, became interested in Stirling’s missionary zeal, was Thomas Peel. He was wealthy, and eager to use his wealth for the development of a great enterprise. Peel formed a syndicate which undertook to send out 10,000 settlers and a sufficiency of stock, if the Government would grant them 4,000,000 acres.

In the meantime, the Duke of Wellington had come into office as Prime Minister. Huskisson quarrelled with the Duke on a small issue, and resigned. He was succeeded at the Colonial Office by Sir George Murray. This change occurred only four months after Huskisson had refused to sanction the foundation of a colony on the Swan. Two years later Huskisson was killed by a locomotive at the formal opening of England’s first railway.

The new Secretary of State looked favorably upon the project of Thomas Peel, though on the advice of his officials he cut down the area desired by the syndicate from four million acres to a quarter of a million, with the promise of 750,000 more if certain conditions of settlement were fulfilled. Peel’s partners dropped out when the acreage was reduced, thinking the risk of failure too great, as indeed it proved to be. Peel determined to proceed independently of them, and was in due course ruined. But, at any rate, the Swan River Colony, as it was at first called, war now founded, with James Stirling as its Governor: and that was the beginning of the great State of Western Australia.

But for the persistency of Stirling it is safe to say that Great Britain would not have taken possession of Western Australia at the end of 1828. To him we owe it, therefore, that the integrity of Australia as a British colonising field was secured. At that time, the only probable competitor in colonisation was France. Neither Freyeinet nor Dumont d’Urville had seen the Swan River, and what they reported about the coasts of Western Australia which they did see would not have induced France to turn her glance in that direction. But Stirling’s enthusiasm ensured that foreign rivalry did not, then or at a later date, open up such a series of complications as possibly might have ensued.

For ten years (1829-39) Stirling governed Western Australia, at first as a benevolent autocrat, afterwards with a Ministry and a Legislative Council. When he resigned the Governorship he resumed his naval career, and, reaching the rank of admiral, commanded fleets in the Mediterranean and all the oceans. But the great achievement of his life was the creation of Western Australia — the discovery of its possibilities, which proved to be vastly greater than he envisaged, and the firm planting of Government on the banks of the Swan. The reason why the arms of Western Australia consist of a black swan with no further heraldic embellishment is based upon sound historical grounds. No device could have been more appropriate.

The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 10 June 1939, page 22

[Editor: The editorial introduction to this article has been italicized, so as to distinguish it from the text written by Professor Scott.]

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