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James Stirling

James Stirling, 1791-1865, was the first Governor of Western Australia. He arrived at Fremantle 2 June 1829 with Surveyor-General Roe and the first contingent of 68 settlers in the transport Parmelia, which ran aground on Parmelia Bank. He was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the colony in 1828, and Governor and Commander-in-Chief in 1831, remaining until 1838.

He was given command of the Success in 1826, aged 34, and sailed to New South Wales, arriving in late November. There, he discussed with Governor Darling the possibility of exploring the western side of the continent, with a view to setting-up a military base there. Darling agreed, and Stirling arrived at the Swan River in March 1827. He returned to Sydney with his report in April. He became ill, and returned to England, where he continued to try to persuade the Colonial Office to establish a colony in that part of the country he unsuccessfully proposed to call Hesperia. The decision so to proceed was made at the end of 1828, and the Parmelia left Portsmouth 8 February 1829, accompanied by Captain Irwin of the military ship Sulphur. At the Cape of Good Hope at the end of April, Stirling managed to persuade doctor William Milligan and engineer Henry Reveley to join his expedition.

By the time Stirling sighted the coast 31 May, Charles Fremantle had established a redoubt at the river mouth, having arrived in the Challenger 27 April and 'claimed' the territory for the Crown 2 May.

Governor Stirling: Centenary of Resignation, by "Cygnet," 1937.

ONE hundred years ago, in October, 1837, Sir James Stirling took up his pen and tendered his resignation as Governor of Western Australia. It was eight months before Lord Glenelg, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, acknowledged its receipt, and on April 16, 1838, signified Her Majesty's recognition of his services and acceptance of his resignation; and it was another eight months, December 5, 1838, before that intelligence reached Governor Stirling. Immediately, he made preparations for his departure, and laid down his office on the last day of the year, only a few hours before his successor, John Hutt, arrived (propitiously enough on the first day of the new year 1839).

James Stirling, in common with all the Scottish Stirlings, claimed descent from that Prince David of Scotland immortalised by Sir Walter Scott in that romantic tale of the Crusades, "The Talisman." The third son of that prince having been born at Stirling Castle adopted Stirling as a surname, although it was not for five or six centuries that its spelling reached finality. There are many gaps in the family tree, but from Walter Stirling of Balquharage, Stirlingshire, in the time of Mary, Queen of Scots, through John Stirling, Lord Provost of Glasgow, in the questionable days of the Merry Monarch, the line runs direct, both Stirling's father and mother being great-grandchildren of this Lord Provost who seems to have laid the real fortunes of the family. Stirling's father and mother were thus first cousins, and brought 15 children into the world, James being the fifth son and eighth child of that large family.

James Stirling was born in 1791, and at the age of 12 entered the Royal Navy, two years before Nelson fell. He saw service against the French, and in the West Indies, and before he was 21 was commander of a warship fighting against the United States in the brief American War of 1812, and destroying the forts at the mouth of the Mississippi. Next we find him in the Arctic Seas at Hudson's Bay, but in 1818 he was back in England, and, having been promoted to the full rank of captain, was placed on half-pay for the next seven years. He employed some part of the interval before his return to the navy by courting and marrying Ellen Mangles, daughter of the High Sheriff for Surrey, and M.P. for Guildford, but shortly after the birth of his first son Andrew, was recalled to the active list and given command of the H.M.S. Success, then nearing completion in the Pembroke Dockyards. On January 25, 1826, he sailed the Success out of Portsmouth for Sydney, and there is but little doubt when we follow his career from this point that he turned his face to the southern seas determined to write his name in bold characters across some corner of empire, perchance to found a state where Britons could work out that destiny which deep down in his heart James Stirling believed they had been sent into this world to achieve.

The First Step.

The immediate purpose of the Success was the removal of the Melville Island Settlement in the north of Australia to some other more suitable site, but fate played into Stirling's hand. Lockyer had only a few days before he set out to form the settlement at King George's Sound; Governor Darling was perturbed at the thought of the French taking possession of the western coast of New Holland, and the monsoonal period was not the time one would ordinarily choose to explore the tropic north of Australia and transfer settlements. So Stirling persuaded Darling to allow him explore the Swan River, which had been astonishingly neglected by every English explorer to date. His exploration covered the month of March, 1827. It took him up the Swan beyond Guildford, and to the top of the Darling Ranges. He discovered the Entree Moreau of the French to be a river, which Stirling promptly called the Canning. The expedition sent all who took part in it into a sort of ecstasy. The doctor, F. R. Clause (pronounced Claise, hence Claisebrook) declared the country the most healthy part of the globe he had ever visited; Fraser, the botanist, declared it would grow anything; Stirling laughed at Sydney Harbour and Portsmouth, and declared that Melville Water and Cockburn Sound led the world both for safety and accommodation.

