When the French corvette Uranie dropped anchor in Shark Bay in September 1818, expedition artist Jacques Etienne Victor Arago was unimpressed by what he saw. In his journal he wrote:
The coast from the moment we saw it exhibited nothing but a picture of desolation; no rivulet consoled the eye, no tree attracted it; no mountain gave variety to the landscape, no dwelling enlivened it. Everywhere reigned sterility and death.
But Shark Bay had something which Arago did not see, and which would draw many boats to its shores. Vast quantities of the small pearl oyster Pinctada albina littered a grassy seabed. Ninety years later, when journalist George Romans came ashore from S.S. Koombana, he found a prosperous pearling community untroubled by the absence of postcard scenery. Under his nom de plume “Vindex”, Romans wrote:
The Nor’-West life is something distinct in itself. At Geraldton the southern civilisation ceases, and thence northward commences a gradual merging into tropical life and tropical conditions. Thirty hours afterwards the ship rounds the long Dirk Hartog Island . . . and glides through the sheltered waters of Denham Sound to an anchorage a few miles off the small town of the same name. Already the Nor’-West phase of life is opening up. The genial warmth of the sun, the white-roofed houses on the shore, the browned faces and white or khaki clothes of the settlers, the pearling luggers with their coloured crews, the sense of release from the small conventions of society, are the things that bespeak the North-West.
In the early days of Shark Bay pearling, shell lay bare for the picking at low tide. Later, when the beach lay bare, shells were collected by wading in the shallows. Thereafter, to the limit of nature’s resilience, the seabed would be scraped by wire-mesh baskets dragged behind single-masted p26sailing boats of shallow draft. The technique of extracting pearls was also unique, in a way that impressed itself on every first-time visitor. Fresh from the old country, Koombana’s young fourth engineer Jim Low took delight in explaining this in a letter to his friend Peggy back home.
They bring the oysters ashore and rot them in the sun before opening them and the stink—well it beats anything you could imagine in your wildest flights of fancy, rotten eggs is perfume to it. Still they say it is not unhealthy. I don’t know, anyway that beach is an offence. The shell in Shark’s Bay is poor but the pearls are good. I sat down one day and watched the black gins (aboriginal women)† going through and opening the shells till I felt faint. They got a pearl every dozen shells or so mostly small ones. They scrape the putrid remnants of the oyster into what they call pogey pots and this after a further rotting process is boiled down and the pearls raked out at the bottom. These pogey pots are the climax. They cry out aloud to one another. In case we went away with false impressions of Shark’s Bay one of the inhabitants took an oar and stirred one up, for the next few seconds nothing much mattered. We blindly fought our way to a sandhill well to windward and looked at that pot. Nobody said anything for some time but everybody felt queer. A black gin sitting near the pot threw her nose upwards sniffed approvingly and gently murmured “exbishin scent, bery goodt.”
† The brackets are Jim Low’s and not the author’s. The terminology and explanation are as they appear in the source.
Like Vindex, Jim Low was undaunted by Denham’s appearance. The young Irishman had signed up for service on the other side of the world. Moreover, he had chosen a ship that would forsake even provincial ports to serve the little communities of a remote coastline. His employment may have commenced in Glasgow, but the adventure of his imagination began in Shark Bay.
The settlement had seen some wild days, but things were different now: a unique brand of law enforcement had reduced the population and restored the industry to profitability. In a letter to the editor of The West Australian, long-time pearler “J.S.D.” reflected with satisfaction upon the action that he, with others of like mind, had taken.
From 1886 to 1889 Sharks Bay pearling was in a flourishing condition. Shells and pearls were plentiful, and there was a good market for both. This fact attracted the attention of a number of Chinese traders, who, by that gradual process peculiar to the Asiatic, worked slowly into the business of small shop owners and boat owners. The position became intolerable, and forced European pearlers to combine, form a Sharks Bay Pearling Association, get legal advice about the framing of p27rules, and make an offer to lease the whole of the Sharks Bay pearling grounds for Europeans only. For this privilege we agreed to pay to the Government £80 per annum, instead of paying a royalty per ton. Our offer was accepted, and the next problem was the colour question. After serious consideration and much legal advice, we petitioned the Government to make an offer to buy out the whole of the Chinese boats and plant for a fixed sum, and then give them notice to quit. To this the authorities agreed, but, as a precaution against rioting or bloodshed, a number of police and “specials” were sent up to join the local police, and to assist the white pearlers, as we were not sure in what spirit the China men would receive their notice to quit. As the Chinese camp was at Egg Island Bay, a notice was sent to that place warning them of our intentions, and shortly afterwards the Government Resident, police, and pearlers “rolled up” to assist in case a riot might occur. When all had assembled, the magistrate produced the official documents required in such cases, including the Riot Act, and the whole matter was explained to the Chinese through an interpreter. At first they would have none of it. They cursed the Queen, and they cursed the Governor, and all in authority under him. But in the end wiser counsels prevailed, induced probably by the military display made by law, police, and pearlers. So they accepted the terms offered, and within a fortnight had cleared out of the Bay. Thus the coloured problem was dealt with successfully by a handful of white pearlers, assisted by a few police headed by a Resident Magistrate. This event may give food for thought to those who are now studying the colour problem.
When Jim Low arrived with Koombana in 1909, a community smaller and whiter was advertising its contentment. After accepting some local hospitality, he told Peggy:
The magnates of Shark’s Bay take the cake. They live in corrugated iron shanties, making absurd additions as the family grows. They send out their pearling boats on Mondays and welcome them back on Friday nights sometimes clearing as much as £3000 in a year. The sons as soon as they are big enough go out with the boats. The daughters are sent round to the big schools in Melbourne and Sydney whence they return “finished” bringing with them the comforts of civilization in the shape of grand pianos, sewing machines and new fangled naptha stoves, and make pathetic attempts to disguise the baldness of the paternal mansion with pictures and muslin fripperies. Then try to import plants which gradually fade away and great spiders inches long make nests in the remnants and spin marvellous webs on them, great fat vicious spiders with scarlet bodies and long black legs, regular nightmares.
