Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days: Volume 5, 1955-1961

The First Ten Years in the Swan River Colony (Some Old Errors Corrected)

A.C. Staples M.A., Dip.Ed.

Staples A.C., 1961, 'The first ten years in the Swan River Colony (some old errors corrected)', Early Days, vol. 5, part 7: 83-96.


By all the rules of colonisation, the early settlement on the Swan River should never have survived. It did more than that: it gave rise to a collection of myths which confuse historians and students to this day.

After the arrival of the first settlers in June 1829, the flow of colonisation continued for barely 18 months, bringing 1777 people as a promise of a satisfactory population to come. But the flow dropped to a trickle and ceased so that by the end of 1832 only 1970 persons had arrived and over 100 had left. For 10 years these few people persisted in their folly until attention was again directed to W.A., and organised efforts were made to assist the pioneers. In 1838 the population was still less than 2000. Then in 1839, the 2000 mark was passed and the population began to increase steadily, doubling itself by 1844.

Many attempts were made at the time to explain the 10 years of stagnation. These theories have degenerated into myth based on an uncritical acceptance of old stories. The settlers blamed the misrepresentations of those who left in disgust. Stirling pointed to the number of settlers who lacked all pioneering qualities. Then the prophet spoke; all listened to him and repeated his words from generation to generation. Edward Gibbon Wakefield insisted that the troubles at Swan River arose from the scarcity of labourers caused by the dispersion of settlement over a large area, and from the unwise distribution of land by Governor Stirling.

When Wakefield’s evidence is being considered, it must be remembered that at the time of making these statements he had not visited Australia—or any colony, for that matter. He based his opinions on information which he gleaned from settlers who had returned to England and on written description which came into his hands. “A Letter from Sydney” was written before any information was received from the Swan River settlers. Speaking before the Select Committee which examined British colonisation in 1836, Wakefield said—

“The ruin of the Swan River took place through two processes. First, from the dispersion, arising as I believe from those large grants to individuals. Every new grantee was obliged to go beyond the former grantee in order to obtain his land. That of itself dispersed the Colony, but the more important cause as I believe of the ruin of the Swan River was not the dispersion of


the settlers over a great space but the separation of their labour into fractions ... The great cheapness of the land at Swan River seems to have led the settlers to divide themselves into isolated fractions, and so to reduce the power of production to a minimum.”

Wakefield was an expert at splitting hairs in argument. Note that he says here “The first reason for failure was the dispersion of settlers over a great space, but the more important cause was not the dispersion of the settlers over a great space, but the separation of their labour into fractions.” If the second reason means anything, it is that the greater the area they took up, the less labour could be applied to each acre, thus fragmenting the labour available. But his whole argument runs like this—“The first reason for failure was the dispersion, but the more important cause was not the dispersion, but the separation.” This curious characteristic was a feature of all Wakefield’s writings, but was more clearly evident when he spoke before the committee of enquiry.

He described the distribution of land in these words in “England and America” which he published anonymously in 1833:

“In disposing of the waste land in W.A. the government began by granting 500,000 acres (nearly half as much as the great county of Norfolk) to one person. Then came the governor and a few other persons with grants of immense extent. The first grantee took his principality at the landing-place; and the second of course could only choose his outside this vast property. Then the property of the second grantee compelled the third to go further off for land, and the fourth again was driven still further into the wilderness. At length, though by very brief process, an immense territory was appropriated by a few settlers, who were so effectively dispersed, that, as there were no roads or maps, scarcely one of them knew where he was. Each of them knew, indeed, that he was where he was positively: but his relative position, not to his neighbours for he was alone in the wilderness, but to the other settlers, to the seat of government and even to the landing place of the colony, was totally concealed from him.” Note the play on the words “neighbours” and “settlers.”

Speaking before the Committee he used these words to express his ideas about the settlers not knowing where anyone was:

“Though there was ample supply of food at the Governor’s house, the settlers did not know where the Governor was and the Governor did not know where the settlers were. The dispersion was so great that at last the settlers did not know where


they were; that is each settler knew that he was where he was, but he could not tell where anyone else was; and therefore he did not know his own position.”

