The Coming Colony/Chapter 17
Return to Perth—The Weld Club—A Queen's Birthday Levée—Gay-plumaged Birds—Rottnest—A West Australian General Gordon—"What for me sorry?"
When I returned to Perth, on May 24th, after my cross-country trip through the region discovered by Sir George Grey, I expanded with the pride of a full-blown explorer, and almost expected to hear a re-echo of the glad strain which greeted Sir George more than half a century ago when, utterly exhausted by famine and fatigue, he was cheered on to cover the few remaining miles between what is now Geraldton and the capital by the familiar sound of the bugle-call of his old regiment issuing from the Perth barracks. If he wept tears at Adelaide at the recollection of his experiences as administrator of the infantile destinies of South Australia fifty years before, he might well do so over the knowledge that the wilderness through which he penetrated with so much of anguish and privation even earlier still is now in all likelihood to "blossom as the rose"—the rose of prosperous settlement and peaceable development.
The Queen's birthday festivities were in full swing when I once more re-entered the hospitable portals of the Weld Club, whose name commemorates the popular Governor who passed away in his English retirement a few months after my visit to the colony, much to the regret, I am sure, of all West Australians, by whom his modest personality and progressive policy were duly appreciated. The colony has not yet found its feet after the plunge from Downing-street domination into self-governing blessedness. Old habits will assert themselves under the altered régime, and the result is that "Government House" invitations are received with awe and obeyed as "commands," after a fashion which does not obtain in the other colonies, and which serves to remind one how short a time has elapsed since the nod of the Governor and the smiles of the Governor's lady were the "be-all and end-all" of official and social ambition in Western Australia. The "old order" has changed, but the tradition lingers, and like boys just let out from school the West Australians require a moment's breathing-space before they burst into the full cry of unconstrained liberty. All this is meant to indicate that Sir William Robinson's Birthday Levée was exceedingly well attended, and that the leading members of the Civil Service and of the local haut ton sent formal excuses in cases where they could not come to do homage personally. Even "at home" a levée agitates a certain limited section of West-end London, and it may be imagined what was the excitement in the little more than village of Perth when a procession of swallow-tails and white ties, which are a pestilence even at night-time, walked through the principal streets at noonday. Proud and happy he above his fellows whose official position, or the accident of presentation "at home," permitted to strut forth in the peacock like paraphernalia of his privileged caste, his braided or velvet coat, silken hose, and cocked hat reducing to "felt" insignificance the plain cloth apparel, common "stovepipe" or rare opera hat of his less fortunate fellow-citizens. However, the latter enjoyed some slight compensation in the jeers which greeted the gayer-plumaged birds from a gang of unmannerly "larrikins," not educated up to the mysteries of Court attire.
Later on there was the inevitable "Birthday Ball"-the great piece of crush and colour in the colonial year. At these functions the invitations are widened so as to admit into the charmed circle a bevy of aspirants not normally numbered within the "Society pale." Amongst the latter there was great jubilation and an air in which suitable modesty struggled visibly with suppressed pride; whilst on the part of the élite, who have the entrée on more select occasions, there was a tendency to speak of the Birthday Ball as "crowded" and "mixed," and to feel a little that it prefigured the "wild rush of democracy" under the new régime.
It is easy for the globe-trotter to amuse himself with the harmless vanities of colonial existence, which are at the worst but a watery reflection of the intricate snobberies which exuberate at home. He has the conceit taken out of him, however, when those whom he thinks it his right to criticise from an English standpoint take up the parable in their turn and give him the outside view o:f things as they are in the old country. I was never more impressed with this than when the witty Nestor of Western Australia, Mr. George Leake, formerly Acting Chief Justice, expatiated to me on the awful situation of the "submerged tenth" at the East End of London. He seemed to think that our statesmen were sitting on a suppressed but not long suppressible volcano whilst such an "open sore" was permitted to fester unhealed. Smug critics at home, ignoring the multitudinous good things which the colonies have achieved and the many evil emanations of the Old World which they have ameliorated or checked, expatiate on shortcomings trivial in comparison with the foul excrescences on the:face of older civilisations. What, after all, are the temporary miseries of an ill-considered strike, a possibly too lavish policy of borrowing (never, be it remembered, in excess of assets), and the occasional waste of a million or two on unremunerative public works or railways in these democratic communities, in comparison with the record o:f crime and suffering which cries to Heaven as the outcome of centuries of class waste, domination, and selfishness in the Old World?
