Western Australia's history is one of hardship, boom, bust, and boom again. People had lived here for 40,000 years before Dutchman Dirk Hartog sighted the shores of WA in 1616. The British later settled Perth in 1829, sparking conflict with its Noongar inhabitants. WA first boomed with the 1880s discovery of gold, then suffered through wars and depression, before the nickel boom of the 1960s. The state's prosperity and its immense mineral wealth remain inextricably linked as the years tick by.
People first arrived on the northern shores of Australia at least 40,000 years ago. As they began building shelters, cooking food and developing an oral history, they left behind signs of their activities: layers of carbon – the residue of their ancient fires – deep in the soil; piles of shells and fish bones marking the places where they hunted and ate; and on rock walls across WA, paintings and etchings. These artworks tell stories of the Dreaming, that spiritual dimension where the earth and its people were created and the law was laid down.
Contrary to popular belief, Australia's Aboriginal people, especially those who lived in the north, were not entirely isolated from the rest of the world. Until 6000 years ago, they were able to travel and trade across a bridge of land that connected Australia to New Guinea. Even after white occupation, the Aboriginal people of the northern coasts regularly hosted Macassan fishermen from Sulawesi, with whom they traded, socialised and occasionally had children with.
When European sailors first stumbled on the coast of 'Terra Australis', the entire continent was occupied by hundreds of Aboriginal groups, living in their own territories and maintaining their own distinctive languages and traditions. The fertile Swan Valley around Perth, for example, is the customary homeland of about a dozen groups of Noongar people, each speaking a distinctive dialect.
The prehistory of Australia is filled with tantalising mysteries. In the Kimberley, scholars and amateur sleuths are fascinated by the so-called Bradshaw paintings. These enigmatic and mystical stick figures are thousands of years old. Because they look nothing like the artwork of any other Aboriginal group, the identity of the culture that created them is the subject of fierce debate.
Meanwhile, there are historians who claim the Aboriginal peoples' first contact with the wider world occurred when a Chinese admiral, Zheng He, visited Australia in the 15th century. Others say that Portuguese navigators mapped the continent in the 16th century.
Early Dutch Exploration
Most authorities believe that the first man to travel any great distance to see Aboriginal Australia was a Dutchman named Willem Janszoon. In 1606 he sailed the speedy little ship Duyfken out of the Dutch settlement at Batavia (modern Jakarta) to scout for the Dutch East India Company, and found Cape York (the pointy bit at the top of Australia), which he thought was an extension of New Guinea.
Ten years later, another Dutch ship, the Eendracht, rode the mighty Atlantic trade winds, bound for the 'spice islands' of modern Indonesia. But the captain, Dirk Hartog, misjudged his position, and stumbled onto the island (near Gladstone) that now bears his name. Hartog inscribed the details of his visit onto a pewter plate and nailed it to a post. In 1697, the island was visited by a second Dutch explorer, named Willem de Vlamingh, who swapped Hartog's plate for one of his own.
Other Dutch mariners were not so lucky. Several ships were wrecked on the uncharted western coast of the Aboriginal continent. The most infamous of these is the Batavia. After the ship foundered in the waters off modern Geraldton in 1629, the captain, Francis Pelsaert, sailed a boat to the Dutch East India Company's base at Batavia. While his back was turned, some crewmen unleashed a nightmare of debauchery, rape and murder on the men, women and children who had been on the ship. When Pelsaert returned with a rescue vessel, he executed the murderers, sparing only two youths whom he marooned on the beach of the continent they knew as New Holland. Some experts believe the legacy of these boys can be found in the sandy hair and the Dutch-sounding words of some local Aboriginal peoples. The remains of the Batavia and other wrecks are now displayed at the Western Australian Museum in Geraldton and in the WA Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle, where you can also see de Vlamingh's battered old plate.
The Dutch were businessmen, scouring the world for commodities. Nothing they saw on the dry coasts of this so-called 'New Holland' convinced them that the land or its native people offered any promise of profit. When another Dutchman named Abel Tasman charted the western and southern coasts of Australia in 1644, he was mapping not a commercial opportunity but a maritime hazard.