For the locals, it was a great frustration that Koombana could not be enjoyed here as at other places, where the ship’s saloon became the focus of town life for the duration of each visit. At Denham there was neither water deep enough nor jetty long enough to meet Koombana halfway. The elegant newcomer could only drop anchor and remain aloof, delivering visitors in a wicker basket swung over her railings. In time, however, the Shark Bay pearlers would come to know her, as southbound saloon passengers seeking respite from pogey, flies and sand.
For Koombana’s passengers, the passage north from Denham, in the lee of Dirk Hartog Island, was often enjoyed on deck. A few hours of downwind steaming would bring the ship to the head of a mile-long jetty, where a steam locomotive known affectionately as “The Coffee Pot” waited to bring passengers and cargo into town.
Carnarvon, like Denham, was prosperous, but it owed its wealth to merino wool rather than pearl shell. From the comfort of Koombana’s saloon, Vindex wrote:
Wheresoever two or three squatters are gathered together there will the conversation be forever of sheep, and rain, and grass, and windmills. And the young Englishman sitting in the smokeroom looks up in the midst of an intricate bridge problem and says vehemently: “Damn these squatters and the incessant talk of sheep; the very rafters echo with sheep, sheep, sheep.” Perhaps also, he makes bitter comment on the ease with which some people get their incomes, and then someone answers: “Yes, the squatter is envied and abused nowadays; it seems almost convenient to forget that he lived 20 strenuous years in this heat-blistered country before he was worth while being worried about by the tax collector.”
From time to time, Carnarvon paid a high price for the privilege of a well-watered hinterland. When Koombana first arrived at the end of March 1909, the town was recovering from its worst-ever flood. A year later, the colonial secretary and chief harbourmaster came to town to discuss mitigation works and to demonstrate the government’s commitment to the future of the Nor’-West. Vindex came too, to cover the tour for The West Australian. After the obligatory round of public meetings, he wrote:
The trouble all comes from the fact that the founders of Carnarvon loved the Gascoyne River so well that they placed the town on its bank. They didn’t know how much the river loved them, else they would not now be worrying year after year for a means of repelling the advances of the water. Each year the swollen river comes rushing down to the sea, and in the ardour of its affections attempts to creep all over the town. The consequence is that annually Olivia-terrace is reduced by about 50 per cent., and at times the river shows half a mind to take the whole town in its arms and hurry away to sea.
Because the river was long and its catchment vast, the flooding of Carnarvon was not always accompanied, or even preceded, by inclement weather in the town. In 1909 the water came with a rush on a bright Saturday afternoon. Mrs Atkinson, in a recently completed cottage by the river, was caught completely off guard. She was in buoyant spirit with a wild duck roasting in the oven when a neighbour burst in to declare, “The river’s rising!” Her first reaction was annoyance, but when the house suddenly subsided and a wall opened up, his forthrightness was seen in new light. Mrs Atkinson grabbed her two children. “She literally threw us out, like a dog,” her daughter recalled. Moments later, it was the mother’s turn to be manhandled. Local bank manager Edwin Angelo saw that the house in its entirety must soon slump into the river. But for his prompt action, Mrs Atkinson may not have survived to rebuild, or to describe the feeling in the pit of her stomach as her oven, her duck, and the wreckage of a new home sailed away.
* * *
Carnarvon was vulnerable to assault from the interior, but rarely from the sea. Below the town’s horizon lay two long, low islands that shielded the mainland coast from the long swells of the Indian Ocean. Although the two were named “Dorre Eylanden” (Barren Islands) by seventeenth-century Dutch navigators, only the southern island kept its Dutch label; the northern island was renamed “Bernier” by the French more than a century later. In 1908 the islands, with prolific wildlife but no history of human habitation, were chosen as sites for the establishment of p31isolation hospitals for the incarceration and treatment of Aborigines suffering from syphilis. Inevitably the ‘lock hospitals’ (as they came to be known) were places of great dislocation and despair; many patients never recovered sufficiently to leave. But some did: by January 1910, the first of the cured were ready to return to their homelands. As if to defend its handling of a difficult situation, the state government decided that the repatriations would take place in public view. The natives would travel not by chartered schooner but as cabin passengers aboard the elegant Koombana, accompanied by their much-loved island nurse Harriet “Missie” Lenihan, who wrote:
Passionate devotion to the bush is the principal characteristic of the natives, and when official intimation came to Bernier Island that the first batch of certified cured cases were to return to their different countries, there was joy unbounded. New overalls had to be made, hats to be trimmed, and hair to be cut. I organised a monster wash, and on the day preceding the departure repaired to the well a mile distant with abundance of soap and scrubbing brushes. One can imagine what a scene they presented, as covered from head to foot with soap they kept singing and dancing, wild indeed with joy. . . . I wish to pay a deep debt of gratitude to Mrs. Batty, the cook on the island, who helped me with unselfish enthusiasm to make their outfits, trim their hats, and altogether entered into their joy. We were also under a heavy obligation to Mr. Smith, manager for Charles Moore and Co., and Mr. Pitchford, of the Bon Marche, who provided the many coloured ribbons to deck the native lassies’ hair, hats, and necks.
On the islands, the grim reality of isolation and treatment continued but aboard Koombana, steaming northward, life was good. Lenihan watched with pleasure as her girls in particular were fussed over by the other passengers, who “loaded them with dainties and tobacco in abundance.”
