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The female frontier: race and gender in Fremantle 1829-1839

Deborah Gare

Gare, Deborah 2014, 'The female frontier: race and gender in Fremantle 1829-1839', Fremantle Studies, 8: 1-18.

I’d like to begin with a picture, and then a story. The picture is Ford Madox Brown’s extraordinary oil painting called ‘The Last of England’.


Ford Madox Brown, ‘The Last of England’ oil on panel 1855. (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery)

In the foreground of the painting sit a young couple, poised on the deck of an emigrants vessel as it prepares for the open sea. Their gaze is set upon England for the last time in a scene which is now arresting to the observer. The furrowed brows of a dark haired man and the enormous eyes of his young wife are full of a complex range of human emotions captured with experienced hand by Brown’s brush. They variously display grief, determination, hope, terror, resolution and a dozen other intangible emotions that a person might be expected to feel at such a moment. Behind them is a scene of chaos. Dozens of adults and children scramble to find space on board the crowded vessel. Deep in the background are the iconic cliffs of Dover. Surrounding the vessel are heaving seas and wild grey skies, both of which mirror the tumult of emotions in the subjects of the painting.

The remarkable couple in the forefront of the painting are not members of Britain’s working poor, escaping by necessity to the promise of Australia’s prosperous colonies. They are at least of the middle classes, judging by their clothes and grooming. The woman grasps the hand of her husband tightly, her fingers gloved against the cold and wind. An astute observer will also see that beneath her cloak she wraps her other hand around the fingers of a child, held securely to her breast but hidden from sight. This woman, this couple, have a family they hope to better the chances of. When Brown finished this painting he penned a few words to accompany it, explaining the thoughts he believed would be in this woman’s mind at such a moment:

THE LAST of England! O’er the sea, my dear,
Our homes to seek amid Australian fields,
Us, not our million-acred island yields
The space to dwell in. Thrust out! Forced to hear
Low ribaldry from sots, and share rough cheer
With rudely-nurtured men. The hope youth builds
Of fair renown, bartered for that which shields
Only the back, and half-formed lands that rear

The dust-storm blistering up the grasses wild
There learning skills not, nor the poet's dream,
Nor aught so loved as children shall we see.
She grips his listless hand and clasps her child,
Through rainbow tears she sees a sunnier gleam,
She cannot see a void, where he will be. 1

The story of Fremantle’s women begins with a moment such as this: a point of departure from England and the commencement of a voyage. It does not begin, as you perhaps might expect, in the Cliff, Mouat and High Streets of the West end. Nor does it begin on the shores beneath Arthur’s Head. It could begin with a snapshot, a moment suspended in time when two worlds collided. That moment when Mrs Currie and her companions resignedly lift their heavy skirts, step from a rowboat into the shallow surf, and wade to the shore. They place their wet feet on sand which is so white their children believe it to be snow. Behind them, waiting to disembark, are their servants, preparing to carry with them a few items considered necessary for the comfort of their mistresses’ families. Concealed behind distant grass trees, a handful of Aboriginal women and their children watch Mrs Currie’s ascent up the beach with astonishment. They do not yet realise it, but their world is about to be turned on its head.

We do not begin here, however, for the story of Fremantle’s women starts before Mrs Currie’s arrival and it does not belong to the Noongar women at all. Not yet. For Fremantle was still a British construct, conceived in the chambers of London’s Whitehall and laid in June 1829 as an English village over a country called Walyalup.

Instead, like all good stories, mine begins in a land far away. It starts with Mary Ann Friend, on board a migrant ship in Portsmouth harbour. It is late in summer and the vessel, the Wanstead, is preparing to leave. Mrs Friend watches with interest as the ship readies for departure, and gazes upon the shores of England in farewell.


‘Portrait of Mary Ann Friend’, watercolour on ivory, metal, leather, cloth, c1832. (National Library of  Australia, nla.pic-vn4835935)

She is not alone, though she may at that moment feel lonely. Or Lost. Nervous. Excited. Hopeful. And probably all of these things at one and the same time. She has no children to hold at that moment, indeed will never do. And she does not stand beside her husband, though she longs to do so, to throw him a nervous smile and to receive his reassuring one. Her anxious eyes search for him in the business of departure. As captain of the ship he is at the helm with his crew, inspecting the sails as they fill with wind and assessing the swell of the waves beneath them with an experienced eye. Both, he hopes, will take them quickly to sea.