This odd logic seems to have built up for Wakefield the reputation of being a very clever man with an acute intellect.

The responsibility for the wrong decisions he laid upon Stirling and Peel; Stirling for the unwise distribution but Peel for the nature of the regulations under which the land was distributed. “The five or six gentlemen who projected the foundation of the Swan River colony had in point of fact, the power of settling the regulations under which land was disposed of in the colony .. . Mr. Peel was the head of the colony though in England. The power was virtually granted to him and his associates to frame the regulations. They framed the worst possible regulations.” They were in fact British Government regulations. In this way W.A. came to be identified with Peel’s company and was later referred to as “The Colony of a Company,” a “company” whose Peel Estate failed so notoriously.

Many of us recognise this as the story we grew up with; it is the story we were taught in school; it is being taught to children now attending school. It is a myth—a fictitious legend or tradition, accepted as historical. It is based on incorrect information, on distorted information and special pleading. The person chiefly responsible was Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Some attempt must be made to destroy this myth, even at the risk of offending those who prefer old stories because they are old. It is necessary to examine closely the foundations upon which the myth rests. The questions which must be answered refer to conditions which affected W.A. during the first 10 years, from 1829 to 1939, during which time the colony might well have been abandoned.

1. What kind of a colony was it? Was it a colony of a company or a government colony?

2. How many investors initiated the colony? How many were told they might select land under the land grant regulations? How many actually received grants?

3. How much land did they obtain? What was the average size of the grants allotted?

4. How was the land distributed among the investors? Did large grants force late comers to select in distant areas?

5. What were the causes of stagnation? The answer to this must satisfy these further questions;—Why did people cease coming in 1881-1882? Did they hear stories from earlier colonists, or did they


read Wakefield's opinions? Was it because of bad conditions on the Swan River? Or must the cause be sought outside the Colony? Was there a significant scarcity of labourers?

6. Did any real development take place during the period?

A colony was founded in W.A. largely as a result of British suspicions of the activities of the French Government in the South Seas. W.A. could have developed as an outpost of N.S.W., but the military post at King George’s Sound was recalled to Sydney. The foundation of the permanent settlement of the Swan River we owe chiefly to the enthusiasm of the young naval officer James Stirling who was sent to investigate the possible existence of good sites for settlement on the south-west coast of Australia. He was enchanted by the eleven miles of country stretching northwards from Guildford on either side of the Swan River which he was the first to trace any distance beyond the mud flats which had turned back the Dutch and the French.

After returning to Sydney and making his report on this visit Stirling went to England with the aim of persuading the government to permit a settlement on the Swan River. The proposal by Thomas Peel to found a company colony so nearly came about that Stirling was prepared to leave England as Civil Superintendent—the British Government’s representative. The Company ran into difficulties, so, at the last minute, the colonists left England in a venture to found a Crown Colony under Stirling as Lieut. Governor. When Peel eventually arrived, it was as one of the colonists. He was certainly the largest investor, originally with priority of choice—but he was not a company. He was an individual proprietor, like all other settlers. For his expense of transporting capital and 400 or so people to the Swan River he was to receive a very large grant of land. When he did not arrive by the specified date the British Government’s representative, Stirling, revoked the tentative grant of 500,000 acres in the Canning area and offered him half the area many miles south of Fremantle, on a stretch of barren land.

Perhaps we should give some credit to Peel for pushing the British Government into its decision to permit investors to take themselves to the Swan River if they entertained such odd notions. There they took up land under British government regulations, but no help was given in transport to the Colony, and no help was offered for the future. The Government was not interested in the Colony and resolved to spend no money on it. “The Government do not intend to incur any expense in conveying settlers or in supplying them with necessaries after their arrival nor to assist their removal to England or any other place should they be desirous of quitting the Colony."


It agreed eventually to pay some salary to government officials in the colony and to maintain a military regiment to protect these mad Englishmen. At first, the Government seems to have believed that Stirling would be satisfied with a grant of 100,000 acres of land for his services, but such were his powers of persuasion that he obtained a salary, a full governorship, a knighthood and subsequent promotion in the Royal Navy. The Government resisted all the colonists’ claims for assistance. Though W.A. was certainly not a company colony, it was a government colony only by favour to some officials in the colony.

