The Coming Colony/Chapter 3

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III.


Hardships of the Early Settlers—Champagne Cases as Flooring Boards—Dissipation of the Public Territory—"Eyes" of the Country picked out—Australind—The Convict Influx saves the Colony—Lethargy of the Colonists—The Early Governors—The Crown Colony Régime—Give Down­ing Street its Due—A Country without a Pauper—Fifty-four Thousand People too few—Colonisation Schemes and Land Grant Railways.


The colonists who landed on 1st June, 1829, did so with very little conception of the hardships which lay before them. They and their immediate successors were of a superior class socially to the majority of the immigrants who have formed the staple of the influx into the other colonies. They brought with them champagne in cases, which had ultimately to be used as flooring boards for their primitive dwellings, and carriages, in which, instead of driving, they had to sleep during the first weeks of their novel and disillusionising experience. Sir James Stirling, who commanded on the China station during the Crimean War, and who became a Lord of the Admiralty, had after his expedition in 1826 described the country in the neighbourhood of the Swan River as a land flowing with milk and honey, and evidenced his own bona fides by inducing a number of personal friends to avail themselves of the liberal land grants given by the Imperial Government in exchange for the introduction of capital and labour into the infant colony. He himself accepted land in lieu of salary—though he afterwards got both land and salary—and large allotments were given for every immigrant introduced by the early settlers. The latter were also subsidised in the same way for all property which they brought with them, and as the "property" was assessed at a very high rate and the land at a very low figure, vast tracts of virgin country were alienated to a few persons before the colony got a fair start. It is needless to say that the first settlers did not choose the worst territory, and the fact that the "eyes of the country" were thus picked out, and new-comers driven to go far afield for decent land, had a most depressing influence on the progress of the colony, which thus offered inferior attractions to the more concentrated settlements in the eastern part of the continent. The "bone and sinew" imported by the early settlers failing to get land within easy reach, and finding the Conservative tendencies of the Administration less propi­tious to the legitimate expansion of industrial energies than the system pursued in the other colonies, transferred to the latter their vivifying presence. Ere the colony had been started three years 1,350,000 acres had been squandered. These vast alienations scattered the sparse settlers over a wide area, and rendered them an easy prey to the hostile natives. As a palliative, colonisation schemes were proposed, and an agricultural settle­ment, grandiloquently named "Australind," was started about 1841, near what is now Bunbury, on the south-west coast, under the auspices of the West Australian Company, which was formed in London to purchase the property of Colonel Latour in that locality, with a view to cutting it up into 100-acre farm­ing blocks. Some 450 unfortunates had been imported to settle on these when the company collapsed, and the colonisation scheme was nipped in the bud before it had time to prove whether it was destined to fructify.

Many of the Australind settlers went to South Australia, which was just then being colonised under the Wakefield sys­tem, whilst others succumbed to the attractions of New South Wales. The colony was thus plunged into a slough of despond from which it was only rescued when on the verge of ruin by the deportation of convicts to its shores, which, at the earnest request of the settlers, was commenced in 1850, and which, with the usual concurrent disadvantages, proved a boon and blessing to the colonists until, owing to the hostility to the sys­tem evinced by the rest of Australia, it was stopped in 1868. During the greater part of this period the convicts sent out were of a superior class, many of them being transported for offences which would now be lightly treated or hardly consi­dered criminal. They supplied the settlers with plentiful and cheap labour, so that pastoral and agricultural enterprise was encouraged, whilst the public works executed by their instru­mentality opened up the country, and provided the conveniences necessary for the growth and maintenance of an external and internal commerce. The convicts not only made excellent ser­vants, but many of them, on their emancipation, took up land, and did well on their own account. Having every incentive of self-interest to well-doing, most of them preserved a clean record in their new sphere; but quite contrary to what occurred in New South Wales, the line of demarcation between themselves and the free settlers has been rigidly preserved, "society" refusing them her magic hall-mark, no matter how prolonged may have been their period of reformation and respectability·. It re mains to be seen when their time of expiation will be deemed complete and their descendants be admitted to those social privileges which are most greedily coveted just in proportion as they are most rigidly withheld. With the large influx of new blood which is certain to be witnessed during the next few years, pro­bably the last vestige of disability will disappear in the case of those who now suffer for sins committed by their sires, and for which no theory of life yet propounded can attribute to them any responsibility.

For the twenty years which followed the cessation of trans­portation to Western Australia emigration was assisted in a more or less spasmodic manner. In 1888, however, so far as State aid was concerned, it was virtually suspended, except in the case of female domestic servants and of males nominated by their friends in the colony; the latter method giving a reason­ able guarantee that the emigrants assisted out would stay in Western Australia, instead of, as often proved to be the case, getting half their passages paid by the Western Australian Government, and then immediately "making tracks" to the other colonies, which the plenitude of highly-paid employment and the mineral discoveries rendered considerably more attractive to the adult manhood. Much merriment has been made at the expense of a local politician who opposed the extension of harbour accommodation, on the ground that the advent of more shipping would only tend to damage the colony by affording greater facilities to the inhabitants for getting away and locating themselves in more go-ahead regions. It will be seen, however, that in the state of things which prevailed. there was consider­able basis for this gentleman's vaticinations.

