The State and Position of Western Australia/Chapter 3

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Misstatements in recent Publications—Mr. Peel’s Grant—Causes of early Failures—Origin of many injurious Reports—Instance of a Settler seriously misled by them—Want of Money—High Prices of Provisions—Want of Storehouses—Free Grants, Tendency of—Remedies in Progress.

The reader’s attention will now be drawn to some of the misstatements with respect to the colony, which have appeared in recent publications. Under this head he would especially notice a work entitled “England and America;” as the question of colonization is ably discussed in it, and the system which it recommends is intended to be followed up in the projected colony of South Australia. The author would here remark, that from what came under his own observation, when he was in South Africa in 1817, of the condition of the Boors on the Caffrarian frontier, as well as from his recent experience in New Holland, he fully acquiesces in the theory that work develops—that, in order to the rapid progress and prosperity of a free colony, a due proportion ought to be maintained between land, capital, and labour. Agreeing, however, as he does on this point, it is at the same time incumbent on him, as an eye-witness to the progress of the colony of Western Australia from its origin, to show that the statements therein made relative to its early condition are incorrect.

At page 33, vol. 2, of the work in question, there is said to be, in Western Australia, “abundance of good land, and of land, too, cleared and drained by nature.” After adverting to the amount of capital and live stock, and the number of labourers introduced by the first settlers, it is asked, what has become of all that capital, and all those labourers? Then comes the following passage:—“Why this failure, with all the elements of success—plenty of good land, plenty of capital, and enough labour?—The explanation is easy;—in this colony there never has been a class of labourers. Those who went out as labourers no sooner reached the colony than they were tempted, by the superabundance of good land, to become landowners.”

This writer proceeds to state, that Mr. Peel (who, as he had been informed, had brought out a capital of 50,000 l. and 300 persons of the labouring class) had been thus left without a servant to make his bed, or to fetch him water from the river; and that, in the absence of his people, his capital had perished. “The same thing,” he adds, “happened in many cases.” Further on, it is stated that some of the labourers, who had become independent landowners, died of hunger, at a period when a large supply of food had reached the colony; and that they were starved, because where they had settled was not known to the Governor, nor even to themselves—“such,” says this writer, “was the dispersion, of these colonists, in consequence of the superabundance of good land.” It is added, that the settlers who remained had petitioned for convicts—though one of the chief inducements to settling in the colony was an undertaking, on the part of the English Government, that none should be sent thither.

If this writer’s statement be correct—that labourers on their arrival, tempted by the superabundance of good land, did with impunity desert their masters, leaving their property to perish, and did themselves become landowners, it will be apparent, either that there were then no laws in the colony, or that they were not in force. The reverse, however, is the fact,—there were laws, and they were enforced.

The following is No. 8 of the land regulations:—“No grant of land will be made to servants under indenture; nor shall persons receive grants who shall appear to have come to the settlement at the expense of other individuals, without sufficient assurance of their having fulfilled the condition of any agreement under which they may have come.” The author does not remember an instance of this regulation being relaxed; and it is manifest that destruction of property and the ruin of the capitalist must have been inevitable, had the Government not enforced it.

Equally without foundation is the statement—that the indentured servant could desert his master with impunity. The indenture was binding equally on master and servant, and was strictly enforced by the colonial law. If the master failed to give the wages, food, or whatever else might have been stipulated for in the indenture, the servant, on establishing his complaint before a magistrate, obtained his discharge. On the other hand, if the master proved a breach of the indenture by the servant unduly absenting himself, refusing to work, &c., the magistrate was under obligation to imprison the servant. Also any person employing an indentured servant, without permission of the master, was subject to a very heavy fine.

Mr. Peel and his people were in this manner circumstanced. The author has read many of their indentures: in all of these Mr. Peel was bound to pay them daily wages (generally three shillings), out of which their food and clothing were to be deducted. The capital imported by Mr. Peel, though very considerable, was understood to consist chiefly of stores and live-stock. However this may have been, he found it convenient, after a time, to grant most of his people permission to work for other settlers, reserving a right to recal them when he chose; but allowing them the alternative of their discharge, on their reimbursing him the expense of their passage out. As his people could get higher wages when working for others, they gladly accepted the permission. Occasional misunderstandings took place between him and some of them, and it was not till after the Governor, accompanied by the Law-Adviser of Government, had more than once repaired in person to Mr. Peel’s location, that an adjustment of those differences was effected. The author has known several servants of Mr. Peel to be imprisoned for breaches of indenture. A number of them, however, were excellent men, who would have conscientiously adhered to him, had he not given them the option of working for others.

