The wondrous and occasionally off-beat history of Western Australia is little known outside its vast borders. Richard Offen, executive director of Heritage Perth, takes us for a whirlwind tour through its historic gems. This article first appeared in our Issue 15: Mar-Apr 2013 edition.
WHEN I arrived in Western Australia 11 years ago, I was told quite categorically that pretty much every heritage building in Perth had been demolished during the post World War II gold booms and that the place had nothing as old as the UK. I very soon discovered that nothing could be further from the truth!
Archaeologists tell us that Sahul, the prehistoric name for the Australian continent, was settled around 40,000 years ago. Some palaeontologists have suggested the date could be up to 20,000 years earlier than this. From the first footfall of humans, Indigenous Australians moved southward and eastward across the continent and were well established throughout Western Australia by the time Europeans first visited in the early 17th century. It was the trade in spices and other goods from the East Indies that were much sought after by European merchants, which precipitated the first visits by dwellers from the northern hemisphere. Initially, they followed a route via the Atlantic Ocean to Africa’s southern tip at the Cape of Good Hope, from where most of the early vessels travelled directly northeast towards the Indies. However in 1611, seafarers found that by heading east from the Cape, they were driven by the strong westerly ‘Roaring Forties’ winds, which carried them across the Indian Ocean to within sight of the coast of Western Australia. Once this landmass was sighted, the ships would make a sharp left turn and head north towards Indonesia.
[Captain Stirling's Exploring Party 50 miles up the Swan River, 1827. Courtesy National Library of Australia]
While this new route gave a much faster voyage time, it was all too easy to misjudge exactly when to alter the course northward, with the result that many vessels found themselves in fatal difficulties.
One such vessel was the Zuytdorp. This 700ton trading ship of the Dutch East India Company was dispatched on 1 August 1711 from Zeeland, bound for Batavia. Captained by Marinus Wijsvliet, the vessel was carrying nearly 300 passengers and crew and a cargo that included 250,000 guilders in newly minted silver coins. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, the ship followed the ‘fast route’, but, sometime in June 1712, disaster struck. The Zuytdorp was wrecked by striking a reef under cliffs just south of Shark Bay, at a point now called the Zuytdorp Cliffs. Pounded by the Indian Ocean and towering up to 200m high, these dramatic cliffs are among the highest in Australia. Surveys of the wreck show the Zuytdorp’s anchors were stowed away at the time she went down, which is a good indication that Captain Wijsvliet mistimed the vessel’s turn north and that the ship struck a reef without warning. Unlike the three other Dutch and English East India Company vessels known to have been wrecked in the same area, no survivors from the Zuytdorp ever reached Batavia to report the disaster, hence the lack of a full account of what happened to the ship and her crew.
Further clues to this shipwreck mystery lie in the artefacts found on the seabed and nearby shore. Evidence shows the wreck came to rest close enough to the reef for survivors to clamber ashore. The suspicion that there were survivors was confirmed in 1927, when Tom Pepper, a local stockman, discovered an old campsite, where he found silver coins and artefacts, but no sign of human remains.
A more recent examination of what was found by Pepper has confirmed that the coins were from the Zuytdorp and those stranded on the shore lit huge fires in the hope of attracting help from passing vessels. Today, it’s thought some of the survivors may have been accepted into local Indigenous communities, perhaps even resulting in intermarriage and offspring.
The first settlement at Albany
Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, the west coast of Australia is known to have been visited by the ships of various nations. Of these explorers, it was the French who caused the most concern to the colony in Sydney. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars the British were deeply suspicious of French motives, and in 1826 sent a party of troops and convicts to set up a British military outpost at King George Sound. Originally known as Frederickstown, it was renamed Albany in 1832. Until the construction of Fremantle Harbour in
1897 King George Sound, 400km southeast of Perth, was the only deepwater port in Western Australia.
Visitors can still find evidence of those early years of settlement in the form of Patrick Taylor Cottage. Nestling amid a charming cottage garden, I always think of this 11-room wattle and daub home, the oldest surviving dwelling in the state, as a traditional English cottage with sunshine! It’s a must-see for anyone visiting Albany, and contains artefacts covering many eras of the property’s history. The cottage was built for John Morely around 1832 and sold to Patrick Taylor, a 27-year-old Scotsman who had migrated to Albany for health reasons in 1834.
In the 1840s a financial disaster befell Taylor when his agent in Scotland absconded with a large part of his fortune. He was forced to sell much of his Australian property, and the experience, it was said, left him “much changed… no longer wealthy but broken in spirit and increasingly bitter“.
Taylor died in 1877, but the cottage remained in the hands of the Taylor family until the 1950s. Today it’s the headquarters of the Albany Historical Society.
Another interesting remnant from the days when Albany was a military outpost is Old Farm, Strawberry Hill. The farm was the first place in the state chosen for cultivation by European settlers and the gardens surrounding the farmhouse have been in continuous cultivation since 1827. After clearing, the Government Farm, as it became known, supplied the settlement with fresh fruit and vegetables. Initially, a pair of wooden huts was constructed at the farm to provide shelter for the workers. The shelters were replaced in 1831 by a wattle-and-daub, thatched-roof cottage. The property was acquired in 1833 by the Government Resident Sir Richard Spencer, who turned the house into a gentleman’s country residence. The original section of the house was destroyed by fire in 1870, leaving Spencer’s two-storey granite extension, built in 1836, as the house we see today. In 1966, the property was vested in the Western Australian National Trust and became their first property to be restored. The farm is open daily from 10am to 4pm (www.nationaltrust.org.au).
