The Coming Colony/Chapter 14
Fremantle Harbour Works—Sir John Coode's Views—Steam to Geraldton—Mr. Maitland Browne—Fine type of Colonial Pioneer—A Gameless Land—Over the Midland Company's Concession—Greenough Flats—The Upper Irwin Country—A Land of Flowers.
In order to get to Geraldton, the main port of the district which the Midland Railway of Western Australia, when completed, is to traverse, I had to proceed from Perth by railway to Fremantle, its port at the mouth of the River Swan. Fremantle is only some 3,000 behind the capital in population, and in hotel accommodation and some other matters seems to have even surpassed it. It might be thought that, with only a river length of fourteen miles separating it from the sea, Perth would have insisted on being its own port, and at all risks have cleared away the rocky bar which alone would prevent vessels of large tonnage loading and discharging at its wharves were the river channel deepened and narrowed at certain points, at a cost which need not, one would think, be prohibitive. The Perthites have not taken altogether kindly to the idea of admitting the maritime supremacy of Fremantle; but there appears to be a doubt whether in any case the largest class of ocean-going steamers could ever come up to Perth, whilst the claims of Fremantle were strongly reinforced by the reports of the late Sir John Coode. This eminent engineer, after personal inspection and the most minute soundings, came to the conclusion, even if costly sheltering works were erected, that, looking at the large quantity of sand in motion, particularly near the coast-line, the limited backwater available for scouring purposes would prove insufficient, even when aided by training and protective works, to keep open a deep channel through the rock barrier after the latter had been formed. Accompanying this condemnation of a scheme to which every loyal Perthite naturally inclined, Sir John made a recommendation that Fremantle should be constituted the principal harbour of the colony under plans which would, in the first instance, provide efficient harbourage for vessels drawing from 24 to 26 feet, and which by a process of extension might ultimately be made to accommodate the largest vessels of the P. and O. Company, with a depth of 34 to 36 feet. It is in the direction of Sir John Coode's project that the amount included in the schedule of the loan, of which a part has already been floated, will probably be applied, though recently the Government favoured a wholly different scheme, which was also endorsed as practicable by Sir John Coode before his death. That eminent engineer considered that fair harbourage should satisfy the wants of the present generation; but the people of Fremantle are not likely to be long content with any improvement which will still keep them in the rear of Albany as a port of entrance for ocean-going steamers, especially in view of the tempting advances which the Orient Company are believed to have made in the direction of constituting Fremantle a regular port of call on the passage between England and the Australian colonies if safe harbourage is guaranteed. I interpose these allusions to the harbour question as they formed the topic of much heated discussion between the advocates of Fremantle and all sorts of other supposititious harbours before I found myself on board the little steamer Flinders bound for Geraldton, which promising port, with its population of 1,000, we did not, however, reach by this method, the weather proving sufficiently fine to allow of our putting in at Dongara, 41 miles south of Geraldton, where we availed ourselves of the opportunity of travelling along the finished section of the Midland Railway to Walkaway, and thence by the Government line to Geraldton itself.
From the point of view of the Company the original syndicate no doubt committed a mistake in agreeing to make a line which left in the hands of the Government the key of the whole position—viz., the command of the outport. This the Company have not been slow to recognise, and negotiations are now, I believe, in progress for the purchase from the State of the twenty miles of line from Walkaway to Geraldton which the latter have made to meet the Company's line at Walkaway, at a cost of some £60,000. As money is not too plentiful, the Government may also find it to their advantage to hand over to the Company the construction of the projected line to Mullewa, which would tap the rich pastoral districts of the Upper Murchison, and for which a sum of £100,000 appears in the loan schedule already referred to. The main argument in favour of leaving the work to the Company is that it will mainly run through land which the Company meditate taking up under their original concession. It may be said that the tide of opinion in the abstract is against land-grant railways, and that they are objectionable in principle as tending to aggregate too much territory, and, par consequence, too much power, in a few hands, as has been done with such undesirable results in the United States. On the other hand, the indisposition of English investors to take up colonial loans is bound to have the effect of compelling the Australian Governments to look elsewhere than to public borrowing for the construction of railroads which they deem necessary to provide means of transport and to open up the public domain, whilst it would be by no means impossible to introduce clauses into these land-grant concessions rendering alienation in moderate blocks compulsory within a reasonable time.
