Oh, I know many people are bored by history and if that is you, you may as well stop reading now. But there is a tale I am compelled to mull over, an extraordinary, empowering, human story of the earliest days of the Swan River colony. And it is, after all, the long weekend which marks the foundation of Western Australia, so allow me the pleasure to share what I know, and what I don’t know, of the story with you.
For those of you who don’t know, Fremantle sits at the mouth of the Swan River, in the south western part of Western Australia. It is a cosmopolitan sort of place, full of heritage buildings, coffee shops, dockside workers and hippies in equal measure. It has always been a meeting spot of sorts; even before the Europeans arrived, this was where ancient bush paths converged, and where the local Whadjuk Noongar people met with their neighbours to trade, catch up and celebrate.
The land is reasonably flat, bar a series of small limestone hills, one of which sits right at the water’s edge. If you stand on top of this cliff you can see three small islands: Ngooloormayup, Meeandip and Wadjemup, now known as Carnac, Garden and Rottnest. Beyond them lies the wide expanse of the Indian Ocean.
In 1829, three ships sailed across this grand stretch of water.
The first was a war frigate, the HMS Challenger, under the command of a 29 year old Captain Charles Fremantle: a womanizer and alleged rapist, not too impressed at being sent to the end of the world with instructions to claim the entire western side of the Australian continent for Britain.
The boat anchored off Garden Island, then sailed to the coast, where half the soldiers disembarked, raised a flag and promptly set about erecting shelter…and trenches. Yep, 20 odd men, in wild and wooly weather, busily building barricades against the expected (and imagined) convoys of incoming French ships.
Next came the Parmelia, a small transport barque bearing the appointed lieutenant governor James Stirling. It was his zealous lobbing that convinced the British government that the area around the Swan River was verdant, fertile and otherwise ideal for settlement (never mind the reality of sandy soil, noxious weed and scorching summer heat that leaves the land parched and dry). Trailing a few days behind was another navy vessel, the HMS Sulphur, carrying a detachment of troops and a load of supplies.
To say that the arrival of the two boats was inauspicious would be an understatement. A fine combination of treacherous reefs, severe storms and human cock up led to both the Paremlia and the Sulphur to strike rocks as they entered Coburn Sound. After almost four months at sea, the settlers were obliged to spend another two and a bit weeks marooned first off the tiny Carnac Island, and then Garden Island. Mainland so tantalizingly near, yet out of reach.
Finally, finally they made it to the coast. And THIS is when my imagination takes hold. We have so little record of the settlers’ early days. Alas, no daily selfie pictures, no Facebook updates of the meals they ate, outfits chosen, discoveries made. Only endless questions.
What were they all feeling, as their feet touched the beach? To be in this strange land, removed as far from home as they could possibly be? They were such a small number, in such a vast place! Did they celebrate, sing, shake hands with each other? Or did they sink to their knees and say a prayer, then look despondently around them and cry as the reality of isolation and the scale of the task ahead took hold?
The ships arrived at the very start of winter, a time of frequent rains and storms, of blustery winds blowing straight from the Antarctic. Some days would have brought cheerful, warming sun, but on those same days, when nights were clear and the warm blanket of clouds disappeared, temperatures dropped and an icy chill would have set in, going straight to the bones. Oh, to have to spend that first winter, under makeshift shelter!
Real people, each with their own dreams and talents. What did the bricklayer, William Hoking, think as he ran the sandy soil through his fingers? Did he note the cliffs and start building limestone homes in his head, or was he urgently making plans to go in search of more familiar clay? Did he seek out Joseph Hoyton, the carpenter, and compare thoughts about the scattered eucalypts and the strange, short palm like plants that we know today as balga trees? How did William’s wife, Mary, cope, with her six children all scrambling to be fed, clothed, educated?
Others came with families, too. Kiddies of all ages. Did these children squeal with excitement as they finally stood on solid ground? Did they go off to collect drift wood, and build cubby houses in which they could sleep in later? Did they wonder off too far, and come across strange other children, little people who stared at them curiously with dark black eyes? Were they like kids today, somehow overcoming language barriers and quickly starting a happy game of hide and seek before both sets of parents, black and white, called them off in fear?
What about young Ellen Striling, being as she was the wife of the colony’s alpha male, James Stirling? She stepped aboard the Parmelia heavily pregnant and gave birth somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Also on board, travelling with a two month old baby, was Jane Daly, the wife of a mere surgeon’s assistant. Did Ellen and Jane bond over the shared experience of new motherhood in harsh conditions? Or did they maintain the old class conventions that might otherwise have kept them apart? Poor Jane certainly would have needed friendship – she lost both her husband and eldest daughter to the seas near Cape Town, and arrived on the banks of Western Australia alone and with four children under seven. What then? What happened to her next?
So many stories, so many triumphs and tragedies that followed. Out of them sprung a fledgling colony, a port, a bustling city. Oh, to be a fly on the (non-existent) wall, and watch and listen to it all that first day, that first evening…