Establishment of Swan River Colony

Australia - Scott #103 (1929)
Australia – Scott #103 (1929)

On May 2, 1829, after anchoring nearby, Captain Charles Fremantle of HMS Challenger, declared the Swan River Colony in Australia. The name was a pars pro toto for Western Australia. In 1832, the colony was renamed the Colony of Western Australia, when the colony’s founding Lieutenant-Governor, Captain James Stirling, belatedly received his commission. However, the name “Swan River Colony” remained in informal use for many years afterwards.

When Australia’s first inhabitants arrived on the northwest coast 40,000 to 60,000 years ago the sea levels were much lower. The Kimberley coast at one time was only about 56 miles (90 km) from Timor, which itself was the last in a line of closely spaced islands for humans to travel across. Therefore, this was a possible (even probable) location for which Australia’s first immigrants could arrive via some primitive boat. Other possible immigration routes were via islands further north and then through New Guinea.

Over the next tens of thousands of years these Indigenous Australians slowly moved southward and eastward across the landmass. The Aborigines were well established throughout Western Australia by the time European ships started accidentally arriving en route to Batavia (now Jakarta) in the early 17th century.

The first recorded Europeans to sight land where the city of Perth is now located were Dutch sailors. Most likely the first visitor to the Swan River area was Frederick de Houtman on July 19. 1619, travelling on the ships Dordrecht and Amsterdam. His records indicate he first reached the Western Australian coast at latitude 32°20′ which would equate to Rottnest or just south of there. He did not land because of heavy surf, and so proceeded northwards without much investigation.

On April 28, 1656, Vergulde Draeck en route to Batavia (now Jakarta) was shipwrecked 66 miles (107 km) north of the Swan River near Ledge Point. Of the 193 on board, only 75 made it to shore. A small boat that survived the wreckage then sailed to Batavia for help, but a subsequent search party found none of the survivors. The wreck was rediscovered in 1963.

In 1658, three Dutch Republic ships, also partially searching for Vergulde Draeck visited the area. Waekende Boey under Captain S. Volckertszoon, Elburg under Captain J. Peereboom and Emeloort under Captain A. Joncke sighted Rottnest but did not proceed any closer to the mainland because of the many reefs. They then travelled north and subsequently found the wreck of Vergulde Draeck (but still no survivors). They gave an unfavorable opinion of the area partly due to the dangerous reefs.

Willem de Vlamingh's ships, with black swans, at the entrance to the Swan River, Western Australia, coloured engraving (1796), derived from an earlier drawing (now lost) from the de Vlamingh expeditions of 1696–1697.
Willem de Vlamingh’s ships, with black swans, at the entrance to the Swan River, Western Australia, coloured engraving (1796), derived from an earlier drawing (now lost) from the de Vlamingh expeditions of 1696–1697.
The black swan (Cygnus atratus), after which the Swan River Colony was named is the state bird of Western Australia.
The black swan (Cygnus atratus), after which the Swan River Colony was named is the state bird of Western Australia.

The Dutch captain Willem de Vlamingh was the next European in the area. Commanding three ships, Geelvink, Nyptangh and Wezeltje, he arrived at and named Rottnest on December 29, 1696, and on January 10, 1697, discovered and named the Swan River (Swarte Swaene-Revier) after the famous black swans of the area. Vlamingh sailed with a small party up the river to around Heirisson Island. His ships could not sail up the river because of a sand bar at its mouth, so he sent out a sloop which even then required some dragging over the sand bar. They sailed until reaching mud flats probably near Heirisson Island. They saw some Aborigines but were not able to meet any close up. Vlamingh was also not impressed with the area, and this was probably the reason for a lack of Dutch exploration from then on.

The first formal claim of possession for Great Britain in Western Australia was made on September 29, 1791, by Commander (later Captain) George Vancouver RN, on a spot he named Possession Point, at the tip of the peninsula between the waters he also named Princess Royal Harbour and King George the Third’s Sound at Albany (“the Third” was dropped from the name in 1826).

In 1801, the French ships Geographe captained by Nicolas Baudin and Naturaliste captained by Emmanuel Hamelin visited the area from the south. While Geographe continued northwards, Naturaliste remained for a few weeks. A small expedition dragged longboats over the sand bar and explored the Swan River. They also gave unfavorable descriptions regarding any potential settlement due to many mud flats upstream and the sand bar (the sand bar wasn’t removed until the 1890s when C. Y. O’Connor built Fremantle harbor).

Later in March 1803, Geographe with another ship Casuarina passed by Rottnest on their way eventually back to France, but did not stop longer than a day or two.

The next visit to the area was the first Australian-born maritime explorer, Phillip Parker King in 1822 on Bathurst. King was also the son of former Governor Philip Gidley King of New South Wales. However, King also was not impressed with the area.

In the early 19th century the British had become concerned about the possibility of a French colony being established on the west coast of Australia. In 1826, the Governor of New South Wales, Ralph Darling, ordered the establishment of a settlement at King George’s Sound. An army detachment was sent from Sydney headed by Major Edmund Lockyer with eighteen soldiers, one captain, one doctor, one storekeeper and twenty-three convicts.