The peculiar characteristic of the Swan River was that it was formed by a number of small investors, without any corporate existence, each acting on his own initiative but expecting to make use of a set of Land Regulations which promised them large areas of fertile land for investing capital in the Colony. Good soil was promised, but no trade from natives, no mineral wealth, no forest wealth, no wide pastures. W.A. was a colony of individual private enterprise but no one really knew how the profits would be made. In adversity it was therefore in the weakest possible position, because it had no representative group in London to press its claims—no company head office—no Colonial Office official whose reputation hung on its success.

The colony was founded and maintained by those immigrants who invested in land according to the Land Grant Regulations which operated until the end of 1831. During that time 1970 immigrants arrived, and at least 103 left. Two sets of Regulations were published in the Colony, the first in August 1829 and the second in 1830, to operate during 1831. The most important difference was that the earlier set allowed land grants at the rate of an acre for every l/6d. worth of capital or labour invested for purposes of colonisation, whereas the later set allowed an acre for each 3/- invested, halving the amount of land previously allowed.

Because each investor had to submit in writing an application and an account of the capital and labour he introduced, it is possible after some tedious checking through original documents to gain particular information about each person who received permission to select a grant of land. The Audit Board carefully distinguished between capital useful in colonisation and other capital, and issued a summary of the applicant’s claim endorsed with the acreage he was permitted to select. Under certain circumstances the governor could dispense with the rules and make special grants.

As few as 302 persons received permissions to select. 221 of these were regular applicants. The Governor exercised his right to give 36 special grants to official personnel, naval and military officers and


some others, and a further 46 to deserving persons, generally labourers who had given good service. These 302 investors brought out 14C9 dependents, either as families or servants (labourers), making a total of 1771. Some allowance has to be made for double counting, as for a farmer, brought out by Peel and therefore counted as a servant, who later obtained a small grant in his own right. Thus we can account for about 1710 persons of the 1970 who arrived, leaving 260 still to be identified. These would have been merchants and other middle men, unindentured labourers and adventurers of all kinds, usually town-dwellers.

The receipt of a permission to select did not necessarily mean that the investor actually selected land. Fortunately, the Surveyor-General left records showing who selected land in Western Australia up to 30 June, 1832. The number of actual grantees (including a few partnerships) was 246 of whom 63 are recorded as having left the Colony by 1837.

Western Australia was therefore founded and maintained for 10 years by a small group of about 250 investors. In the tenth year, 1839, the population finally passed the 2000 mark. Compare this with South Australia with a population of 25,000 for the tenth year. The 246 investors who were granted land received what seems to be a tremendous acreage, one and a half million acres in all. Nearly half a million acres had been taken up by four men, Thomas Peel, Peter Lautour, Governor Stirling and James Henty. If the remaining million acres (1,161,000 acres) is shared between the other 242 grantees, the average is 4,380 acres each. Was this an unduly large area? If you lived in England, as Wakefield did, it would seem a fantastic acreage. It should be compared with later W.A. figures. After the Colony had survived its early troubles and had boosted its economy by the injection of convict labour and British money, settlers in the Southern Districts up to 1890, used anything from 10,000 to 20,000 acres each to pasture a herd of beef and dairy cattle which provided their chief income. They owned only about 200 acres and leased the rest from the government. By this realistic test, the average of 4,380 acres of the original grants was too small for successful operations. It must not be forgotten that the most profitable operations during the 19th Century were sheep and cattle raising. The early criticisms of W.A. implied that the grants were so large that there was no room for many more settlers. What really happened was that as population increased, larger areas of land were used for the kind of activities which employed the early settlers.

Governor Stirling achieved some remarkable results by his method of distributing the grants. Wakefield, of course, told everyone that Peel received 500,000 acres based on the landing place at Fre-


mantle, that the other large grantees came next, so that soon 3/4 of a million acres were granted to the first four settlers along the Swan Valley forcing the majority out into the wilderness. The facts are these. Peel received only 250,000 acres of the poorest land, miles south of Fremantle. Lautour, Stirling and Henty selected in the Port Leschenault Area, nearly 100 miles south, where they could not inconvenience the less wealthy investors.