It is but justice here to acknowledge the great benefit conferred on the settlement by Mr. Peel, in the introduction of men who were not only of good conduct, but well acquainted with farming pursuits or with trades. For himself, the author feels happy in having this opportunity to express his sense of it, having had upwards of four years in his service a family brought out by Mr. Peel. The father of this family is a man of intelligence and observation. Besides his own trade of brick and tile-making, he has a competent knowledge of farming, gardening, bricklaying, lime-burning, and brewing, in which various occupations he employs himself. Such is his industry, that he has been seen working for hours in the garden by moonlight, after spending a long day at labour in the field. His wife is a regular dairy woman. One of the sons is a carpenter, and another a ploughman, besides having each a knowledge of their father’s trade; and the rest of the family, dawn to the youngest, are training up in habits of industry and labour.

Desirous of avoiding further allusion than is justifiable to the affairs of an individual, the writer hopes enough has been said to demonstrate that, whatever injury Mr. Peel may have sustained by destruction of stores, and loss of live-stock (and there is no doubt it was very considerable), the cause is not attributable to his not having had the aid of such of his people as he chose to retain in his service.

Although, as has been shown, the conditions of the indentures were by the colonial laws enforced, it will nevertheless be manifest, that no law, in any country, can prevent an artful and unprincipled servant (anxious to be rid of his engagement) from acting in so vexatious a manner, that some masters, in preference to keeping such a one, would forego any benefit the indenture might confer. Such a course has been adopted in the colony by some masters thus circumstanced. Those, however, who had been careful to bring out men of good character, and to wham they allowed an equitable compensation for their services, have rarely had cause for complaint; and, on the contrary, have generally been rewarded by the cheerful obedience of their servants.

The author is the more desirous of disproving the alleged lawless state of society in the colony, as the implied reproach is totally unmerited by the Governor, Sir James Stirling, who has been most indefatigable and self-denying in his exertions for the public welfare; and it is equally so by the magistracy, who, under the conduct of their chairman Mr. Mackie, formerly Counsel to the Local Government, and now the colonial judge (a gentleman whose integrity, assiduity, and professional talent, are highly appreciated by the colonists), have, from the outset, administered the laws with vigour and impartiality.

With reference to the assertion that some individuals had perished with hunger from not having been able to inform the Governor as to where they had settled, the author can only say, that he did not hear of any such circumstance while in the colony, and that he considers it very improbable; as, with the exception of the people connected with Mr. Peel, the settlers, at the period alluded to, were located on the Swan and the Canning, by following down which rivers they could have reached, in the course of a single day, the towns of Perth or Fremantle.

He has also to confess his ignorance of the colonists having, as stated, petitioned for convicts—he knows that such a wish was not expressed in their memorial drawn up in 1832, and laid before his Majesty’s Government by Sir James Stirling in person. The colonists having had before their eyes, in the neighbouring penal settlements, the serious evils inflicted on society by the employment of convicts (especially as in-door servants), have firmly resisted the temptation to seek such a remedy for their wants. The extreme difficulty, which it is notorious respectable families there experience, to sufficiently guard the morals of their offspring, and to secure their being brought up in the necessary principles of virtue and integrity, is alone a consideration which, it is believed, will keep the colonists in Western Australia stedfast on this point. No mere worldly prosperity whatsoever, can compensate for the tremendous risk to which children in a penal settlement are exposed, as many a heart-broken parent can testify.

It is stated, at page 145, vol. 2, of the work already quoted, that 500,000 acres in the colony had been granted to Mr. Peel—that he had been permitted to mark out his grant on the map, in England—and that, having selected it about the port or landing-place, he subsequently took possession of it, to the great injury of other settlers.

The writer is here in error with respect both to the extent and the situation of this grant; for, without reference to Mr. Peel’s claim to a larger quantity, the tract assigned him consists of but half the number of acres stated, and the distance between its nearest point and the port, is about seven miles. From thence, the grant extends along the shore to the southward, as far as the right bank of the Murray river, and, inland, about thirteen miles.

