This article was first published in the May 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine
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. 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 being 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.
Guy de la Bédoyère is a historian and writer. His new book, Domina, on the empresses of Rome, is published by Yale University Press in September. Read more of Guy’s experiences at historyextra.com/westernaustralia