In Came the Brits
Today the dominant version of Australian history is written as though Sydney is the only wellspring of Australia's identity. But when you live in Western Australia, history looks very different. In Sydney, white history traditionally begins with Captain James Cook's epic voyage of 1770, in which he mapped the east coast. But Cook creates little excitement in Albany, Perth or Geraldton – places he never saw.
Cook's voyage revealed that the eastern coastline was fertile, and he was particularly taken with the diversity of plant life at the place he called 'Botany Bay'. Acting on Cook's discovery, the British government decided to establish a convict colony there. The result was the settlement of Sydney in 1788 – out of which grew the great sheep industry of Australia.
By the early 19th century, it was clear that the Dutch had no inclination to settle WA. Meanwhile, the British were growing alarmed by the activities of the French in the region. So on Christmas Day 1826, the British army warned them off by establishing a lonely military outpost at Albany, on the strategically important southwestern tip of the country.
The Founding of Perth
The challenge to Aboriginal supremacy in the west began in 1829, when a boatload of free immigrants arrived with all their possessions in the territory of the Noongar people. This group was led by Captain James Stirling – a swashbuckling and entrepreneurial naval officer – who had investigated the coastal region two years earlier. Stirling had convinced British authorities to appoint him governor of the new settlement, and promptly declared all the surrounding Aboriginal lands to be the property of King George IV. Such was the foundation of Perth.
Stirling's glowing reports had fired the ambitions of English adventurers and investors, and by the end of the year, 25 ships had reached the colony's port at Fremantle. Unlike their predecessors in Sydney, these settlers were determined to build their fortunes without calling on government assistance and without the shame of using convict labour.
As a cluster of shops, houses and hotels rose on the banks of the Swan River, settlers established sheep and cattle runs in the surrounding country. This led to conflict with Aboriginal people, following a pattern that was tragically common throughout the Australian colonies. The Aboriginal people speared sheep and cattle – sometimes for food, sometimes as an act of defiance. In the reprisals that resulted, people on both sides were killed, and by 1832 it was clear that Aboriginal people were organising a violent resistance. Governor Stirling declared that he would retaliate with such 'acts of decisive severity as will appal them as people for a time and reduce their tribe to weakness'.
In October 1834, Stirling showed he was a man of his word. He led a punitive expedition against the Noongar, who were under the leadership of the warrior Calyute. In the Battle of Pinjarra, the governor's forces shot, according to the Perth Gazette, 25 to 30 people and suffered one fatality themselves. This display of official terror had the desired effect. The Noongar ended their resistance and the violence of the frontier moved further out.
The Deployment of Convicts
Aboriginal resistance was not the only threat to the survival of this most isolated outpost of the British Empire. The arid countryside, the loneliness and the cost of transport also took their toll. When tough men of capital could make a fortune in the east, there were few good reasons to struggle against the frustrations of the west, and most of the early settlers left. Two decades on, there were just 5000 Europeans holding out on the western edge of the continent. Some of the capitalists who had stayed began to rethink their aversion to using cheap prison labour.
In 1850 – just as the practice of sending British convicts to eastern Australia ended – shiploads of male convicts started to arrive in Fremantle harbour.
Exploration & Gold
Meanwhile, several explorers undertook journeys into the remote Aboriginal territories, drawn in by dreams of mighty rivers and rolling plains of grass 'further out'. Their thirsty ordeals mostly ended in disappointment. But the pastoralists did expand through much of the southwestern corner of WA, while others took up runs on the rivers of the northwest and in the Kimberley.
Perhaps the most staggering journey of exploration was undertaken by an Aboriginal man called Wylie and the explorer Edward Eyre, who travelled from South Australia, across the vast, dry Nullarbor Plain, to Albany.
By the 1880s, the entire European population of this sleepy western third of Australia was not much more than 40,000 people. In the absence of democracy, a network of city merchants and large squatters exercised political and economic control over the colony.
The great agent of change was gold. The first discoveries were made in the 1880s in the Kimberley and the Pilbara, followed by huge finds in the 1890s at Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie, in hot, dry country 600km inland from Perth. So many people were lured by the promise of gold that the population of the colony doubled and redoubled in a single decade. But the easy gold was soon exhausted, and most independent prospectors gave way to mining companies who had the capital to sink deep shafts. Soon the miners were working not for nuggets of gold but for wages. Toiling in hot, dangerous conditions, these men banded together to form trade unions, which remained a potent force in the life of WA throughout the following century.