* * *
About thirty miles north-west of Carnarvon, beyond the protection of Bernier Island, Koombana would feel the strength of the open ocean. Altering course to north-north-east, she would then run with the wind and the sea for 200 miles to the North West Cape, keeping well clear of the low land and its seductive coral embroidery. As the ship rounded the Muiron Islands and steamed eastward across the top of the Exmouth Gulf, the sea change was remarkable. Vindex wrote:
The Cape is a sort of sartorial changing station. We are now in the tropics beyond all doubt, and the regular traveller as soon as he sees the North-West Cape on the horizon hurries off to his cabin and reappears in white linen or khaki. We are in the calmest of calm oceans, the sun shows delightfully “the myriad ripples of the laughing sea,” p32and turtles which have their nests on the neighbouring islands, inquisitively raise their heads above water and disappear again. Long yellowish snakes writhe along the surface of the water, and perhaps a whale spouting in the distance adds to the interest and enjoyment of travel. We are now in the land of incessant sunshine, of warmth and colour, and glorious sunsets. Dusk comes on and the sun has sunk below the level surface of the sea. On the horizon the blue ocean is wedded to a sky of saffron and pink. Night closes in, and in the gathering gloom the dark islands arise out of the calm bed of the sea, and after being silhouetted for a while against the sky, drift by into the darkness. The steamer’s smoke hangs indolently in the air, and all creation seems placidly lazy and careless.
At every Nor’-West port, Koombana’s first arrival was much heralded. Onslow was no exception, but as the new steamer dropped anchor in Ashburton Roads the fate of the little town, at least in its present location, was sealed. Few doubted that the district had great potential. Under the nom de plume “Progress”, one resident wrote:
I would like to point out that this has been an exceptionally good season, but good or bad seasons should make little or no difference in this district, in as much as the Ashburton River is some 600 miles in length flowing through some of the finest agricultural, pastoral, and mining country in the world (in which there is about one person to every 1,000 square miles, instead of thousands of people).
Onslow, however, had a problem to match its potential. The new, larger steamers could not approach the existing jetty, and the jetty was poorly situated for extension into deeper water. A lack of foresight was not unique to Onslow, as Vindex observed:
It now seems as if the early settlers’ first consideration was to find a creek into which they could run their boats. Having found a landing they proceeded inland till they got over the tidal marshes and there they started a store and a hotel—the nucleus of every settlement. In course of time they wanted their landing place made into a port, and a paternal Government, greatly daring, came along and started to build a jetty. They built chain after chain of piles and planking till at the end of half a mile or so they had reached deep water. Of course the jetties could not remain isolated, and the building of tramways over the marshes at heavy cost was inevitable. This one imagines to have been the history of all of these ports. The consequence is that when a boat puts into that port, all that greets the passenger is a high gaunt structure of heavy timber projecting from the low uninhabited sandhills far into the sea.
While lauding the district and its potential, “Progress” lamented the situation at the port.
On arrival at the anchorage a visitor has to pay four shillings to come ashore in the agent’s cutter, another shilling for his tram fare, and 3d. for each package. Goods are brought to jetty by lighter, and frequently it takes hours to bring passengers from steamer to jetty—distance about one mile—owing to no wind.
At ten shillings for a round trip into town, few among Koombana’s passengers ventured ashore. Vindex was an exception; he followed every tramline to its end. “It is the little retiring towns,” he wrote, “that are worth pursuing to their hiding places behind the sandhills.” Upon reaching Onslow he was surprised at how little he found: “It seems to comprise three stores and two hotels, and an altogether inadequate population to keep the five institutions going.” Along a wide, dusty divide were the complementary offerings of the Rob Roy Hotel and Peake’s Temperance Hotel, a Mechanics’ Institute hall that doubled as church and Sunday school, a post and telegraph office, the offices of the shipping agents, and a few houses.
On April 6th, 1909, a few days after Koombana’s first visit, a cyclone swept over Onslow from the sea, destroying the ‘Institute’ and stripping part of the roof from each of the hotels. From the pearling grounds came p34news far worse: four pearling boats, each with six Malay crewmen, had been lost. And at the port, the lighters upon which the town so depended were all ashore and damaged. The storm was not the greatest, even of recent memory, but it was a harsh assault upon a town losing trade to its neighbours and whose future hung in the balance.
* * *
Some beginnings are lost in time, others vaguely recalled, but the establishment of the first North-West Settlement may be pinpointed in time and place. In the journal of the barque Tien Tsin, on May 5th, 1863, Captain Jarman wrote:
Coasting along under easy sail I saw from the royal yard a deep bay and tempting looking spot for landing, and the Mystery leading we rounded the north headland of the bay afterwards named the “Tien Tsin Harbor” by Mr. Hunt, and anchored in three fathoms at low water spring tide, about midway between Jarman Isle and Samson’s Point . . . It is a fine little harbor and vessels drawing 13 feet can go in with safety and be perfectly sheltered from all winds except between N.E. and E.S.E.; small craft up to 7 feet by going into Butcher Inlet are completely land locked and can lie afloat at low water on that draught. At 2 p.m. Mr. Padbury and others landed, and I did so at 6 p.m. to meet him; there were several natives on the beach, and I do not remember having seen finer looking fellows in any part of the world. They bear much resemblance to the Maories about the north-west coast of New Zealand; I saw none among them under six feet in height, and they have fine muscular development with features not disfigured; they had no weapons, and carried Mr. Samson and myself out of the boat.
Acting upon the glowing accounts of explorer F. T. Gregory, the enterprising Walter Padbury had gathered stock and equipment, chartered Captain Jarman’s Tien Tsin and sailed north to establish a p35grazing settlement at Nickol Bay. But just as Arthur Phillip of the First Fleet had found Sydney Cove preferable to the intended Botany Bay, Captain Jarman declared “Tien Tsin Harbor” greatly superior to the exposed mangrove forefront of Nickol Bay. And just as the first Australian penal colony would continue to be known as “Botany Bay,” so would Tien Tsin be tagged “the Nickol Bay Settlement.”
