The human history of Western Australia commenced between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago with the arrival of Indigenous Australians on the northwest coast. The first inhabitants expanded the range of their settlement to the east and south of the continent. The first recorded European contact was in 1616, when Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog landed on the west coast, having been blown off course while en route to Batavia, nowadays called Jakarta.
Although many expeditions visited the coast during the next 200 years, there was no lasting attempt at establishment of a permanent settlement until December 1826 when an expedition on behalf of the New South Wales colonial government, led by Major Edmund Lockyer, landed at King George Sound. On 21 January 1827 Lockyer formally took possession of the western third of the continent of Australia for the British Crown. This was followed by the establishment of the Swan River Colony in 1829, including the site of the present-day capital, Perth. The harsh conditions faced by the settlers resulted in population growth being minimal until the discovery of gold in the 1880s. Since the gold rush, the population of the state has risen steadily, with substantial growth in the period since World War II.
Western Australia gained the right of self-government in 1890, and joined with the five other states to form the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. The desire of Western Australians to revert to complete self-governance, separate from the Commonwealth, culminated in 1933 with a successful referendum for secession supported by 68% of electors. In 1935 the British parliament declined to act since secession would require the assent of the Australian parliament, and the movement lapsed with an improving economy and generous federal grants.
When Australia's first inhabitants arrived on the northwest coast 40,000 to 60,000 years ago the sea levels were much lower. The Kimberley coast at one time was only about 90 km from Timor, which itself was the last in a line of closely spaced islands for humans to travel across. Therefore, this was a possible (even probable) location for which Australia's first immigrants could arrive via some primitive boat. Other possible immigration routes were via islands further north and then through New Guinea.
Over the next tens of thousands of years these Indigenous Australians slowly moved southward and eastward across the landmass. The Aborigines were well established throughout Western Australia by the time European ships started accidentally arriving en route to Batavia (now Jakarta) in the early 17th century.
The first European to sight Western Australia was the Dutch explorer, Dirk Hartog, the first European to suggest to have found a continent there, who on 26 October 1616 landed at what is now known as Cape Inscription, Dirk Hartog Island. Before departing, Hartog left behind an inscribed pewter plate affixed to a post. In 1696 the plate was discovered and replaced by Willem de Vlamingh and repatriated to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. A multitude of Dutch visits followed during that century, charting virtually the whole of the west coast, the West Australian south coast and Australia's northern coast.
The first English vessel to visit, when attempting to sail the Dutch-established Brouwer Route to the Indies, was Tryall, an East India Company-owned East Indiaman under the command of John Brookes who in 1622 sighted Point Cloates before later on 25 May wrecking on Tryal Rocks, off the northwest coast of Australia. Some of the 143 crew remained on the Monte Bello Islands for 7 days, during that time sighting Barrow Island, before sailing to Batavia in a longboat. A second boat brought some more crew to Batavia, so just over 40 people survived, including Brookes. Almost one hundred crew apparently perished in the wreck. Tryall became Australia's oldest known shipwreck.
A later English visitor was William Dampier, who in 1699 sailed down some of the western coast of Australia. He noted the lack of water and in his description of Shark Bay in his account "A Voyage to New Holland", he expressed his frustration:
as the 7th of August when we came into Shark's Bay; in which we Anchored at three several Places, and stay'd at the first of them (on the W. side of the Bay) till the 11th. During which time we searched about, as I said, for fresh Water, digging Wells, but to no purpose.
A number of sections of the Western Australian coastline were given names which did not last past the exploratory era in names of features – such as Eendrachtsland. However some names, such as 't Landt van de Leeuwin (Leeuwin's Land), materialised at a later date as Cape Leeuwin.
