Celebrating Founder’s Day in Perth

Saturday, 7 June 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Australia still celebrates the Queen’s Birthday. This is because Australia is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, with the monarch of the United Kingdom as the country’s Head of State. The Governor General represents her just as it was in Sri Lanka prior to being declared a Republic. June 9 is a public holiday for the Queen’s birthday throughout Australia except in Western Australia – one of the six states in the country. Here I am in Perth, capital of Western Australia which celebrates the first Monday of June to mark the founding of the Swan River Colony (as Western Australia was originally called) in 1829. Earlier known as Foundation Day it is now called ‘West Australian Day’. Thus last Monday – 4 June – was a public holiday. Western Australia does not ignore the Queen’s Birthday which is celebrated on 28 September this year. Sometimes it is celebrated in October. The different commemorative days reminds me of the days we had Independence Day (4 February) and Republic Day (22 May) as public, bank and mercantile holidays. The latter is no more. Now Victory Day (18 May) is celebrated but it’s not a holiday. I was curious to know why a West Australian Day. Historian Stuart Macintyre tells the story in ‘A concise history of Australia’: “New settlements (in the early 19th century) used commerce as the basis of colonisation. The first of them, the Swan River Colony, began with an eye to the threat of French occupancy. In 1826 the governor of New South Wales sent a party to King George’s Sound on the far south-west to forestall that possibility and a naval captain, James Stirling, to explore the principal further up the coast. The decision in 1829 to annex the western third of Australia and create a colony on the Swan River favoured a group of well-connected promoters who were assigned land in return for their contribution of capital and labour. They created a port settlement, Fremantle and a township, Perth, but their hopes of agricultural bounty were soon dashed. By 1842, out of 400,000 hectares that had been alienated just 40 were under cultivation. The failure of the original expectations stemmed partly from the poor soil and dry climate, but most of all from shortage of labour: the2000 who arrived in the foundation years scarcely increased for a further decade.” It has been recorded that the British ship, HMS Challenger, under Captain Charles Fremantle anchored off Garden Island on 25 April 1829. Captain Fremantle claimed the western part of Australia for Britain on 2 May. It was on 1 June that James Stirling steered the merchant vessel ‘Pamelia’ with other officials and civilian settlers on board sighted the coast. Stirling officially proclaimed the Swan River Colony on 11 June. It is said that the wife of the captain of the warship, HMS Sulphur which arrived on 6 June, cut down a tree to mark the founding of the capital, Perth. The Swan River Colony was administered by Stirling who was promoted Lieutenant-General, until August 1832. He went back to England where he was knighted and in August 1834 returned as Governor of Western Australia. Sir James Stirling decided that an annual celebration would help to unite the colony’s inhabitants comprising settlers, Aborigines, and ‘masters’ and ‘servants’ (employers and employees were referred to). 1 June was chosen as it was the day he sighted the coast. It was also the date of a significant British naval victory in 1794. Known as ‘The Glorious First of June’ it marks the victory by British naval fleet over the French fleet. Perth has got its name from Perth, Scotland, reportedly according to the wishes of the Secretary of State for the Colonies at the time, Sir George Murray, who was born there. For Stirling, Perth was “as beautiful as anything of this kind I had ever witnessed”. The city’s population increased substantially as a result of the Western Australian gold rushes in the late 19th century, largely as a result of emigration from the eastern colonies of Australia.