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Bigger than Texas (1992)

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clip Founding of Western Australia education content clip 1, 2

Original classification rating: PG. This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

The first images in this clip come from the series Land Looking West. They illustrate how the founder of Western Australia, James Stirling, had a vision of the new colony as one run by British privileged aristocrats and landowners. John Izzard, the producer of Land Looking West, comments that the colony started with an advertising campaign which suggested that Western Australia was a well watered paradise, when in fact it was to the European eye inhospitable, hot and often dry. Academic Bob Hodge reads a fanciful description by Sir George Grey describing Western Australia as having a verdant English landscape. This was sent back to England to entice settlers.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows that Western Australia had entrepreneurial beginnings and suggests that English settlers were attracted to the colony by an 'advertising campaign’. It opens with a series of re-creations that depict Sir James Stirling, founder of WA, as well as wealthy colonists, convicts, a landowner, and sailors who are unloading cargo on a beach. The narrator comments that the colony was founded 'on selfishness and greed’. The clip also includes film producer John Izzard, who explains that Stirling recommended the Swan River area as a site for British settlement. The clip then cuts to sandy scrub land, over which Associate Professor Bob Hodge reads explorer Sir George Grey’s fanciful description of the area in 1840.

Educational value points

  • The clip refers to the founding of WA. In 1826, New South Wales Governor Ralph Darling, acting on British instructions, sent soldiers and convicts to King George Sound on the south-west coast of WA, where they established Frederickstown, later renamed Albany.
  • Three years later, another settlement was established on the Swan River by James Stirling (1791–1865). The British Government had agreed to set up the colony after lobbying from Stirling, who after making a fortnight’s exploration of the Swan River region in 1827 had returned to England with reports of a fertile region that was ideal for settlement. Stirling became Governor of WA in 1832. Britain was also concerned that France wanted to occupy the territory.
  • Settlers were lured to the colony by glowing reports of fertile land. In fact, many of the first settlers found the land harsh and hostile; the soil was sandy and unsuitable for agriculture. In addition, settlers suffered from a range of illnesses caused by a lack of fresh food and water and unsanitary conditions. To address the problem, Stirling took the unusual step of setting up two townsites: the port of Fremantle at the mouth of the Swan River and a capital, Perth, closer to the more fertile inland region.
  • The response of the early colonists to the landscape was influenced by their cultural familiarity with the English environment. In the clip, Hodge suggests that explorer (and later Governor of South Australia) George Grey could only see a place for himself and potential settlers in England if he viewed the landscape as familiar, describing it as if it were the English countryside. The glowing descriptions of a verdant land, both from Grey and in the early advertising material, may stem partly from the desire to make the strange familiar, rather than from incompetence or a wish to mislead.
  • As referred to in the clip, Stirling’s faith in the wealth to be made in the Swan River Colony was such that he believed it could create an elite class. This faith may have been underpinned by the fact that the Colony was not originally a convict settlement, a source of considerable pride for early settlers. Swan River was the first British colony in Australia founded exclusively as a private settlement on the basis of land grants. These grants were themselves based on the value of the assets and labour introduced by the settlers.
  • Though the Colony was not initially a convict settlement, between 1850 and 1868 about 9,700 convicts were transported to WA. The change in policy was driven by the need for labour to develop the region, particularly as many early settlers, discouraged by the hardships, had left the Colony. Britain welcomed the decision as its other Australian colonies successively gained self-government and ended transportation.
  • Sir James Stirling was a Scottish-born naval officer who was sent to NSW in 1827. He was appointed Lieutenant-Governor (Governor from 1831) of the Swan River Colony, arriving with an advance party of settlers in June 1829. Stirling’s charisma, self-confidence and faith in the future of the Colony are credited with saving it from ruin. He established a Legislative Council in 1832, but the colonists’ dependence upon him made him something of a benevolent dictator. In 1834 Stirling was involved in what is known as the Battle of Pinjarra, in which between 15 and 50 Indigenous Australians and one settler were killed. Stirling returned to naval service in 1838.
  • The clip suggests that Stirling was motivated by self-interest in establishing the Colony. While Stirling has been cast as a visionary, he had an investment in the promotion of the Colony. Prior to its establishment, he formed a syndicate with Englishman Thomas Peel to bring settlers out to the Colony in exchange for land from the Government. However the scheme was largely unsuccessful.

This clip starts approximately 12 minutes into the documentary.

A man dressed in colonial military uniform walks through a field in contemplation.

Narrator The philosophy of James Stirling and the social elite that followed him, firmly believed in the creation of a colonial aristocracy – a West Australian nobility.

Men and women dressed formally are seated at a dining eating soup. This cuts to an exterior of convicts tending to rows of corn and other hard labour.

Narrator Privileged land owners, masters of vast estates kept running by a pool of contented servants. The colony had been founded, not with any glowing ideals for the betterment of mankind, but on selfishness and greed.

Izzard is interviewed in a studio. Halfway through the scene we see footage of a desert Australian landscape.

John Izzard We decided to do Land Looking West because there was no visual depiction of West Australian history and a lot of people thought in effect we didn’t have one. When we started to research it, um, we realized that perhaps the reason it hadn’t been done before was the fact that the history is totally unlike any other history. The colony started on the basis of an advertising campaign. The first governor, who had explored the place a few years before, went back to England, promoted it, formed a company, got himself appointed as the governor, convinced people to come out here to a land which the publicity said was ‘verdant countryside, touched by summer rains that settle like mist’.

From a panning shot of desert landscape we settle on a shot of Hodge reading a note and talking to camera.

Bob Hodge ‘The course of the stream was very tortuous and its mouth was almost blocked up by sand hills. The valley itself was both picturesque and fertile and the appearance of the country to the east and north-east was highly promising. The stream I called ‘the bows’. This spot was a favourite halting place of the natives and from the number of huts and other indications which we saw, the district must be very densely populated. I continued a course of 180 degrees up a steep limestone range behind which apparently ran a branch to the watercourse we had just passed. A good country laid to the eastward of us’. This is an extract of the journal of Sir George Grey who was standing in the very spot I am standing in 1840 and this gives me a real buzz to be actually standing where Sir George Grey stood while thinking about how he was going to promote this rather desolate landscape for people back home in another country. What he’s doing is turning it into instant real estate and that is partly to package it as a commodity so that coloners will come out here, which in fact they did, um, but partly it’s a positioning himself in a landscape as one which he belongs to and which belongs to him and that in effect works for me too. In a sense, I can possess this land which otherwise I feel so alienated from.

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