History of West Australia/Augustus Sanford Roe

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Augustus Sanford Roe HOFWA.jpg
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Greenham & Evans.

OF the making of books there is no end, and yet the world is sometimes left without a personal narrative of stirring and varied experiences which it would greatly prize. While professional authors inundate our libraries with imaginative works, and some ambitious writers weary their readers with trite and lifeless topics, a great deal of vivid, instructive, and highly entertaining literary material is lost to view like gems in ocean depths. In other words, a great deal is written that might as well be left unsaid by men who have been too closely chained to their desks to have seen what they attempt to depict in their pages, which are often as tedious as a tired horse, lacking all the glow, the animation, and the inspiration which fire the verse of Lindsay Gordon or the prose of Whyte Melville, who have ridden their steeplechases as well as written them. The one is too often a strained mechanical performance of imperfect knowledge or sympathy with a subject; the other is native and to the manner born of participation in travels, adventures, emotions, or perils, and the difference between them is that which divides the well graced actor from the lay figure.

The man who has played many parts in the world and who has been versatile enough to play them well—parts which have taken him into many climes, which have given him many widely different views of life—is not to be excused when, on the plea of diffidence, he reserves his remarkable reminiscences for the profit and enjoyment of his private friends. The world is entitled to be invited to feast; he should publish narratives which are so full of pith and fascination. It does not suffice for him to say that he is not an author by profession; he has a subject, a moving theme, which the bookmaker of the closet very seldom has, and out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. Othello, whose dearest action had been in the tented field, and who plaintively professed himself to be "rude in speech," told the story of his life, of most disastrous chances by flood and field, so well that he won the heart of the gentle Desdemona and gained the verdict of the Senators.

The changeful career of Mr. Augustus Sanford Roe, lawyer, pearler, mariner, daring exploiter of the rivers of the East, mining investor, and judge of the Supreme Court of the North-West, committed to print could not fail to gain the favourable voice of the reading public, and the writing of the interesting tale would add another to his manifold accomplishments. He should be persuaded by his friends to abjure a species of moral miserliness and give to others besides himself the pleasurable and thrilling contemplation of the hoards of his memories of many lands. To Western Australia in an especial degree he owes this duty to the community which, in divers capacities, he has been serving for nearly thirty-five years, for as the son of one of the earliest and most prominent heads of the Civil Service of the colony, he could throw a valuable and a welcome light upon matters connected with the survey and early settlement of the towns of Western Australia which have as yet found no capable historian.

Augustus Sanford Roe,. son of Captain John Septimus Roe, R.N., who was for forty-two years Surveyor-General of Western Australia, was born in Perth in 1854, and was educated at the Bishop's School, having as school mates the present Attorney-General, Mr. Bart, and the Minister of Mines, Mr. Wittenoom. On leaving that excellent academy, which had as pupils nearly all the ripe scholars and leading men of the colony, he was articled to Messrs. Stone and Son, solicitors, the then principal legal firm of the capital, and whose senior partner was the late Mr. G. F. Stone, one time Attorney General. The son, who was represented in the style and title of the firm, is the present Mr. Justice Stone, whose judicial administration has gained him general respect. Mr. Roe was admitted to the bar in 1870, and after practising his profession in Fremantle for about twelve months he went pearling on the north-west coast with his brother George. From the first they recognised that the prizes of the business were to be found in deep water, where the diving could only be done by Malays, whom they obtained regularly every year from the Netherlands Indian Archipelago, which they visited in the off season for recruiting purposes, instead of scouring as some pearlers did the shallow beaches with the aid of Australian aborigines. In the fourth year the price of pearl-shell fell so rapidly that the brothers Roe relinquished the industry, but remained at Macassar and in its vicinity, embarking among other ventures in guano, but agricultural pursuits were not then in a sufficiently forward condition to make the enterprise profitable. Again yielding to his nautical tastes, which he would appear to have inherited from his father, who had distinguished himself in the British Navy, Mr. A. S. Roe took service aboard a steamer trading to the Archipelago, studied navigation, and passed the Dutch curriculum as master. For seven years he was in charge of the steamer, taking her to all the Polynesian Islands, to Hong Kong, and to the west coast of Borneo, for copra, gutta-percha, rattan, coffee, and rice. He also navigated the rivers of Borneo, Brou, Bolongan, and Koeti in the course of these voyages, acquiring not only a familiar knowledge of the Malay language, but also an insight into the habits of that treacherous people that was to prove of great value to him later on. A life on the ocean wave at last lost its attractiveness for Mr. Roe, who contemplated marrying and settling down to the practice of his profession at Roebourne, which had been named after his father by the then Governor of the colony, the late Sir Frederick Weld. Mr. Roe married in 1887 Miss Mary Newman, daughter of the late Edward Newman, of Fremantle, and two children have been the issue of the union.