The Golden Pipeline to Kalgoorlie
The year 1890 also saw the introduction of representative government, a full generation after democracy had arrived in the east. The first elected premier was a tough, capable bushman named John Forrest, who borrowed courageously in order to finance vast public works to encourage immigrants and private investors. He was blessed with the services of a brilliant civil engineer, CY O'Connor. O'Connor oversaw the improvement of the Fremantle harbour, and built and ran the state's rail system. But O'Connor's greatest feat was the construction of a system of steam-powered pumping stations along a mighty pipeline to drive water uphill, from Mundaring Weir in the Perth Hills to the thirsty goldfields around distant Kalgoorlie.
By the time Forrest opened the pipeline, O'Connor was dead. His political enemies had defamed him in the press and in parliament, falsely accusing him of incompetence and corruption. On 10 March 1902, O'Connor rode into the surf near Fremantle and shot himself. Today, the site of his anguish is commemorated by a haunting statue of him on horseback, which rises out of the waves at South Beach.
Ironically, just as the water began to flow, the mining industry went into decline. But the 'Golden Pipeline' continues to supply water to the mining city of Kalgoorlie, where gold is once again being mined, on a Herculean-scale unimaginable a century ago. Today you can visit the No 1 Pump Station at Mundaring Weir and follow O'Connor's Golden Pipeline as a motorist from Perth to Kalgoorlie, where you can visit the rather astonishing Super Pit.
The Stolen Generations
At the turn of the century, the lives of many Aboriginal people became more wretched. The colony's 1893 Education Act empowered the parents of white schoolchildren to bar any Aboriginal child from attending their school, and it was not long before Aboriginal children were completely excluded from state-run classrooms. The following decade, the government embarked on a policy of removing so-called 'half-caste' children from their parents, placing them with white families or in government institutions. The objective of the policy was explicit. Full-blood Aboriginal people were to be segregated, in the belief that they were doomed to extinction, while half-caste children were expected to marry whites, thereby breeding Aboriginal people out of existence. These policies inflicted great suffering and sorrow on the many Aboriginal peoples who were recognised in the 1990s as 'the Stolen Generations'.
Wars & the Great Depression
On 1 January 1901, WA and the other colonies federated to form the nation of Australia. This was not a declaration of independence: this new Australia was a dominion within the British Empire. It was as citizens of the empire that thousands of Australian men volunteered to fight in the Australian Imperial Force when WWI broke out in 1914. They fought in Turkey, Sinai and in Europe – notably on the Somme. More than 200,000 of them were killed or wounded over the terrible four years of the war. Today, in cities and towns across the state, you will see war memorials that commemorate their service.
Though mining, for the time being, had ceased to be an economic force, farmers were developing the lucrative Western Australian wheat belt, which they cultivated with the horse-drawn stump-jump plough, one of the icons of Australian frontier farming. At the same time, a growing demand for wool and beef and the expansion of dairy farming added to the state's economic growth.
Nevertheless, many people were struggling to earn a living – especially those ex-soldiers who were unable to shake off the horrors they had endured in the trenches. In 1929, the lives of these 'battlers' grew even more miserable when the cold winds of the Great Depression blew through the towns and farms of the state. So alienated did Western Australians feel from the centres of power and politics in the east that, in 1933, two-thirds of them voted to secede from the rest of Australia. Although the decision was never enacted, it expressed a profound sense of isolation from the east that is still a major factor in the culture and attitudes of the state today.
In 1939, Australians were once again fighting a war alongside the British, this time against Hitler in WWII. But the military situation changed radically in December 1941 when the Japanese bombed the American fleet at Hawaii's Pearl Harbor. The Japanese swept through Southeast Asia and, within weeks, were threatening Australia. Over the next two years they bombed several towns in the north of the state, including Broome, which was almost abandoned.
It was not the British but the Americans who came to Australia's aid. As thousands of Australian soldiers were taken prisoner and suffered in the torturous Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, Western Australians opened their arms to US servicemen. Fremantle was transformed into an Allied naval base for operations in the Indian Ocean, while a US submarine-refuelling base was established at Exmouth. In New Guinea and the Pacific, Americans and Australians fought together until the tide of war eventually turned in their favour.
