STIRLING, Sir James (1791-1865)

STIRLING, Sir James (1791-1865)
first governor of Western Australia
the fifth son of Andrew Stirling of Drumpellier, Lanarkshire, Scotland, was born there in January 1791, entered the navy in August 1803, and became a lieutenant in August 1809. In January 1826 he was given the command of the Success and in the following December, when reporting on the removal of a settlement on Melville Island in the north of Australia, he suggested taking possession of the land on the west of Australia near the Swan River. He pointed out that a colony in that position would have great opportunities for trade, and also the advisability of forestalling the French and Americans. On 17 January 1827 Stirling was sent from Sydney in the Success and arrived off the Swan River on 6 March. Stirling went up the river in boats and explored its course for some miles. He then sailed for King George's Sound, which was reached on 2 April, and he arrived in Sydney again on 15 April. His report so impressed Governor Darling (q.v.) that he strongly advised the English government that a settlement should be made as soon as possible. Stirling apparently took this dispatch to England himself, but the colonial office at first was averse to the proposal. However, a change of government took place, and on 5 November the admiralty was given instructions to send a ship to take possession of the country at or near the Swan River. Stirling was selected to take charge of the settlement, and for some time there was a doubt as to what was to be his exact position. He sailed on 6 February 1829 on the Parmelia, with a band of officials, and arrived on 1 June. It was not, however, until 18 June that he landed on the mainland and began the actual settlement of Western Australia. Stirling and his officers fixed the sites of Fremantle and Perth, and the surveyor-general was soon busy surveying the land so that grants could be made to the settlers who began to arrive almost at once.
The usual difficulties of a settlement of this kind were faced with courage, but unfortunately the Immigration scheme arranged by Thomas Peel (q.v.) was badly mismanaged and became a failure. On 20 January 1830 Stirling in a dispatch pointed out that the success of the colony practically depended on the right kind of immigrant being sent out; men who had been failures in England would be quite unlikely to prosper. He went on to say "I would earnestly request that for a few years the helpless and inefficient may be kept from the settlement, while to the active, industrious, and intelligent there may be assured with confidence a fair reward for their labours. This country may at no distant period absorb, with advantage to Great Britain and herself, an immense migration of persons, any great portion of which if sent forward too soon will ruin her prospects and their own". The winter of 1830 was extremely rainy, which increased the difficulties of the settlers who were increasing very much. It was found. necessary to throw open land where Bunbury now stands and also near King George's Sound. The government was vested solely in the hands of Stirling, who had little to guide him beyond a letter of instructions. On 5 March 1831 a commission was issued appointing him governor and commander-in-chief of Western Australia, and when this arrived Stirling called together a legislative council of which the first meeting was held in February 1832. The colony was faced with shortages of provisions and money, and in August 1832 the governor, at the request of the settlers, sailed for England to put its difficulties before the government. He did not return to Perth until August 1834 and in the meantime much progress had been made. It was known that he had been to some extent successful in his mission and his return was welcomed with rejoicing. Alterations in the system of government provided for an increase in the number of members of the legislative council, and also in the civil and military establishments. Revenue was to come from sale of crown lands and duties on spirits, supplemented by a grant from the Imperial treasury. The land laws were liberalized and precautions were taken by storing foodstuffs against future famine. The settlers, however, began to object to paying for their land, and it was even suggested that new settlers should each receive 2560 acres free. The land question was one of the causes of friction which arose between the council and the governor. The colony was, however, making some progress, evidence of which may be found in the establishment in 1837 of the Bank of Western Australia, which gave a distinct impetus to development. A fair amount of exploring was done in which Stirling himself took part, and when he resigned in December 1838 his leaving caused much regret.
Stirling again took up his naval duties and was in command of the Indies in the Mediterranean from October 1840 to June 1844, and the Howe from April 1847 to April 1850. He was commander-in-chief in the East Indies front January 1854 to February 1856, became vice-admiral on 22 August 1857 and admiral on 22 November 1862. He died at Guildford, England, on 22 April 1865. He married in 1823 Ellen Mangles, who predeceased him, and was survived by children. He was knighted on 3 April 1833.
Stirling was an excellent naval officer and an admirable governor. He has been accused of having been over sanguine, but his optimism was a source of strength in the conditions in which he found himself. He realized, however, that the colony could be successful only if the settlers were able and willing to work hard, and that there was no room for men who had failed in England. Like all the early Australian governors he was hampered to some extent by instructions from the colonial office, and he had the inevitable disagreements with the colonists and the legislative council, but he laid the foundations of Western Australia surely and well, and it was no fault of his that progress lagged for so long a period after.
W. R. O'Byrne, A Naval Biographical Dictionary; The Gentleman's Magazine, vol. I, 1865, p. 801; J. S. Battye, Western Australia, A History; G. F. Moore, Diary of Ten Years Eventful Life of an early Settler in Western Australia; Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. XII to XVI.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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