Swan River Colony

The Swan River Colony, also known as the Swan River Settlement,[1][2] or just Swan River, was a British colony established in 1829 on the Swan River, in Western Australia. This initial settlement place on the Swan River was soon named Perth, and it became the capital city of Western Australia.

Swan River Colony
Succeeded by
Colony of Western Australia
Today part ofAustralia

The name was a pars pro toto for Western Australia. On 6 February 1832 the colony was renamed the Colony of Western Australia,[3][4] 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.

European exploration

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 1696–97
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History of Australia
Capital cities

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 19 July 1619, travelling on the ships Dordrecht and Amsterdam. His records indicate he first reached the Western Australian coast at latitude 32°20', which is approximately at Warnbro Sound.[5] He did not land because of heavy surf, and so proceeded northwards without much investigation.[6]

On 28 April 1656, Vergulde Draeck en route to Batavia (now Jakarta) was shipwrecked 107 km (66 mi) 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.[7]

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 unfavourable opinion of the area partly due to the dangerous reefs.[6]

The first detailed map of the Swan River, drawn by the French in 1801

The Dutch captain Willem de Vlamingh was the next European in the area. Commanding three ships, Geelvinck, Nijptangh and Weseltje,[8]:42 he arrived at and named Rottnest on 29 December 1696, and on 10 January 1697 visited and named the Swan River. 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 Aboriginal people 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.[6]

In 1801, the French ships Géographe captained by Nicolas Baudin and Naturaliste captained by Emmanuel Hamelin visited the area from the south. While Géographe 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 unfavourable 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 harbour).

Later in March 1803, Géographe with another ship Casuarina passed by Rottnest on their way eventually back to France, but did not stop longer than a day or two.[9][10]

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.[6]

Background to the settlement

Admiral Sir James Stirling
Map of the Swan River Settlement and the surrounding country (1831)

The founding father of 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 8 March in a cutter and gig with parties continuing on foot from 13 March. In late March, Success moved to Sydney, arriving there on 15 April. 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" settlement  unlike penal colonies at New South Wales, Port Arthur and Norfolk Island  in the Swan River area with himself as its governor. As a result of these reports, and a rumour 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 despatch 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 1 November 1829 with 400 settlers. Peel arrived after this date with only 300 settlers, but was still granted 250,000 acres (1,000 km2).

Events of the settlement

Swan River Colony
ship arrivals in 1829[11]
25 AprilHMS Challenger
31 MayParmelia
6 JuneHMS Sulphur
5 AugustCalista
6 AugustSaint Leonard
23 AugustMarquis of Anglesea
19 SeptemberThompson
21 SeptemberAmity
5 OctoberGeorgiana
9 OctoberEphemina
12 OctoberOrelia
12 OctoberCumberland
12 OctoberCaroline
17 OctoberGovernor Phillip
19 OctoberAtwick
23 OctoberLotus
John Summerson
31 OctoberAdmiral Gifford
11 NovemberLion (Lyon)
14 NovemberDragon
28 NovemberHMS Success
15 DecemberGilmore

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

Parmelia arrived on 31 May carrying Stirling and his party and HMS Sulphur arrived on 8 June carrying members of the 63rd Regiment and families. Three merchant ships arrived shortly after: Calista on 5 August, St Leonard on 6 August and Marquis of Anglesea on 23 August.

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. Bad weather and the required repairs meant that Stirling did not manage to reach the mainland until 18 June, and the remaining settlers on Parmelia finally arrived in early August. In early September a major disaster occurred: Marquis of Anglesea was driven ashore during a gale and wrecked beyond repair. The ship did not break up, as had been expected, but instead survived to become Western Australia's first prison hulk.[12]

The first reports of the new colony arrived back in England in late January 1830. They described the poor conditions and the starving state of the colonists, deemed the land totally unfit for agriculture, and reported (incorrectly) that the settlers had abandoned the colony. As a result of these reports, many people cancelled their migration plans or diverted to Cape Town in South Africa, or to the more well-established New South Wales colony.

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

Karl Marx, in Das Kapital, used the Swan River Colony to illustrate a point about the necessity of a dependent workforce for capitalist production and colonization.[13]

See also


  1. A Plan of Swan River Settlement and Surrounding Country, 1831
  2. Stirling, Horace (25 December 1926). "The Swan River Settlement". The Western Mail. p. 27. Retrieved 7 December 2019.
  3. "Swan River Colony Proclaimed". POI Australia. 2 May 1829. Retrieved 13 February 2021.
  4. "On this day, 6th February 1832". State Library of New South Wales. Retrieved 13 February 2021.
  5. "Cape Peron to Dawesville" (PDF). Department of Transport. Government of Western Australia. 2016. Retrieved 15 February 2020.
  6. Appleyard, Reginald T.; Manford, Toby (1979). The Beginning: European Discovery and Early Settlement of Swan River, Western Australia. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press. ISBN 0-85564-146-0. OCLC 6423026.
  7. "Shipwrecks Audio Transcript : Gilt Dragins & Elephant Tusks". ABC online. 2003. Retrieved 14 February 2009.
  8. Michael Pearson (2005). Margaret Cresswell (ed.). Great Southern Land: The Maritime Exploration of Terra Australis (PDF). Canberra: Department of the Environment and Heritage. ISBN 0-642-55185-5. OCLC 67617194. OL 26818732M. Wikidata Q110529184. Retrieved 12 January 2022.
  9. Pratt, Kate. "The Baudin Expedition of 1800–1804". Terra Australis 2001 WA Association Inc. Archived from the original on 16 January 2009. Retrieved 14 February 2009.
  10. "The Captains: Nicholas Baudin". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Archived from the original on 4 January 2009. Retrieved 14 February 2009.
  11. "WA 1829 Passenger Ship Arrivals". Western Australian Genealogical Society. 4 December 2013. Retrieved 23 December 2016.
  12. Goulding, Dot (2007). Recapturing Freedom: Issues Relating to the Release of Long-term Prisoners Into the Community. Hawkins Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-1876067182.
  13. Marx, Karl. "Chapter 33: The Modern Theory of Colonisation" . Das Kapital.

Further reading

  • Fornasiero, Jean; Monteath, Peter and West-Sooby, John. Encountering Terra Australis: the Australian voyages of Nicholas Baudin and Matthew Flinders, Kent Town, South Australia,Wakefield Press,2004. ISBN 1-86254-625-8
  • Marchant, Leslie R. France Australe : the French search for the Southland and subsequent explorations and plans to found a penal colony and strategic base in south western Australia 1503–1826 Perth : Scott Four Colour Print, c1998. ISBN 0-9588487-1-8
  • Marchant, Leslie R. French Napoleonic Placenames of the South West Coast, Greenwood, WA. R.I.C. Publications, 2004. ISBN 1-74126-094-9
  • Niendorf, Matthew J. "'A Land Not Exactly Flowing with Milk & Honey': Swan River Mania in the British Isles and Western Australia 1827-1832," Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects, 2016.
  • Straw, Leigh S.L. A Semblance of Scotland: Scottish Identity in Colonial Western Australia, The Grimsay Press, 2006. ISBN 9781845300326
  • Toft, Klaus The Navigators – Flinders vs Baudin, Sydney, Duffy and Snellgrove, 2002. ISBN 1-876631-60-0
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