An Australian Parsonage/Chapter XVI
West Australia regarded as the "ugly duckling" by sister colonies—Contains, nevertheless, best timber in the world—Jarrah wood—Its indestructible nature—Blue gum—Formation of timber company—First railroad—York gum—Casuarina—Suitability of Jarrah for railway sleepers—Improvement of Cockburn Sound—Shingling of roofs—Sandalwood trade—Whale fisheries—Whaling almost monopolized by Americans—Ball on board the whaler—Registrar's, statement of abundance of whales—The "gentleman from Tasmania"—Overland expedition to Adelaide—Incidents related by M. Rossel—Government geologist—Discovery of new pasture land—Tommy Winditch's announcement—Pearl fisheries—Hawk's-bill turtles—Sponges—Western Australia viewed as a field for emigration—Necessity for raising loan—Manner of carrying on business in the colony—Influence of merchant-class: when and how injurious to a colony or beneficial to it—Instance of labourer desirous to clear land—Help from storekeeper—Reason of land being rented—Small farmers often little better than carriers—Clearing lease—Necessity for great variety of information—West Australia unattractive to large sheep-owners—Presents a different aspect to small capitalist—Prospects offered to the hard-working immigrant—Great preponderance of convict over free inhabitants—Antagonism between classes to be dreaded—Colony unsuited to persons possessing small fixed incomes—Storekeeping ten or twelve years ago—Expense of imported goods—Suitability of West Australia to labouring men and invalids.
The foregoing pages were written from recollection of what Western Australia was when we left it two years and a half ago, rather too short a period, perhaps, under ordinary circumstances, to effect much change in the existing state of an old country, but sufficient, in a colony as in a growing child, to produce a marked development of stature, and a great modification of feature. It cannot be said that the advance of West Australia has been very rapid in the interval which I have mentioned, but it has, nevertheless, showed signs of real progression, and, despite the unfavourable circumstances of its birth which, in nursery phraseology, have made it "backward on its feet," there are reasonable grounds for believing that it may, even yet, learn to run alone.
The different members of the same household are sometimes slow in recognizing the gifts and graces of each other, and Western Australia has long been regarded by the sister colonies of the great southern continent somewhat as the "ugly duckling" of the family. I do not know whether these more successful neighbours have, as yet, revoked their opinion, but a fact, which has long been known to the friends of the unlucky fledgling, has at length received solid acknowledgment in Victoria, to wit, that the much-contemned colony of Swan River contains, in inexhaustible quantities, the best timber in the world.
"Self-love and social" were long ago pronounced by Pope as identical, and the truth is that the days appear to have gone by when the settler in any part of Australia can hope to make a fortune in a few years by the rapid increase of his flocks and the proceeds of his wool. The fortunes of Australia, as a whole, can no longer be embarked in one enterprise, and, as no country in the world, perhaps, possesses more varied resources than West Australia, the eyes of the neighbouring colonies naturally turn towards her in their desire to strike out for themselves new and lucrative branches of industry.
Now the one product of timber alone will probably hereafter, more than make up for all the disadvantages under which Western Australia has suffered hitherto. Hundreds upon hundreds of square miles of her territory are covered with forests of magnificent trees, many kinds of which are of great value to the house-carpenter, the machinist, and the ship-builder; but none of them more pre-eminently important than that which, in common conversation is called "native mahogany," "jarrah" in aboriginal language, and in scientific speech, "Eucalyptus marginata." The qualities of this wood may even bear the palm when placed in rivalry with heart of oak. The white ant, the Teredo navalis, and the barnacle are all alike foiled by its powers of resistance, but its most striking characteristic is, that it scarcely shows the slightest symptom of decay after being many years steeped in water. A log, which had formed part of an old bridge and had been seventeen years immersed, was exhibited in London in 1862, one of its sides being planed and polished in order to show the slight extent to which it had deteriorated. Although exposed to water for so long a period, and with three feet of its length sunk in mud, one inch alone was in a state that could have been described as less good than new. The harbour-master of Fremantle also drew attention in 1862 to the fact of two buoys of jarrah wood having been afloat in that port for eight years, and having needed no other repairs during that time than the supply of a few new iron hoops.
The timber which ranks next in importance to the jarrah, and is said, indeed, to be of nearly equal value to that wood for naval purposes, is another species of eucalyptus known to the colonists as the blue gum, which, in the words of an old report on the statistics of Western Australia, "attains to a very considerable growth in many parts of the country, and particularly on portions of the southern coast westward of King George's Sound, where it is easily accessible for shipping, and exceeds the size required for beams of the largest man-of-war." The blue gum is said to be unfit for masts and spars on account of its great weight, although well adapted for machinery or planking of any kind, in which last capacity its immense length must offer great advantages, as it attains a straight growth of more than a hundred feet without knot or branch.
The red gum, Eucalyptus resinifera, furnishes also a hard close-grained timber fit for naval purposes, but its numerous "gum veins" render it unfit for outer planking. The same old report from which I have just quoted says that iron corrodes very little either in the jarrah or the red and blue gums, but its author's recommendation of the blue gum for the upper works of men-of-war "on account of the impossibility of either splitting or splintering it" was evidently given before turreted ships and ironclads had been dreamed of, and it must wait to be experimented upon until the day when, according to maritime croakers, England will break up her metal fleets and once again defend herself with wooden walls.