Before I finally left Perth on my way south to Albany to catch the P. and O. steamer Shannon, which was to take me back to the eastern colonies, I had a peep at Rottnest, an island seven and a half miles long by two and a half broad, lying out to sea about eleven miles from Fremantle. It boasts "its palace and its prison on each hand," being the site both of the summer resort of the Governors of Western Australia and of the prison for native offenders, who, whatever the dark rumours of their past ill-treatment at the hands of white gaolers, are now benevolently cared for under the paternal régime of Colonel Angelo, an old Imperial officer, who, after holding high military position in India, became commandant of the Tasmanian local forces, and is now Government Resident and Convict Superintendent in this paradisiacal little island, which the Perth people would like to purge of its criminal associations and convert into a summer watering-place for their wives and olive-branches. The difficulty is to know what to do with the native offenders who would quickly die in the close confinement of an inland gaol, whilst at Rottnest they can be afforded reasonable liberty of movement without any fear of their escaping. Even at Rottnest, the colonel told me, he regarded five years of the mitigated restraint in vogue there as tantamount to a death sentence on these nomadic children of the "bush." It may be imagined what would be the effect, therefore, of working them in chain-gangs, or keeping them locked up in mainland prisons. The colonel, loyal to his office, tried to persuade me that as far as their feelings went they were happy enough, and preferred Rottnest to their old wilderness haunts. But like perverse children called upon to "show off" before their parents' guests, they entirely repudiated the soft impeachment, and in reply to questions, put in the most insinuating tone of voice, unanimously expressed a desire to return as speedily as possible to their old hunting-grounds, "Me like um bush, possum, kangaroo," the answer of one of them, being the gist of the answers of them all. Most of them presented fright fully animal, repulsive-looking physiognomies, but I could not help pitying their sad fate, dying by inches £or the breach of enactments in direct contravention of their tribal laws. Many of them, too, were "in" for sheep-stealing, which they regard as only a just toll on the men who have driven them back from their old fishing and hunting grounds, and who have thus deprived them of their normal means of livelihood. When some great Roman Catholic dignitary—Cardinal Moran, I think it was—inquired of one of the Rottnest prisoners whether he was not sorry for having killed an unfaithful wife, his attitude was expressed in the indignant, "What for me sorry?" which was the only answer the shocked prelate could get from him in response to a homily on the heinousness of his crime, which in no way abated the savage's belief in the conjugal code of his ancestors. I should have liked to have lingered in this charming spot, where the prisoners are employed in farming avocations, and in preparing for market the salt which is found deposited in several small lagoons. It was with an effort that I tore my self away from the hospitable colonel, who is a veritable Gordon in his Bible and bayonet ideas, his hatred of white wrongdoing towards the native races, his intolerance of officialism, and the eccentric literalism of his interpretations of Scripture prophecy.
Though the trail of criminalism is "over it all," Rottnest is a veritable "isle of beauty," sky and sea in the sunny autumn weather vying with each other in the depth and purity of their azure glory. The misanthrope might find at Rottnest a solitude where "none intruded," and where the loveliness of nature might perchance lure him back to the love of his kind. Even the most jaded author might here wield a flowing pen, the bard imbibe inspiration for a monumental poem, or some budding Darwin might develop a new Cosmic theory without the remotest jar of mundane interruption. As a matter of fact I regretted I had not sought Sir William Robinson's permission to occupy a chamber in Government Cottage for a few days' space, in order to recruit my self after my long spell of wearisome locomotion; but the Government boat was waiting, and I had to get on board, a favourable breeze soon wafting us back to Fremantle and the material world.