Below is a timeline of significant events from the 1616 landfall of Dirk Hartog until the eventual settlement of the Swan River Colony in 1829:
1616 – Dirk Hartog in Eendracht arrived at Cape Inscription and left a pewter plate. Coastal region in the vicinity is shown on Hartog's maps as Eendrachtsland. Believed to be first landfall on Western Australian soil by Europeans. (An earlier 1606 encounter on the northern coast of Australia near Papua New Guinea by Willem Janszoon on Duyfken is credited as being the first Australian visit by European explorers.)
1618 – Zeewulf made landfall north of Eendrachtsland.
1619 – Frederick de Houtman in two ships bound for Batavia encountered dangerous shoals which were subsequently named Houtman Abrolhos. Following successful navigation of the Abrolhos, Houtman made landfall in the region Hartog had encountered.
1622 – Leeuwin landed south of Abrolhos.
1622 – English ship Tryall was wrecked on Tryal Rocks off the northwest coast; survivors spent a week on Monte Bello Islands before sailing to Batavia in a longboat.
1629 – Batavia struck a reef of the Abrolhos. Skipper Francisco Pelsaert sailed the ship's small boat to Batavia for rescue. After returning 3 months later found evidence of mutiny and many previous survivors murdered.
1712 – Zuytdorp with 286 on board was shipwrecked near Kalbarri. The Dutch did not send a search party probably because no survivors were able to report the disaster. The crew were never heard from again, though it is probable that many initially survived because a campsite was found near the wreck.
1714 – Jean Pierre Purry proposed a Dutch East India Company settlement of Nuyts, Leeuwin and Edels Lands.
The first formal claim of possession for Great Britain was made on 29 September 1791 by Commander (later Captain) George VancouverRN, on a spot he named Possession Point, at the tip of the peninsula between the waters he also named Princess Royal Harbour and King George the Third's Sound at Albany ("the Third" was dropped from the name in 1826).
In the early 19th century the British became concerned about the possibility of a French colony being established on the west coast of Australia. In 1826 the Governor of New South Wales, Ralph Darling, ordered the establishment of a settlement at King George's Sound. An army detachment was sent from Sydney headed by Major Edmund Lockyer with eighteen soldiers, one captain, one doctor, one storekeeper and twenty-three convicts.
On 21 January 1827 the whole of Australia was finally claimed as British territory when Major Lockyer formally annexed the western portion of the continent in a ceremony on King George Sound.
The first significant European settlements were established on the Swan River by James Stirling in 1829. The colonists first sighted land on 1 June, an official Proclamation was made on 18 June and the foundation of the colony took place on 12 August. As Lieutenant Governor, Stirling had sole authority to draft laws and decide day-to-day affairs.
By 1859, all the other Australian colonies had their own parliaments and colonists in Western Australia began pushing for the right to govern themselves. The British Colonial Office opposed this because of the slow rate of growth and the presence by then of convicts. Petitions asking for some of the positions in the Legislative Council to be filled by popularly elected colonists were presented to London in 1865 and 1869. In 1870 this was granted, although the Governor could still veto the Council's decisions.
Major towns of the colony developed slowly into the port city of Fremantle and the main settlement, 20 miles (30 km) up river, at Perth.
Much of the land around the Swan River Colony was unsuitable for agriculture and it was inevitable that the colony would have to expand beyond the Swan River area after the most fertile locations were quickly settled.
Sheep farming was the most successful early agricultural activity, and the basis of all expansion until the 1850s.
1833: On 5 January, the first newspaper, the Perth Gazette was launched.
1833: Relations between the Europeans and Aborigines were not always amicable with many intercultural skirmishes. Yagan, a senior warrior of the local Aboriginal tribe near the Swan River was killed on 11 July of this year after a bounty was issued for his capture following the murder of a couple of settlers.
1834: Battle of Pinjarra (aka Pinjarra Massacre): This was the worst intercultural battle, happening on 28 October. Depending on the source, the death toll ranged from 10 to 150.
1843: Census recorded the population of Western Australia as 3,842.
1844: A 15-year-old John Gavin was the first European legally hanged in the colony, for the murder of 18-year-old George Pollard.