On January 21, 1827, the whole of Australia was finally claimed as British territory when Major Lockyer formally annexed the western portion of the continent in a ceremony on King George Sound.

 James Stirling (January 28, 1791 – April 22, 1865)
James Stirling (January 28, 1791 – April 22, 1865)
Marker erected at James Stirling's campsite at the farthest point he reached during his initial March 1827 exploration up the Swan River, Western Australia.
Marker erected at James Stirling’s campsite at the farthest point he reached during his initial March 1827 exploration up the Swan River, Western Australia.

The founding father of modern Western Australia was Captain James Stirling who, in 1827, explored the Swan River area in HMS Success which first anchored off Rottnest, and later in Cockburn Sound. He was accompanied by Charles Fraser, the New South Wales botanist.

Their initial exploration began on March 8 in a cutter and gig with parties continuing on foot from March 11. In late March, HMS Success sailed to Sydney, arriving there on April 15. Stirling arrived back in England in July 1828, promoting in glowing terms the agricultural potential of the area. His lobbying was for the establishment of a “free” (unlike the now well established penal colonies at New South Wales, Port Arthur and Norfolk Island) settlement in the Swan River area with himself as its governor. As a result of these reports, and a rumor in London that the French were about to establish a penal colony in the western part of Australia, possibly at Shark Bay, the Colonial Office assented to the proposal in mid-October 1828.

In December 1828 a Secretary of State for Colonies dispatch reserved land for the Crown, as well as for the clergy, and for education, and specified that water frontage was to be rationed. The most cursory exploration had preceded the British decision to found a settlement at the Swan River; the most makeshift arrangements were to govern its initial establishment and the granting of land; and the most sketchy surveys were to be made before the grants were actually occupied.

A set of regulations were worked out for distributing land to settlers on the basis of land grants. Negotiations for a privately run settlement were also started with a consortium of four gentlemen headed by Potter McQueen, a member of Parliament who had already acquired a large tract of land in New South Wales. The consortium withdrew after the Colonial Office refused to give it preference over independent settlers in selecting land, but one member, Thomas Peel, accepted the terms and proceeded alone. Peel was allocated 500,000 acres (2,000 km²), conditional on his arrival at the settlement before November 1, 1829, with 400 settlers. Peel arrived after this date with only 300 settlers, but was still granted 250,000 acres (1,000 km²).

Monument on Garden Island, Perth, Western Australia, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the May 2, 1829, arrival of the first settlers of the Swan River Colony.
Monument on Garden Island, Perth, Western Australia, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the May 2, 1829, arrival of the first settlers of the Swan River Colony.

The first ship to reach the Swan River was HMS Challenger. After she anchored off Garden Island on April 25, 1829, Captain Charles Fremantle declared the Swan River Colony for Britain on May 2, 1829.

Parmelia arrived on May 31 carrying Stirling and his party and HMS Sulphur arrived on June 8 carrying members of the 63rd Regiment and families. Three merchant ships arrived shortly after: Calista on August 5, St. Leonard on August 6 and Marquis of Anglesea on August 21.

A series of accidents followed the arrivals which probably nearly caused the abandonment of the expedition. Challenger and Sulphur both struck rocks while entering Cockburn Sound and were fortunate to escape with only minor damage. Parmelia however, under Stirling’s “over confident pilotage”, also ran aground, lost her rudder and damaged her keel, which necessitated extensive repairs. With winter now set in, the settlers were obliged to land on Garden Island, a slender island about 6 miles (10 km) long and 0.9 mile (1.5 km) wide, lying about 3 miles (5 km) off the coast.  Stirling’s camp on the island was soon named Sulphur Town after the ship which arrived in Cockburn Sound on June 8 carrying the 63rd Regiment. The camp was the first free settlement in Australia. The colony’s first Government House was, “perched atop Cliff Point, overlooking the beach below with the flagstaff on Signal Hill to the seaward side.”

Stirling's camp on Garden Island, Western Australia, 1829.
Stirling’s camp on Garden Island, Western Australia, 1829.

While at Garden Island, Stirling founded Fremantle and, on July 27, he issued his notice that the first stone of the colony would be laid at “a New Town to be called Perth”.  The capital at Perth was established on August 12 when Helen, wife of Captain William Dance of HMS Sulphur, ceremoniously cut down a sheoak tree, from which a beautifully crafted sewing box was made for Stirling’s wife Ellen, who did not attend the felling.

Garden Island was also scene of the Swan River Colony’s first recorded death when, around June 10, William Parsons from the Challenger was struck in the temple by a falling tree he was clearing. On July 27, it was the site of the colony;s first horse race when Captain Currie of the Parmelia won a pony owned by Stirling. Today, Garden Island houses Australia’s largest naval base, HMAS Stirling.

Bad weather and the required repairs meant that Stirling did not manage to reach the mainland until June 18; the remaining settlers on Parmelia finally arrived in early August. In early September 1829, a major disaster occurred: Marquis of Anglesea was driven ashore during a gale and wrecked beyond repair. She did not break up, as had been expected, but instead survived to become Western Australia’s first prison hulk.