It is easy to exclaim against the somnolence of a community which, with vast areas of virgin agricultural land awaiting the plough, is content to import many thousand pounds' worth of breadstuffs annually, and which, with every facility for dairy farming, still largely relies on South Australia for its butter supply. The scarcity and uncertainty of labour were, however, a handicap on all regular cultures and industries, and in a country where nature itself was so bounteous to the handful of inhabitants one cannot be surprised if they preferred to rely for a living on pursuits such as sandalwood cutting, which, with a few days' exertion now an d then, provided them with ample means of sustenance, rather than embark in corn-grow­ing, which involved sustained diligence and possibly doubtful results. A truly Arcadian community; a living, not a fortune, was the general ideal, and as they had done themselves, so the average West Australians thought their descendants in the future might do for uncounted generations—i.e., as long as the hated stranger was kept out. The oft-told tale of the Albany man illustrates the lethargy which prevailed. The individual in question, having sold his oaten hay for a pound or two per ton more than the price obtained in previous years, is repre­sented as remarking, with a sigh of relief, "Thank Heaven, I shall be able to put in an acre less next year." Whether literally true or not, the tale points a genuine n1oral, the aim being, not at an increase of outputs an d profits, but at how little expendi­ture of toil the bare necessaries of life might be obtained. It is only fair to say, however, that there were not wanting signs of a different spirit—as is shown by the exploitation of minerals of various descriptions in various districts, which was only aban­doned when the absence of suitable labour and means of com­munication and transport rendered it unprofitable after an outlay of many thou sands of pounds out of the pockets of an impoverished community.

The old order changeth, giving place to new; but though no one with a head on his shoulders would now care to recall the past and restore the old autocratic regime, it is only fair to Downing Street and the series of able men who under its auspices administered the Government, to bear testimony to the enlightenment and enterprise which, in the midst of somewhat somnolent surroundings, on the whole characterised their rule. The impulse to advance certainly came rather from above than from below, and when Western Australia becomes what her friends wish for her, and which her vast resources justify them in wishing with more of certainty than hope, the names of her early Governors, as well as of Sir Frederick Weld, Sir William Robinson, and Sir Frederick Broome, will deservedly be held in high esteem. Responsible government is evidently going to do marvels for the country, but this should not make the people forget that the impulse which is likely to swell into the full tide of progress and prosperity cam e before autonomous institutions were persistently agitated for, much less conceded.

Exploration, one of the first duties of government in a new territory, was certainly fostered with no niggard hand. Postal and telegraphic facilities were also afforded to an extent which may seem trivial in comparison with the vastness of the territory included in the colony, but which is extraordinary when considered in connection with the smallness of the popu­lation and the way it is scattered over the huge area which it cannot be said to occupy. Under the Downing Street regime roads were constructed, and a railway system was inaugurated, which some years ago broke the ice of the old lethargy, and without which the thriving agricultural settlements at New­ castle, Northam, York, and further south, at Katanning, could never have been called into prosperous being. The heritage which is now handed over, and a share in which there is no disposition on the part of the present inhabitants to grudge to suitable new-comers from the old country, if it has not given rise to a "bloated plutocracy," has, at any rate, no cancerous growth of pauperism to blight it in the bud. Throughout the wide bounds of Western Australia there. is not a single able­ bodied pauper, so that the Government have done well to sub­stitute for the unpopular name of "poorhouse," as applied to the State receptacle for the aged and infirm, the more euphonious and Christianlike title of "invalid depôts."

One might as well dogmatise about the concerns of every state in Europe on the strength of having seen Italy, as pretend to fully diagnose the outlook in Western Australia after a cursory visit such as I paid to its south-western corner. Of one thing I am convinced, from personal observation and from the accounts of trustworthy experts, that the public estate of the colony—patchy as the land is—presents a magnificent asset, and one which, in the name of reason and common sense, its present fifty-four thousand owners cannot be allowed to much longer monopolise in face of the vast numbers of the British race in the old country whom necessity is compelling to seek new fields. The want of population is the one thing which keeps Western Australia in the rear rank of the Australian Colonies, and her necessity is thus in the best sense of the word England's opportunity. It is a monstrous absurdity that fifty-four thousand people should be holding—certainly not utilising—a territory which it would be equally ridiculous to deny is capable of supporting several hundreds of thousands, even without those mineral discoveries which, if persistently ex­ploited, would very soon attract thousands from the other colonies, and thus create a consuming population. Only by a judicious influx of bone and sinew can this "ugly duckling" of the Australian family be converted into the similitude of the stately swan which adorns her postage- stamps. The room for mere labourers without capital is certainly limited, and a few shiploads of emigrants would render the supply very much in excess of the demand. Everything which I saw in Western Australia leads me to concur with Sir Charles Dilke in thinking it admirably calculated for the practical working-out of well­ conceived schemes of colonisation on a large scale. I do not,. however, agree with him in thinking that the work should be undertaken under Government auspices or at the public expense. The people must be placed on the land and supported there until they are put in the way of supporting themselves. This office would, it seems to me, be much better performed by one or other of the great companies who are constructing the railways of Western Australia on the land-grant system. They have an immense estate to manipulate, and on their ability in fructifying it the profits of their shareholders must depend. Some scheme of homesteads, partially prepared in advance for the new-comers, and purchasable on easy terms by time payments, could surely be developed and worked out, to the material advantage of owners and tenants. To this subject I will, however, revert when I come to deal in detail with the operations and opportunities of the two great Land Grant Corporations of the colony, the "West Australian Land Company" (Great Southern Rail­way of Western Australia) in the south, and the "Midland Railway Company of Western Australia" in the north, of the south-western district which, as comprising the only suitable area for immediate agricultural settlement, as we understand it in the old country, I shall almost exclusively notice in the course of these, I fear, somewhat sketchy hints for emigrants.