It is true that in the agreement entered into with Mr. Peel, he was authorized, when in England, to mark out a portion of his grant on the map; and the situation he selected reached from the Swan to the Canning river, and extended towards the port: but his obtaining possession of this grant, was made contingent on his arriving in the colony with a stipulated amount of property and number of souls by an appointed day. He failed to arrive within the limits of the time fixed; and the land reserved for him was, in conformity with instructions from his Majesty’s Government, granted to other settlers.

In the passage already quoted, an accusation is repeated which was circulated at the period in question—that the large grant of land made to Mr. Peel was an especial favour conferred on him in consideration of his relationship to one of his Majesty’s Ministers then in office. This seems a suitable occasion for examining as to the correctness of that charge. On reference to the correspondence on the subject, published by order of the House of Commons, it appears that, on its being known that His Majesty’s Government intended to form a colony in Western Australia, four gentlemen, one of whom was Mr. Peel, submitted to the Secretary of State, Sir George Murray, a proposal to send out a large body of emigrants to the settlement, on condition of obtaining a proportionate grant of land there. This proposal was agreed to, except as to some minor details—which modification, however, caused three of the association to withdraw from it; and, on this, an offer was made by Mr. Peel to complete the project by himself, to which the Government acceded.

The terms agreed on were these,—that half a million of acres should be allotted to Mr. Peel, after the arrival of a vessel sent out by him, with four hundred settlers; and if, at the expiration of the year 1840, it should be found that the requisite investment in the colony of one shilling and sixpence the acre had been made, another half million of acres would then be assigned him by degrees, as fresh importations of settlers and capital were made; in accordance with the original terms published at the colonial office. Mr. Peel was also informed that the tract of two hundred and fifty thousand acres (to which extent the association had been allowed a priority of choice) would be reserved for him until the 1st of November 1829; and further, that, should he fail in his contract, and arrive subsequently to the above period, or with fewer emigrants than stipulated, he would still have granted to him as many acres as his actual number of settlers and amount of investment would cover, at the rate of forty acres for every three pounds sterling.

The tract marked out by Mr. Peel and his partners on the map having been given to others, the Governor offered him two hundred and fifty thousand acres in another part of the colony, which he took, as above mentioned; and, up to the period of the author’s departure from that country, he was not aware of Mr. Peel’s having taken any steps towards establishing a claim to an additional quantity of land.

If then it be borne in mind that, towards the fulfilment of this agreement on his part, Mr. Peel introduced into the colony a population, to the amount (if the work just quoted be correct) of 300 souls, and a property of 50,000 l.; and if the evident risk is also considered, it will, it is apprehended, be generally admitted, that few who would regard the enterprise solely as a commercial speculation, would have accepted the grant on the terms represented as so favourable to Mr. Peel.

After observing upon this grant, this writer proceeds to state the conditions on which other settlers obtained land in the following passage:—“It was declared that all the world should be entitled to unlimited grants on either one of two conditions, as the grantee should prefer; either an outlay of one shilling and sixpence per acre in conveying labourers to the settlement, or the investment of capital on the land at the rate of one shilling and sixpence per acre.” These conditions, he goes on to contend, are at variance with each other; but on this point his information has been erroneous. No land could be obtained on the second condition; and, on the first, land was assigned in occupancy only (it still continuing crown land), until the improvement required by the second condition was effected, when the occupant became entitled to the fee-simple; but, if he failed to effect the improvement within a stipulated period, his grant reverted to the Crown.

The above remarks will equally apply to the work on South Australia, already noticed (which quotes from “England and America” most of the statements here animadverted upon), and also to a paper in the Literary Gazette for November 1831, containing similar errors, and which article is quoted by the first-mentioned work.

Some allusion may here be expected to the statements that have been made on the subject of labour. The writer of “England and America,” in a passage already quoted, asserts, that in this colony—“there never has been a class of labourers.” The Literary Gazette of November 1831 states, that “to the want of labour, and to that alone, may be traced all the evils that have afflicted this infant settlement.” A third writer (that on “South Australia”) adds—“they may be traced, not to a want of labour absolutely, for plenty of workmen were taken to the colony by the first emigrant capitalists; but to the want of arrangements for having constancy and combination of labour.”

These writers explain their meaning by asserting, that when the indentured servants, on their arrival in the colony, found good land so easily to be acquired, they left their masters with impunity, and became landowners.