1848–1850: After 19 years of settlement, growth was very slow. The population of the area around Perth was still only about 1,400. In 1850 the population of the state as a whole had only increased to 5,886. This population had settled mainly around the southwestern coastline at Bunbury, Augusta and Albany.
1849: First discovery of gold occurred in the Jimperding-Toodyay area.
By 1859, all the other Australian colonies had their own parliaments and colonists in Western Australia began pushing for the right to govern themselves. The British Colonial Office opposed this because of the slow rate of growth and the presence of convicts. Petitions asking for some of the positions in the Legislative Council to be filled by elected members were presented to London twice during the 1860s.
In 1870, some members of the Legislative Council were elected for the first time, although only male settlers with significant property could vote and the Governor could still veto the Council's decisions.
Until the 1880s the economy of the state was based largely on wool and wheat. A major change in the colony's fortunes occurred in 1885 when gold was discovered and prospectors by the tens of thousands swarmed across the land in a desperate attempt to discover new goldfields.
In 1887 a new constitution, including proposals for responsible government, was drafted and sent to London by Governor Broome for approval. It was argued that due to the increasing wealth being generated by gold rushes, Western Australia should become a self-governing colony. An Act granting self-government was passed by the British Parliament in 1890, giving the Colony independence from the UK in matters other than foreign policy, defence and "native affairs". Section 70 of the self-government act established an Aboriginal Protection Board, under the control of the British Parliament, not the Western Australian one. Governor Broome had earlier warned the British Colonial Office that the Western Australians were not to be trusted in matters relating to Aboriginal persons. A further clause to the constitution stated that 5,000 pounds or one percent of state revenues, whichever was the greater, was to be allocated to Aboriginal persons for their welfare and advancement. Many settlers resented these clauses, and Western Australia has never honoured this clause to its own constitution. A previous Governor, Sir William Robinson, was re-appointed to supervise the change. He travelled by train from Albany to Perth and towns en route lit bonfires and people gathered at railway sidings to celebrate his arrival and the new constitution. His arrival in Perth on 21 October 1890 saw the city decorated with elaborate floral arches spanning the city's main streets and buildings were decked with banners and flags.
In 1891 the rush to the Murchison goldfields began when Tom Cue discovered gold at the town which now bears his name. In the years that followed dozens of gold towns – Day Dawn, Nannine, Peak Hill, Garden Gully, Dead Finish, Pinnicles, Austin Island and Austin Mainland – flourished only to be abandoned when the seams were exhausted and the gold fever moved on.
The influx of miners from the eastern colonies and from overseas increased the presence of trade unions in Western Australia. The Trades and Labor Council, Perth was established in 1891 and Perth Trades Hall opened (1912). The first edition of the Westralian Worker appeared on 7 September 1900 and was followed shortly afterwards by the opening of the Kalgoorlie Trades Hall, the first such hall in Western Australia. A Trades Hall was opened in Fremantle in 1904.
An influx of people from Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania led to Australian rules football becoming the dominant football code when several local rugby football clubs switched codes.
Sir John Forrest – the first Premier of Western Australia and its only premier as a Colony – clashed with Robinson over Section 70. While Forrest had argued that Western Australians should accept Section 70 in order to obtain self-government, by 1892 he was attempting to have it changed. William Traylen MP argued that "as our revenue is growing up now, and the natives can scarcely be said to be increasing in numbers, we shall be paying a very undue proportion of our income as a colony for the purpose of supporting the Aboriginal native race".
Gold inspired a new wave of exploration, including David Carnegie who, in 1896, led an epic expedition that traveled through the deserts north of Coolgardie, through the Gibson and Great Sandy Deserts to Halls Creek in the Kimberley, before returning to Coolgardie.
In the late 19th century there was talk of the gold-rich region around Kalgoorlie seceding from Western Australia, as a colony/state called "Auralia". This campaign coincided with the reluctance in Perth regarding Western Australia taking part in Australian federation.
