My favourite place: west Aus­tralia

The lat­est in our his­tor­i­cal hol­i­day se­ries sees Guy ex­plore the dark past of Aus­tralia’s south-west coast

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - by Guy de la Bé­doyère

Pris­tine beaches, bru­tal rocks and craggy cliffs make the coast of Western Aus­tralia (WA) one of the world’s most beau­ti­ful and harsh land­scapes. It’s also where Aus­tralia’s Euro­pean his­tory started, and it’s the eas­i­est part of Aus­tralia to reach from the UK (es­pe­cially since di­rect Lon­don–Perth flights launched in March), with only a seven or eight-hour time dif­fer­ence. I love this part of the world, and have vis­ited many times. The his­tory is fas­ci­nat­ing and the land­scape, which played so large a part in that his­tory, is over­whelm­ing.

Fre­man­tle, close to Perth, is a beau­ti­ful old port town with many Vic­to­rian build­ings. Packed with restau­rants and tea­rooms, it’s a de­light­ful place to wan­der around. The town’s Euro­pean his­tory be­gan in 1829, when Cap­tain Charles Fre­man­tle landed here in HMS Chal­lenger.r In June that year set­tlers ar­rived to es­tab­lish the free Swan River Colony, which ini­tially strug­gled; in the late 1840s con­victs were brought in to keep the colony go­ing.

Among Fre­man­tle’s most im­pres­sive struc­tures are the two com­mis­sariat build­ings close to the dock­side, built with con­vict labour from 1852. To­day the com­plex houses the Western Aus­tralian Ship­wrecks Mu­seum, which cov­ers an­other two cen­turies of his­tory, reach­ing back to 1629. The mu­seum is filled with arte­facts re­cov­ered from Dutch East In­di­a­men ship­wrecks of the 17th and 18th cen­turies. It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary to see Euro­pean sil­ver ves­sels, pot­tery, can­non and coins re­cov­ered from the wreck sites scat­tered along the lethal WA coast­line.

The most strik­ing ex­hibit is the stern of the Batavia. In June 1629, ex­actly 200 years be­fore Charles Fre­man­tle ar­rived on th­ese shores, the Dutch ship Batavia, en route from Amsterdam to the East Indies to buy spices for the Euro­pean mar­ket, rammed into a co­ral is­land in the Hout­man Abrol­hos, an archipelago about 250 miles north-west of Perth. Her cap­tain had mis­cal­cu­lated when to turn north – with dis­as­trous con­se­quences.

Dozens drowned be­fore the sur­viv­ing pas­sen­gers and crew es­caped the wreck to one of the is­lands – the first Euro­peans known to have landed on ter­ri­tory that is now Aus­tralia. What came next made the episode one of the most no­to­ri­ous mar­itime dis­as­ters in his­tory. While the se­nior of­fi­cers sailed to the East Indies in the long­boat to get help, a mutiny broke out on the is­lands, led by a psy­cho­pathic Dutch East In­dia Com­pany of­fi­cial, Jeron­imus Cor­nelisz. He or­ches­trated the killing of more than 100 men, women and chil­dren, while await­ing the ar­rival of a res­cue ves­sel that he and his hench­men could seize.

The mutiny was even­tu­ally thwarted by some marines loyal to the ship’s com­man­der, and the timely ar­rival of a res­cue ship; Cor­nelisz and his ac­com­plices were cap­tured and hanged. Ex­ca­va­tions in the 1970s re­cov­ered what was left of the Batavia and huge numbers of arte­facts, as well as the re­mains of vic­tims who had been blud­geoned and stabbed to death. It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary story – a hor­rific start to Aus­tralia’s mod­ern his­tory. The mu­seum is su­perbly pre­sented, with the huge tim­bers of the Batavia be­ing es­pe­cially im­pos­ing.

Other build­ings in Fre­man­tle re­call the port’s Vic­to­rian his­tory. Like al­most ev­ery other of­fi­cial struc­ture built here in the 19th cen­tury, Old Fre­man­tle Prison, a Un­esco World Her­itage

site, was con­structed by con­victs. The prison was in use from the mid-1850s to the 1990s, hav­ing su­per­seded the Round House, Fre­man­tle’s first prison.

The Round House, which still stands close to the Ship­wrecks Mu­seum, was the first of­fi­cial build­ing in WA. Con­structed in 1831, it was used to house pris­on­ers and for hang­ings. From 1838, many of the re­gion’s Indige­nous Noon­gar peo­ple were locked up here be­fore be- ing shipped to nearby Rot­tnest Is­land, which was des­ig­nated a pe­nal set­tle­ment for Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple. To­day Rot­tnest is a na­ture re­serve, home to quokkas – cute mar­su­pi­als af­ter which the is­land was named (from the Dutch for ‘rat’s nest’) – and a pop­u­lar hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion. But a mu­seum and con­vict build­ings re­call its bleak past.

Perth is, of course, the big­gest city in WA and there’s plenty to see here, too. The Western Aus­tralian Mu­seum puts mod­ern Euro­pean set­tle­ment in its place, with dis­plays ex­plain­ing the his­tory and cul­ture of indige­nous peo­ples in this part of Aus­tralia.

Gold-min­ing is still a big story in WA. At the end of the 19th cen­tury a mint was estab­lished in Perth to coin gold sovereigns marked with a lit­tle ‘P’, many of which sur­vive. The mint of­fers a won­der­ful demon­stra­tion of gold pour­ing, and dis­plays of gold and old mint equip­ment.

The Western Aus­tralian Ship­wrecks Mu­seum in Fre­man­tle Orig­i­nal tim­bers from the 1629 wreck of the Batavia in the WA Ship­wrecks Mu­seum

A sil­ver plate sal­vaged from the wreck

Fre­man­tle’s High Street, with 19th-cen­tury build­ings The 19th-cen­tury Round House, where Abo­rig­i­nal pris­on­ers were once held

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