These representations have already been shown to be in material points erroneous, by quoting the Government regulation, which prevented labourers from acquiring land without consent of their masters; and by demonstrating that, to the latter, the services of their people were secured, by an efficient administration of the laws. It is true, many of the labouring class went to Van Diemen’s Land, but this was with consent of their masters. Some capitalists (looking chiefly to the land they would acquire from the number of people they brought out) had large families in their service; but, finding the outlay required for their maintenance to exceed so much their expectations, they granted discharges to as many as they could dispense with.

The rate of labour in the colony has always been high—from thirty to forty shillings a month, with rations costing about as much more. The usual daily wages of a labourer have been five shillings, and, of an artificer, from eight to ten.

As to the scarcity of labour there, the author does not recollect any period at which agricultural or other labourers could not be had, unless occasionally in the harvest time; and then those farmers who offered higher wages than ordinary seldom failed in getting them. The contrary indeed was not unfrequent—that labourers had a difficulty in getting employment.

The apparent contradiction between the high price of labour and the occasional want of employment, will be cleared up when the high price of provisions is considered, and also the want of capital to give employment to that labour—evils which have resulted from causes already adverted to.

It now remains for the author to offer a few observations,

(1.) On the failures that occurred among the early settlers.
(2.) On the origin of the reports so widely circulated to the prejudice of the country.
(3.) On the tardy progress of the colony, compared with what had been expected.

The following extract from one of the earliest dispatches of the Governor (written in January 1830, and addressed to the Secretary of State) will serve to preface these remarks, as it bears immediately on the first point. Adverting to the circumstances under which the first settlers came out, he thus proceeds:—“There could not be a great number with minds and bodies suited to encounter the struggle and distresses of a new settlement. Many, if not all, have accordingly been more or less disappointed on arrival, with either the state of things here, or their own want of power to surmount the difficulties pressing around them. This has been experienced, in the beginning, by every new colony; and might have been expected to occur here, as well as elsewhere. The greater part, incapable of succeeding in England, are not likely to prosper here to the extent of their groundless and inconsiderate expectations. Many of the settlers who have come, should never have left in England a safe and tranquil state of life; and, if it be possible to discourage one set of people, and to encourage another, I would earnestly request that, for a few years, the helpless and inefficient may be kept from the settlement; whilst, as to the active, industrious, and intelligent, they may be assured with confidence of a fair reward for their labours.”

If, after what has been said, it be granted that Western Australia, as far as natural advantages go, is well suited for the purposes of colonization, still it will be apparent, from the principle on which the colony was founded, that its success must be greatly dependent on the capital and exertions of the settlers. The charge of maintaining a military and a civil establishment being all his Majesty’s Government was pledged to, every other expense was to be borne by the emigrant; such as his outfit, voyage, and settlement in the colony.

No arrangement prior to leaving England having been made by the emigrants to ensure the advantages of co-operation on the part of their friends at home, and among themselves in the colony, each depended on his own energy and resources for his success; and the foregoing description of many of the original settlers will account for the disappointments that ensued in various instances.

Few who abandoned the settlement under such circumstances, were willing to admit their failure was the result of their own want of exertion, or their unfitness for the enterprise in which they had embarked: accordingly, wherever they went, and in their letters home, the blame was laid on the country. Thus many of the evil reports respecting it, which were current at home and in the neighbouring colonies, may be traced to this source. Of this, the following is a striking instance.

Among those who first settled at Perth, was a tradesman, who had been in such circumstances in England as enabled him to bring out a wooden house, and whatever else was requisite for the convenience of his family. This man, whose trade was a good one, seemed a respectable and well-informed person; but, getting little business, and not embarking in agricultural pursuits, he soon became addicted to intemperance; and, shortly after, sold off the remainder of his property, and removed to the Cape of Good Hope. There—not contented with disseminating the worst reports of Western Australia, little of which, if any, he could have seen, except the sandy district of the coast—he industriously sought out those emigrants who touched at the Cape; and, after telling them he had but lately left Swan River, proceeded to give such a description of the country as was calculated to deter them from prosecuting their voyage thither.

A settler, who had suffered severely from confiding in the reports of this person and others, related to the author the following particulars:—He had left England for Western Australia in a ship chartered by himself, and freighted with his own establishment, stores of all kinds, and livestock—the latter, of choice breeds; and his people, amounting in number to seventy persons, or upwards. The reports he heard on his arrival at the Cape, deterred him from continuing his enterprise; and, in consequence, he discharged his ship, with a number of his people—sold most of his livestock at less than the English price; and then proceeded with his family, and remaining establishment, in another vessel bound to Van Diemen’s Land, with a view of settling there. Touching at the Swan, on his voyage, he had an opportunity of examining the country for himself; and, so pleased was he with it, that he resumed his purpose of settling there, although the step he had taken at the Cape had occasioned him a loss of, at least, several thousand pounds—and he has now, for some years, been located on the Swan.