When Sittings of the Supreme Court in its criminal jurisdiction became necessary owing to the expansion of the interests of the North-West and its growing population, Mr. Roe was appointed under a Commission issued in each separate case to preside as a judge, a responsible post for which he possessed peculiar fitness. In fact it would be difficult to name another Commissioner who has so many qualifications to preside over issues of life and death in a community where murder is rife among men of colour—Malays, Chinese, coolie, and aborigines—and where it is almost impossible to obtain the services of a competent interpreter, so that a judge who was not able to follow the evidence in the native dialects would find himself seriously perplexed. The judicial functions which are so faithfully and admirably performed by Mr. Roe are with lamentable frequency called into requisition in cases of murder, of which crime no fewer than thirty prisoners have been sentenced to death by him, but the extenuating circumstances of the shedding of blood among the untamed races of such a remote part of the world as the North-West have, owing to the clemency of the Executive, saved all but seven of the culprits from the gallows. When it is remembered that if Mr. Roe's services were not available it would be necessary for one of the Supreme Court judges in the metropolitan district to allow his work to fall into arrears and travel 1,200 miles to administer justice at Roebourne, it will be seen that from every point of view, including the minor consideration of the saving of heavy expenses, the community is to be congratulated upon the admission to the bar of a capable Commissioner, and also upon his unique training for the performance of work of such vital importance for the maintenance of law and order.

When the Pilbarra Goldfields proved to be rich beyond expectation a new sphere of activity was opened up to Mr. Roe, who, as the principal legal practitioner of the district, speedily obtained a large practice in connection with mining interests. Perceiving the value of the leases which passed under his professional review he soon made large and lucrative investments in the reefs of the district with which he has been so long and so prominently identified. On certain of the auriferous areas attracting attention in London, Mr. Roe was employed as the trusted agent and adviser of a number of the vendors, and the shareholders of the purchasing companies in turn evinced their confidence in him by electing him as a director and in several cases as managing director of the chief corporations, which have set a splendid example to investors in other parts of the colony by avoiding over capitalisation and subscribing an ample working capital for the systematic and thorough development of the mines with the aid of the most modern machinery and the best mining skill. Mr. Roe has large discretion under power of attorney in dealing with the affairs of all the great English companies of Pilbarra, so that the chairmanship of directors or a seat on the board is the least share of his responsibility regarding properties of which he is the only resident proprietor. Among those are the Consolidated Gold Mines of West Australia Limited, the Imperial West Australian Corporation Limited, Pilbarra United Goldfields Limited, Just In Time Limited, the Yellow Astor Limited, Hong Kong, Foo Choo, Nullagine, Western Shaw, and Mallina Companies. But there is every indication that the wealth of the North-West, satisfactory as the results have already been, are only just beginning to be discovered. New finds are constantly being reported, one of them very recently within two miles of Mr. Roe's house, just on the other side of Mount Welcome. A still more important series of rich reefs have lately been brought to light on the Ashburton River, which lies to the south-westward of Roebourne, 250 miles away, and about 200 miles from the sea-coast. The stone shows gold so freely that Mr. Roe is visiting (1896) England to exhibit it in London, with a view to the flotation of some leases into companies in the market of the world. He has well earned the holiday of the sea voyage.

The climate of Roebourne, which is situated very near the tropics, is during the unduly long summer very trying to the health of Europeans. Albeit, Mr. Roe, who is a man of taste and refinement, has spared no outlay or effort to make his home replete with every surrounding and luxury that can serve to mitigate the fierce noon-day heat. In the design of his handsome and spacious villa he followed a style of semi-Indian architecture, and by means of broad verandahs, thick blinds, stone walls, and punkahs, set an example of adapting a building to the latitude in which it is erected; in this there is plenty of room for Western Australians advantageously to imitate Mr. Roe's lead. Mr. Roe is a Freemason, of whom the ancient institution has reason to be proud. He has filled the chair of the Harding Lodge (English Constitution), and both socially and professionally his influence is beneficially felt throughout the community in which he lives. As a sportsman he holds "straight" on turkey and wild duck when in search of a little relaxation from his many and onerous duties, and has only recently resigned as a steward of the Roebourne Jockey Club. It is the tendency of civilisation to erase individuality, and to make each unit of the population a man mainly of one idea—that idea being his own occupation and how to thrive by sedulously following it and mastering all its branches. The guide books of youth foster this creed of singleness of purpose and preach that art is too wide and human wit too narrow for anyone to conquer more than one craft or profession. The soundness of this advice when it is tendered to recruits of only ordinary capacity on the world's stage cannot be questioned; to do first-class work in many spheres is the mark of the few men who possess indomitable industry, directed by a strong head, eagle-eyed to see and devise means to ends that are beyond the grasp of the weakling. The record of Mr. Roe, diverse and fruitful in its achievements, has been more distinctive than many a one that has formed the material of a separate volume. If he does not write a book the omission will be the first time that he has burked his duty.