Western Australia - Gold and Convicts
August 18, 1989

Gold - its Effects and Consequences

Gold was discovered in Western Australia in 1885, in the Kimberley region. Although this was only a small discovery, it sparked a flood of people to the area - as many as three thousand. The diggers came from the south, toward Perth, but mainly they were from the east. The "rush" dried up after a few years, and it was only a small area, but it was a sign of things to come - if 3,000 men could go up to 7,000 kilometres for that, then when would happen when a REAL deposit was found?

The answer was not long coming. The miners followed the "gold trail" down through the Pilbara, the Murchison and Ashburton districts, and finally found Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie. Here, they literally "struck gold". Strike after strike was announced, and people flocked from all over the world - Europe, (especially Britain), North America, and, of course, the eastern states. The population of WA went from 35,000 in 1885 to 101,000 in 1895, and then jumped again to 239,000 in 1904. The number of people living in the colony multiplied seven times in less than twenty years, and the benefits for the colony were huge.

Total NETT revenue earned by the colony jumped from 414,314 pounds in 1890 to nearly 3,000,000 pounds in 1900. That's seven times again, except in only ten years. Railways, crops, sheep numbers and exports soared. And, as mentioned, the population went "through the roof". This is all directly attributable to the discovery of gold in the colony. The rushes started in 1885 and lasted for ten years, upon which it became necessary to join a syndicate to make a living. People did not drift away, however, and the population, and revenue, continued to rise. Western Australia began closing the economic gap between itself and the east.

This sudden prosperity was not all for the better. Suddenly WA was no longer a quiet little colony, but a real centre for trade. The isolationist bubble was burst as people from "outside" moved into the colony, bringing their ideas and values with them. These values were the main force behind the miners' moves to either be federated into the Commonwealth of Australia, or break away and become a separate colony, in the late 1890's. However, most of the consequences from the gold rushes were beneficial to Western Australia.

The Port of Fremantle was dredged to allow large ships to dock, and this port, rather than Albany, was the one that was promoted to external traders. Investors from around the world looked on the state in a new light, and spent large amounts of money in the hope of making some. Capital flowed in copious quantities, and the colony grew very rich very quickly. Railways were either built or extended, the Eastern, Great Southern and Midland railways being the main recipients of funds. An enormous project, the Eastern Goldfields Water Scheme, was successfully undertaken by C.Y. O'Connor - he engineered 580 kilometre's worth of piped water from Perth to Kalgoorlie, and it worked. And there was a general air of prosperity; people were less frugal and WA hit the "big time" in a big way. We had arrived.

Of course, it is unreasonable to expect that all these changes can arrive, and be accepted, without political change too. And so it was. The influx of people from outside the colony brought in with them outside ideas. The colony had been rather conservative, with a rural background and a "contented" air. No- one was after any real change in the colony's politics. With the advent of the gold rushes, however, all these new ideas caused considerable agitation. The "aliens" were not conservative; they had no ties here and no allegiances, and if they saw something they disliked, they said so.

This was the case with the miners. They were severely oppressed by the Government at the time - instead of sponsoring the miners, the government saw a chance at many, many "fast bucks" and took them. Import tariffs were high, customs were as bad (at that time customs duty was paid across the now state borders) and most funds were channelled into agriculture rather than mining. The miners, quite rightly, were not pleased, and when the question of Federation into the Commonwealth of Australia arose, they were the biggest advocates of it. They saw the advantages which the rural areas now held - funds, lower taxes, duties and fees - evaporating, and their chances of lower costs materialising. This is what Federation promised, and this is why they backed it.

The people demanded a referendum, because the government was not going to accept Federation by itself, which was still refused. In reply to this, the miners requested of the British Government (which still had the ultimate power because WA was still a colony at that time) that they could become a separate colony and Federate themselves. The Crown did not take this request seriously, but it was enough to shake the local Government into action, and a referendum was called. Those in favour of joining the Federation by far outweighed those against it (2.3 to 1) and so the colony of WA became the State of Western Australia, and a member of the Commonwealth of Australia, on the 1st of January, 1901.

All in all, gold was probably THE biggest developer in the colony's, and state's, history. It brought new ideas, new values, people and prosperity to "just another colony", and played a vital role in making Western Australia the state is it today.

Convictism - its Effects and Consequences

The colony of Western Australia started out convict-free. One of the stipulations that bound the colony's founders was that convicts were not to be used. Why, then, were convicts introduced in 1850? What caused the Crown, and the Government here at the time, to change their minds? The reasons are - quite simply - economic. However, the effects of the convicts' introduction were not forseen, and not planned for. But first, why were they introduced at all?

The arguments for the convicts were sound - to some extent - and plentiful. They would increase trade and bolster the economy; they would help construct a lot of badly needed public works, like churches, the jail, the Town Hall and similar. They would provide labour where there was none - at the time of their introduction - 1850 - there was a labour shortage and any help was welcomed. And they would ease the load of criminals inhabiting Britain's overflowing jails.

There was also counter-arguments and reasons why the convicts should NOT be introduced. The first was the going back on the initial pledge by the Crown to not send prisioners. This was seen as a deliberate case of misinformation and the Crown was not looked well on as a result. Also, people throughout Australia saw the transportation of convicts as a stigma on Australia's international image. (It is interesting to note that having convict forebears is now considered good.) And finally, transportation meant that WA could not have an elected government.

Despite all these arguments against it, convicts were introduced to Western Australia on the first of June, 1850, when the first stepped onto the wharf at Fremantle. The British and West Australian Governments had decided that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages, and so transportation went ahead. This had a great effect on the colony; not just economically, but also politically and socially.

When the convicts arrived, they were initially confined to the jail. If they were good then they got a ticket of leave, which entitled them to go out and seek work. The advantages for behaving were good - they got paid, were less restricted, and didn't have the same scene day in, day out. Misbehaving simply meant solitary confinement, so most prisoners worked hard and well. When they first went looking for work, people were nervous and suspicious, but as they proved themselves to be good workers, employment was found readily. People had overcome their initial prejudices and worked side-by-side with convicts; this is surely an example of social change.

The convicts themselves were selected, rather than the mass transportation that occurred in the east. They were preferably from rural areas, with a trade, blacksmiths, coopers and farmers. The crimes that got them sent here were not as severe as the eastern convicts, and they were treated better. So, the convicts that arrived here were less "bad", more willing, and more capable than those elsewhere. This undoubtedly helped in the colony economically.

Pressure on the British and Western Australian Governments to abandon transportation continued throughout the convict period, and they finally surcumbed in 1867. The last shipment arrived in Fremantle on the 10th of January, 1868, eighteen years after the first arrivals. So, politically, there was a victory by the "people" over the governments, in their success of getting rid of transportation. This event showed all that Western Australia as a state was coming of age politically, with the inhabitants having time to devote to politics. The times were changing, helped on - significantly - by the convict era.

During the periods of transportation, WA benefited greatly. Large tracts of previously untouched land were opened up, and the primary industries - wheat, sheep, mining, logging - all underwent great amounts of growth. There was an increased demand for consumer goods, food and clothing. There was an increase in the "free population" - the convicts needed supervision, and there was the inevitable rise in numbers of government workers to cope. The private sector boomed due to increased trade (due to more people, mainly convicts) and transport services improved. In fact, the only disadvantage was the slight rise in WA's crime rate. All in all, I would say that the convicts did much more good than they did harm, and the decision to bring them into the state was a good one. However, they abandoned it at the right time. Convicts were a great boon to the colony.