The coastal plain area, from the Darling Range to the sea, was divided into four sections—first, the Swan and Helena Districts on either side of those Rivers eastwards from the confluence of the Canning River; second, the Canning District, on either side of the Canning and south along the foothills of the Darling Range; third, the Large Lakes District, around the lakes just north of Perth, and, presumably the coastal sand area westwards to the sea and north of the Swan River; and fourth, the Cockburn District west of Canning and south of the Swan River, i.e. the coastal area around Fremantle. There were very few grants on the coastal sand—10 to the north of the river averaging about 1,000 acres each and 12 in the Fremantle area averaging about 700 acres each. Most of the selections were made along the Darling Range foothills and the clay flats of the rivers where they flowed out from the hills. On the Swan there were 94 grants, 16 on the Helena and on the Canning, 31. The settlers avoided the sandy soils.

The Darling Range was a barrier to the eastward expansion of the settlement on the coastal plain, but the finding of routes through the hills was not difficult. Beyond lay the fertile region through which flowed the Avon River, the name given to the upper reaches of the Swan River. The Avon District, “over the hills,” soon attracted selectors. The central part of the Swan River Colony should be pictured as being divided into two by the escarpment of the Darling range with the large Avon District to the east, and westwards to the sea the five smaller districts, Swan, Helena River, Canning, Large Lakes and Cockburn. There were just 100 grants selected on the Avon and 165 in the five western districts. In the five outlying districts to the south, Murray, Leschenault, Sussex, Plantagenet and Interior, 83 grants were allotted. Many settlers had grants in several districts.

The most attractive district was, without any doubt, the Swan, and within that district the most fertile areas were the river banks. Stirling’s task was to see that the land was fairly distributed among the settlers. First, he limited any grant to half a mile on one bank only of the Swan River, and slightly more on one bank of the Canning River. These grants were therefore narrow, stretching far back into the poor sandy country. Settlers generally were not permitted to select on both the Swan and the Canning.


In order to distribute the Swan River land as widely as possible, Stirling directed settlers to select only part of their land in that district. Two thirds (67) of the 94 Swan grantees selected land in other districts. Forty-one had land in Swan and Avon, only one fifth of their land being in the former. In this way Stirling kept the Swan grants down to an average size of about 1,600 acres, which should be compared with the colonial average of 4,380 acres. The average size in the five small districts round Perth—between the Darling Range and the sea—was 1,800 acres (after the exclusion of two grants totalling 270,000 acres in the far south of Cockburn District). The average of the 100 Avon grants was 4,440 acres. In the outlying districts to the south the averages were all large. (When compared with the Colonial average of 4,380, these district sizes seem rather small until it is noted that 102 of the 246 selectors had grants in more than one district.)

Stirling’s great achievement was to impose a sensible distribution of selection. The largest grantees were sent off to distant areas, chiefly to the Southern Districts. The average grantees were allowed to select in either Swan, Canning or Avon, but many of those who selected on the Swan were permitted to take only a small portion of their land in that desirable area. 70% of the Swan grantees received their land before February 1831, while 60% of the Avon grants were allocated in that period. Of the 100 Avon grantees, 59 had no grant on the Swan. Slightly less than half of these received their grants in the earlier period. The large investors did not have a monopoly of the desirable selections.

Perhaps this is the place to pause and recapitulate. W.A. was not a company colony, but one of individual initiative; it was founded by a pathetically small number of investors who, excepting a few, received grants of a practical size; the land was very fairly distributed among the settlers. The task now is to attempt an explanation of the slow development from 1831 to 1839.

In its early years a colony must expect to acquire by immigration a population which will create a community large enough to survive. From June to December 1829 there arrived 652 persons: during 1830, a further 1,125 disembarked. During the next six years the nett increase was only 57, 553 arrivals less 496 departures. Immigration into W.A. ceased, therefore, early in 1831. The decisions not to come must have been made in England during the second half of 1830. For these decisions to have been influenced by news from the Swan River, the information must have been sent from the colony, at the latest, between March and June, before the colony was a year old.