Relations between black and white would prove critical to the survival of the settlement. For a few years, pastoral operations teetered on the edge of failure, but the embattled graziers discovered that there was good money to be made by conscripting natives to dive for pearl shell. Indeed, grazing lived upon the proceeds of pearling until, under steady rain and management, it too became profitable.
From the very first, the settlement was destined to be divided. At Tien Tsin no reliable source of fresh water was found. It was decided that the main settlement, later to be named Roebourne, would stand beside a deep permanent pool of the Harding River, some ten miles upstream. The early success of pearling ensured that Tien Tsin remained as lively as the inland ‘capital’, but as its Asiatic population grew, some considered its name inappropriate. After Governor Weld visited aboard H.M.S. Cossack in 1871 the town was renamed “Cossack”, in honour of Her Majesty and the visit of her colonial representative.
p36For the next ten years Cossack whistled and hummed. Glowing reports from the pearling grounds appeared regularly in The West Australian; some even found their way into the eastern dailies. But in March 1882, one such report unwittingly caught the turn of a great tide.
NOTES FROM THE NOR’-WEST.
6th February, 1882.
The Ruby, cutter, arrived at Cossack on the 28th ulto. Arrangements were at once made for her to return direct to Fremantle, as soon as she had discharged, touching en route at the Western pearling ground, somewhat to the Eastward of Exmouth Gulf. She accordingly took in a cargo of shells, and sailed for her destination on the night of the 31st ulto. The reason, why she was started so quickly was that favourable news had been received from the Eastern boats. Mr. M. Price came to Cossack in the Water Lily on the 24th ulto, with a cargo of shells from the Eastward, and reported that the five vessels in that direction, viz: the Dawn, Amy, Harriet, Water Lily, and the Pearl had all done well; the Dawn getting from 25 to 28 tons, the Amy 20 tons, the Water Lily l8 tons, the Harriet 13 tons, and the Pearl 5 tons. Another boat, the Mystery, came from the Eastward with only one ton, but she had not fallen in with the lucky craft. The exact spot is kept a secret, but it is generally believed to be in the neighbourhood of Roebuck Bay.
This, it seems, was the first published reference to the pearling potential of Roebuck Bay. It marks the beginning of the gradual eastward migration of the industry, and the rise of Broome as its new headquarters.
For a time Cossack continued to grow. Post office, courthouse and customs house, all of stone, reflected the government’s confidence in the settlement as the port for the mining and grazing province now called “West Pilbarra.” Visiting vessels continued to be well served. Luggers, schooners and even small steamers could tie up in the middle of the town at a stone wharf on the bank of a riverine inlet. By 1900, however, that convenience counted for little; the new, larger vessels of the coastal trade could not enter the inlet. Passengers and cargo, inbound or outbound, would have to be transferred by lighter. The government decided that a new jetty equipped for handling livestock should be built at Point Samson, a few miles to the west of Cossack, and that in time a new township there would replace both Cossack and Roebourne.†
† Spelling variations will be encountered. “Pilbarra” ultimately gave way to “Pilbara”, and Point Samson was wrongly gazetted as “Point Sampson,” the error being corrected years later.
The first part of the plan was well executed; the second was not. When Koombana first arrived at Point Samson on April Fools’ Day, 1909, she discharged to a jetty in the middle of nowhere. All passengers disembarking, whether for Roebourne or Cossack, faced a journey of several hours by horse-drawn tram.
Most of the locals viewed the government’s vision for Point Samson as nonsensical, but they saw value in the jetty. They argued successfully that the government should make sense of the money it had already spent by improving the tramway. Just a year later, Koombana arrived with special cargo. From her deck she delivered the first steam locomotive for the Roebourne-Samson tramway. She also brought Colonial Secretary Connolly and Chief Harbourmaster Irvine, to listen to the locals and to bathe, perchance, in the shining light of visible progress. Vindex came too; after a round of public meetings, he captured the mood of a town coming to terms with another far-reaching flourish of the premier’s pen.
As for the old capital, Roebourne is solid but not so actively prosperous as it used to be. It too has fine Government buildings and a model gaol, scrupulously kept, and it pins implicit faith to a resuscitation of mining. . . . Rightly or wrongly, Roebourne has never recovered from the fact of the Pilbarra railway being started from Port Hedland, and its people can scarcely possess themselves in patience until the failure of the Hedland route shall prove that Roebourne was the only possible starting point for the iron horse when it goes forth to conquer and transform the desert.
From the government’s perspective, the establishment of Point Samson was a rationalisation. The costly replication of government buildings and p38services could not continue. But there was another agenda, selectively discussed and privately pursued. The new town offered a fresh start: a clean break from the cultural heritage of pearling. Point Samson, it was hoped, would hasten the demise of Asian-dominated Cossack.
Having fulfilled a promise to the district, the government set about encouraging the locals to relocate. But by bowing to local demands for a better tram service it had undermined its own agenda. Thanks to the cheeky little locomotive, the ‘old capital’ was now better connected to the outside world than ever before. There was a further problem, not of the government’s making. Long-time residents had seen buildings torn apart by storms of astonishing force. They refused to believe that the new Point Samson jetty, standing tall in open water, could withstand what nature would some day hurl at it. Roebourne, they argued, had public buildings, services, hotels and a sense of community, not to mention the best water in the district. Samson was merely a jetty and a bold plan, and without that jetty it was nothing. With tongue firmly in cheek, Vindex declared:
For years people were equally divided as to the future of the jetty; some said it would be washed away in the first hurricane, others equally as stoutly maintained that the structure would last until the second hurricane smote it.