The time has arrived, however, when the boundless wealth of the West Australian forests shall no longer be produced in vain, and since our return to England a number of persons belonging to Victoria, have enrolled themselves under the name of the "West Australian Timber Company," to whom, in the words of the Governor at the opening of the new Legislative Council at Perth in December, 1870, "Her Majesty's Government" have permitted him "to make very liberal and special concessions." His Excellency announced, in addition, that "another Melbourne company" had since asked concessions which it was also in his power to grant.
The first-named company commenced its operations at Géographe Bay, whence they have already laid down a line of railway (as yet unique in the colony) stretching eleven miles into the interior as far as to their head station of Yokonup, which is situated in a dense forest of jarrah. At the ends of the line, which it was hoped would be formally opened by the Governor himself last June, townships are springing up under the respective names of Yokonup and Lockville, and more than four thousand logs of wood, which had been previously contracted for, are said to have been lying ready last April, awaiting their transit on the arrival of the expected "locomotive" from Melbourne.
The jarrah has now become so completely the chief building timber in all parts of the colony, that other descriptions of wood have, perhaps, had scarcely a fair chance.The coachmakers and wheelwrights speak very highly of the merits of another of the eucalyptus tribe called the York gum. This timber is very hard and close-grained, and wheels made from it seem to stand the great dryness of the atmosphere and the destructive effects of the rough bash roads remarkably well. I have heard of a pair of dray wheels which had been in constant use for more than four years without showing signs of any deterioration. I was also once shown a very pretty gun-stock which had been made of York gum, and it seems to be likewise well suited for all kinds of millwright's work.
The casuarina, or shea-oak, has been found valuable to the cooper, as casks made from it have worn well, and given great satisfaction to buyers. But it is to the jarrah forests that the colony must look for any really large and important timber trade.
A commission of inquiry was held at Adelaide, a short time ago, for the purpose of investigating the real merits of Swan River mahogany, especially in connection with all descriptions of harbour works and piers, and it was then proved that, when properly felled and seasoned, the piles of jarrah are almost indestructible.
In India, also, a large demand for both railway sleepers and telegraph posts of this wood will be certain to arise the moment that engineers can depend upon having their orders executed with certainty and dispatch. Hitherto the difficulties of bringing the logs to the shore, and then of putting them on board ship, have been so great, that to load a vessel of eight or nine hundred tons with railway sleepers, has been a three months' work. Now that better prospects are opening, and that the Indian railway companies are aware that both energy and capital are embarked in the enterprise of developing this trade, there is every prospect that very large orders will reward the enterprise of the new timber companies. It was stated, on official authority, a year ago, that, if such an order could have been undertaken at that time, certain firms in India were desirous of contracting for upwards of one hundred and fifty thousand pounds worth of jarrah timber for immediate use.
Should the proposal of carrying out a large ship jetty and other similar works at Cockburn Sound, so as to establish a convenient port there, be carried out, as there seems good reason to hope may be the case, (since this plan is earnestly recommended by Mr. Doyne, consulting engineer to the Governor,) every facility both for bringing the timber to the shore and for putting it on board ship would be afforded, and large orders could then be executed with rapidity and ease.
The trees which I have mentioned by name are but a few out of a variety vast enough to render West Australia, in respect of woods, a perfect paradise to an enthusiastic lover of the turning-lathe. The two woods most in favour for turning are the sandalwood and raspberry jam, on account of their perfume, but the casuarina, or shea-oak, deserves equal popularity, as it is a beautifully-marked wood, and capable of being worked down to a very thin edge. In this last respect, however, there is again no wood that can surpass the jarrah. Its grain is closer and firmer in texture than the Spanish mahogany, and it is a better wood for turning, that is, if a really fine log be chosen, such as was one out of which my husband turned a vase, the cup part of which was almost as thin as silver paper, without a symptom of the wood splintering or shaking.
The principal use to which the casuarina is applied is in the roofing of houses, for which purpose the wood is cut into long narrow pieces, called shingles, of the shape of slates or tiles; and as this kind of roofing is common throughout Australia, and an unlimited supply of casuarina can be obtained in Swan River, the new timber companies will probably do a fair share of business in the department of shingling alone. To be "a shingle short" is a colonial phrase indicative of the same state of mind which is described in Scotland by the expression of "a bee in the bonnet."
I have spoken, in one of the earlier chapters, of the sandalwood trade carried on with China. As long as a supply of trees of fair size and weight could be obtained within a hundred miles, or even a hundred and fifty miles of Perth, with facility, this article of commerce was of great assistance to the settlers, especially to the lower grade of farmers. It afforded occupation to their horses and carts at times when nothing else was doing, and enabled them to obtain supplies from the storekeepers by the barter of this wood without being forced to trespass upon the proceeds of their flocks or of their cornfields. During the dull season of the year they employed their teams to bring in the sandal logs which had been felled and trimmed in the recesses of the bush in the last few months by their woodcutters, and they usually found that a fairly steady demand for the sweet-scented wood, at the rate of 6l. to 6l. 10s. a ton, existed amongst the shippers and merchants at Perth. The usual price paid to the woodcutters in the bush, whether they were working for an employer or on their own account, seemed to be about 25s. a ton.
The value at Perth being what I have said, the only question to be considered was, whether the 5l. or 4l. 10s. a ton, (speaking roughly,) which they would have to receive as the difference, would be sufficient to compensate them for the wear and tear of their horses and carts, and the food and wages of their carters. Moreover it must be remembered that the buyers at Perth did not pay in cash, but only by an allowance in their books of equal amount to the wood supplied, and reckoned as a set-off against the stores supplied to them on account.
