History of Western Australia

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This article is part of the series
History of Australia

Australia before 1901
Federation of Australia
Australia since 1901
Constitutional history

State and territory

Western Australia

Capital city


The human history of Western Australia started when Australia's first inhabitants arrived on the northwest coast about 55,000 years ago. Over the next 20,000 years they slowly moved southward and eastward across the landmass. Aborigines were well established throughout Western Australia by the time European ships started accidentally arriving en-route to Batavia in the early seventeenth century.


Europeans arrive

On 26 October 1616 a Dutch explorer, Dirk Hartog landed at Cape Inscription, Dirk Hartog Island. Hartog left a pewter plate inscribed (in Dutch):

"1616. On 25th October there arrived here the ship Eendraght of Amsterdam. Supercargo Gilles Miebais of Liege. skipper Dirck Hatichs of Amsterdam. On 27th do. she set sail again for Bantam. Subcargo Jan Stins. upper steersman Pieter Doores of Bil. In the year 1616."

In 1697 another Dutch sailor Willem de Vlamingh also reached the island and finding Hartog's pewter plate still in its original position he removed it and replaced it with another plate. The original was returned to Holland where it still is kept in the Amsterdam Museum. de Vlamingh's plate listed all the important sailors on the voyage and concluded with

Missing image
Dirk Hartog's plate in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
"Our fleet set sail from here to continue exploring the Southern Land, on the way to Batavia".

In 1699, William Dampier sailed down the coast of Western Australia. He noted the lack of water. The description of Shark Bay in his account "A Voyage to New Holland", he expresses his frustration:

"as the 7th of August when we came into Shark's Bay; in which we Anchored at three several Places, and stay'd at the first of them (on the W. side of the Bay) till the 11th. During which time we searched about, as I said, for fresh Water, digging Wells, but to no purpose".

In 1818 the French explorer Louis de Freycinet, while exploring the coast, came across de Vlamingh's plate and removed it to France. The plate was eventually returned to Australia in 1947 and is currently housed in the Maritime Museum in Fremantle.

British settlements

The first formal claim of possession for Britain was made by Commander George Vancouver RN (later captain) on 29 September 1791 on the spot he named Possession Point, at the tip of the peninsula between the waters he also named -- King George III Sound and Princess Royal Harbour at Albany. The "third" (III) was dropped later.

In the early 1800s the British became concerned about the possibility of a French colony being established on the coast of Western Australia and thus, in 1826, the New South Wales governor Ralph Darling established a settlement at King George Sound. A penal settlement in the area was considered but rejected. Instead, a small detachment headed by Edmund Lockyer with 18 soldiers, one captain, one doctor, one storekeeper and 23 convicts were sent as a labour force.

After the formal declaration in 1829 of the Swan River Colony (some 410 km to the North West) (see below), control of King George Sound was transferred from New South Wales to Western Australia and continued under a Government Resident. Captain James Stirling decreed that the settlement would be named "Albany" from 1832.

Swan River Colony

See main article Swan River Colony

The Swan River Colony was the name given to the British colony established on the Swan River by Captain James Stirling in 1829. The colonists first sighted land on 1 June, the official Proclamation was made on 18 June, and the foundation of the colony took place on 12 August. The two separate townsites of the colony developed slowly into the port city of Fremantle and the Western Australian capital city Perth.

Later development

Until the 1870s the economy of the state was based on wheat, meat and wool. The early explorers opened up the inland but they were not followed by eager developers because all they found was desert. Notable explorers of the interior were:

Early governance

As Lieutenant Governor, Stirling had sole authority to draft laws and decide day-to-day affairs. In 1832 he appointed a Legislative Council of four government officials to assist him, and in 1839, four appointed colonists were added.

By 1859, all the other Australian colonies had their own parliaments and colonists in Western Australia began pushing for the right to govern themselves. The British Colonial Office opposed this because of the slow rate of growth and the presence by then of convicts. Petitions asking for some of the positions in the Legislative Council to be filled by popularly elected colonists were presented to London in 1865 and 1869. In 1870 this was granted, although the Governor could still veto the Councils decisions.

