Diary of ten years eventful life of an early settler in Western Australia and also A descriptive vocabulary of the language of the aborigines/The colony (3)
SOIL OF THE COUNTRY—ALLUVIAL FLATS—VEGETABLE PRODUCTIONS—THE GRASS TREE—QUADRUPEDS—BIRDS AND FISH—CLIMATE—INSECTS—RAPIDITY OF PRODUCTION AND DECAY—REPTILES—THE NATIVES—THE SETTLERS—JURISDICTION OF THE GOVERNOR—CATTLE—THE AUTHOR'S HOUSE DESCRIBED.
March 5th, 1831.
It would be impossible to give you such a description of this country as would apply to all parts of it. The general character is that of an interesting landscape, rather than of sublime or grand scenery. There is every variety of soil from white sand, to the deep black vegetable alluvial mould, every variety, general speaking, having something of peculiar production, either of tree, shrub, herb, or flower. On the white sand, the Australian mahogany is found in great abundance, and of excellent quality; on the clay grounds, the red and blue gum trees appear; and sandy soils produce the Banksia and Protea.
For the first fifteen miles up the river, white sands present themselves on either side with some mixture of vegetable mould. In this district, white limestone is tolerably abundant. About three miles above Perth, alluvial flats begin to appear close to the river, and as you ascend, these become more frequent and extensive; the rising grounds change to a brown or red clay, and you lose sight of the sand, which, however, still continue to run parallel to the river, at some distance back, and thus to accompany it almost to its source; on the left bank, ascending the river behind the alluvial flats, is a border of rising ground, generally composed of a brown or red sandy loam, upon which rests a plain or high table land of stiff clay, stretching back to a considerable distance.
In many places, however, the high land rises boldly up from the river, so as to alternate with the flat on the opposite side. The alluvial flats are covered with a luxuriant crop of grasses. But on the table lands the grass is not abundant. There has now been a year's experience of the capability of the soil, and there is no doubt that it can abundantly produce any grain, fruit, vegetable, tree, or shrub, which belongs to its parallel of latitude. The sandy loam is considered the best for present purposes, the stiff clay lands being difficult to break up, and requiring more time and labour than many are willing to bestow. I have seen within two miles of this, a fine crop of wheat grown without any manure, and with much less preparatory culture than would be required in England. This was produced on an alluvial flat, the grain being ploughed in, just before the rains which flooded the ground; and in spring its vegetation was rapid and healthy. All sorts of garden and field vegetables thrive well, when put down in the proper season; but nothing worthy of being called fruit has as yet been discovered, if we except the zamia, which produces a nut, which the natives eat after considerable preparation by steeping in water. Tobacco, hemp, flax, eringo, celery, parsley, are indigenous. To the distant eye, the country has the appearance of being well wooded, but I should not say it was thickly timbered. In some places there are open plains that resemble well ordered parks, no where do you find impenetrable jungle, save in the mere swamps and the lagoons. The seemingly conflicting accounts of two, ten, one hundred, or a thousand trees to an acre, may be all true of different places, if you reckon every shrub as a tree. Take, for example, the ground where I have built: to avoid injuring the appearance of the place, I have cut down but one large tree, and not above a dozen shrubs and small trees, preferring to fell the timber necessary for building, at the distance of a quarter of a mile.
Just behind my house (on the high level land), is a plain of perhaps two hundred acres, upon which large trees are not numerous, or more than sufficient for ornament. There is one spot looking like a cleared field, of eight or nine acres, not encumbered with a single tree or shrub. In other places a tree resembling a larch of four or five years' growth, is thinly scattered. This large plain is skirted by a thick border of red gum trees, intermixed with banksias, black wattles, and other shrubs. The ground of this border is a rich red sandy loam, very easily turned up; and here my men are breaking ground with the hoe, there being abundance of clear ground between the large trees, when the light brush wood is removed. The trees have not a very ample foliage, so that you may walk in the forest, and yet not enjoy much shade. The red gum tree resembles an old pear or cherry tree, but is of much greater dimensions. There is one beside my house, which in winter will protect it from the fierce, north-west blast.