As long as the distance from Perth was only forty or fifty miles the trade was a good one for all parties, and many of the smaller settlers were kept afloat by it alone; their horses could do the journey to Perth and return again to the bush within the week, and, even if they obtained no back load in place of the sandalwood, the cost of the hay and corn (which they usually had to carry with them) and of the wagoners' wages was repaid, and a good profit remained. But now things are altered. All the sandal-trees of any size within a radius of a hundred miles of Perth have been cut down, and the woodmen must now go to much greater distances to obtain a supply of good logs.
The supplies of food to the men who are cutting are rendered expensive by carriage out; the wood when cut and trimmed has to be conveyed over mere bush tracks for perhaps thirty or forty miles before a well-made road is reached; a team and wagon therefore, instead of returning from Perth for a fresh load within the week, is obliged to be absent a fortnight or even more, so that all the expenses are increased while the value of the wood remains the same. The truth is that the trade may now be said to have come pretty nearly to a stand-still. The cost of carrying the sandalwood to Perth and of putting it on board ship now all but balances any profit to be made of it by sending it to China.
Next to a trade in timber the whale fishery ought to be the most obvious source of wealth to Western Australia; and in 1846, when Bishop Salvado first landed in the colony, whaling had, as he says, brought large sums of money into it. But either through want of capital or of enterprise, or the lack of both combined, together with a dreamy reliance on the all-sufficiency of Government "contracts," the colonists, for many years past, have contented themselves with merely fitting out boats intended to fish from the shore, instead of following the whales over the ocean in well-found ships, like the Americans, so that now the capture of even one solitary fish is considered a very noteworthy occurrence. In the meantime the whale fishery par excellence has passed into the possession of the watchful Americans, whose ships the colonists have seen returning year by year with the utmost regularity, contented to buy of them the sperm oil, which ought to have been their own, whenever the alien fishers thought fit to dispose of it in Western Australia.
I found that before the breaking out of the war between North and South which detained American sailors upon their own shores, the arrival of the Yankee whalers at a stated season had been quite looked forward to by the inhabitants of Bunbury and the Vasse, not only as a little break to the twelvemonth's uniformity, but also as a source of friendly intercourse and trading. One of our colonial acquaintances, who had a cattle station near Cape Naturaliste, told us that at one time a whaling captain was in the habit, on the expiration of his annual voyage, of leaving an empty ship's cask in her hands to be called for in the following year, by which time she was accustomed to have it filled for him with salted beef. The urbanities of life were also mingled with business, and a ball, given on board one of the temperance whalers and described to us as being "coffee and cakes all night long" seemed to have been an epoch in the life of our acquaintance and her friend, whom the polite givers of the entertainment had brought from the shore in their own long boat.
Amongst the signs which may now be noticed of a general wakening up of the West Australians is the fact that the Perth journalists are beginning to call attention to the whale fisheries, and to suggest that it might be as well if the colonists reaped the benefit of them for themselves. That the harvest would be an abundant one may be judged from the report of the colonial Registrar-General, who states, in the census of 1870, that "from Camden Harbour in the north to the extreme boundaries of the colony on the southern coast, whales are to be found in great numbers, the right whales on the feeding grounds in the bays, and the sperm in large schools off the shore." The Registrar also adds that "American whale ships, engaged in sperm whaling, have taken, during the past two seasons, about four thousand barrels of oil, the value of which is from forty to fifty thousand pounds." After this statement it is consolatory to find, in the same report, that "a gentleman from Tasmania" is about to establish himself at Albany, in Western Australia, in order to fit out a vessel from that port for whaling operations.
Perhaps, however, no event of greater importance has occurred in the colony, since our return to England, than the carrying out of the long-desired wish that an exploring party should cross the territory, hitherto scarcely trodden by the foot of man, that lies between the settled districts of West and Sooth Australia. This formidable tract, formerly called Nuyt's Land, better known at present under the name of the Great Australian Bight, has been supposed to be, and probably is, the most absolutely waterless portion of the surface of the earth.
It was once before traversed by the intrepid Eyre, who followed the windings of the coast, imagining that if rivers existed at all he should thus make sure of falling in with them; but never surely could greater aridity be conceived than that which it was his fate to encounter. His companions died beside him on the way, and he owed the preservation of his own life to the fidelity of a West Australian native, who had started with the party, and who carried him when too much exhausted to walk. By the time that the good native reached the abodes of civilization, with his master on his shoulders, the two men had performed a journey of nearly seven hundred miles, without having seen the smallest rivulet in the course of their march.
The present Governor of Western Australia conceived the happy expedient of sending out a party of explorers, who should be assisted by a vessel dispatched in the same direction and well supplied with food and water, with orders to meet the land travellers at certain points of the shore. In this manner the journey was undertaken and performed by a party headed by Mr. Forrest who, after suffering some privations, arrived safely at Adelaide, and the winter having been a favourable one, the Governor states in his speech, to which I have already referred, that the explorers "traversed a very large extent of the finest grass country, nearly destitute, however, of surface water."
The possibility of crossing Nuyt's Land may therefore be considered as settled, although it remains to be seen whether, by the sinking of Artesian wells, the discovery can be made of any use beyond the very important purpose of establishing a line of telegraphic communication between the two colonies.
M. Rossel relates, in his account of Admiral D'Entrecasteaux's survey of this arid coast, that a naturalist who accompanied the expedition went ashore on Nuyt's Land in search of curiosities, and straying too far was very near dying of thirst before he could rejoin his companions. Perhaps this French savant would afterwards have willingly subscribed to Shakespeare's opinion of the "uses of adversity," for he declared that the discovery which he made of a little stream of water, just as he had abandoned all hope of life, was strong testimony to his mind of the existence of God.