He does not at that moment feel loss at the separation from his homeland. He is far too busy, too distracted, for the time being. In any event, he is an experienced sailor and has left its shores many times before. Mrs Friend, as I said, is not alone. She has a maid somewhere nearby, who might already be swapping covert glances with one of the ship’s men. The maid is later dismissed on the voyage for such inappropriate behaviour. Mrs Friend has already earned the admiration of two young ladies on board, Jane Roberts and Mary Anne Leard. They stand near her, seeking the protection and approval of the Captain’s young wife. Close at hand is Mrs Walcott, her attention divided between the pull of England’s receding shore and the activities of her excited children. And there are other mothers on board. The enormity of caring for their family while on this long, shared voyage is now becoming painfully apparent to them: cabin passengers like Mrs Wedge, fiercely supervising her four children; and Miss Wittenoom, taking charge of her widowed brother’s four sons. Already class divisions are apparent amongst the passengers. The ladies from steerage are huddled a little further down the deck. Mrs Webb and Mrs Smith, by this time, may have swapped a sympathetic glance with the heavily pregnant Mrs Morley as they square their shoulders and face the voyage ahead.

Not all on board make it to Fremantle in the end, or choose to stay there. Some leave the Wanstead at the Cape of Good Hope, the enormity of the speculation in Swan River provoking a last minute change of mind. They try their luck instead in the more established settlement in southern Africa? Some are disappointed with Fremantle when they arrive and choose not to stay. Hence a few passengers accompany Mrs Friend and the crew of the Wanstead as far as Hobart? Jane Roberts finds she can’t remain in Fremantle, though she had intended to do so. She lost her brother to illness at Cape Town and must return to England under the protection of Mrs Friend. In the end she spends two years at sea in what proved an aborted attempt at migration. But most passengers cast their lot and take a gamble in Western Australia. Today their names stretch across our landscape, signpost our streets and are bequeathed to communities. Such migrants hoped to build an Arcadian paradise in a new world. Those of independent means who migrated to the Swan River hoped for a prosperous future as agriculturalists or merchants; those in service sought secure employment and, perhaps with hard work and a measure of luck, independence from a life of wage-labour. Surely all aspired to the better living conditions which an Australian colony might offer. Conditions in late Georgian and early Victorian England were, after all, still grim. London was by then in the industrialised grip of economic revolution and living conditions in over-crowded urban centres plummeted. Disease, especially cholera, ravaged the British population. Between 1831 and 1860 more than 140 000 Britons died in cholera epidemics-30 000 alone were lost in an epidemic which lasted from 1831 to 1832. The average life expectancy in Britain was under forty years; in some country towns, such as the village in which the famous Bronte sisters lived, it was only 28. 4

They were making their way to an ambitious new settlement which was the brain child of Captain James Stirling. By this time considerable excitement - labelled ‘Swan River mania’ at the time - had seized the minds of Britain’s chattering classes. They enthusiastically speculated about the opportunities to be offered by the first free British settlement since the loss of the American colonies: safe anchorage on the west coast of New Holland, fine agricultural land, an expedient trading port for the India and Malay route and, even, a convenient recreational stop for British officers and gentlemen who desired a break from the tropical climate of India. 5

An English gentleman, Campbell, captured the hopes which the Swan River migrants cherished in departing such conditions in his poem called ‘On the Departure of Emigrants for Swan River’. Here he voiced the desire of many families to secure land, freedom and independence for their children. At its most glorious, this vision presented English men the chance to be monarchs of their own soil and to live long, healthy and bountiful lives. To English women it offered a life free from servitude to others, to be mistress of their own home and an abundance With which to raise their children:

The pride to rear an independent shed,
And give the lips we love unborrow’d bread...
To skirt our home with harvests widely sown,
And call the blooming landscape all our own,
Our children’s heritage in prospect long.
These are the high-minded hopes and strong
That beckons England’s Wanderers o'er the brine,
To realms where foreign constellations shine... 6

And so we skip forward, back to that moment in time when-the departure achieved, the journey completed - such women as Jane Currie, Anne Leake and Mary Ann Friend stepped ashore at Fremantle. Regardless of class, station, wealth or education, these women and the men they accompanied had one thing in common: an unshakeable belief - an un-assumed confidence - in the virtue, might and right of the British Empire and its people. They were, after all, part of what James Belich now calls the ‘settler revolution’ (and what Niall Ferguson more colourfully calls the ‘white plague’). 7

The hoped for boom in the newly settled Western Australia, however, did not eventuate for another sixty years. Instead, the colony began and persisted as an embarrassment to the British Empire. The warning signs were clear to those colonists who first set eyes on Fremantle. Mrs Friend was shocked when she realised in January 1830, six months after the first colonists had arrived, that Fremantle comprised nothing but tents, sand and fleas. Not more than five or six houses had been built, she wrote, with the result that the town ‘strongly resembles a Country Fair’.