The harbour at Geraldton, though little more than an open roadstead, is not a bad one in moderate weather, and when the £25,000 which is placed on the loan estimates for its improvement, on the lines suggested by Sir John Coode, has been expended, it will satisfy all reasonable requirements in fair weather for many years to come, though there are not wanting sanguine persons who already regard the advent of ocean mail steamers and the establishment of a large export trade in frozen meat as amongst the possibilities of the not distant future. I bore an introduction from the Premier to the Government Resident, Mr. Maitland Brown, who, in addition to his functions as the judicial and official factotum of the district, has performed as many heroisms, as an explorer and a rescuer of his fellow men from multiform perils by flood, bush, and blacks, as would have entitled him to half-a-dozen Victoria Crosses had he been in the British Army. As I talked to this perfectly alert specimen of the bushman—and a gentleman withal—I could not but regard him with as much respect as one of those old Wardens of the Marches, whose fame has come down to us in song and story, but who had hardly a more difficult duty to perform than is now cast upon the Maitland Browns in all parts of the world in holding the outposts of the British Empire.
As Geraldton was to be my most northerly point of travel, I was naturally led to cast a glance at the vast regions still further north, where a handful of pastoral pioneers are feeding their flocks in regions where all the characteristic Anglo-Saxon persistency is required to meet the exigencies of isolation, climate, and temperature. This brought us to talk of the relations which existed between the new settlers and the expatriated lords of the soil, whose wrongs have been ventilated perhaps neither wisely nor well, as those affected affirm, but still doubtless with some substratum of fact, in such brochures as "Dark Deeds in a Sunny Land." Mr. Brown spoke kindly on the whole of the aborigines, amongst whom, he said, there were some of "nature's gentlemen," and expressed the view that, though there had been abuses in the past, there was very little in the shape of bondage or oppression at the present moment. Of one thing he was sure, that public opinion in the colony was thoroughly on the right side in the matter, and that the local government would not wilfully wink at acts of cruelty against the natives. The pearl fisheries of the north were, it is undoubted, the scenes of something some like native slavery, but the divers are now nearly all Malays. In this connection it may be pointed out that besides supplying an export of pearls and mother-of-pearl totalling a large amount per annum, the fisheries worked by native labour, for which they paid nothing beyond rations, in many cases provided the early northern pioneers with the means which subsequently enabled them to improve and stock their pastoral holdings.
There seems no end to the splendid sheep country of the north, and the tenures are easy and the runs of vast extent. For plucky young men with money, who will make up their minds to face a tropical climate with very few tropical advantages on the prospect of doing well in a few years out of wool, this fly-tormented region may present attractions, and there is this to be said for it, that droughts on the scale experienced in the other colonies are unknown, no such prolonged cessations of rainfall having been recorded as, say, in some of the best pastoral portions of Northern Queensland.
Mr. Brown was obliged to admit to me that the Geraldton district was practically a gameless one, with the exception of kangaroos, emus, wild ducks and wild turkeys, which latter he asserts to be the true bustard. There is not very much, therefore, to tempt the sportsman. There had not been any rain to speak of when I left Geraldton on May 19th, 1891, since the previous October, so that I saw the country in its least attractive autumnal jacket. Mr. Brown said that the best season for farmers was when the rain commenced on May 20th, and curiously enough, on the second day of our cross-country journey, down came the rain in torrents, very much to our discomfort in the open wagonette, but immensely to the joy of the whole country side. We did the first 40 miles back to Dongara, on our way to Gingin, by the railway, which in this part of its course runs through the famous Greenough Flats, which the Agricultural Commission class amongst the richest agricultural land in all Australia. These flats, which run parallel, are severally about 25 miles in length, and about three-quarters of a mile to two miles in width. They are already taken up, so I only dwell on their deep loamy richness, averaging wheat crops of 30 bushels per acre, because they may be regarded as samples of a good deal of the best land on the Upper Irwin River further south, which will shortly be at the disposal of the Midland Railway Company to alienate as they will. The journey across the sand plain after leaving Dongara was dreary enough in the steady downpour, but even these desolate expanses have their use, as they afford excellent summer feed for cattle. They are pretty enough in their way, too, the banksias with their vari-coloured cones and several kinds of heather and innumerable flowering shrubs making the plains bright enough even in winter, and encouraging a belief in all that was told us of the glorious display of flowers which the summer sun brings forth, making the country a veritable Florida after a fashion which the English imagination can hardly compass.