To the three decided proofs of colonial progress which I have now enumerated in the formation of the timber company, in the establishment of a whaler at Albany, and in the success of the overland expedition to Adelaide, the appointment of a Government geologist, about a year ago, must be added as a fourth. Up to the time of our return to England in the commencement of 1869 the existence of gold in Western Australia had been only surmised as probable, from the "minute specks" of it which, as I have said already, might be found in washing the sands in the beds of some of the water-courses, and no very vigorous measures had as yet been taken for the discovery of the metal in greater quantities. A great anxiety, however, to find gold had been aroused by the prospect of an ebbing tide in the flow of Government money, and our last farewells on board ship were exchanged with those who were about to commence digging in earnest.
The tidings which were brought by the last mail seemed fraught with greater probability of success than any which had preceded them. A tract of country to the eastward of Champion Bay, "where the Silurian formation occupies a large area," and rocks are described as "precisely similar to the gold-bearing rocks of Victoria," is spoken of by the 'Perth Inquirer' of April, 1871, as having been found by a little party who rode out for the purpose of inspecting (in company with the Government geologist) a locality from which a native had brought them some specimens of cinnabar. In consequence of their provisions running short, whilst yet within two or three days' journey of the mine which the native had spoken of, the explorers turned back when they reached the longitude of 122° east; or about three hundred miles east of Champion Bay: having found such great abundance of grass and fresh water that their horses are said to have returned much fatter than they were when they set out.
Since this retrograde march, which occupied eight days, the geologist, Mr. Brown, has retraced his steps in order to make further examination of the country, and, in the meantime, whether the hopes that are entertained of gold prove deceitful or not, the opening of "fresh fields and pastures new," extending farther back from the sea-coast than any that have ever been previously discovered in the colony will, or ought to, console the seekers for want of the precious metal in case of disappointment.
Bituminous substances have long been known to exist in various parts of Western Australia, and it appears that the advice which the Wesleyan Member of Council delivered at the Barladong "tea-meeting" to look out for "an oil-mine" has been wasted neither upon his fellow-colonists nor upon the aborigines. At this propitious moment, when the colonial Government is said to have been in communication with capitalists in neighbouring colonies who are desirous of establishing kerosene works, one Tommy Winditch, a native of Barladong, has come forward to report the existence of a substance "resembling water," at a spot about fifty miles eastward of Mount Stirling, where it is held in great dread by the natives on account of its explosive properties when brought in contact with fire. On being shown some kerosene Tommy Winditch pronounced it to be precisely similar to the "white stuff" so much dreaded by his friends, and, should he prove to have spoken correctly, and the fluid be found in any great abundance, we may surely expect to hear of his appointment as Commodore of those who, in accordance with the recommendation given to them, will henceforth "paddle their own canoe " in streams of petroleum.
The pearl fisheries of Roebourne were beginning to assume importance before we quitted Western Australia, and recent investigations have proved that the oyster beds, first noticed by the French, are almost unlimited in extent and yield. Mother-of-pearl is therefore likely to become one of the principal exports, more especially as the shells are of the finest description, and obtain in consequence the highest price in the English market. The Registrar-General states that some of the last shipments realized ten guineas a hundredweight. The shells were formerly collected only at low tide and in shallow water, but the fishermen now employ natives and Malays as divers, who bring up the mother-of-pearl from depths which have been hitherto considered inaccessible.
It has been said that the natives thus engaged are much to be pitied for the treatment which they receive from the pearl fishers, and common sense would show that, amongst the rough class of men of whom many of the boats' crews are composed, the dark-skinned races are certain to be at great disadvantage, especially in a spot so far to the north, and consequently so remote from head-quarters. The season of pearl fishing begins in November and continues until April.
Tortoiseshell may also be procured in large quantities upon the north-west coast, as the hawk's-bill turtle abounds both there and upon the shores of the adjacent islands, but until lately it seems that people have not taken much trouble to collect it, owing to their ignorance of the value of such tortoiseshell in England. Since the announcement, however, issued by the Government that the best shells are worth from sixteen to eighteen shillings a pound, the poor turtles will have had no lack of enemies. To these now well-known "treasures of the deep" I suspect that sponges might be added, for every heavy storm covers the Fremantle shore with so many different species of these zoophytes that it might reasonably be supposed that the sponges of commerce could also be obtained if search was made for them by dredging in a proper manner.
Having now sketched some few and imperfect scenes of West Australian life, and given some outline of the resources which are offered by the colony, the question naturally arises as to what judgment I have formed of the country as a field for emigration. It is a difficult question to answer, since the prospects of the new-comer must depend so completely upon his own character and his own position in life.
The man of capital and of enterprise will find but little scope for his energies at present, unless he be contented to work almost single-handed. The struggle merely to live has been so hard and so continuous, that but few amongst the settlers have acquired a sufficient amount of realized and superfluous capital to induce them to enter upon speculative pursuits, however promising they may appear. The timber trade, the whale fisheries, even the pearl fisheries if upon any but the most moderate scale, have hitherto been compelled to look to the other colonies or to England for the capital needed for their development.
The only joint-stock company formed for carrying out any public work of which I have heard since we left the colony, is one for the establishment of a telegraphic communication between Perth and Fremantle, a distance of fifteen miles. I believe that this company has succeeded in obtaining the small amount of capital which it required, and that it hopes to extend its wires into the Eastern districts before the end of the present year; but this instance of the Perth and Fremantle merchants having banded together to carry out a common object is almost a solitary one.