When the first auction of Point Samson town lots took place in Roebourne, scepticism ruled. Prices paid were low, and the lack of enthusiasm p39delivered a supplementary slap in the face to the supporters of a White Australia. In a letter to The West Australian, Cossack pearler James Ellery noted wrily that one of the best lots had been “knocked down to a Chinaman for £31.”
* * *
On the afternoon of Saturday, April 3rd, 1909, Koombana arrived off Port Hedland for the first time. A fine new jetty stood ready to receive her, but entry was denied by the harbour’s troublesome gatekeeper: an ever-changing sandbar that could only be crossed safely on a high spring tide. The future would have to wait until morning.
Koombana was grazed and bruised from her grounding in Shark Bay but it would take more than a few scuff marks to dampen this town’s enthusiasm. Walter Barker, editor of The Hedland Advocate, wrote:
Gratifying in the highest degree, to the pride of Nor’-Westers, was the announcement, on Sunday morning, that the s.s. Koombana was steaming up the entrance. Her supremacy (over other vessels visiting the port) in architectural model, equipment, and nautical appliances and conveniences had preceded her. A large number of Hedland residents forsook their usual Sunday diversions to witness the arrival of their hopes—a boat suitable for the Nor’-West passenger traffic and merchandise, and not one murmur of disappointment was heard; in fact, even those whose business interests would be expected to lead them to express an adverse opinion on the boat were heard to remark, “She will take some beating.” In fact, the eulogies of the southern daily papers were thought to under-estimate the ship’s worth from a Nor’-West point of view. The wildest dreams of residents in this climate, who contemplate a comfortable sea trip, are here realised: a luxuriously furnished bedroom, with every other conceivable comfort and convenience thrown in.
Never was a newspaper more aptly named than The Hedland Advocate. Two weeks earlier, as Koombana lay aground in Shark Bay, Barker had written:
If the Koombana is to be expected to wriggle in and out among the numerous and ever shifting sand banks in Sharks Bay, the Government should do something to assist navigation at that place. The vessel is admirably designed to cater specifically for the needs of the Nor’-West, and it can hardly be fair that the populous centres should be penalised in order to serve the few at Sharks Bay. Much better for Sharks Bay to be cut off the list of calling places.
In 1906, Port Hedland had been chosen as the starting point for the principal railway to the goldfields of the interior. Three years later, as construction began, visitors quickly came to suspect that this anointment had gone to the young town’s head. Vindex wrote:
p40Port Hedland, of course, thinks differently. Unlike the other northern ports, Port Hedland has pitched itself on the very edge of the water, and thus exposed seems to invite criticism of its bareness. Not a tree nor a shrub graces its streets, and deep though the harbour is at high tide, the receding of the waters discloses a most unimpressive stretch of sand and mangrove mud. The harbour may be good, but it is bare honesty to say that Port Hedland never reveals to the visitor those charms which the residents in their enthusiasm profess to see. Government expenditure however, is doing something to “make” the port, which is at present abnormally busy. The wharf accommodation has been doubled in recent years, and the cargoes of steamers calling there are swelled with rails and fastenings for the Marble Bar line. Hedland’s expectations from that line are boundless, and it is to be hoped that they may prove to be well founded. In any case there is a hasty intolerance shown toward the doubter and the person who doesn’t see Hedland through Hedland’s spectacles.
Port Hedland seemed eager to recommend itself as a proud outpost of White Australia, in sharp contrast to the oriental mish-mash of its northern neighbour Broome. A fortnight or so before Koombana’s first arrival, the Advocate had reported:
p41Two Afghans left Hedland for Singapore on Saturday by the Charon. By the same boat three Chinamen left for Broome, the latter forming part of a large contingent of loafing Celestials in Hedland who have been notified by the Hedland police that they must leave. It is pleasing to note that the local police are taking a commendable course, and the Broome “Chronicle” will have the pleasure, if it wishes, of chronicling a Broome welcome to many more Celestials of the same kidney as the two now enjoying the freedom given them in Broome.
For three months the newspaper had been publishing searing editorials on what it termed “The Alien Influx.” The first appeared on December 12th, 1908, as Koombana was completing her sea trials off Glasgow.
In many towns in the northern part of Australia the keen competition set going by the colored men (whose devious ways enable them to obtain goods without paying duty, and whose mode of living is far below the white man’s standard,) has reached a point at which Australians whose patriotism means more to them than pelf, should stop and ponder—where is this going to end? . . . Not all the whites who have to live in places like Port Darwin, Wyndham, Broome or Hedland are color-serving, crawlsome creatures, who care nothing p42for the future of our young nation. There are many who would hail with delight Federal legislation which would put down this unfair competition and keep out all of the colored and inferior races.
As far as can be told, Barker’s weekly rants had little impact upon the newspaper’s business clientele or readership. Hedland’s Chinese shopkeepers continued to place their advertisements, and one enterprising Afghan soon called for expressions of a different interest:
I, Abdul Kader, will wrestle any man in the Nor’-West, Cumberland style, catch-as-catch-can, or Afghan style,
for any sum of money from £10 up to £50.
I want a fair go, and don’t want any crook business.
My reputation is good and I intend to keep it so.
If you want me before Christmas, Nullargine is my address.
In the light of its anti-Asian virulence, the Advocate’s sympathy for the Australian Aborigine was striking.
We have never been advocates of native labor, and do not agree with the excessive punishment meted out to natives who kill cattle, and yes, to others who are alleged to kill cattle. We are certain that if the Supreme Court were appealed to in 9 cases out of 10 where natives are convicted they would be acquitted.