In the Colony the fluctuations in immigration were followed closely by the number of “Permissions to Select" issued in each six month period. To December 1829 there were 77 granted; during 1830, 89 and 49, a marked drop in the second half year; during 1831, 12 and 14. Beginning with January 1832, the land grant regulations lapsed and sale at 5/- p.a. was introduced, but Stirling continued to grant small areas, 13 grants by June and another 42 during the last six months. He even gave 6 more grants after 1832. These were chiefly to poorer settlers or to deserving labourers, but also to a few investors who had arrived during the land grant period.

We have information about the amount of emigration from the U.K. to Australia and New Zealand at this time. From less than 500 in 1825 the annual figures increased to just over 4,000 in 1833. In 1829, 2,016 people left for the South Seas, 652 for the Swan River. In 1830, 1,242 left England, while 1,125 disembarked at Fremantle, many of them having left England at the end of 1829. Out of the 2,200 in the two years, most of them—1,700—came to W.A. But in 1831, when 1,561 left the U.K., almost all of them bypassed the Swan River for some attractive destination further east. In the next year the numbers more than doubled to 3,733. The flood continued through 1833, but no-one stopped at Fremantle. At this time everyone in N.S.W. knew precisely how to make very big profits—by purchasing sheep and pasturing them free on Crown land. British investors soon came to hear of Botany wool and Botany profits. A well known sheep man, James Henty, brought his establishment to W.A. and made the error of selecting his land here. He soon discovered his mistake and pulled out as much of his investment as Stirling would allow, and moved East in 1831, with a number of his friends. It is hard to resist the conclusion that potential Swan River emigrants changed their minds in late 1830 and in 1831 and took passage for N.S.W. and Van Diemen's Land in order to participate in the profits of the wool boom.

Another factor entered, at this juncture. After 1833, emigration from England to Australia and N.Z. fell sharply until in 1835 the annual figure, 1,800, was less than half the 1833 figure. Did something go wrong with the N.S.W. sheep industry? The answer is found elsewhere. Emigration from the British Isles to all parts of the World —chiefly to America and Canada—reached a peak of just over 100,000 in the year 1832. After that it declined rapidly, until in 1835 the annual flow (44,000) was less than a half that of 1832. This decline cannot be explained by anything that might have happened anywhere in Australia or even in America. The cause was undoubtedly to be found in England which during the middle Thirties suffered from an economic depression, not of great severity, but sufficiently serious to make the investors of the day chary of risking speculations in the


colonies. The only people who wanted to leave England were the unemployed and those working on starvation wages, but the only way for them to get to Australia was on a convict transport, or as “bounty” immigrants when that scheme was organised.

In July, 1830, the British government published in London its proposal to halve the amount of land which would be granted for the investment of capital in W.A. The new regulation was to come into force in January, 1831. This action may have been the result of Stirling's observation that the very generous land grants had attracted to the Swan River a number of quite incompetent people who threatened to be a burden on the Colony. Even without the increasing competition from other colonies, the halving of the amount of land to be granted would no doubt have caused a decline in emigration to the Swan River, but when it coincided with the growing attraction of N.S.W., it no doubt persuaded many emigrants to seek a more attractive goal. The influence of this new set of regulations needs further examination.

It is doubtful whether the failure of the large ventures of Peel, Lautour and Henty was a factor in the collapse of immigration so early in 1831. Certainly Peel had his original grant cancelled in November of 1829 and his new grant assigned in January 1830, many miles from the Swan River. The misfortunes of his Rockingham settlers commenced with shipwreck in May, but this was caused by bad weather. It is doubtful whether the tales of misfortune would have had much influence within the next six months. The reverses of Lautour and Henty do not seem to have arisen until late 1830 or early 1831, too late to have caused the initial fall in immigration.

Following Wakefield's propaganda it is customary to describe W.A. as being so chronically and seriously short of labourers during this early period that progress was impossible. This is true only in the sense that the whole of Australia has suffered from scarcity of labour during the whole of its history. As well as this general shortage there have occurred, from the earliest days of settlement, fluctuations in economic conditions which at one time would cause a fall in demand for labour accompanied by a fall in wages and sometimes by unemployment, and at other times, a rise in the demand for labour, higher wages and an outcry from employers.