With the exception of the West Australian Bank, which was formed on joint-stock principles many years ago and which has always paid excellent dividends, I do not remember another instance of association of individuals for a public object. Harbours, breakwaters, piers, railroads, tramways, steamboats, and diving apparatus and bells for the pearl fisheries, have all been advocated in turn by the Perth and Fremantle newspapers; but however much the colonists may desire to witness the introduction of any or all of these improvements, they seem to look to Government action alone to carry them out.
To raise a Government loan, of a hundred or a hundred and fifty thousand pounds, to be expended upon public works, seems of late to be considered necessary, or at all events most desirable, by all parties in the colony. There can be no doubt that some measure of this nature must be adopted before long if any progress or improvement is desired or expected, and it would be but fair for the mother-country to aid her poor and struggling daughter in this matter by means of a guarantee, now that the Home Government has commenced to diminish her expenditure upon the convicts so rapidly.
It should be remembered that transportation to this colony was continued quite long enough to give the place a bad name with the rest of Australia, and to deter free emigrants of the better class from landing upon her shores. Now therefore, when by the fiat of the Home Government, influenced by the outcry made by the Eastern and Southern settlements, the system has been finally abolished. Swan River, which was willing to carry out her engagement, has been placed at a considerable disadvantage; left to struggle by herself against many obstacles, while she has been prevented from attracting a population of substantial settlers who might have had both wealth enough and energy enough to develop her resources without asking for assistance from abroad. I do not mean to say that transportation alone has turned the stream of free emigration away from Western Australia, but only to assert that it has so far assisted to do so as to give the colony a claim to the sympathy and kind feeling of the English Government now that she is left to fight her battle alone.
The wealthy man or the capitalist, therefore, will not find much to attract him, nor many companions of his own class, should he visit Swan River. Perhaps the merchant or storekeeper with a small amount only of capital might do well, but this would depend entirely upon his character and his habits. Most of the successful storekeepers have been men who were brought up in the colony, and who know the position and prospects of almost everyone in it. So very large a portion of the business carried on is done upon credit that it is necessary to leave a large margin for bad debts, and to be careful as to the customers on the books. All this takes time and observation to learn, and renders it requisite for a new-comer to be cautious and distrustful of his own judgement at first starting. Then, again, many of the settlers have so long been accustomed to look upon some one or other of the store-keepers as their factor and banker combined, sending him all their wool and produce of every description and drawing money from him when they require any advances, that they are completely in his power, and dare not go to any newly-established store for fear of his anger; thus much of the trade would be out of the new-comer's reach, however low might be his prices for stores supplied, however high the offers he might make for the purchase of colonial produce.
In a remarkably well-written account of the colony which appeared in the 'Melbourne Argus' a few years ago this point was entered into in some detail; and it was there said that, as a general statement, the country settlers were so much under the rule and influence of the chief storekeepers as to be scarcely free agents. No doubt this has been the case to a very large extent, but it is a species of misfortune which has affected other Australian colonies as well Queensland, especially, has suffered from similar trials. And yet there is much to be said on behalf of the merchant class in this matter. It cannot be denied that it is injurious to a colony to fall into a condition in which all the working capital of the country has been accumulated in the hands of the trading men only. Competition is checked, energy is stifled, and expansion is hindered by the aggregation of the whole buying power of a district in one or two hands.
When the corn-grower, or the flock-owner, or the gum-collector is compelled by his own circumstances to dispose of his produce to one individual only, and to accept whatever that person may choose to give as the price of his merchandise, he loses his independence and ceases to feel himself a free man. By degrees he gives up the hope of improving his position and contents himself with living on from day to day, sending to the store with which he is connected for as large an amount of supplies as the merchant is willing to furnish, and only too glad if, at the year's end, the balance against himself has not been increased. This is the position in which a very large number of the smaller settlers have stood for years. And yet it has been through the action of the storekeepers that a considerable portion of the settled country has been cleared and cultivated, and without them much of the land which is now under tillage would be still wild bush.
A poor but hard-working man has, perhaps, managed to save money to the amount of one hundred pounds. He is anxious to establish himself in a home of his own and to purchase a few head of cattle, or a small flock of sheep, and also to clear and cultivate a few acres of land. If he hires a farm which has been already cleared and fenced (and many small places of this character will be offered to him if he is well known as a hard-working man), he will probably find the land nearly worn out by over-cropping, and the small run connected with the farm in poor condition and insufficient for the stock which it will nominally support.
If be is wise he will have nothing to do with an old cleared farm, but will take up a tillage lease from Government, upon the easy terms an account of which will be found in the Appendix. He must then commence his operations by building a rough bush house of perhaps a couple of rooms and an outhouse. Let him do this as cheaply as he can it will cost him both time and money, and the cost of his own provisions will have to be prepared for as well as the wages of the man or two he has hired to assist him.
Next comes the clearing of his land, say twenty acres to begin with. Clearing alone will cost three pounds per acre if he hires men to do it and reserves himself for the fencing, which he will be wise to do if he is a fair bush carpenter. By the time that his house is built and his land cleared he will find that his hundred pounds is all spent, and more than spent—he will be in debt. Nothing will be left for stock, nothing for seed, nothing for food during the time that must elapse before his crops come in. It is in such cases that the storekeeper comes in with really valuable help, if only it be properly used. The man is known to be honest and hard-working. He goes to the store, before he commences to build or to clear his land, and mentions his prospects and his wishes, showing that he has some capital to begin with though not sufficient to start him without incurring debt.
