History of Western Australia

The human history of Western Australia commenced between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago with the arrival of Indigenous Australians on the northwest coast. The first inhabitants expanded the range of their settlement to the east and south of the continent. The first recorded European contact was in 1616, when Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog landed on the west coast.

Although many expeditions visited the coast during the next 200 years, there was no lasting attempt at establishment of a permanent settlement until December 1826 when an expedition on behalf of the New South Wales colonial government, led by Major Edmund Lockyer,[1] landed at King George Sound. On 21 January 1827 Lockyer formally took possession of the western third of the continent of Australia for the British Crown. This was followed by the establishment of the Swan River Colony in 1829, including the site of the present-day capital, Perth. The harsh conditions faced by the settlers resulted in population growth being minimal until the discovery of gold in the 1880s. Since the gold rush, the population of the state has risen steadily, with substantial growth in the period since World War II.

Western Australia gained the right of self-government in 1890, and joined with the five other states to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. The desire of Western Australians to revert to complete self-governance, separate from the Commonwealth, culminated in 1933 with a successful referendum for secession supported by 68% of electors. In 1935 the British parliament declined to act since secession would require the assent of the Australian parliament, and the movement lapsed with an improving economy and generous federal grants.[2][3]

Aboriginal settlement

For early human settlement in Australia, see Prehistory of Australia and Aboriginal History of Western Australia.

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 90 km from Timor, which itself was the last in a line of closely spaced islands for humans to travel across.[4] 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.

Early visits by Europeans

The first European to sight Western Australia was the Dutch explorer, Dirk Hartog, who on 26 October 1616 landed at what is now known as Cape Inscription, Dirk Hartog Island. Before departing, Hartog left behind a pewter plate affixed to a post. The plate was subsequently discovered, replaced and repatriated to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

The first English vessel to visit was the Tryall, an East India Company-owned East Indiaman under the command of John Brooke who in 1622 sighted Point Cloates before later on 25 May wrecking on Tryal Rocks, off the northwest coast of Australia. The crew remained on the Monte Bello Islands for 7 days, during that time sighting Barrow Island, before sailing to Batavia in a longboat. The Tryall is Australia's oldest known shipwreck.[5]

A later English visitor was William Dampier, who in 1699 sailed down the western coast of Australia. He noted the lack of water and in his description of Shark Bay in his account "A Voyage to New Holland", he expressed 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.

A number of sections of the Western Australian coastline were given names which did not last past the exploratory era in names of features – such as Eendrachtsland. However some names, such as 't Landt van de Leeuwin (Leeuwin's Land), materialised at a later date as Cape Leeuwin.

Timeline of European discovery and exploration

1659 map prepared by Joan Blaeu based on voyages by Abel Tasman and Willem Jansz.
Willem de Vlamingh's ships at the entrance to the Swan River, 1697
Crew of the French ship L'Astrolabe make contact with aborigines at King George Sound, 1826

Below is a timeline of significant events from the 1616 landfall of Dirk Hartog until the eventual settlement of the Swan River Colony in 1829:

British Colony

Swan River Colony (1829-1832)
Colony of Western Australia (1832-1901)
British Crown Colony

flag (1870-1901)

Government Self-governing colony
  1829-1830 George IVfirst
  1837-1901 Victoria last
  1829-1832 James Stirling first
  1895-1900 Gerard Smith last
  Established 1829
  Federation of Australia 1901

The first formal claim of possession for Great Britain was made on 29 September 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 later dropped from the name).

In the early 19th century the British became 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.[1]

On 21 January 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.[1]

In March 1831 the penal settlement was withdrawn, and the control of King George's Sound was transferred from New South Wales to the Swan River Colony.[1] Captain James Stirling decreed that the settlement would be named "Albany" from 1 January 1832.[7]

Swan River Colony

Main article: Swan River Colony
Early map of the Swan River colony

The Swan River Colony was the name given to the British colony established on the Swan River by 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 of Perth.

Expansion beyond the Swan River

Much of the land around the Swan River Colony was unsuitable for agriculture and it was inevitable that the colony would have to expand beyond the Swan River area after the most fertile locations were quickly settled. Some highlights of the first couple of decades are below:


At its start in 1829, the Swan River Colony had its foundations as a "free settlement". However, the initial settlers had many difficulties which compelled them to seek help from the British, in an offer to accept convicts. Western Australia therefore became a penal colony in 1850. Between then and 1868, over 9,000 convicts were transported to Western Australia on 43 convict ship voyages.

Expansion during the mid-19th century

Sheep farming was the most successful early agricultural activity, and expanded into the Avon Valley during the 1830s.

Wool production, usually on large stations, was also the basis of expansion further east and northward.

The first permanent settlements in the North West (later divided into the Pilbara and Kimberley regions) took place in the mid-1860s, initially at the Harding River, De Grey River and Roebourne (gazetted in 1867). Pearling also came to dominate the North West, initially in Nickol Bay, with a fleet at Tien Tsin Harbor (later renamed Cossack). In the North West, unlike southern WA, the labour force was dominated by indigenous Australians, often under harsh forms of unfree labour.

During the 1870s, the Gascoyne River and Murchison River areas were settled by Europeans.