On inspection she found that not a single garden had become productive - ‘all had failed’. Already the colonists dreaded that food supplies would run short. 8 They had expected the Arcadian paradise that Stirling had promised, that poets like Campbell had described and that artists like Robert Dale had depicted. See, for instance, an early scene of Fremantle captured by Dale which suggests a verdant, soft landscape equal to a British gentleman’s estate. It was later converted by Berkeley King to the lithograph ‘A View of Western Australia’ (1830). What they got, instead, was a dry, sandy terrain portrayed by Mary Ann Friend in her well-known picture ‘A View of Swan River’ in 1830.


Mary Ann Friend, ‘Fremantle, 1829’, watercolour on paper, 1830. (State Library of Western Australia)

As it happens, the Wanstead was one of the last large emigrant ships to arrive in Fremantle until the 1850s. News of the difficulties with which it was plagued reached London in January 1830, just as the Wanstead was arriving in Fremantle, and in that same month Britain’s Swan River mania - and the emigration it had fuelled - quickly dried up. 9 The Tranby arrived from Hull just days behind the Wanstead, its modest number of 35 passengers competing with Mrs Friend’s companions for temporary shelter in the sands of Fremantle. Then came the Hooghly two weeks later with an astonishing 170 passengers. Others followed, having already left or planned to leave Britain before it was too late to change the minds of migrants. But after the Medina arrived in July with 51 passengers, there were very few ships that limped into Fremantle with more numbers than those who escaped the colony by death or sea. 10 The town’s women and their families faced, resolutely, a struggle to build their community very largely on their own.

Much could be told about that story: of the expansion of the town; of the first excited attempts to construct homes and plant gardens; of the hunt for agricultural land; of the early economic stagnation and of the famine and disease which quickly followed; of the high mortality rates - one in ten of Stirling’s colony were lost by 1832 - and even, eventually, of the comfortable prosperity which the colony promised by 1833. Of the women, other stories could be added: of experiences of domesticity and work; of challenges and success and so on. But the story that I chose to tell here is that of the experience - indeed, the contest - of race on Fremantle’s early frontier. And, in particular, how that was experienced by women, both Noongar and British.


Mary Ann Friend, ‘View at Swan River: Sketch of the encampment of Matthew Curling Friend, Esq. R.N., taken on the spot and drawn on stone by Mrs M.C.F., March 1830’, lithograph, 1830. (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, a1528375)

The land to which the British imported their civilisation in 1829 already belonged to Cobbul and her family. Cobbul, herself, was born after the arrival of Britain’s women and so she was never to live freely in her own country in the way that her mother, grandmother and generations of Noongar women had done before her. In Noongar fashion, Cobbul’s family considered themselves born of the land, spiritually bound to act as custodians of the earth and its creatures. Their existence was one of simple harmony with the environment, taking from its earth or waters only what was needed for survival. Where nature sometimes provided in abundance, such as a whale washed ashore or a prize catch of fish, other families were called and feasts were celebrated. On such occasions young women like Cobbul might be married by their fathers to men from other tribes or groups, thus ensuring complex human relationships across the lands of the Derbal Yaragan, or what we now call the Swan River. 11

The shape of the land was then significantly different to what it is now. A quick glance at John Septimus Roe’s maps of 1833 and 1839 showed that Fremantle was then stretched along a long neck reaching from Pakenham Street to Arthur’s Head. The southern end of Bathers Beach ended abruptly at the rocky and perilous Anglesea Point, where the wreck of the Marquis of Anglesea already rested. The mouth of the river was blocked by the sandbar, so the generous North Bay was unavailable as a port or harbour. Instead, jetties were constructed into the ocean at Anglesea Point at the end of Cliff Street. Many of these first landmarks are now gone. South Bay, which curved along the oceanfront from the end of Cliff Street to the junction of Pakenham and Collie Streets and then south to Suffolk Street, was later filled in to form what is now the Esplanade Park. North Bay and the eastward Shoal Bay were lost when the sandbank was exploded and the modern port excavated in 1897. 12