Three days after Stirling's return to Sydney his report was in Darling's hands. He urged the erection of a colony at the Swan River, recommended that when erected it should be called "Hesperia," and applied for the post of superintendent. He urged the excellence of its position as a convalescent station for invalids from India; projected a great trade in sharks' fins with China; and altogether drew a glowing picture of what they might look forward to once it was colonised. Humorously enough, viewed at a distance of a hundred years, he made no mention of wheat or wool, or gold; for which omission, of course, he could hardly be blamed; but Fraser, the botanist, made up for that by stating that he had no hesitation in declaring the land superior to that of New South Wales for agricultural purposes. Then, having done all he could to further his dreams of empire-building, Stirling sailed for the north and established a new post at Raffles Bay. Six weeks later he had sailed for Penang, and early in 1828 was in London laying siege to the Colonial Office, determined by hook or by crook to force an establishment on the western coast of New Holland, in which establishment he should play a leading part.

It is common knowledge that though in London he at first met with every rebuff possible, in the end he succeeded, and in February of the following year (1829) sailed for Fremantle in the Parmelia, with H.M.S. Sulphur as escort. On May 31, 1829, the Parmelia sighted the coast. It was the prelude to a week of horrors. Short of being actually shipwrecked and having to wade ashore through the breakers, the passengers of the Parmelia suffered every inconvenience and misery that could possibly have attended pioneers landing on a virgin shore. But, as with every other difficulty that beset his path, Stirling triumphed and by June 7 was ashore on Garden Island and his real task had begun.

We are woefully poor in particulars of what happened during those first days of the Colony's existence. For us, a hundred years removed from them, they are tinged, indeed to some they blaze, with romance. But Stirling, we may be sure, failed to see anything romantic in going hungry and in governing a settlement constantly faced with starvation; nor could he sight any romance in the strained relations between the blacks and the settlers, which was soon to lead to murder on both sides. Nevertheless if he saw no romance in it all he refused to be overborne by the tragedy of it, and to be stampeded into hasty decisions. He had no time to waste on useless repinings, nor was his the nature to moan and lament when the need was for action. Filled with a splendid optimism he saw nothing but success ahead of him and took everything in his stride—failure here and there, complaints on all sides, opposition where he least expected it, neglect on the part of those who had given him a giant's task but equipped him with the puny weapons of a dwarf. We may think that in certain things he may have acted more wisely than he did; but his quiet courage, his tenacity of purpose, his evenness of temper throughout those trying years more than offset what we from this distance of time are pleased to believe reveal a lack of wisdom on his part.

In the circumstances it was a superhuman task that Stirling had set himself. He had to "spar off" an ever increasing number of intending settlers while he chose a site for his township; until he had settled on his township he could hardly begin surveying the country; and until he had surveyed it and divided it into lots and holdings, the intending settlers had to remain cooped up on Garden Island or allowed to fend for themselves on the beach about Fremantle. That he did, in a comparatively short space of time, evolve order out of chaos speaks eloquently for his energy, his ability, and particularly for his tact. He made mistakes; others may have made worse. And if in his dreams of empire he had exaggerated, intentionally or otherwise, the potentialities of the new colony that he felt himself called on to erect, at least he gave ten of the best years of his life to guarding and guiding its infant footsteps.

In whichever direction Stirling looked his difficulties were immense. We are accustomed to calling Western Australia a Colony from the commencement of its existence, but this is far from being the fact. It was not a colony; it was a mere settlement. Stirling was only "named" the Lieutenant-Governor; he was given no Commission of Office. Accordingly he had no power to make laws, or to punish offenders, or to govern except with the use of tact. He was at once a dictator and a man of straw. He could order, but he had no legal means of enforcing his orders. And even before he could issue an order he had to have the consent of Whitehall. Six months of this was enough for him, and he insisted that Whitehall make up its mind either to abandon the settlement, or to make it a Royal Colony and grant him a commission. "I have no personal motive in this re commendation," he wrote to Mr. Under-Secretary Hay on January 26, 1830, "for I may take the liberty of a Friend to say I have no ambition to remain in that capacity a day longer than the time when by the Establishment of a prosperous Settlement on this shore I shall have justified the confidence reposed in me by Sir George Murray. The Exertion and Anxiety are too great and constant for my intellectual or physical powers to make their continuance for a long period an object of desire."