There seems to have been some demand for labour during 1831, 1832 and 1833, though it was not the most serious disability. In 1831 the Royal Agricultural Society presented a Memorial to the Governor listing the chief requirements of the Colony. The most urgent requirement was a Bank because they had no currency; after that they wanted a greater supply of agricultural labourers. The shortage


was in their view occasioned by the number of labourers who had left for the other Colonies, and by those indentured servants who had deserted their masters. In the First Annual Report of the Society, presented in January 1832, part of their troubles was put down to “the scarcity of manual labour and the want of horses and oxen for the plough.”

Prominent investors who had introduced large numbers of indentured labourers found that they could not meet their obligations to pay their employees because production was too small and a market non-existent. They were therefore only too pleased to release their men from their contracts so that they could leave the Swan River for the eastern settlements where employers were more firmly established. This flight of labour immediately affected the smaller investor, a third of the total, who had brought out a little capital and no labour, but he soon learned to accommodate himself to the prevailing conditions. The Second Annual Report of September 1833 makes no direct mention of the scarcity of labour, but it attributes the overstocking of many farms to the increased amount of labour that would be required to grow sufficient fodder. The phraseology of these reports suggests that, though there was insufficient labour in 1831, the position eased throughout 1832 and 1833.

There was no outcry for labour during the next four years, 1834-37. On the contrary, there was a short period of unemployment. The Agricultural Society Reports for 1834 and 1835 do not mention labour difficulties, though in 1835 there is a reference to workmen having left for the Eastern Colonies, surely indicating a surplus. In 1836 the Society still had nothing to say about any scarcity, but they were “happy to observe the spirit of Mechanics in turning out from the towns to assist with the harvest, without whom we rather feared a scarcity of hands.” The Governor’s Address of March of that year reveals that the Colony had recently passed through a short depression with noticeable unemployment. He recalled to the memories of the Councillors the earlier conditions when “towns were . . . crowded with impoverished and unemployed workmen,” but he assured them that, at the time of his address, he was happy in the belief that there was not an individual in the Settlement who could not find profitable employment. There were others in the Colony who attributed the scarcity of labour to the fact that some of the men, who had earlier been available for employment, were now proprietors or tenants on small farms. But even the colonists did not refer to the shortage of hands as a matter requiring urgent attention. The position does not seem to have been any worse in the next year, 1837. The Governor made an unsupported reference to high wages but not to labour, and the Society reported that farms had suffered because men had found


employment in the new bay whaling venture. They also discussed the advisability of encouraging immigrants by a careful use of the land fund as a security, but the immigrants they referred to were farmers not labourers. Here we see the correct diagnosis of the Colony’s ills—the scarcity of employers.

The chief problem facing the employer was to make enough money to be able to employ labourers. The necessity was a market —people with money to buy the goods and services produced. With a total population of less than 2,000, and before the discovery of a commodity which could be exported, the market was too small to provide stable prices. A small market meant violent fluctuations; a small decline in production called forth high prices, and a small increase in production to reap the benefit, caused a collapse of prices.

To this difficulty was added the absence of a currency. No-one had thought of providing coins. I.O.U’s and notes proved unsatisfactory: for a short time partial barter was used, value being expressed in money terms. All this emphasises once again that it was not labour that was the first necessity, but population in general, in order to create a more stable market. A company, a proprietor, a lobby, or a government committed to the development of a colonial economy would have organised an increased flow of settlers from the British Isles. The British Government’s policy was that emigration to W.A. must be financed by the colony; the 250 hard pressed colonists were expected to finance their own scheme. It was not until 1839 that the Home Government became active.