Notable explorers during the mid-19th century;

Gold discovered

WA population growth 1829–2010

Until the 1870s the economy of the state was based on wheat, meat and wool. 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, Nannine, Peak Hill, Garden Gully, Dead Finish, Pinnicles, Austin Island and Austin Mainland – flourished only to be abandoned when the seams were exhausted and the gold fever moved on.

Gold inspired a new wave of exploration, including David Carnegie who, in 1896, led an epic expedition that traveled through the deserts north of Coolgardie, through the Gibson and Great Sandy Deserts to Halls Creek in the Kimberley, before returning to Coolgardie.

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 7 September 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.

In the late 19th century there was talk of the gold-rich regions around Kalgoorlie leaving the colony of Western Australia and becoming a state called Auralia if Western Australia did not join the Commonwealth.


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 Council's decisions.

In 1887 a new constitution including the right of self-governance was drafted and sent to London by Governor Broome for approval. It was argued that due to the increasing wealth which was being generated by gold rushes, Western Australia deserved self-government. The Act granting self-government was passed by the House of Commons and assented to by Queen Victoria in 1890, giving complete autonomy in matters with the exception of Section 70 of the Act which established an Aboriginal Protection Board, under the control of the British Parliament, not the Western Australian one. Governor Broome had earlier warned the British Colonial Office that the Western Australians were not to be trusted in matters relating to Aboriginal persons. A further clause to the constitution stated that 5,000 pounds or one percent of state revenues, whichever was the greater, was to be allocated to Aboriginal persons for their welfare and advancement. Western Australians resented these clauses, and Western Australia has never honoured this clause to its own constitution. 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 21 October 1890 saw the city decorated with elaborate floral arches spanning the city's main streets and buildings were decked with banners and flags. John Forrest, who had argued Western Australians should accept Section 70 in order to obtain self-government, attempted to have them changed by 1892. William Traylen MP argued that "as our revenue is growing up now, and the natives can scarcely be said to be increasing in numbers, we shall be paying a very undue proportion of our income as a colony for the purpose of supporting the Aboriginal native race". For years Sir John Forrest fought with Robinson over Section 70 and Western Australia unilaterally passed the 1899 Constitution Amendment Act, taking control of Aboriginal Affairs without approval of the British House of Commons. Many Aboriginal people argue that the 1899 amendment was an illegal usurpation of British government power and one percent of accumulated Government revenues should be set aside for Aboriginal welfare, as intended.

Other notable events

State of Australia

On 1 January 1901, following a proclamation by Queen Victoria, Western Australia, along with the other five British colonies of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria, formed the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia, of which they each became component states. However, Western Australia was rather reluctant to join the union, doing so only after a railway line connecting the west coast to the east coast was offered.

Development during the early twentieth century

Map of Western Australia in 1916
Governor William Campion at the centenary celebrations in Perth.

The wealth generated from gold soon disappeared and by the early years of the 20th 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 Europe, in the period 1947 to 1970.

Important events in Western Australia included the following:

Secessionists at a meeting.

World War II

Major events since 1945

See also

Further reading


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 "King George's Sound Settlement". State Records. State Records Authority of New South Wales. Retrieved 14 May 2014.
  2. Zimmerman, Augusto (2012). "The Still Reluctant State". In Appleby, Gabrielle; Aroney, Nicholas; John, Thomas. The Future of Australian Federalism: Comparative and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. p. 79. ISBN 9781107006379. Retrieved 17 October 2014.
  3. Heilbronn, Gary N.; et al. (2008). "Commonwealth Parliament". Introducing the Law (7 ed.). Sydney: CCH Australia Limited. p. 48. ISBN 9781921873478. Retrieved 17 October 2014.
  4. Hallam, Sylvia J. (1981) The First Western Australians from C. T. Stannage A New History of Western Australia, University of Western Australia Press. ISBN 0-85564-181-9
  5. Lee, Ida. "The First Sighting of Australia by the English". The Geographical Journal (April 1934). Retrieved 16 Dec 2013.
  6. King, Robert J. (2008). "Jean Pierre Purry's proposal to colonize the Land of Nuyts". Australia on the Map. Australasian Hydrographic Society. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  7. Uren, Malcolm John Leggoe (1948). Land Looking West: The Story of Governor James Stirling in Western Australia. London: Oxford University Press. p. 24.
  8. 1 2 3 Frayne, Beth (2011). The Long Toodyay Chronology, Part 1 1829-1900 (second ed.). Toodyay: Toodyay Historical Society.
  9. Stirling, Ros (2011). "Wonnerup: A chronicle of the south-west". Australian Heritage Magazine. Retrieved 27 April 2011.
  10. Bureau of Meteorology (1998). Tropical Cyclones (A Guide for Mariners in Northwest Australia), Pamphlet, Commonwealth of Australia
  11. Courtney, Joe; Middelmann, Miriam (2005). "Meteorological hazards" (PDF). Natural hazard risk in Perth, Western Australia – Cities Project Perth Report. Geoscience Australia. Retrieved 25 December 2012.
  12. Lee, David (2013). "Reluctant relaxation: The end of the iron ore export embargo and the origins of Australia's mining boom, 1960-1966". History Australia. Clayton, Vic: Monash University Publishing. pp. 149–170. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
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