The Zanthorea Hastile, or grass tree, puts me in mind of a tall black native, with a spear in his hand, ornamented with a tuft of rushes. These vary in size from those peeping over the surface to those in the swampy grounds, eight or ten feet high, with a spear equally long growing out of the stem, and bearing at the top a beautiful flower; on the spear is found an excellent, clear, transparent gum, and from the lower part of the tree oozes a black gum, which makes a powerful cement used by the natives for fastening stone heads on their hammers. The country presents an endless variety or succession of flowering trees and shrubs; but I have not seen any having much perfume.
The kangaroo has supplied food to many who were prudent or fortunate enough to provide themselves with proper dogs, such as strong greyhounds, which are here expensive and difficult to be procured, a good one costing more than £15. The only other animals you meet with usually, are, the opossum, the kangaroo-rat, lizards, rats and mice, the rat not much larger than the English mouse; they are abundant and mischievous.
I have heard of emus; and have seen wild turkeys, cockatoos, parrots, pigeons, quails, pies, jays, hawks, black swans, pelicans, and a number of other birds.
This day I shot a duck. There are two kinds of them; one of which, the wood duck, alights on trees. The white cockatoos are very numerous, and now feed upon the flower of the red gum tree, which lately came into blossom. There are three or four species of the cockatoo, white, black, grey, and black with a red tail. The parrots are small and green, the neck ornamented with a gold ring. The pigeons are beautiful, with a bronze-coloured wing. Many birds have singular calls or cries, and our crow makes a most dismal noise, terminated by a long doleful cry. The white cockatoo screams like a clucking hen disturbed from her nest, and the black one whines like a discontented pug dog. There is a bird called here the robin, like our own in its habits of familiarity, but its plumage is much more beautiful; a thrush resembling the field fare; a small bird the size of a wren, but of splendid ultramarine colour. There are many other varieties, but I have not time to enumerate them.
Fish abound in the river, but without a net of peculiar construction (a trammel net) it is not easy to catch them—I have taken a few perch, however, one small turtle, and shell fish like the clam.
The climate in summer, in the middle of the day, is very warm; most agreeable in the morning and evening, cool and pleasant at night, sometimes even cold as it approaches morning. In winter, notwithstanding what has been said of it, I am told the weather is delightful—a moderate warmth during the day, and the night so cold as to make you enjoy a fire; the rains only occasional, and not of long duration.
Insects are now wonderfully numerous. Ants in great quantities and of many varieties of size and colour, from the lion ant, an inch long, to the small brown ant, which can insinuate itself into the most minute crevice. These seize upon whatever is eatable, and devour it in a short time. The ground seems alive with white ants, and the trees swarm with them inside and out; every thing here teems with life.
The principles of increase and the agents of destruction are so actively employed, that there seems to be a rapid round of production and decay, unknown to your more moderate climate. Of snakes I have seen only two, both very small; but my men have killed five or six, some of them three feet long: we have not heard of any injury being done by them, and in fact they do not seem to be at all dreaded.
The natives are not so despicable a race as was at first supposed. They are active, bold, and shrewd, expert in thieving, as many (and myself among the number) have experienced; they are courageous when attacked; however, they are not very numerous, and we are on good terms with them. I walk occasionally to and from Perth, through the woods, alone and unarmed; so you may perceive, from this circumstance, we are not in much dread of them.
Settlers are so scattered that I cannot form any correct estimate as to their numbers; many more are expected before the expiration of the year, for the purpose of obtaining the promised grants of land; but the good grounds in the vicinity of the Swan and Canning Rivers were almost all occupied by those who had previously arrived. Endless tracts of country are now opened to new settlers, though at a greater distance.