Social justice notwithstanding, the betterment of Port Hedland was never far from Walter Barker’s mind. His editorial continued:
On board the Bullarra, we saw 42 strong, able-bodied natives, chained with strong, trace-sized chains in gangs of 3 to 9 each, being taken to the already overcrowded gaol at Roebourne, and, we are informed, upwards of 100 more to follow. Even the most rabid socialist will agree that if natives are to be kept (some doing work and others exercise only) at Broome and Roebourne, Hedland is entitled to some of that labor.
The Pilbara railway was a boon not only for the ebullient town but also for the shipping companies. For two years, in all seasons, Koombana would carry sleepers, rails and equipment. The locomotives, too, would be delivered from her decks. While other cargo was seasonal, and mostly southbound, mail and rail would keep the run profitable. One English visitor wondered where all of this cargo could possibly be going. He approached a local leaning against a verandah post at the Esplanade Hotel. “Excuse me, sir,” he asked, “can you tell me what’s in the hinterland?” The local looked the tourist up and down, thought for a few seconds and replied: “Miles and miles of bugger all.”
* * *
p43The history of the Nor’-West is a chronicle of changing fortune. Ten years before Koombana’s first arrival in Port Hedland, the town did not exist. Fifty miles to the north-east, the little port of Condon was the hub of a new cattle district and seemed assured of a bright future. Indeed, had Condon looked down upon a deep blue sea, her future might have been bright. But she did not; she stared across the vast, varicose tidal maze of the Amphinome Shoals. For the new steamers the shoals were not navigable; Koombana and her kind would take the “outside track” around Bedout Island and avoid the area altogether. And because the inside track was now off limits, the heavy instruments of Condon’s demise would never venture near enough to witness it.
A long jetty had been planned but was never built. Here, as elsewhere, deep water was a long way off. And here, as elsewhere, locals knew from bitter experience that the wind respected neither edifice nor institution. Some also argued that Condon’s twenty-foot tidal range and hard, flat seabed made a jetty unnecessary. Steamers of a thousand tons could creep in on a high spring tide, drop anchor and wait for the sea to retire. At low tide, stock could be walked and vehicles driven directly to the vessel’s side.
For a time the cattle steamers kept coming, meeting teamsters and townsfolk on ground borrowed from the sea, but this unique intertidal handshake merely delayed the inevitable. In December 1911, The Hedland Advocate would record Condon’s arrival at a point of no return.
p44Old residents of Pilbarra have had their minds thrown back through the vista of years by one happening at Monday’s Licensing Court—there was no application for a renewal of the solitary wayside house license at Condon. At one time Condon boasted of the best-stocked stores in the Nor’-West, when fully licensed and unlicensed hotels did a roaring trade, steamers called, a large number of teamsters plied between the port and the inland fields, and quantities of wool annually left there. The place was so flourishing that in Sir John Forrest’s halcyon days a large sum of money was voted and plans prepared for building a huge jetty, but (tell it not in Gath!) the residents petitioned against it. Port Hedland was opened up, to Condon’s ruination—it will not now support a sly-grog shop. Vale Condon!
* * *
Koombana’s detour around Bedout Island cost a little in coal but nothing in time, because both her departure from Hedland and her arrival in Broome required a high tide. It was a leisurely passage of 24 hours, by the grace of the moon. Vindex wrote:
On a sea continuously calm, the ship glides on northward, passing Bedout Island, on which the new lighthouse shows prominently, and 24 hours after leaving Hedland has slipped into Roebuck Bay, while the tide is favourable, and tied up to a typical Nor’-West jetty. The ship, drawing 18ft. of water, is riding buoyantly as the discharge of cargo commences, yet six hours later passengers are walking round the boat and snapshotting her as she squats on the firm sand of the ocean bed. Every resident who comes down to meet the ship is in spotless white suit, and beyond in the bay coloured men are sitting on the decks of luggers and eating their midday meal. We are now at the show-place of the North-West, and the trip has been a breach of confidence if the stay of the boat does not allow of a run into town by the inevitable tramway, and an inspection of the semi-oriental settlement. But of Broome and its pearls more anon. Suffice it that at this point we are within three or four days of Java, and that the intervening sea scarcely shuts out the atmosphere and colour of the purpling East.
Like Vindex, Jim Low was intrigued by Broome. To Peggy he wrote:
I like this coast very well, or rather the section that we saw. The scenery isn’t much to boast of principally sand hills and small scrub and the various towns we touch at are somewhat primitive nearly all the buildings are of corrugated iron. Broome is the best of the lot there are some trees there, it is the big centre for the pearling industry of the Nor-West and there is a big fleet of pearling luggers there inhabited by a most cosmopolitan crowd. The smell of the pearl oysters isn’t so bad there as they open them at sea coming into port for the weekends. It p45is principally the shell they dive for. They don’t get so many pearls on the local banks but the shell is worth £150 to £200 a ton. A good deal of our cargo along the coast is shell, done up in cases and bags, for the home markets.
On her second Nor’-West run Koombana carried Premier Newton Moore, who came to the Nor’-West to see the ports for himself and to receive the pleas and petitions of the residents. Moore’s presence delivered a practical benefit to the crew: the schedule was relaxed a little to give the premier time to complete business and to attend events organised in his honour. At Broome, Jim took some time off and caught the tram into town. He later told Peggy:
A couple of us went ashore for a quick look around there one Sunday and met the Mayor in his shirt sleeves, drunk as an owl, insisted on doing the honours and showing us all the sights. We had a tremendous job to shake him. In the end he had to see the Premier a couple of hours afterwards and make a speech. I would like to have heard that speech.