Londoners, eager to follow news of the Swan River mania, clamoured for information about the land at Fremantle and the development of its settlement. Maps, sketches, lithographs, diaries and letters were published to demonstrate the discoveries of the first colonists in Fremantle. Mary Ann Friend had publishing success with the lithograph of her encampment in Fremantle; Jane Roberts won acclaim for the publication of her story on board the Wanstead. The image, though, which is perhaps the most useful for my purposes is the extraordinary panoramic watercolour produced by Jane Currie. By the time the painting was completed in 1832 the rudeness of Fremantle’s earliest encampments had been replaced by the relative comforts of a small town. Her painting was completed from a vantage point near where Fremantle’s war memorial stands today. It sweeps left to right across an undulating landscape of soft grasses and short grass trees, starting from a position close to where the Fremantle Hospital now is, across to the small town positioned on that narrow shoulder which reached to Arthur Head, and swept east as far as Cantonment Hill. By the time she had finished her painting several permanent structures had been added to the landscape. A detailed look at the painting’s most famous section, of the Fremantle town itself, shows the colony’s first prison, the Round House, now perched on top of Arthur’s Head.


Jane Currie, ‘Panorama of the Swan River Settlement [detail]’, watercolour, 1830-2. (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, 21631002)

The swampy ponds and puddles which stretched up the centre of the town (of which colonists often complained) were still evident in her painting. They seemed to provide opportunities for children’s play and possibly water supply for animals. Around the waterfronts were dotted many white houses, some of which had fenced yards. No paved streets were yet evident in the painting, though the wreck of the Marquis of Anglesea is clearly apparent to the left of town (lying somewhere in the middle of what is now the Esplanade Park). In the foreground of the painting is a solitary woman - an independent woman, perhaps, or a servant - hanging washing on a simple string line. Few other people are evident in the painting, which features mostly the town and its landscape. A small, barely noticeable, exception is the small Aboriginal family positioned almost as caricatures on the edges of the painting, just as surely as they were by then being edged from their country: a father, teaching his two boys to hunt, a mother with a child on her back, and two young children in the nearby grass. 13


Jane Currie, ‘Panorama of the Swan River Settlement [detail]’, watercolour, 1830-2. (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, a631002)

The tiny family which Jane Currie painted into her watercolour may well have been inspired by members of Cobbul’s family whom she encountered upon the early frontier in Fremantle. About thirteen Noongar groups or tribes then lived on the plains of the Swan River. Each tribe followed seasonal hunting trends as they moved within the traditional borders of their country. Countries like Mooro, Beeliar and Walyalup spread naturally across the landscape we now know of as Perth and its suburbs. Yellagonga, Munday and Midgegooroo were their leaders.

The Noongar people of this region were called Whadjuk. Cobbul’s family formed one of the many small Whadjuk communities and was probably made up of about twenty people. Like other Whadjuk families, hers contained a male leader, his wife or wives, and their children. Sometimes such families spread across multiple generations, including grandparents and their adult children. 14 Midgegooroo and his wife led the Walyalup Aborigines when Stirling first brought his British gentlefolk to Fremantle. His son, Yagan, was then considered by the English as ‘not a chief’ but nonetheless ‘ranked amongst the princes of the country’. 15 As frontier conflict mounted around the Swan River, Midgegooroo and Yagan led their people in negotiations with the colonists and in resistance to their dispossession. By 1834, though, Midgegooroo was dead - executed in Perth at a nod from Stirling while bound captive to a door - and the patriot Yagan was murdered by two white boys in his country near Fremantle. 16 They were not the only ones from Cobbul’s people lost on Britain’s newest imperial frontier. Men were shot; women were variously assaulted, shot, raped and killed; while children like Cobbul were warned of catastrophic retribution should an indigenous insurgency against the colonists continue. 17

With the arrival of Britain’s women Fremantle became a frontier of two ancient worlds. Cobbul’s Walyalup tried, but failed, to survive the establishment of the white women’s town. There are, therefore, two stories which can be told of Fremantle’s young women in the town’s earliest decades: the tale of Cobbul and her friends as they grappled with dispossession and dislocation from traditional country; and that of Jane Currie and other white women who were equally as dislocated from the familiar world of their own. In the years to come they were each forced to come to terms with the presence of the other in a shared, contested space.