The inhabitants at the Cape, at Sydney, and Hobart Town, have done everything in their power to decry this settlement, and deter the emigrants from proceeding hither; yet of the final success of the colony there can be no doubt.
The jurisdiction of King George's Sound has been transferred to our governor. This opens a new district for colonisation; but there is not much fertile land, it is said, in that quarter, until you recede from the coast to the distance of twenty or thirty miles. Captain Bannister, who walked to it overland from Perth, mentions his having passed over, in his journey, about ninety miles of luxuriant pasture ground, in one continued tract, and he reports that water was procured without difficulty.
Many of my friends will be still anxious to know whether I can recommend this place for emigration. I have but as yet five months' experience of the country ; but I have observed that practical men, who have seen the ground over the mountains, are writing to their friends in England to come out.
If persons cannot remain comfortably at home, but are obliged to emigrate somewhere, I would unhesitatingly recommend this place in preference to Sydney, or Van Diemen's Land.
Our market is at present, and has been ever since the arrival of the Cleopatra, very well supplied with all the necessaries and many of the luxuries of life. We have flour now, so low as threepence per pound, sugar from threepence to fivepence, coffee sevenpence, tea four shillings and sixpence, rice 2d. per pound, rum six shillings per gallon, salt beef and pork about sixpence to eightpence, and fresh meat one shilling and sixpence per pound. Prices are not likely to continue so moderate during the winter. I purchased half a ton of flour some time ago at £27 per ton, and must soon buy more. The difficulty of moving these things over the flats in the river is considerable, but there is a plan in progress for deepening the passage.
The natives stole two cwts. of my flour, as well as some belonging to others, on its way over the flats; they also took a bag of biscuits and some pork from my house when I was last absent.
Our greatest want at present is live stock; we have prepared a memorial to the Government at home, soliciting assistance in this particular, and undertaking to guarantee the payment of the advances.
Black cattle thrive here; English or Cape cows are the best; the latter are excellent, and may be had at the Cape very cheap; those of Van Diemen's Land are so wild, that they generally run to the bush and are lost.
It is not advisable to bring any stock from England, except perhaps a few prime sheep for breed; to a small extent sheep may be purchased here much cheaper than they could be brought out.
The thermometer to-day did not rise above 80°, we have had it often 110°, some days as high as 120°, but I have not on any day found the heat insupportable, even in the open air at noon. It is now (nine at night) only 66°. The seasons here differ from those at Sydney, as far as I understand them.
Before our arrival here, I speculated upon two crops in the year, which doubtless may be produced of many things; but it must be after the ground has been well prepared, and under a more regular system of agriculture than we can practice for some time. I dare say, many who were thinking of coming out have been deterred by unfavourable accounts—some written perhaps with sincerity and with a good deal of correctness; but very many the result of prejudice, total ignorance of agriculture, and consequent disappointment.
In fact, many persons arrived here quite unqualified for a settler's life. The first settlers have all the difficulties to contend with. By the time other emigrants arrive, the way will have been greatly smoothed, and prices will be much lower.
I have built my house upon a rising ground which first slopes rapidly, then gently down towards the river, which here is about thirty yards wide; smooth, clear, and without any perceptible current, except as driven by the alternate land or sea breezes. The ground is very picturesque; on both sides it is broken at intervals, into small rounded eminences, rising a little way back from the river, with a gradual ascent, reaching to an extensive level plain behind. It reminds me of the Thames near Richmond, and it sometimes looks not unlike home, and might feel so too, if my friends were with me. * * * * * *
When I came here there were only ten settlers on the upper part of the river, there are now ninety-seven; but, as I am a colonist of such recent standing, I shall not speak decidedly of the eligibility of this district as a place of emigration, but feel, from what I have seen, quite borne out in my original impression of it as a place where (even with a small capital) a settler may secure an independence, and possess, at least, the substantial comforts, if not the refined luxuries, of life.
- Yours ever, &c.