It was in such cases as these that the sandalwood trade was such a help in the earlier days of the colony. The merchant, knowing his man, would perhaps say, "I will supply you with rations for yourself and the man or two whom you must employ while your house is being built and your land cleared,—I will also pay one-half of the cost of a cart and horse for you, and you in return shall do a part of my sandalwood carting for me at a fixed price, and let me have a certain proportion of your crops each year until the debt is paid off."Now such help as this, although it must necessarily render the recipient dependent for a time upon him who has acted as his banker, gives a really honest laborious man a far better chance of establishing himself than he could have had without it, and there are individuals in Western Australia now thriving and doing well whose present prosperous condition is not a little due to the hand of the friendly merchant who kept them from sinking in their first struggle for independence.
But when the bargain is not fairly carried out—when the cost of the help given is constantly asserted to have exceeded that of the service rendered in return, the man and the horse become, and in no great length of time either, mere bond slaves at the beck of the storekeeper; whose debt can at last be liquidated only by the seizure of the house and bit of land, the cost of building and clearing of which was the original cause of the two men entering into compact with one another.
Instances of this character were of not unfrequent occurrence, and they seemed to us to account for a course of conduct on the part of many of the poorer class of settlers which had, at first, seemed strange. Instead of taking advantage of the facilities offered them by Government for acquiring homes of their own by clearing and building for themselves in the bush, men of this class, who had saved a little money, often preferred to pay a high rental to some of the large landowners for small and unproductive farms, which had been in cultivation for years and were almost worn out. They seemed to think that it mattered not in the least whether the land was new or old, provided that it was cleared and ready for ploughing, and to believe that the rent would easily be paid out of the crops, which they expected to raise with the very roughest cultivation and without a particle of manure. They therefore laid out the money in their possession upon a couple of horses and a cart, and looked, not to their land, but to the sandalwood trade for their profits.
If a man of this class happened to get hold of a small farm which had not been quite worked out, and was lucky enough also to have two or three good and fruitful seasons in succession, he did pretty well, and might make money if he was careful. His wheat paid his rent and found his family in bread, his barley and his hay kept his team of horses in good condition; so that after he had ploughed and sown his own few fields he was able to spend, perhaps six or seven months of the year, in carting sandalwood for the merchants at Perth at a very fair rate of payment.
As long as the seasons were favourable to him such a settler might go on comfortably and prosperously, and pay his rent without much difficulty. But his position was always a very precarious one. If even but one or two bad harvests happened to come together his ruin became almost certain, because he had nothing to fall back upon, no sheep, no cattle, nothing but his few fields and his team of horses and cart. This has been one of the evils of the sandalwood trade. It has tempted men to look upon the possession of a wagon and three or four horses as a certain means of making money quickly; the land has been cared for only for the sake of providing food for the team, it has therefore been only half attended to and half cultivated; no stock (except a few pigs) has been kept because the man himself has been obliged to spend the greatest part of his time upon the road to and from Perth carrying the sandalwood; in short he has been a carrier much more than a farmer.
It is easily seen that even one bad season must bring such a class of men into trouble, because in that case everything upon which they depend gives way together. Their wheat fails and with it their power to pay the rent the barley and hay crops are deficient also, and thus the power of feeding the horses, and keeping them in condition for the heavy labour of the sandalwood trade, goes too, and the poor creatures pine away for want of sufficient sustenance, until unable to earn for their masters the usual profits upon their labour.
Sometimes a bad year will tell so heavily upon the horses as almost to put a stop to the sandalwood trade altogether, and, in letters which we have just received from the colony, we are told that this has been the case during the last few months. What can one of these small settlers do in such a position? He has nothing to sell off his land, as his crops are scarcely enough for his own wants. How is he to pay his rent? How is he to get seed for next year? Only one course is open to him; he must mortgage his team and his carts to the store-keeper who supplies him.
When once this measure has been forced upon him a log is round his neck from which he will find it difficult to free himself, and, if he is not very careful and very hard-working, he will sooner or later find himself enslaved with far less chance of extrication than the man who, in the case of which we first spoke, became indebted for the assistance given him in clearing his own land and building his own house. The latter having no rent to pay for his farm can average one year with another, and make the good years balance the bad; while the tenant of another person's land at a high fixed rental, though he may seem to have a better chance of making money just at first, has not the comfort of looking forward to a time when, having paid off the advances made to him at starting, his land and house will have become his own; a home for his wife and family for which no rent is ever to be paid, where he can live in comfort without fear of any notice to quit being served on him, or of any landlord's agent interfering with his method of cropping his land.
Another method of making a start in the world which was sometimes practised, and for which the assistance of the merchant or the landowner would be invoked, was the following. The labourer would engage to clear a plot of land, to the extent of forty or fifty acres, at a certain number of acres each year, on condition that rations were supplied and other assistance given by the employer for the first year or two, and that the whole of the land, as fast as it was cleared and fenced (the employer finding posts and rails) should be cultivated by the tenant for his own profit for a fixed number of years, rent free. In this case although the tenant had to turn out of the little farm, which he had cleared with his own hands, at the expiration of perhaps ten years, still he had enjoyed the use of the greater part of the land in its fresh vigour, and the crops which he had taken off were probably the best it would ever produce.