At first the relationships between Fremantle’s white and indigenous people was cautiously amicable, just as Stirling had found it to be on his earlier voyage of exploration in 1827. But as the Leakes, Curries, Shentons and others built their homes, spread their town, fenced their yards, drank the water dry and ate kangaroos, cockatoos and other wildlife, Midgegooroo’s people found their food supply and hunting grounds diminish. Just as white people took the kangaroos from the land, so Midgegooroo and his wife took the sheep, cattle and poultry of the new farmers. Sometimes Midgegooroo and other Aboriginal men claimed flour and other provisions from stores or violently demanded supplies from isolated homes on the outskirts of towns. Cries of ‘thief!’ and ‘outrage!’ and ‘scoundrel!’ filled the streets and littered the newspapers. Resentment simmered on both sides of the frontier-women anxiously feared conflict and violence - until it exploded with dreadful consequence for both the new and original owners of the land.

In this environment Aboriginal women were regarded by white society with mixed feelings. Europeans, upon first contact, had viewed Aboriginal women for the most part as objects of scientific enquiry. 18 The French sailor, Nicolas Baudin, had a rare encounter with a young Aboriginal woman in the south-west, and Inga Clendinnen tells the story well. 19 Baudin’s exploratory party examined the woman closely, as if she were a scientific specimen. Their fingers roamed her body, checked her teeth, touched her clothes, measured her height. They behaved precisely as sons of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution could have been expected to do.

While scientists and men of learning observed such Aboriginal women with interest in the early years of the colony, others soon came to fear them. This was particularly the case for British women, who were equally as vulnerable on the colonial frontier as their indigenous counterparts. In an imported society that was overwhelmingly homogenous in terms of language, education, skills, faith and even, to a degree, class, indigenous women presented a frightening ‘other’ to the newly arrived white women. They were thought to be ‘uncivilised’, near-naked, superstitious and nomadic; violent, like Midgegooroo’s wife who hacked to death the father of two young boys near Fremantle; and, most frightening of all, potential kidnappers or killers of young, British children. Rumours even spread of cannibalism. 20

The loss of husbands and children was a common occurrence in the frontier community, often through drowning, accident or illness. A mother’s greatest fear, however, was that her child might be taken by unknown, savage natives: the original ‘stranger danger’, if you will. This last, most desperate, fear seemed to be realised in March 1830 when four-year-old Bonny Dutton strayed from his mother’s eye near their home in Preston Point and was thought to have been taken by Aborigines. Mrs Dutton’s despair was described keenly by her neighbours in their letters and diaries and reported by newspapers in other colonies. News of the lost child travelled fast through the small colony. Anne Whatley wrote of how, positioned on their grant on the banks of the upper Swan River, passers by would hail from the river and shout news from Fremantle and Perth. ‘l am sorry to hear that Bonny Dutton is lost’, she wrote, after such an exchange of news, ‘From many circumstances, it seems but too certain that the Natives have carried him off.’ 21

In the days that followed mothers such as Mrs Currie, Mrs Whatley and the Duttons’ neighbour, Mrs Weston, followed the matter closely. A month later Mrs Whatley confided that ‘Bonny has not been found’. 22 Jane Roberts and Mary Ann Friend both wrote of his disappearance. Miss Roberts told of the frantic efforts of recovery, of the days in which search parties were sent by horseback deep into the bush, and of suspicions aroused that the child had been taken by Noongar people. Weeks later, when the Wanstead had departed for Van Diemen’s Land, news reached the passengers that the child had been restored to his ‘afflicted parents...' The natives, it appeared, had taken him as a matter of curiosity, to show their women a white child; they had been very kind to him, and he was restored to his parents perfectly well.’ 23 In fact, the recovery of the child is uncertain. Of all the observers Miss Roberts is the only one who suggests that he was found. By contrast, the 1832 census conducted by Stirling of his colonists does not record the presence of the Dutton’s eldest child. To this day the fate of Bonny Dutton remains a mystery. 24 Regardless of the outcome, however, the incident had a powerful effect on colonial perceptions of Aboriginal women: that they might take a white child from its mother for curiosity (or worse) struck dread into the hearts of colonists everywhere. And so the anxiety suffered by white women living nervously in an alien land was painfully highlighted. They feared their husbands might be killed by Aboriginal men, their homes lost to Aboriginal fires and their children, God forbid, taken by Aboriginal women.