In 1887 an new constitution including the right of self-governance was drafted and sent to London by Governor Broome for approval. This was passed by the House of Commons and assented to by Queen Victoria in 1890. A previous Governor, Sir William Robinson, was re-appointed to supervise the change. He travelled by train from Albany to Perth and towns en route lit bonfires and people gathered at railway sidings to celebrate his arrival and the new constitution. His arrival in Perth on October 21 1890 saw the city decorated with elaborate floral arches spanning the city's main streets and buildings were decked with banners and flags.

See also: Western Australian Legislative Council

Gold discovered

A major change in the state's fortunes occurred in the 1880s when gold was discovered and prospectors by the tens of thousands swarmed across the land in a desperate attempt to discover new goldfields. Paddy Hannan's discovery at Kalgoorlie, and the early discoveries at Coolgardie, sparked true gold fever. In 1891 the rush to the Murchison goldfields began when Tom Cue discovered gold at the town which now bears his name. In the years that followed dozens of gold towns - Day Dawn, Meekatharra, Nannine, Peak Hill, Garden Gully, Dead Finish, Pinnicles, Austin Island and Austin Mainland - grew up only to die when the seams were exhausted and the gold fever moved on.

The influx of miners from the eastern states and from overseas increased the presence of trade unions in Western Australia. The Trades and Labor Council, Perth was established in 1891 with Perth Trades Hall opened in 1912. The first edition of the Westralian Worker appeared on September 7, 1900 and was followed shortly afterwards by the opening of the Kalgoorlie Trades Hall, the first such hall in Western Australia. A Trades Hall was opened in Fremantle in 1904.

As a result of this sudden influx of miners, and the wealth which they brought with them, the State was granted responsible government in 1890. However, the wealth generated from gold soon disappeared and by the early years of the twentieth century the economy was once again dependent on wool and wheat. This dependency meant that a dramatic fall in wool and wheat prices in the late 1920s - early 1930s saw the state's economy collapse. It was not to recover until after World War II when the Federal Government's postwar immigration policy saw a huge influx of migrants, nearly all of them from Britain, in the period 1947 to 1970.

Timeline of European discovery and exploration

Missing image
1659 map prepared by Joan Blaeu based on voyages by Abel Tasman and Willem Jansz.
  • 1616 - Dirk Hartog in the Eendracht arrives at Cape Inscription and leave pewter plate. Coastal region in the vicinity is shown on Hartog's maps as Eendrachtsland. Believed to be first landfall on Western Australian soil by Europeans. (An earlier 1603 encounter in the northern coast of Australia near Papua New Guinea by the Duyfken is credited as being the first Australian visit by European explorers.)
  • 1618 - The Zeewulf makes landfall north of Eendrachtsland.
  • 1619 - Frederick de Houtman in two ships bound for Batavia encountered dangerous shoals which were subsequently named Houtman Abrolhos. Following successful navigation of the Abrolhos, Houtman made landfall in the region Hartog had encountered.
  • 1622 - Leeuwin makes landing south of Abrolhos.
  • 1627 - Gulden Zeepaert skippered by Francois Thijssen sails along south coast towards Great Australian Bight.
  • 1629 - Batavia strikes a reef of the Abrolhos. Skipper Francisco Pelsaert sails the ship's small boat to Batavia for rescue. After returning 3 months later finds evidence of mutiny and many previous survivors murdered.
  • 1658 - three Dutch ships visit south coast: Waekende Boey under Captain S. Volckertszoon, the Elburg under Captain J. Peereboom and the Emeloort under Captain A. Joncke.
  • 1688 and 1699 - William Dampier in the Cygnet explores the northwest coastline and sails down the coast.
  • 1791 - George Vancouver makes formal claim at Possession Point, King George Sound, Albany. Small penal settlement established.
  • 1797 - Willem de Vlamingh find Hartog's plate and replaces it with his own. He also explores Swan River area.
  • 1801 and 1803 - the Naturaliste captained by Jacques Felix Emmanuel, Baron Hamelin visits what is now know as Garden Island. He names it Isle Buache.
  • 1803 - Matthew Flinders sights Cape Leeuwin en route to charting of southern Australian coastline. By 1806 has completed the first circumnavigation of Australia
  • 1818 - Louis de Freycinet finds de Valmingh's plate and removes it to France.
  • 1826 - small settlement established on behalf of New South Wales at Albany
  • 1827 - James Stirling explores Swan River area.
  • 1829 - Charles Fremantle declared the Swan River Colony for Britain. Shortly after, Stirling makes formal proclamation of possession.

See also

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