The first reports of the new colony arrived back in England in late January 1830. They described the poor conditions and the land as being totally unfit for agriculture. They went on to say that the settlers were in a state of “near starvation” and (incorrectly) said that the colony had been abandoned. As a result of these reports, many people cancelled their migration plans or diverted to Cape Town or New South Wales.

Stirling's sketch map of the settlement at Swan River, Western Australia.
Stirling’s sketch map of the settlement at Swan River, Western Australia.

The settlement on Garden Island grew to accommodate more than 400 people before numbers dwindled in the race to claim a piece of the mainland near the Swan River. By 1834, Sulphur Town was a ghost town. Crew members from the Lonach finished the job on their way to Tasmania when they stopped in for a few ales and accidently burnt down what remained of the settlement, including Stirling’s residence.

Nevertheless, a few settlers arrived and additional stores were dispatched. By 1832 the settler population of the colony had reached about 1,500 (Aboriginal people were not counted but in the southwest have been estimated to number 15,000), but the difficulty of clearing land to grow crops was so great that by 1850 the population had only increased to 5,886. This population had settled mainly around the southwestern coastline at Bunbury, Augusta and Albany.

Karl Marx used the Swan River Colony to illustrate a point about a shortcoming of capitalism in Das Kapital.

In March 1831, the penal settlement at King Georg’s Sound was withdrawn, and the control of the area was transferred from New South Wales to the Swan River Colony.Captain James Stirling decreed that the settlement would be named Albany from January 1, 1832.

Panorama of the Swan River settlement (Garden Island), 1831, by Jane Eliza Currie.
Panorama of the Swan River settlement (Garden Island), 1831, by Jane Eliza Currie.

By 1832, the British settler population of the Swan River Colony had reached around 1,500, and the official name of the colony was changed to Western Australia. The two separate townsites of the colony developed slowly into the port city of Fremantle and the state’s capital, Perth. York was the first inland settlement in Western Australia, situated 60 miles (97 km) east of Perth and settled on September 16, 1831. York was the staging point for early explorers who discovered the rich gold reserves of Kalgoorlie. Population growth in Western Australia was very slow until significant discoveries of gold were made in the 1890s around Kalgoorlie.

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 of convicts. Petitions asking for some of the positions in the Legislative Council to be filled by elected members were presented to London twice during the 1860s.

“Swan River: 50 Miles Up” watercolor, circa 1860.

In 1887, a new constitution was drafted, providing for the right of self-governance of European Australians and in 1890, the act granting self-government to the colony was passed by the British Parliament. John Forrest became the first Premier of Western Australia.

In 1896, the Western Australian Parliament authorized the raising of a loan to construct a pipeline to transport 23 megaliters (5 million imperial gallons) of water per day to the goldfields of Western Australia. The pipeline, known as the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme, was completed in 1903. C.Y. O’Connor, Western Australia’s first engineer-in-chief, designed and oversaw the construction of the pipeline. It carries water 530 km (330 mi) from Perth to Kalgoorlie, and is attributed by historians as an important factor driving the state’s population and economic growth.

Following a campaign led by Forrest, residents of the colony of Western Australia (still informally called the Swan River Colony) voted in favor of federation, resulting in Western Australia officially becoming a state on  January 1, 1901.

iew from East Fremantle, Western Australia, along Blackwall Reach of the Swan River towards Point Walter, with the Perth skyline in the background. Photo taken on April 10, 2004.
iew from East Fremantle, Western Australia, along Blackwall Reach of the Swan River towards Point Walter, with the Perth skyline in the background. Photo taken on April 10, 2004.

Today, the State of Western Australia occupies the entire western third of Australia. It is bounded by the Indian Ocean to the north and west, and the Southern Ocean to the south, the Northern Territory to the north-east and South Australia to the south-east. Western Australia is Australia’s largest state, with a total land area of 976,790 square miles (2,529,875 km²), and the second-largest country subdivision in the world, surpassed only by Russia’s Sakha Republic. The state has about 2.6 million inhabitants — around 11% of the national total — of whom the vast majority (92%) live in the south-west corner, 73% of the population living in the Perth area, leaving the remainder of the state sparsely populated.

Scott #103 was released on September 28, 1929, to mark the centennial of the establishment of the Swan River Colony but opted to use the name of Western Australia on the stamp. The 1½ dull red engraved stamp portrays features the black swan, familiar from its use on many stamps issued by the Colony of Western Australia between 1854 and 1902. The stamp was designed by . Pitt Morrison with engraving done by F.D. Manley. Recess printing was done by printer J. Ash on unwatermarked paper, perforated 11. The was only the second commemorative stamp released by Australia, following a ban on commemoratives imposed by the Universal Postal Union.

Medal released in 1979 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Swan River Colony and Western Australia.
Medal released in 1979 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Swan River Colony and Western Australia.

Flag of Western Australia, 1870-1953Coat of arms of Western Australia

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