As violence increased around Fremantle, Aboriginal women themselves became part of the armed resistance to their dispossession and destitution. In May 1833 Midgegooro's wife was named in depositions before the Governor and his Executive Council. There Charles Bourne complained that Midgegooroo and his wife attacked his house, throwing two spears through the window at Mrs Bourne. Alone in the house, Mrs Bourne seized What weapons were at hand, grabbing a sword and using it ferociously to fend off the assault. 25 At the same hearing a young boy, Ralph Entwhistle, claimed he had seen his father murdered by Midgegooro's wife in what appears to be another retaliatory killing:

About 2 years ago my father, myself and younger brother (since dead) lived as servants with Mr A Butler, on the bank of Melville water - another servant of the name of Smedley lived with us. The Natives had several times stolen potatoes out of my Masters [sic] Garden. One night in the summer of 1831, Smedley fired at and killed a native, in the act of entering the garden to steal potatoes; a short time after the native had been shot, one day while my Master was away, a party of Natives attacked the house. They thrust spears through the wattle wall of the house-my father was ill at the time - he went out, and was instantly speared ... I and my brother ran into an inner room, and hid ourselves beneath the bed-stead. Midgegooroo came in and pulled all the clothes and bedding of the bed-stead, but there was a sack tied at the bottom of it, which he could not pull off, and by which we were still hid from him. I saw an old woman rather tall and wanting her front-teeth, and who I have since been told by Midgegooroo himself, is his wife, break my fathers legs, and cut his head to pieces with an axe ... 26

By this time Ralph’s mother, Mrs Entwhistle, was already dead. She had left Liverpool with her husband and three children in December 1829 though neither she nor her youngest child survived the voyage. Her husband and two sons, Ralph and Union, escaped from the wreck of the James in Gage Roads, though their possessions and those of the other passengers did not. Union died the year after his father’s murder, leaving eleven-year-old Ralph the sole survivor of his family of five just three years after it had departed, intact, from England. 27

Such stories of savagery among Aboriginal women appalled and horrified observers in Swan River’s white community. Some recognised that indigenous men and women were driven to theft and violence in order to survive. Few had answers to the mounting tension. Some urged patience and restraint in managing a difficult relationship with the traditional owners of the region. Others urged the use of force to quell all disturbances. 28 Most were painfully aware that the land, now farmed by white people, was once owned by others, that their presence forced Aboriginal dispossession from traditional country, and that they were in contest over food and water supplies. Leading colonial men acknowledged this openly, including the Colonial Secretary and Captain Fremantle himself. 29

As resentment simmered on the frontier of empire, and violence increasingly erupted on the edges of white communities, Fremantle and its region became an ever more dangerous place for its women, regardless of colour. Repeated fires set by Noongar hunters brought destruction to property and Anne Waylen lost her home in Point Walter. 30 Cobbul, now a young child, watched as her family was attacked and assaulted in retribution for such losses. There was some respite to the violence after the deaths of Yagan and Midgegooroo. But in February 1834 the violence erupted again following the theft of some white property, and Stirling led an expedition to Pinjarra where he is thought to have killed more than eighty Aborigines. At the end of the bloodshed the surviving women and their children were huddled together and warned that ‘if they again offered to spear white men or their cattle, or to revenge in anyway the punishment which had just been inflicted on them for their numerous murders and outrages, four times the present number of men would proceed amongst them, and destroy every man, woman, and child’. 31 Newspapers excused the atrocity as perhaps the most humane approach to halting further bloodshed. 32

Despite the violence and suspicion on the frontier-or perhaps because of it - Aboriginal people became increasingly an object of mission in the first two decades of settlement. Fremantle’s indigenous women were regarded by Britons as being in a state of impoverishment and subject to domestic and tribal abuse that some colonists believed they could improve. Stories reported occasionally in the colonial press emphasised the apparent strangeness of Aboriginal culture to which its women were subject, furthering the desire in some to offer the protection of white law and society as well as the eternal salvation of Christ. 33 Far from being the Amazonian warriors depicted by Ralph Entwhistle, this version of Aboriginal women presented them as being in need of rescue.