In 1909 and 1910 Broome was at the peak of its prosperity. There was money to be made and every opportunity to spend it. Ships from north and south brought luxuries from afar: fine foods, whisky and champagne, p46cigars, silk, porcelain, furniture. Tropical fruit from Singapore sat beside grapes and peaches from the vineyards and orchards of the South-West. Japanese merchants imported from Japan for Japanese customers. Travelling salesmen called regularly and all local businesses, including the gambling dens and brothels, seemed to be thriving. The condition of the town made a lasting impression on Jim Low. A young engineer, he thought, could do very nicely here. Harriet Lenihan was also impressed; indeed, she could find no fault.
Prosperity seemed to suffuse the very air, and everyone was in good spirits. Even the great gangs of chained natives who passed me on the road seemed to be in gleeful mood. It is true that these chains are very little of a burthen, a fact to which I can bear personal witness, as the superintendent of Carnarvon Gaol kindly let me try them on. I bade good-bye to Broome—lovely, prosperous Broome—with regret.
* * *
From Cossack to Port Hedland to Broome, Koombana’s passengers had noted the ever-increasing rise and fall of the tide, but only those continuing north to Derby would witness its most spectacular manifestation. South-east of Cape Leveque, a chain of islands blocked the entrance to King Sound. Derby-bound steamers could detour around the islands and enter though the Sunday Strait, or negotiate one of the narrow channels separating the islands.
The Adelaide Steamship Company’s preference was for the narrow, fast-flowing Escape Pass. This was not reckless cost-cutting; it was a balancing of risk. Although the pass required skilful navigation, the shorter travel time allowed the ship’s master some flexibility. He could choose his moment. The steamer would enter the Pass on the first of the incoming tide and clear to open water before the maelstrom of “full flood,” when the current might reach ten knots and the sea rise two inches in a minute. Vindex wrote:
The ship is entering on a flowing tide, which at “high springs” rises and falls a maximum of 40ft., and the sea is like a vast mountain torrent as it rushes and swirls through the islands and over the reefs. You may see it on the weather side of a rock 3ft. higher than on the lee side, and it is a giddy sight to watch the boiling of the waters on all directions, as the immense volume of the tide rushes over the submerged obstacles.
Having gained the relative calm of the sound, a gentle four-hour run would bring the steamer to Point Torment, sixteen miles from the Derby pier. The ship would drop anchor here, to wait for the high tide needed to complete the journey. Derby boy Tom Ronan would later write:
There was no radio, of course, to inform of exact time of arrival, but the blacks up the Gulf at Point Torment would light fires when they p48saw a ship in the offing, someone in town would notice the smoke and inform the necessary authorities. The doctor would be told, and the shipping agent; the wharfinger, and the police corporal, who was also customs officer.
As Koombana slid through the last few miles and came alongside the pier at high tide, the scene failed to impress. There was no town to be seen, just a long jetty across what to Jim Low looked like “somebody’s orchard flooded.” Within a few hours even this picturesque image would escape, as if down some unseen plughole. “When the steamer tied up,” Vindex wrote, “the jetty was almost awash, but now the eye rests upon as ugly a picture of mud and mangrove as the imagination ever conceived.”
On Koombana’s first arrival Jim Low was struck by the keenness of the locals to come aboard. To Peggy he wrote:
At the various ports nearly everyone turns out to greet us. The droughts all line up for a cool drink while the ladies get shown round uttering incoherent ejaculations as each fresh marvel is displayed, potatoes peeled by electricity, dough mixing by electricity, knife cleaners, grub hoists, the automatic egg boilers where you set a little pointer to the number of minutes, and punctually to the second the egg is hoisted out of the water, till at the end they gasp like fish out of water.
Was it the boiled eggs or the young ladies left gasping? No matter! Mood and moment are captured in a wonderful letter from the young adventurer to the girl he would marry.
For Harriet Lenihan it was not mud and mangrove that made her first visit to Derby memorable. The schooner Namban had brought the news that native patients coming home from the islands would arrive by Koombana. Word had spread quickly. The jetty “swarmed with blacks,” she wrote, “sons were there to meet mothers, lovers to meet their old sweethearts, and sisters to meet sisters or brothers.”
Derby was always keen to present itself to visitors. Whenever the length of a ship’s stay permitted, passengers and crew were encouraged to travel into town. Vindex was pleasantly surprised by what he found at the end of this tramline.
The jetty and the marsh lead one to expect the worst, but instead here is a pretty little settlement whose one long street is filled with native trees. Trees and vegetation are on all sides, and in the private gardens one sees such exotics as cocoanut and date palms. But the most interesting of all vegetable adornments is the stately baobab tree, with its umbrageous branches, and butt of immense girth, tapering into a narrow neck until it bears resemblance to a giant ale bottle. The large nuts which the tree bears are fancifully carved by the natives, and sought after by curio-hunters. Truly there are worse places on the coast than Derby, the capital of West Kimberley.
Once it was known that Vindex was recording his impressions of the Nor’-West, and that his impressions would find their way into the pages of The West Australian, the citizens of Derby made sure that this visitor was well looked after, and well briefed on the district and its fertility. A few weeks later, their targeted kindness was repaid.
The gold rush to the Kimberleys in the eighties gave Derby its first lift, but now its dependence is on grazing, solely. Magnificent cattle p50stations are in the back country which the port serves, and thousands of head of stock are shipped here annually. The town has the best domestic water supply on the coast, and the soil, it is generally agreed, will grow anything with water and the approval of His Majesty The White Ant. The country at the back grows cattle faster than the consumer wants them, and the pastoralists are now considering a proposal to establish canning works at Derby to treat the surplus stock.
Harder times lay ahead. The people of Derby had learned to live with heat, white ants and crocodiles but, like their counterparts in Wyndham, would soon recognise the mosquito as the single greatest threat to their health and happiness.
Koombana first called at Derby in April 1909 but the residents of Wyndham, 500 miles further north and east, would wait another six months for a glimpse of the new ship. The final outpost was in an unusual situation: being closer to Singapore than to Fremantle, it received most of what it needed from the north. But as summer approached and the demand for southward passage increased, Koombana came to town.