The merchant, then, who may think of carrying out a small capital to West Australia must be prepared to act in a variety of capacities, and to play the part not only of exporter and importer of goods, but also that of factor, agent, and banker to his customers; and very probably that of sheep-owner and squatter to a greater or less extent also, in cases where he may find it more to his interest to take into his own management the business and property of some of his larger debtors than to attempt to realize the assets, on which he has the largest claim, at a period probably of depression and panic.
To make money in this colony a man must learn to understand all its products, all its various forms of employment, and must teach himself, by degrees, to be as much at home in the valuation of the flocks upon a sheep-run, the cattle upon a farm, or the trees in an acre of mahogany forest, as he is when engaged in the more legitimate calculations of a merchant's business, such as pricing silks and broadcloths from England and France, wines from Spain, or teas and sugars from Singapore. It has been by this correctness of judgment in every branch of colonial business, and not by confining their attention to any one class of speculation in particular, that the successful men have made their money in Swan River; and what has been done by them may be done again by a new-comer if he goes to work in a similar manner.
Such, then, as far as we were able to form an opinion from our own observations and from the conversation of others better qualified to judge, are the capabilities of this colony with respect to trade and commerce.
The natural products of Western Australia are numerous and valuable, and are, by degrees, obtaining a larger share of public attention than has hitherto been vouchsafed to them in the other Australian settlements. The capitalists of Sydney and Melbourne are beginning to inquire whether new fields for speculation are not to be found in the forests and the pearl banks of their Western sister, and it seems probable that, under the energetic rule of the present Governor, Mr. Weld, himself an old colonist of New Zealand, every encouragement will be given to the enterprise and activity of all who may desire to aid in the development of her resources.
Want of capital has hitherto kept Swan River in the background and, if this want be supplied, it seems far from improbable that in the course of a few years more she may be able to prove, to those who have hitherto despised her, that though she cannot compete with New South Wales or Victoria as a wool-growing or cattle-raising country, she is nevertheless rich in some valuable products in which those colonies are deficient.
To the wealthier class of settler, the owner of a hundred thousand sheep or fifty thousand head of cattle, West Australia would not seem to offer many attractions. The runs are upon a much smaller scale than those to which he has been accustomed, and he would probably consider the character of the trade carried on in the colony to be uninteresting and contracted, tending too much both to small profits and slow returns. But to the smaller class of capitalist, who possesses only a thousand or fifteen hundred pounds, the country presents a different aspect He will find many small properties now in the market, and at a price within his reach, upon which he would have a fair prospect of doing well and making a comfortable home for his family. He must be ready to turn his attention to anything which seems likely to increase the profits of his farm, to set up a steam-mill, for instance, if the district seems to afford a fair opening, or to establish a store, if one appears to be wanted in his neighbourhood, or to take a share in a contract for horsing the mail cart in his part of the country if it seems likely to yield a return; he must not be content to sit still and to let others get ahead of him in the race for success, but must keep his eyes open and be ready to make the most of all the openings which may fall in his way.
It has been in this manner that all the settlers who have really made money have acted, while those who have confined themselves strictly to farming and wool-growing, and attempted nothing else, have but seldom done more than just to keep their heads afloat. And now I must speak of the prospects offered to the immigrant who has nothing but his own hands and arms to trust to, the agricultural labourer or the artisan.
I may say at once that any man who is steady, honest, and sober, and who is not afraid of hard work, will have every prospect of doing well, and of raising himself to the position of a small proprietor in the course of eight or ten years. The great objection to the colony in his case would be the necessity for associating with convict fellow-labourers. That this is a great drawback to the colony in the eyes of respectable immigrants it would be useless to deny. It is proved by the eagerness shown by the majority of them to leave for Melbourne or Sydney as soon as they have saved sufficient money to carry them thither.
The whole number of convicts landed in Swan River, from the commencement of the system in 1851 up to its cessation in 1868, has been about ten thousand. Of this number many have died, some have left the colony, and others have become merged in the general population by the expiration of their sentences. According to the census of 1870 the number of men still under the charge of the authorities is about four thousand, including those still in confinement; expirees being classed as free men.
Now as the total population of the colony is only 25,000, and that out of that number only 9300 are free adult males over fifteen years of age, it is easily seen that the very large majority of the labouring class must be either convicts or expirees. The fact is that almost all the labour of the colony is carried on by their hands. A few free immigrants are found, chiefly artisans, but the "Government men" are so decidedly in the majority that the whole mass of labour in the country takes its colour and tone from them, and the free man is looked upon as an interloper, a trespasser on their rights, and disliked accordingly.
Here, perhaps, lies the great danger to the future of the colony. If anything should occur to cause an influx of free immigration, such as the discovery of a valuable gold-field, the convict element would soon lose its predominance and its influence amongst the labouring class, and a healthier state of things would arise. Otherwise an antagonism between labourers and employers will continue to exist, (for the children of the convict parents will always be kept at arms' length by the free settlers,) which may have bad effects in any period of distress or pressure such as a series of deficient harvests for instance, and may lead to mischief, as a similar state of things has done in Tasmania.
There are, however, many situations in which the free labourer would not be exposed to that association with the convict class to which he seems to be so averse, and I cannot but think that the feeling against Swan River on this account is an exaggerated one. To whatever land the emigrant may turn his steps he will find that in the earlier portions of his career he will meet with rough and distasteful companionship, probably quite as disagreeable to him, as an untravelled Englishman, as the better class of convict, with whom he has at least the common ground of speaking the same language and haying lived in the same country when at home. The American "rowdy," the New Orleans gambler, the San Francisco free-fighter, or the Chinese miner of Victoria, would, no doubt, prove quite as unsuited to his home-country feelings as even the Swan River expiree.