The key seemed to be education. This, it was thought, combined with the civilising effects of the Christian faith and a healthy dose of bribery, might serve to rescue indigenous women and children from the darkness of traditional culture. The Fremantle Native School was, therefore, established by the Reverend George King who had arrived with his wife, Jane, as a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in 1841. Motivated by the philanthropic desire to bring education, Christian faith and employment prospects to Aboriginal children, the Native Schools in Fremantle and Perth were nevertheless the first of many examples in Western Australia in which indigenous children were removed from their families with the intention to strip them of traditional language and culture. Unlike many examples in the twentieth century, however, the children of these schools were selected with the cooperation of their parents who were persuaded to give up their children by the inducement of food. 34

After first establishing St John’s Church in Fremantle, the Kings set about establishing a native school in Fremantle. By December 1841 Cobbul and eleven other children, most of whom were girls, had been plucked from their families and installed by George and Jane King in the new school for Aboriginal children in Fremantle. There Cobbul spent the next seven years as a student under the care of Mrs Robinson and the Kings. She and nearly 20 other children were instructed in basic literacy, the English language and the Christian faith, those skills thought essential for her future employment in domestic service. Conditions were harsh, however, due to the very tight budget on which the school was run. King complained that money was so tight the children were forced to live in squalor and argued that it led to the death of a young boy in 1843. 35

Despite its hardships many were loath to bequeath more funds for the school’s survival or improvement. Cobbul’s school was not, after all, universally supported by leading people of the colony. At least one member of the Legislative Council argued that its public funding should be abolished and considered the institution to be ‘perfectly useless’. But a few were excited at the progress the Aboriginal students were achieving, and hoped that this experiment in civilisation might succeed. 36

The biggest mark of success was the apparent assimilation of the school children to British culture by baptism and marriage. There were still hurdles to cross in securing respectable marriages for the young women in the Fremantle school especially since King found that they had all been betrothed in long-standing tribal arrangements and might be ‘claimed by their wandering lords at any time’. He paid off the traditional betrothals, leaving his students free to undertake baptism and eventual Christian marriage. 37 Here Cobbul exceeded all expectations when she married Francis Armstrong in December 1848. They were joined at the altar by three other couples - each bride a student of Mrs Robinson in Fremantle, and each groom from the Native Institution in Perth. They were married in St John’s Church by the visiting Bishop of Adelaide who delightedly noted that:

Seven years ago King had found them in the wilderness, the most debased in habits, and the least happy of all the creatures the forest sustains. Today I conducted them to the altar of God, and heard them pledge their vows of fidelity to their Christian husbands, advisedly, reverently, and intelligibly. 38

After the marriage Cobbul and her new husband were provided with all the items considered necessary to establish them industriously on the Wesleyan mission farm in Wanneroo. 39 So were the other three couples. It was the ultimate act of dispossession and assimilation. The school had removed Cobbul from her family and culture, and had paid off her betrothed. Resettlement, for all the good it intended, now removed her from her country. Fremantle’s Native School lasted only a little while longer. After the arrival of convicts in 1850 its students were taken to the more appropriate environment offered by the Perth Native Institution. 40 Cobbul’s Walyalup was now long gone, having receded incrementally since 1829 as each new British yard was fenced and house constructed. By the time she moved to Wanneroo in 1848, Cobbul ceased also to be part of the Fremantle story. Her land, and the story of the town, now belonged to Mrs Walcott, her companions of the Wanstead, and those women from a dozen other ships that had landed on the shores of Walyalup in 1829 and 1830.

Fremantle Studies Day, 2011


1 Tim Barringer, ‘Brown, Ford Madox (1821-1893)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, view/article/3604?docPos=31. [20 October 2011]; See also Ford Madox Brown, ‘For the Picture, “The Last of England”, Bartleby, www.bartleby. com/246/713.html. [25 October 2011].

2 Mary Ann Friend, ‘Diary, 1929-30’, unpublished transcript. Battye Library, MN1413. See also Jane Roberts, Two Years at Sea: Being the Narrative of a Voyage to the Swan River and Van Diemen is Land, During the Years 1929, 30 and 31, R Bentley, London, 1834.