When WWII ended, the story of modern WA began to unfold. Under the banner of 'postwar reconstruction', the federal government set about transforming Australia with a policy of assisted immigration, designed to populate Australia more densely as a defence against the 'hordes' of Asia. Many members of this new workforce found jobs in the mines, where men and machines turned over thousands of tonnes of earth in search of the precious lode. On city stock exchanges, the names of such Western Australian mines as Tom Price, Mt Newman and Goldsworthy became symbols of development, modernisation and wealth. Now, rather than being a wasteland that history had forgotten, the west was becoming synonymous with ambition, and a new spirit of capitalist pioneering. As union membership flourished, labour and capital entered into a pact to turn the country to profit. In the Kimberley, the government built the gigantic Ord River Irrigation Scheme, which boasted that it could bring fertility to the desert – and which convinced many Western Australians that engineering and not the environment contained the secret of life. There was so much country it hardly seemed to matter that salt was starting to poison the wheat belt or that mines scoured the land.
In 1952, the British exploded their first nuclear bomb on the state's Monte Bello Islands. And when opponents of the test alleged that nuclear clouds were drifting over Australia, the government scoffed. The land was big – and anyway, it needed a strong, nuclear-armed ally for protection in the Cold War world.
This spirit of reckless capitalism reached its climax in the 1980s when the state became known as 'WA Inc' – a reference to the state as a giant corporation in which government, business and unions had lost sight of any value other than speculation and profit. The embodiment of this brash spirit was an English migrant named Alan Bond, who became so rich he could buy anything he pleased. In 1983 he funded a sleek new racing yacht called Australia II in its challenge for the millionaire's yachting prize, the America's Cup. Equipped with a secret – and now legendary – winged keel, the boat became the first non-American yacht to win the race. It seemed as though everyone in Australia was cheering on the day Bond held aloft the shining silver trophy.
But in the 1990s, legal authorities began to investigate the dealings of Alan Bond, and of many other players in WA Inc. Bond found himself in court and spent four years in jail after pleading guilty to Australia's biggest corporate fraud. He died in 2015.
A New Century
Throughout the early 21st century, WA's mining boom made the state one of the most dynamic parts of the country. Real-estate prices skyrocketed, and the populations of Perth and key mining areas such as the Pilbara grew faster than those of east-coast Australia. Substantial South African and British communities grew in Perth, with many New Zealanders and Irish immigrants also working in the mining and resources sector.
From late 2014, however, signs became evident that the vital Chinese economy fuelling the mining boom was definitely slowing down, causing a weakening in the Australian currency, lessening employment opportunities and reducing the stock-market value of the resources sector. As well, the construction phase of WA's resources industry was largely complete, with roads, ports and railways all in place to better accommodate industry and exports.
With the weakening of the Australian dollar, some relief emerged for the growing tourism sector, and a general easing of salaries in the resources sector eased the pressure for those Perth and WA residents not earning a mine-worker's salary.
Going ahead, WA is still firmly focused on the benefits of the resources sector, but agricultural exports to nearby mega-Asian economies such as China, Indonesia and Vietnam are also growing in importance.
The chill winds blowing through Australia's economy cannot be ignored, but WA's energy and resilience will continue to be vital drivers for the nation's eventual economic re-emergence and strengthening.
Western Australia in Black & White
Like other Indigenous Australians in the rest of the country, the 70,000 or so who live in WA are the state's most disadvantaged group. Many live in deplorable conditions; outbreaks of preventable diseases are common, and infant mortality rates are higher than in many developing countries. Indigenous employment in the resources sector is slowly increasing, but the mining boom has not alleviated Indigenous social and economic disadvantage to any large degree.
In 1993, the federal government recognised that Aboriginal people with an ongoing association with their traditional lands were the rightful owners, unless those lands had been sold to someone else. Despite this recognition, the issue of racial relations in WA remains a problematic one, and racial intolerance is still evident in many parts of the state.
Michael Cathcart is well known as a broadcaster on ABC Radio National and has presented history programs on ABC TV. He's also taught Australian history and culture at Deakin University and the University of Melbourne,