By 1837, it was clear that the Colony would survive. The first attempt at a census was made, showing a population of 2,000. Numbers fell slightly in 1838 but passed 2,000 finally in 1839. The Bank of W.A. was formed, establishing for the first time a suitable currency of W.A. £1 notes. (In W.A. history this should occupy the important place given to the Bank of N.S.W. in the history of that Colony.) What was this confidence based on? 1,200 acres of wheat were sown in 1837, increasing to 1,400 acres in 1839. 770 pigs increased to 1,300. Here was food. Sheep numbers doubled from 10,000 to 20,000 in these two years. Besides meat they provided the all important export commodity. £1,000 worth of wool was exported in 1835, and more than £2,000 worth in 1839. One set of figures shows total exports increasing from £1,025 in 1835 to£G,840 in 1838. An important contribution which must not be overlooked is the steady though small expenditure by the British Government on the colonial government and the military regiment in the form of salaries and other payments, which were passed on to the local producers in return for household supplies. In 1839, over £1,000 was received for the sale of Crown lands. Here was steady progress and clear signs of survival.


As in the small commodity market so in the small labour market: a slight increase in the demand for labour forced up wages and caused the employers to complain about shortages. It seems that quite a serious situation developed in 1838. In May, the Governor, Sir James Stirling, showed his concern by presenting to his Legislative Council a Memoir on the Supply of Labour, which commenced with these words.

“In the present state of the Colony, there is such a deficiency of labour as to impede its advancement.1’ In a special report in October, the Royal Agricultural Society insisted that “The want of an adequate supply of agricultural labour has been severely felt for some years,” but in the light of the earlier reports this can be regarded as an overstatement used for emphasis, because the-sentence proceeds, “and is becoming more pressing every season.” The true state of conditions was no doubt that the supply of labour had been becoming rather more scarce until, in 1838, it was a matter of general concern. This shortage of labour continued to cause serious trouble for the colonists during the short period of prosperity which lasted until the end of 1842. Public opinion urgently demanded that steps be taken to obtain labour from oversea. Because of the increased sale of land, the colonial government was able from the proceeds to make arrangements to pay the passages of labourers from the United Kingdom.

By now even the settlers had adopted Wakefield’s cry “Shortage of labour.” Nevertheless, the colony’s capacity to absorb labour still depended chiefly upon the number of colonial employers. For the next 30 years—right through the convict period—the arrival of nearly every other ship was followed by a period of unemployment, during which panic letters were sent to England pleading “Please don’t send any more labourers for the present.”

Ironically enough, the only realistic policy was adopted by the Wakefield-inspired Australind Company which planned to send out employers (investors) with the labourers, in order to guarantee employment. That is another story.

These and other schemes such as the Bounty Regulations of 1839 were foreshadowed, but we cannot follow them now. The original settlers had proved their mettle. It was clear that W.A. would become one of the wool growing colonies of Australia, capable of attracting capital because of guaranteed profits. She was assured of a future.

This story of the first ten years may be closed. We may now survey our conclusions. Thomas Peel had little real influence on the early development of the Colony. The Land Regulations did not provide for unusually large grants, and probably served to point the way to later successful pastoral activities on large areas. Stirling portioned


out the land with considerable care to provide a fair distribution of favourable sites. Some of the smaller settlers may have found labour scarce, but mainly because the larger investors allowed their servants to leave for New South Wales. Even the poor soils near the coast had little influence because, apart from Peel and those who selected on the lower Canning, the large majority took their land in relatively fertile areas,—near the Darling foothills and in the Avon Valley “over the hills.”

The Swan River Colony’s chief difficulty seems to have been that insufficient people came in the first place so that there were too few people to create a suitable market, either for goods or labour. The British Government refused to be held responsible, and denied assistance, because the colony had been initiated by private investors who were expected to organise their own salvation. Immigration was cut off in 1831, chiefly because New South Wales was more attractive, and its resumption proved impossible because emigration from the United Kingdom so markedly declined after 1833. Until about 1836 the employers in the colony could not employ all the labour they had introduced either because the market was too small or because of an economic depression which caused unemployment.

Here is an explanation of W.A.’s early difficulties based on facts which Wakefield would have discarded as unsuitable for his argument. The tiny band of settlers who remained were mostly those who could not get away—the reluctant pioneers. They discovered in themselves unsuspected fortitude. Necessity bred initiative until they adopted the personal characteristics and production methods which the Australian wilderness imposes on all who wish to exploit it. Those worthy people deserve to be seen clearly, not through the distorting haze of myth.

Garry Gillard | New: 19 July, 2020 | Now: 19 July, 2020