A Reward and a Rebuff.

But his commission as Lieutenant-Governor was even then on the way. It was followed by an enlarged commission as Governor and Commander in Chief; and that, in turn, was crowned during his visit to England in 1833 by the conferment of a knighthood. As we see it now from the documents, this latter honour was a sop to encourage him to further efforts without the expenditure by Whitehall of a single penny towards the governance of the Colony, and to make up to him personally for the public refusal to grant one single item of the various requests and petitions forwarded to London by the struggling settlers. Nevertheless, the whole Colony delighted in this mark of the royal favour towards one who was at once their Governor and their friend, a fellow settler and a fellow sufferer, and it sweetened the five succeeding years of drought and depression and native troubles that separated him from his final retirement.

When that retirement came, on the last day of 1838, the people of the Colony drew up a balance sheet covering the ten years of Stirling's Governorship, and they found him a considerable creditor. They paid him in thanks. Thanks may not cost much, but even so they are often wanting in this world and many public men are paid them only when they no longer live to hear them sounding in their ears and sinking into their hearts. Stirling was one of the few who have heard them; and, man as he was, he must have felt the burden of the years, the worries and the wranglings, lifted for ever from him as, standing in the centre of the city he had founded, he listened to the regrets and good wishes of the Colonists formally read to him from an engrossed address. On Saturday, January 5, 1839, from the poop of the Britomarte, he waved his farewells for the third and last time to the shores of Western Australia.

On October 30, 1840, Stirling returned to the Royal Navy as Captain of the Indus, in the Mediterranean. In 1847 he was commanding the Howe on the same station. In 1851 he was promoted Rear Admiral. From 1854 to 1856 he was Admiral Commanding the East Indies Station, which included Australia. That term covered the strenuous years of the Crimean War and engaged him in one of the many wars with China where he was destined to find two links with his former service: one in the fact that in that campaign he commanded the combined fleet of the British Navy and the American Navy which he had once fought; the other in the fact that one of the vessels under his command at the time was HM.S. Sulphur. In 1862 he was promoted to the full rank of Admiral, and on April 22, 1865, his long and meritorious life came to a close at Guildford in Surrey where 42 years before he had taken Ellen Mangles to wife.

He Has No Monument.

It may be that I have stressed over much the trials and tribulations that from the beginning to the end of his overlordship of Western Australia were the essential lot of Stirling. If I have let me add that there were compensations. And one of them was compensation enough. It was the wondrous spectacle of a vast land waking to life from primeval sleep, and taking shape at his command under his very eyes. Myself, I know nothing more fascinating than to sit in fancy by Stirling's side of nights in the quiet of his home at Woodbridge and to pore with him over our map of Western Australia, watching rivers and hills and valleys leap to life, seeing villages and hamlets and towns rising more slowly but just as surely, plotting homesteads here and there—the circle growing ever wider and wider as the axes of the settlers turned towering forests into waving fields and the glint of their night fires lit up the land like twinkling stars the vault of heaven. Side by side with him I see the map that had been a blank, lifeless sheet when first he knew it, become a living being, see it shudder with hidden strength and power, and then rising to its feet as it were pass in days and months with almost pauseless steps from infancy to thriving youth and vigorous manhood—And this is the man who after a hundred years yet waits his monument in stone: whose life and labours have yet to find compass within the covers of a single volume!

References and Links

Cygnet [Cyril Bryan], 'Governor Stirling, Centenary of Resignation', West Australian, 9 October 1937: 9.

Statham-Drew, Pamela 2003, James Stirling: Admiral and Founding Governor of Western Australia, UWAP.

Statham-Drew, Pamela 2004, James Stirling and the Birth of the Swan River Colony, Pandorus, Swanbourne.

Whiteley, E.S. 1967, 'H.M.S. Sulphur', Early Days, vol. 6, part 6: 45-55.

Wikipedia page

Garry Gillard | New: 26 June, 2015 | Now: 29 September, 2020