3 Friend; Roberts.

4 ‘Dreamers and Dissenters’, British Library, histcitizen/21cc/publichealth/background/publichea1thbackground.html. [20 October 2011]; Blake Morrison, ‘The Rise and Rise of Brontemania’, The Guardian, 9 September 2011, charlotte-bronte-jane-eyre/print. [20 October 2011].

5 Pamela Statham-Drew, James Stirling: Admiral and founding Governor of Western Australia, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 2003, p 102.

6 T Campbell, ‘On the Departure of Emigrants for Swan River’, Fremantle Observer, n4, 23 May 1831, p 3.

7 James Belich, Replenishing the Earth: The settler revolution and the rise of the Anglo-world 1783-1939, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009; see also Niall Ferguson, Empire: The rise and demise of the British world order and the lessons for global power, Basic Books, London, 2004.

8 Friend, pp 14-16.

9 Ian Berryman, A Colony Detailed: The first census of I/Western Australia, 1832, Creative Research, Perth, 1979, p 11.

10 See ‘Passenger Ships Arriving in Australasian Ports, Western Australian Shipping’, Perth Dead Person’s Society, au/~perthdps/shipping/mig-wa.htm. [19 May 2011].

11 Martin Gibbs, Report on an Ethnographic Investigation into the Aboriginal Heritage of the Fremantle Area, Centre for Prehistory, University of Western Australia, Nedlands and the Fremantle City Council, Fremantle, 1988, pp 5-6.

12 See for example, John Arrowsmith, ‘Discoveries in Western Australia from documents furnished to the Colonial Office by JS Roe, Esqr, Surveyor General’, map, London, 1833, [20 June 201 1].

13 See Jane Currie, ‘Panorama of the Swan River Settlement', watercolour, 1830- 32. State Library of NSW, aspx?itemID=404727. [20 June 2011].

14 Gibbs, pp 4-5.

15 RM Lyon, part iv, Perth Gazette, 20 April 1833, p 4.

16 ‘Execution’, Perth Gazette, 25 May 1833; Lyon, 20 April 1833, p 4.

17 Further information regarding the Battle of Pinjarra in Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 1 November 1834, p 383.

18 Regardless of race they risked, equally, the loss of land, family and a secure future.

19 Inga Clendinnen, True Stories, 1999 Boyer Lectures, ABC books, Sydney, 1999.

20 ‘Swan River’, Hobart Town Courier, 9 May 1834, p 3.

21 Anne Whatley, Diary, 1 February 1830 - 1 September 1831, p 6. BL B/ WHA.

22 Whatley, p 12.

23 Roberts, p 71.

24 Bevan Carter, Nyungah Land: Records of invasion and theft of Aboriginal land on the Swan River, 1829-1850, Black History Series, Swan Valley Nyungah Community, Guildford, nd, p 63; Ian Berryman, p 58, 176.

25 ‘Depositions’, Perth Gazette and West Australian journal, 25 May 1833, p 83.

26 Ibid

27 Berryman, pp 128-129.

28 ‘Minute’, Perth Gazette and I/Western Australian Journal, 11 January 1834, p 215; ‘Government Notice’, Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 4 January 1834, p 209.

29 See RT Appleyard and Toby Manford, The Beginning: European discovery and early settlement of Swan River Western Australia, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1979, p 197.

30 ‘Fire at Point Walter’, Perth Gazette and I/Western Australian Journal, 9 March 1833, P 39.

31 ‘Encounter with the Natives in the Pinjarra District, on the Banks of the Murray’, Sydney Monitor, 31 January 1835, p 4.

32 Ibid

33 RM Lyon, Perth Gazette and Western Australian journal, 30 March 1833, p 51.

34 Barry Patton, ‘Aboriginal Child Separations and Removals in Early Melbourne and Adelaide’, in Andrew Brown-May and Patricia Grimshaw, Evangelists of Empire? Missionaries in Colonial History, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2008, p.125.

35 ‘Prevalent diseases of the season’, Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 12 August 1843, p 2.

36 Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal, 19 November 1842, p 2.

37 T.G. Heydon, ‘The early church in Western Australia’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society, v2, n11, 1932, p 2.

38 Cited in R Reece and R Pascoe, A Place of Consequence: A pictorial history of Fremantle, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1985, p 13.

39 Ibid

40 Heydon, p 3; Reece, pp 13-14.

Garry Gillard | New: 9 May, 2018 | Now: 16 December, 2018