In 1899, Forrest succeeded unilaterally passed the Constitution Amendment Act, taking control of Aboriginal Affairs without approval of the British House of Commons. Many Aboriginal people argue that the 1899 amendment was an illegal usurpation of British government power and one percent of accumulated Government revenues should be set aside for Aboriginal welfare, as intended.
Other notable events
1887: On 22 April, a cyclone struck the pearling fleet at Eighty Mile Beach near Broome claiming 140 lives. The storm was unexpected, being so late in the season.
1889: The Great Southern Railway was opened with subsequent economic growth to the regions along the line. The wheat industry did not really get going until construction of railways. A railway line had reached Coolgardie (from Perth) by 1896.
1895: Kings Park was officially opened on 10 August.
On 1 January 1901, following a proclamation by Queen Victoria, Western Australia, along with the other five British colonies of New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria, formed the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia, of which they each became component states. However, Western Australia was rather reluctant to join the union, doing so only after a railway line connecting the west coast to the east coast was offered.
The wealth generated from gold soon disappeared and by the early years of the 20th century the economy was once again dependent on wool and wheat. This dependency meant that a dramatic fall in wool and wheat prices in the late 1920s – early 1930s saw the state's economy collapse. It was not to recover until after World War II when the Federal Government's postwar immigration policy saw a huge influx of migrants, nearly all of them from Europe, in the period 1947 to 1970.
Important events in Western Australia included the following:
1902: The Premier, George Leake died suddenly on 24 June aged only 45. Frederick Illingworth became the caretaker Premier for a week before Walter James formed a new ministry on 1 July. George Leake is the only Western Australian Premier to die in office.
1903: A pipeline from Mundaring Weir to Kalgoorlie is opened. This was a major achievement for its time by the state's first engineer-in-chief C. Y. O'Connor, who committed suicide before the project was complete.
1912: A cyclone crossed the coast just west of Balla Balla near Port Hedland and claimed well over 150 lives. This was almost certainly Australia's worst weather-related maritime disaster of the 20th century with the loss of the coastal steamer Koombana.
1917: The transcontinental railway is complete, fulfilling a promise by the Federal Government when the Colony of Western Australia voted to become a state of Australia at Federation in 1901. Construction of this last leg between Kalgoorlie and Port Augusta had begun in 1912.
1920: Edward, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) was involved in a train derailment, in which his carriage overturned in the state's south west. Fortunately the train was moving at a low speed and he did not sustain any injuries.
1920: Western Australia passed legislation allowing women to stand for parliament, Edith Cowan was elected to the Legislative Assembly becoming the first woman elected to any Australian parliament.
1947: Western Australia enters the country's domestic cricket competition, the Sheffield Shield. Though Western Australia only entered on a probationary basis, it managed to win the shield in its first season.
1961: Minerals boom begins with removal of iron ore export ban. The economy is bolstered over the next two decades by nickel mines around Kalgoorlie and iron ore mines in the north-west.
1964: Serial killer Eric Edgar Cooke was the last person hanged in Western Australia.
1964: On 31 December, Donald Campbell broke the world water speed record in the Bluebird K7 on Lake Dumbleyung. He reached 442 km/h. Campbell died in the same vehicle in 1967 in a later record attempt in England.
1967: Aboriginal people were recognized as Australian citizens with the right to vote
1970: The Indian Pacific train completed its first journey by rail across the continent from Sydney to Perth. Though the transcontinental railway had been complete since 1917, this is the first time one train could make the journey uninterrupted by gauge changes.
Events since 1971
1972: Minimum voting age lowered to 18.
1979: The NASA space station Skylab crashed in the remote south eastern part of the state. Places like Rawlinna and Balladonia received international attention.
1979: On 2 June 1979 there was a significant earthquake just east of Cadoux.