History of West Australia/John Thomas

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THERE are no biographies published in this work where the gentlemen concerned can claim a longer association with Western Australia than Mr. John Thomas, better known as Captain Thomas. It is a somewhat impressive fact and one calling for respect and delight that we have still in our midst he who came to the colony in the year when it was proclaimed—in 1829. Captain Thomas thus bridges the space of time between the days when Western Australia was the hunting ground of the dusky natives and the present, when the whites are pushing their enterprise and industry over the rich lands, north, south, east, and west, and even into the solemn deserts of the interior. In itself it is the span of a long life, and one fraught with much pregnant moment, not only to the continent of Australia, but to the whole world besides. While Captain Thomas has been hid in the interminable forests and the gloom and mystery of silence in Western Australia, cities have been born on the continent which have grown to such dimensions as to be recognised the world over. Notable men have appeared, and in his own colony and the others of the group great industries have risen, and the white man's ingenuity and industry have sedulously penetrated where the black in 1829 reigned supreme.

John Thomas HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

The life of Captain Thomas in Western Australia has been a romantic one. His experience among the poor, ignorant savages, his days spent in the grim silence of the woods, and his voyages along the immense coast and to convenient islands, are remarkable enough to form subject matter for a novel. Many a tale he can tell of the early days of Western Australia which should appear in books of history before they forever sink into the forgotten. He is a link binding the past with the present, and his biography should find interested readers everywhere.

John Thomas was born in Wales in 1815. He was educated in his native land, and when the boy was fourteen years old his father accompanied Mr. Thomas Peel to Western Australia to take the position of clerk of works on somewhat extensive land proposals that gentleman intended carrying out in this colony. The whole family set sail in the ship Gilmour, and landed in Fremantle in November, 1829. Thus the subject of our sketch entered this colony some five months after it was proclaimed and not long after the first settlement was made at Albany. Fremantle at that time was in its dismal native state, and little evidence could be seen by the incoming pioneers of the work of white men. However, they soon joined the little party who had bravely elected to pioneer the colony under Commander Stirling. One of those who entered Western Australia by the same vessel was Mr. Smythe, who subsequently surveyed the site of Fremantle. Among the first efforts of the boy John Thomas was that of cutting timber in the locality where Rockingham now stands. The wood obtained from there was eminently suitable for the erection of houses. Large tribes of natives inhabited the district, and already they were showing how greatly they resented the raids of the whites upon what they considered their own peculiar property. In order to safely accomplish their work the party of woodcutters, of which Mr. Thomas made one, was guarded by two men with guns, to frighten off the armed blacks. The lad came through the dangers of this work unscathed, gnd returned to Fremantle and Perth. He followed various occupations—among the few which so young a place supplied—and in 1832, in partnership with a man named William Gaze, he began farming in the Kelmscott district, on the present Canning Road. Before the seed could be sown the fields had to be denuded of timber, and the two pioneers proceeded energetically to clear the forest and to establish a home. John Thomas, although but seventeen years old, was able to do a man's work, and the two quickly cleared part of their little holding, prepared the soil, and tilled the wheat. Another chain of land yet remained to be cleared and tilled. One fine autumn morning they worked as usual, but the day eventuated in horror for both of them. Leaving their tools in the field they repaired to their modest hut, some little distance away, and partook of their simple noonday meal. This over, they returned to work, and while one sowed a little patch of the primitive farm the other began cutting away the timber. Presently they were roused from their occupations by the howling of their dog, and looking in the direction whence the sounds came they observed that the animal was speared through the head. Glancing from him to the ridge above, they saw scores of natives assembled and seemingly bent on encompassing their destruction. Could the two men but get into their hut where their guns were they would be safe, but the natives were cunning enough to place themselves on the path they must take. A mile distant lay a barracks occupied by military for the protection of settlers in the district. To reach this they had to cross the river Canning. A fallen tree supplied a rustic bridge over the bed of the stream. The two men saw they would have to race for the barracks. John Thomas seized a spade, and his mate an axe, and they set off at the top of their speed. The natives followed close behind. It was a race for life. When the log across the stream was reached, it was found that Mr. Thomas, having soft, yielding slippers on his feet, had an advantage on the slippery way over his companion. He proceeded first, and gained the other side in safety but Mr. Gaze slipped when part of the way across and fell into the stream. It did not take him long to recover his feet and rush forward, but the natives were now within spearing distance, and he was speared in the back. This did not deter him, and he continued to rush forward after Mr. Thomas. The latter, seeing that there were numerous natives in the pursuit, considered that it was hopeless to return and help his fellow up the bank of the stream, for to his horror he observed him pierced with several spears. It was now necessary for Mr. Thomas to gain the barracks as quickly as possible, for the natives were already on the opposite bank of the stream, and spears persistently shrieked above and around him. He was beyond their range in a few seconds, and quickly gained the barracks. There he hoped to find the whole detachment, but only one able man was present, the others having gone to Perth in company with Captain Ellis, Government Resident. However, two guns and ammunition remained, and the two men, assisted by the lame comrade, made their way back to the bank of the river where Gaze was last seen. Mr. Thomas's new comrades were nervous men, and persisted in coo-ee-ing so that the natives might know that reinforcements were approaching and, perchance, run off. By-and-bye a faint cry was heard in return from Gaze, and going forward more hopefully they found him still alive, but in great agony. The unfortunate man was speared in five places—the spears being still in his body. One of these pierced his neck, another his cheek, a third his ribs, and the two others his back. Mr. Thomas with a saw severed the spears near to the skin. The natives had evidently made off when they saw one man maimed and no hope of securing the other. Then Thomas raised Gaze on his shoulders, much against the latter's will, owing to his intense suffering, and carried him to the barracks. Mr. Thomas proceeded to the home of Mr. Phillips, father of Mr. George Phillips, who sent a servant for a doctor, who arrived at seven next morning. He duly extracted the five spear heads, but was compelled to cut no fewer than fourteen blood vessels during the operations. Naturally the patient soon died, mortification setting in.