A prevalent cause of distress among the early settlers arose from their having generally brought out with them little ready money, compared with their other property. This was chiefly owing to the Government regulations admitting of land being assigned to those only, who introduced labourers and various kinds of property required by farmers. Many of the settlers, therefore, to the extent of their means, were in this way amply provided; but, having understood in England, that money would be of little use in a new country, numbers, without questioning what they wished to be true, incautiously expended most of their means in the property that would entitle them to obtain land in the colony. However, when they had been some time in the settlement, they discovered that there—as in other places—money was needful; and, on wishing to procure some by the sale of part of their property, they found it difficult to do so without loss, in consequence of most other settlers having brought out similar investments.

Another cause of depression, which has borne seriously on the settlers, has been the occasional high price of the necessaries of life. With a view of remedying this evil, cargoes of provisions have been repeatedly imported by the Local Government—the actual cost alone being charged to the settler. Even a ship-load of bullocks and pigs was introduced from Java. It was found impracticable, however, to follow up this plan, from the loss it entailed, owing to the want of suitable storehouses, at that early period, for securing the grain and other provisions so imported from the weather, the ravages of vermin, and, especially, the white ant. Besides, numbers of the bullocks and pigs getting loose, soon became as wild and difficult to recapture, as if they had been natives of the woods, whither they had betaken themselves.

As another mode of keeping down the markets, an arrangement was entered into by the Government with some merchants, who engaged to prevent, by their importations, the prices from rising above a fixed standard: but the smallness and variableness of the demand operated to frustrate this measure likewise.

Experience has shown that the system of free grants, which was the first adopted in Western Australia, is decidedly injurious to the prosperity of a settlement, from the facility it affords to persons possessed of comparatively little capital, to acquire extensive tracts of land, the greater part of which, for want of means, they cannot use for agricultural or pastoral purposes. It also occasions the too wide dispersion of the settlers; thus necessarily increasing the expense of government, and, at the same time, producing serious inconvenience to the farmer.

To counteract these evils, several causes have been in operation. On the distribution of land to the first settlers on the Swan and the Canning, a remedy was provided by a judicious arrangement on the part of the Governor, restricting the river frontage of the grants to a seventh or an eighth of what it would have been, had they been given in squares; and as, for the convenience of water carriage, and from the superiority of the land, all erected their dwellings on the banks of the rivers, the settlers were thus brought as near each other, as if the grants had been reduced to the square of this narrow frontage on the rivers. Chiefly owing to this arrangement it happens, that on the Upper Swan, near where the river debouches from the gorge of the hills, there are thirteen grants, each from 2000 to 7000 acres in extent; the farthest removed of which is within a mile and a half of a central point—and on nine of them are the habitations of their respective proprietors. By another Government regulation, persons entitled to large grants are restricted to a limited quantity of land on the rivers in question, and are required to select elsewhere the remainder due to them. A further remedy has resulted from merchants and others living in the towns of Perth and Fremantle (and to whom grants in occupancy had been made) transferring half of their land to other persons, on condition of their making the improvements requisite to entitle the former to the fee simple of the whole. In this way, and by sale, all grants on the Swan, exceeding 5000 acres, have been reduced. But it is important here to add, that his Majesty’s regulations, which took effect in 1832, abolished the system of free grants in the colony, and directed the sale of all crown land at the minimum price of five shillings the acre. Since that period, the evil has been rapidly diminishing; and will, after a time, be completely removed.

Many of the original settlers in possession of large tracts, have exhausted their funds in establishing themselves, and would gladly sell a portion of their land, which those newly arrived will purchase in preference to crown land, as better situated, and doubtless much cheaper.

Should it be apprehended that the extent of Mr. Peel’s grant (so much exceeding what he could farm himself) would in any degree counteract the benefit expected from the present system, the circumstance of his grant being situated on the sea coast is to be considered; for, though it includes excellent land, particularly on the Murray, yet, as the interior confessedly contains the best land in the colony, future emigrants will most probably select their locations in that quarter.