The campaign for a colony
A small settlement in the western half of Australia was never going to be a long-term solution to preventing the French from claiming the territory. While visiting Sydney on a tour of duty from Britain, Captain James Stirling suggested to New South Wales governor Ralph Darling that he consider a new colony in Western Australia with potential for Indian Ocean trade. As a result, Stirling was despatched, along with botanist Charles Frazer, to explore the west coast and find a suitable spot for a much more substantial settlement.
During this exploration in 1827, Stirling and Frazer spent 12 days in the Swan River area, where they were misled by the lushness of the flora and an exceptionally benign autumn into believing it to be a perfect place for a colony. Sadly for those who eventually became the first colonists, Stirling did not discover that the land on either side of the river was no more than infertile sand dunes of vast proportions. As a result, Stirling returned to Britain with the exaggerated notion that the Swan River area was similar to the most fertile parts of Italy.
Back in England, Stirling’s persuasive powers eventually convinced a reticent British Government that a colony could be set up provided, as Captain Stirling’s orders stipulated,
The Government does not intend to incur any expense in conveying settlers, or in supplying themwith necessaries after their arrival
This was the green light Stirling was looking for and he set about recruiting investors for the new colony and publicising the venture in newspapers. This was too tempting for many who were suffering the economic hardships of post-Napoleonic Wars Britain. As a Sussex farmer, James Henty, wrote to his family,
For the first year or two we shall have to endure privations and hardships which we have not been accustomed to in England. What of that?
On the strength of this, the Henty family, complete with stock and labourers, set sail for the Swan River Colony aboard the Caroline in 1829. After only two years they decided the area’s impoverished soil made farming impossible and the family moved to Victoria. Little did the Hentys, or any of those first few hundred people who set sail from Plymouth in February 1829 know what lay before them. They arrived during a stormy winter and were dumped unceremoniously on the beach at Garden Island only to find a wilderness, not the anticipated utopia. In those early days, settlers suffered severe deprivation. So acute did the situation become that Eliza Shaw was moved to suggest that:
the man who declared this country good deserves hanging nine times over.
Despite the initial hardships, Eliza went on to be one of the pioneer women in the Swan River Colony and eventually wrote that she did “not feel one regret at having left England”. Eliza’s early comments are not surprising, though, given the conditions; petty crime and drunkenness became a problem and, as a result, two of the earliest permanent buildings in the Swan River Colony were a gaol and a courthouse.
“The first object which indicates the site of the town” is the way Nathaniel Ogle described the Round House in Fremantle in his 1839 manual for migrants. Built as a prison and dating back to 1831, this unusual 12-sided building was the first permanent building in the Swan River Colony and is the oldest building still standing in Western Australia. It had eight cells and a jailer’s residence, all based around a central courtyard. It was used for colonial and Indigenous prisoners until 1886, after which the building was used as a police lockup until 1900. It then became the living quarters for the Chief Constable and his family. Now owned by the City of Fremantle, the Round House is open daily. Visiting the jail makes one realise just how tough penal servitude was in the early 19th century. In one enclosure you’ll find a mannequin, dressed as a prisoner, laying on a palliasse; this is luxury compared to the four men who would have been crammed into each tiny cell at night following a day of hard labour. It must have been grim!
On 2 February 1837 Perth’s first Court of General Quarter Sessions was held in the colony’s newly constructed courthouse. Before the construction of the Town Hall, the courthouse was the only substantial building suitable for public meetings and, as such, played an important role in the cultural life of the Swan River Colony. During its early years, it served not only as a courtroom, but also as a church, school, theatre, concert hall, immigration depot and community centre. It’s since been turned into a law museum and is open from Wednesday to Friday every week. When you’re there, sit on the jurors’ bench and try to imagine what it would have been like to be on the jury during the trial of John Gaven, a 15-year-old petty thief, who was the first European to be executed in the colony after being convicted of murder. An excellent audio tour also gives a moving insight into the plight of Aboriginal people brought before the court in those early years.
While the built history of Western Australia may not go back as far as other countries, signs of the oldest continuous culture on the planet subtly reveal themselves at every turn. The history since colonisation, littered as it is with fascinating and often outlandish characters and events, is every bit as colourful as that of older European states, making its study an entertaining and enlightening pursuit. I’m so glad I came here!
✻ For more on the history of the Perth, visit www.heritageperth.com.au
Other useful links:
Wreck of the Zuytdorp, WA Museum – click to view
Western Australian Tourism – click to view
Western Australian National Trust – click to view
State Records Office of Western Australia – click to view
State Library of Western Australia – click to view
Western Australian Genealogical Society – click to view
Featured image is courtesy of the State Library of NSW. Read more about this and other Australian panoramas in Capturing Time: Panoramas of Old Australia