For Harriet Lenihan, the voyage to Wyndham was entrancing.
Time after time we passed through narrow straits into a splendid expanse of sea, which narrowed again to a channel hardly wide enough, it seemed, to permit of the vessel’s passage. After passing this labyrinth of islets and rocks, the lovely scenery continued, but with wider spaces of open sea, so beautifully clear and calm that it seemed as if one could walk over it to the rocks.
Of the town she wrote:
The surroundings of this capital of the Furthest North looked very striking and picturesque, towering hills sheltering the little town, which nestles at the foot of one of these eminences. The township is only a small one—just a few houses, a store or two, an hotel, a post office, and a gaol—but like all the North-West, full, apparently, of an abounding prosperity. Doubtless, in the days to come this part of Western Australia will carry its teeming thousands, but to-day it is the great lone land, awaiting the touch of the enchanter’s wand to awaken it to its destiny.
Wyndham owed its “abounding prosperity” to two products of a great savanna grassland: beef and wool. Sheep and cattle had come to the Kimberley in the ’eighties, but from opposite directions. The first sheep were landed at Derby; the first cattle were pushed overland across the top of Australia in a droving enterprise of singular resolve and audacity. p51Thirty years on, the pioneering families still dominated the industry. The Kimberley, said Doug Moore of Ord River Station, was all “Sacks, blacks and Duracks.”
The pastoral leases were vast and unfenced. Noonkanbah and Liveringa each ran about 100,000 sheep on a million acres. There was no possibility of shearing such a flock using local labour, black or white, but the seasonal rhythm was fortuitous. Southerners could leave their properties at a quiet time, catch a steamer to Derby or Wyndham and support their own ventures by shearing for the magnates of the far north.
With its money-makers so widely scattered, the town of Wyndham would never match Broome for vibrancy, but its night air had a hum no less remarkable. To the light of every candle or lamp came a great jamboree of winged creatures; evening verandahs were shared with moths, resplendent beetles and even tiny bats. And after rain, flying ants in great swarms would alight upon anything and anyone, to crawl, skip and trip over one another, as if for the sole purpose of discarding their wings.
Balmy nights notwithstanding, station life in the remotest of locations was not for the faint-hearted. Doug Moore recalled:
The year 1911 was a very bad one for sickness. Malarial fever and Blackwater fever—the white men were all down to it and we lost 20 p52natives. Quinine we had plenty of, McKenzie’s fever mixture and we would mix up Gulf mixture—a recipe given us by Mrs. McAuley of the Stud Station. My mother became very sick—hot and feverish—and it was a great shock to my sister and I to see her slowly failing. Both of the rivers were running, and we sent a boy who swam the river and walked 90 miles to the post office at Turkey Creek with wires to the Doctor asking for instructions and what to give her. By the time the boy returned it was too late; my mother had died.
Never in my life have I seen men more helpful and sympathetic. The blacksmith and carpenter made a wonderful coffin out of the side boards of a new wagon, lined it with pure calico and all these men showed out in their true colours and deserve far more credit and thanks for their kindness to people in trouble than I could give and to white women they could never do enough for. They will always have my thanks and both my sister and I will never be able to thank these stockmen enough.
Of desire or necessity, the locals travelled south for relief from the fierce summer heat. Vindex wrote:
The squatter who deals in the golden fleece, migrates with the seasons as regularly as the swallow. In November and December, when the ardour of the sun begins to get oppressive he comes southward, and here he remains till the summer’s heat is past. Then, when Nature is throwing a mantle of green over the plains, when the flies have gone p53into retirement and the mosquitoes are at rest, when the north is said by northerners to be the mildest and balmiest in the world, when the flocks are being mustered and the garnering of the wool commences, the wealthy squatter goes north again to the land that pays him well.
As surely as life was tied to the seasons, it was shaped by the comings and goings of the steamers. In a late-summer letter to his mother, station manager Roy Phillips wrote:
Everything in the doldrums the last few weeks but people are all coming in for the Koombana now . . . Patsy Durack and his wife arrived last night and Lillas will leave for South on Saturday. She has the same affliction as assails most newlyweds and Patsy will be buying fizz to celebrate in a month or so. Her sister, Nellie, came in with them and is to marry Jack Martin, Manager of Ascot, on the day the boat sails.
When Koombana cast off from Wyndham jetty on February 16th, 1910, “Missie” Lenihan’s work was done. She later wrote:
As the last of my dusky charges filed off at Wyndham, each one carrying his or her government blanket, the girls resplendent in new gowns and bright ribbons, I said good-bye for ever to those whom I had watched and cared for for two years. Though to anyone taking up such work, the daily round is a dangerous and disagreeable one, yet I found that there were many bright points in the life of a savage, many fine qualities in the character of the Western Australian aboriginal. And when at last the Koombana steamed out from Wyndham on her return voyage south, and the last little band of my black girls waved me a last good-bye, and danced me a farewell dance, I felt, appalling as had been the work and the life, that I was well repaid by the affection of my blackfellow exiles.
After two eventful Nor’-West trips, Jim Low also travelled south in high spirits, confident that his work on this coast would be challenging and interesting. The settlements, it seemed, were as different each to the other as to the world from which they stood apart. Koombana’s arrivals would be keenly anticipated; he and his shipmates would be welcomed everywhere, as honoured guests or simply as friends. He had also found a town which appealed to him greatly, and in which he might one day settle.
For Vindex the southward journey was an opportunity to enjoy all that Koombana had to offer. His political reporting done, he could now write subjectively of all he had seen. He would gather his thoughts and confide to his readers that he too had been swayed by the rhythm of the north.