Archaeological records indicate that Aboriginal people entered Australia in the northwest. Later findings show they were in a peaceful trading relationship with Macassan trepang fishers, from Sulawesi in Southeast Asia, from at least the 17th century. WA was close to the Indian Ocean trading routes – guns, slaves, home wares, hay and rats all sailed past and regularly sank off this coast due to the hazardous reefs and storms. Dutchman Dirk Hartog was one of the first-known Europeans to land here in 1616 and countryman Abel Tasman charted parts of the coastline in 1644.
Aboard the prophetically named Cygnet, William Dampier filled in the cartographic gaps in 1688 and again in 1699, from the Swan River to as far north as Broome. The race between the French and the English to explore and invade tempted British authorities to ignore reports of a barren, treacherous place. They sent Sydney-based Major Edmund Lockyer and a team of troops and convicts to set up base at King George Sound (present-day Albany) in 1826. Lockyer and co were well received by the local Minang Noongar people.
Just when transportation was finishing up in other parts of Australia, over 10, 000 convicts were sent to slow-growing WA. Post-sentence, they established local businesses and were in effect a sizable, stable wave of settlers.
Late in the 19th century, someone stubbed their toe and the state’s fortunes changed forever. Gold put WA on the map and finally gave it the population to make it a viable offshoot of the distant eastern colonies. Prosperity and proud isolation led to a 1933 referendum for secession: Western Australians voted two to one in favour of leaving the Commonwealth. Although it didn’t eventuate, the people have retained a strong independent streak that comes to the fore whenever they feel slighted by the eastern states or the Federal Government.
The rest of Australia and beyond found out just how well WA was doing when local entrepreneur Alan Bond’s Australia II sailed to victory in the 1983 America’s Cup – after 132 years it was the first successful non-American challenger. The Cup was then held in Fremantle in 1987 and although the Australian team lost, the publicity for Fremantle was priceless. However, in the early 1990s, political and corporate scandals rocked the boat and sent some modern-day criminals sailing into prison. Today, while WA still suffers from the odd political scandal, the economy is robust and growth here habitually exceeds the national average.
Paintings, etchings and stone tools confirm that indigenous Australians lived as far south as present-day Perth at least 40, 000 years ago. Despite their resistance, dispossession and poor treatment, the Aboriginal story in WA is ultimately a story of survival.
With around 70, 000 people (about 15% of the nation’s total Aboriginal population), WA has one of the strongest indigenous communities in Australia today. The Pilbara and Kimberley regions in the north are home to a large number of Aboriginal people, and in many towns there, indigenous folk make up most of the population.
As elsewhere in Australia, colonisation irrevocably changed indigenous ways of life in WA. Across the state, the experience was uniform: confrontations led to massacres or jail. Conflict and assimilation policies plagued Aboriginal people, with tales of ‘blackbirding’ (kidnapping for the purpose of labour), incarceration, illness, death and loss of basic rights. Forced off their traditional lands, some communities were practically wiped out by European disease. The Aborigines Act 1905 (WA) allowed authorities to remove children, control employment and restrict movement.
After WWII many Aboriginal people banded together in protest against their appalling treatment on cattle stations, in their first public displays of political consciousness. One such resistance legend was Jandamarra. In 1972 there was a full repeal of repressive legislation. Today there are many native-title claims being made by Aboriginal people across the state, and the successful native title claim over the metropolitan area of Perth by the local Noongar Aboriginal people in September 2006 was a landmark decision.