Date of Award
Schools and Centres
Arts & Sciences
Dr Deborah Gare
This study of Fremantle during the first decade of British settlement at Swan River investigates the trauma and triumph of its female colonists. In this outpost of empire, British women hoped for a better life, with greater economic and social freedoms, and a promising future for their families. They faced many challenges to achieve these aspirations.
On their journey to Swan River they experienced the cramped conditions on board the emigrant ships that bred disease and discontent amongst passengers. Some suffered from violence, and loss was a part of everyday life. Loss of belongings and livestock in rough seas hampered their prosperity in the new settlement. Loss of children, husbands or guardians, while emotionally devastating, could have ended women’s colonial experiment before even reaching Fremantle.
Upon arrival at Swan River, female colonists were met with a sandy, barren, disappointment of their expectations. Fremantle in 1829 to 1832 was not the Arcadian paradise many emigrants had hoped. Living in hot, sandy, pest-ridden tents on the beaches of Fremantle, female colonists had to uphold the propriety of daily life. They cared for children, assisted their husbands, and worked in the domestic sphere. Their fear of the local Nyungah Aboriginal people was ever-present, as was the constant threat of illness, accident and loss of life. A number of colonists left Fremantle during these harsh early years.
From 1833, conditions at Fremantle improved. Economic stability ushered in greater freedoms for female colonists. Land ownership and business opportunities became available. Domestic servants could demand higher wages and better working conditions in these sturdier conditions. With the progress of the colonial economy, Fremantle developed as a town. An increase in institutions such as schools encouraged a burgeoning sense of colonial identity and sense of community at Fremantle. Although the period was marked with increased frontier conflict with the Nyungah people, most major clashes occurred outside of Fremantle.
The development of Fremantle, and the resulting achievements of female colonists in 1839 lay in stark contrast to the conditions of earlier settlement. Emigrant women’s initial aspirations and goals for settlement were mostly fulfilled by the end of the first decade of colonisation at Swan River. The colony was prosperous: land ownership and business opportunities were realised, colonial identity and social advancement were possible and Fremantle held realistic potential as a strong future for female colonist’s families.
Church, T. (2011). Sand and skirts: A study of British women in early colonial Fremantle, 1829-39 (Honours dissertation). University of Notre Dame Australia, Fremantle, WA.