Such scenes as these were not infrequent in those early days, and it is an open question to the humane man and the lover of justice who was least to blame the ignorant natives, who saw their lands being usurped, or the energetic white men, laudably striving to develop the resources which the Creator placed on this earth to supply life with what it requires. Mr. Thomas relinquished farming when he found that the natives had rifled his hut of guns and ammunition and destroyed the seed wheat and everything they could lay their hands on. For some time he gained a precarious livelihood, in which fishing was the principal occupation. In deep-sea fishing, much danger crept into the work. A rude catamaran was principally used. This strange contrivance was composed of deals laid side by side like a raft, upon which a tub was placed in the centre. The fisher sat in the tub, floated out with the tide, and "chanced" the wind to bring him back again. Without the fish, the colony would often have been in serious straits for want of food. The ordinary' necessaries of life brought enormous prices, and Mr. Thomas remembers that in the early thirties soap cost as much as £1 1s.a lb.; sugar, never less than 1s. a lb.; tea, 7s. a lb.; mutton and beef, 2s. 6d. and 3s. a lb.; kangaroo steak, 1s. 6d. a lb., and Mr. Thomas's father often refused £10 for a bag of flour. Kangaroo was then recognised as quite a general dish, but it required the aid of good dog to catch the marsupial. Dogs were unwonted luxuries, and sometimes as much as £35 was paid for one animal. Thus it can be well understood that for the next few years living was rather precarious for Mr. Thomas. Eventually he took to lightering, by means of boats, vessels coming into port, and, saving a little money, in 1839 he had a cutter of twenty-two tons built. He commanded this, and used it first for carrying freight from Fremantle to Bunbury and Vasse, and butter and other dairy produce from those parts to Fremantle. In this way he did fairly well. Then the time arrived when an opportunity showed itself to open up trade relations with Singapore. Captain Thomas was anxious to use his cutter in this service. He went to that port and brought back teas, sugars, &c. Ever since that period—about 1845—a regular trade has been carried on with Singapore. Captain Thomas lengthened and improved his vessel, which was soon afterwards wrecked on the Abrolhos Islands. A few years ago part of this pioneer vessel was still to be seen in Champion Bay. In 1846 Captain Thomas enterprisingly built a schooner—the Empress—of 125 tons, with which for many years he roved the seas in many parts. He traded to Adelaide and Hobart at first, and subsequently voyaged to Mauritius, and from there to Algoa Bay and the Cape. He procured what trade he could and brought it to the colony. Then he took sandalwood to Singapore, where it was so largely used as incense, and returned with East India goods. Selling the Empress in 1858, he purchased the barque Rory O'More, of 296 tons. While making a voyage from Singapore in this he was caught in a terrible cyclone off Christmas Island. All the masts were carried away, and it was only after running the greatest danger and making yards out of stunning sail booms and using such makeshifts that he was able to reach Fremantle. While he was away on this voyage his wife purchased a farm, and, his late experience having satiated him with seafaring life, he had his barque refitted and placed her in charge of a new captain. Captain Thomas went to his farm, which was situated at Pinjarra, and bid a permanent adieu to the sea. The new captain, however, soon ran him heavily into debt, so heavily that he was compelled to sell the barque, and all he received from the sale was the sum of £400. The new captain took care to hide his diminished head in the distance.

For a number of years Captain Thomas worked his farm, and good seasons greeting him his career thenceforth was prosperous. He possesses, 3,500 acres at Pinjarra, and worked them until 1876, when he retired. His life now became less exciting, for in the peaceful efforts of tilling the soil and harvesting its fruits he was shut out from the busy crowd and the common dangers attending a roaming life. Captain Thomas's was a retirement well earned and much deserved. He has been of use to Fremantle in a public way, and of the early Town Trust Councils was an active and honoured member. For five terms he occupied the position of chairman. In 1851 he joined the order of Foresters, and is now a much-respected honorary member of it. Within recent years he has resided in Fremantle.

Few men have had more interesting careers than Captain Thomas. To those who took life boldly in their hands, so to speak, in the twenties and thirties all respect is due, and their names will be long remembered and should be known in history. They are the Pilgrim Fathers of Western Australia. It is to be hoped that Captain Thomas will be spared for many years to the colony for which he has done so much.