The quiet hard-working man whose chief ambition is to establish himself in a little farm of his own with his wife and family around him, and who is willing to accept the position of shepherd to one of the larger settlers for a few years, may soon save money; and, in the course of five or six years, may hope to find himself able to start on his own account, with every prospect of doing well and becoming a small landowner.
The class to whom the colony is least of all suited would seem to be those who are dependent solely upon a small fixed income, such as the chaplains of the Church of England, the ministers of the various non-conforming denominations, the lower grades of the Government officials, and the country schoolmasters and mistresses in Government employ. Their incomes are very small compared with the expenditure absolutely necessary for the maintenance of themselves and their families in a position of respectability, while, unlike the settlers in general, they are unable to pay for any of the goods supplied to them by the barter or exchange of their own produce, (since they do not possess any land or stock,) but are obliged to settle all their bills by cheques upon their banker. No one who has not had personal experience of this state of things can form any right judgment of the whole system. In Perth or Fremantle so many of the residents are in Government employ that payments in money are far more frequent than in the country districts, and prices are, in consequence, far lower than in the little inland towns. Moreover even in the inland districts competition has arisen during the last few years, and new stores have been established wherever there appeared to be a good opening, so that prices have been considerably lowered in comparison to what they were ten or twelve years ago. At that date the storekeeper in each country district enjoyed a virtual monopoly. His prices were fixed, not so much by any consideration of the actual cost of his goods to himself, as by the distance of his nearest competitor and the amount of profit which that competitor was charging.
From eighty to a hundred per cent, upon the larger and heavier goods, up to even a hundred and fifty per cent, upon smaller articles, was commonly charged, as profit upon the London invoices, in the country stores, so that he who had nothing to offer in exchange, but was obliged to pay in money for all his supplies, soon found his store bills run up in a manner which his fixed income as a Government employé was by no means calculated to meet. In short I think that all those who have ever lived for a few years in the country districts in Western Australia will agree with me in saying that it is by no means a colony in which a small fixed income, such as the two hundred or two hundred and fifty a year received by the chaplains, can be depended upon to procure anything more than the very barest necessaries of life.
To the labouring man, to the settler with moderate capital, or to the merchant, Swan River offers fair prospects of success, but to those who possess merely education without money to back up their acquirements, to the clergyman, the banker's clerk, the struggling and disappointed man of business for whom competition has been too severe at home, to such as these the colony is unsuited, and they would have a far better chance of eventually doing well in England.
Of the value of the colony as a settlement within easy reach of India, and admirably suited for the establishment of a Sanitarium for our troops, much has been said and written, and it is to be hoped, in the course of time, these discussions may bear their legitimate fruit.
In conclusion, I will only add that if I were asked what I thought would benefit one whose lungs were weak but as yet undiseased, I should recommend a twelvemonth's visit to Western Australia as a probable means of averting consumption, but I should advise that the time was spent amongst the homes of the colonists in the bush rather than in the towns. A stranger would meet much hospitality in either place, but the same causes which render the petty provincial towns of England notorious for dullness and gossip exist in far greater force in the embryo cities of a colony, whilst the fact that the habits of life in vogue are framed after the English pattern brings more strikingly into notice the colonial backwardness of thought and education as compared with recollections of the mother country.
But life in the bush has an original character of its own, and although books are scarcer there than in the towns, yet, in consequence of the bush people making no pretence to book learning, their want of it never struck me as a painful deficiency. Their days are spent in employments that have been the favourite theme of poets from time immemorial, and no leisure is left them for discussing the doings of the next-door neighbour, even were there any such person within seven miles.
Thus it would seem that Goethe's remedy against the evil of too many books is equally good in the case of having too few. In a pretty little letter of hexameters addressed to an anxious father, who is afraid that his girls' heads will be turned by reading too many works of fiction, Goethe tells him (but I quote from memory only) that he may avert the calamity by giving each daughter her own little sphere of rule within his household. Let him consign to one of the girls the care of "the vineyard and the cellar," to another "the kitchen and the herb garden," "the washhouse and the laundry" to a third, and "novelists," says the poet triumphantly, "may then write what they please, and the ladies be never the worse." Self-evident, however, as this conclusion undoubtedly is, and multifarious as are the female employments on which the poet enlarges, the avocations of a bush lady are still more diversified. He quite omits to mention the care of the dairy and the live-stock, and, much as he loves to picture his ideal cook busying herself in consulting the family tastes, I will wager that he never dreamed of her having to prepare the meals of an orphan foal, still less of that juvenile quadruped coming in at the kitchen door to be fed.The seeker of health who can enjoy horse exercise will never be at any loss for amusement in the bush, and if he happens to be fond of botany or entomology a whole world of pleasure will lie open there before him. As a bird collector he will find unfailing occupation, only he must take care that his ship's stores comprise a good supply of the best means of preserving his specimens, such as arsenical soap and appliances of a like nature, or many a trophy will be lost which otherwise might have embellished a glass case. In short, if the visitant be one who can find his chief amusement in the study of any of the various branches of natural history he will meet with ample food for his favourite fancy here, and will be obliged to allow that the despised penal colony, if not such an Eden as "blue-books" have sometimes pictured it, is by no means wanting in quiet beauties and simple enjoyments; while, if health has been his main object, he may hope to carry back with him to his home in England such fresh supplies of strength as may enable him to contend victoriously with the uncertain climate of his mother-country, and cause him to remember with gratitude the elastic air and bright skies of West Australia.