Prologue to first hundred year of Canberra

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Prologue to first hundred year of Canberra

First 100 years of Canberra is now being celebrated but that is no excuse to ignore what happened before that or try to establish foundation for establishing Canberra in this fire-prone, hostile and fragile environment.  It was in 1606 when the Dutch ship Duyfken* sailed into the unknown land which was to be known later as Australia.  Europeans were still looking for Terra Australis Incognito and unknown to Willem Janszoon, Duyfken under his command, sailed close to Weipa on the west coast of York Peninsula. Torres was yet to sail through what is now known as Torres State between PNG and Australia.  That was the first time the world actually appreciated that there was the Great Southern Land.



It is well known that it was searching for a safe and short passage to India, in 15th century; much of the world was discovered.  Europeans were soon set out to claim land for themselves in the east and west.  In 1600 English East India Company, EIC, was formed followed by Dutch east India Company, VOC, two years later,  Soon Asia was the ground for claims by Spain, Portuguese, English, French, Danes and the Dutch, and they all had the Farman, the permission for trade granted by the Mughal court of India.  Sea trade route to Cathay was not yet firmly established by the Europeans, and India was the centre of trade at that time.  By 1750s India was already close to English take over, while Australia was still in the dark.


In his independence address of 2012, the President of India, Pranab Mukherji mentioned – “In 1750, seven years before the fateful battle of Plassey [in India], India had  24.5% of world’s Output while United Kingdom had only 1.9%.  In other word, one in four goods in the world market was manufactured in India.  By 1900, India had been left with only 1.7% of world Manufacturing Output and Britain had risen to 18.5%.”  This happened because EIC did not come to trade but king Charles the IV gave them the right of sovereignty, that is, they could raise their own army, issue their own coins and take over the land.  This resulted not only of takeover but total destruction of Indian crafts and industry


Following the Dutch, the first English to visit Australia was William Dampier, and his ship HMS Roebuck,* who landed on what is now known as Dirk Hartog Island in1699.  “Dampier was a poor pirate and not a very good captain, but he was a first class pilot and as a writer he introduced the Far East to Englishmen.”  [Frank Debenham]  Captain Cook on HMS Endeavour* discovered Australia’s East Coast in 1770 and claimed it for the English Crown.  Things changed after the American War of Independence


The Dutch first raised their flag on Australian soil but did not make any claim to it and so did Dampier who did not show any sign of wanting any claim either.  In 1748 John Campbell, in England, proposed a colony at a close proximity of the Spice Islands.  But it was a Frenchman, Charles de Brosses in 1756 proposed a colony to get rid of its unwanted citizens – the felons, foundlings, beggars, vagabonds and others. [Marjorie Bernard]


America was a safe place to send ‘enemies of the English society’ to.   Prisoners were sent at the rate of a thousand a year but the American War of Independence stopped all that.  During the battle of Chesapeake Bay, Francis Scott Key wrote his immortal poem which later became the National Anthem of USA., on board the Indian built sailing ship HMS Minden.  Soon the hulks on the River Thames* were overcrowded with prisoners and were a threat to public health and safety.  A plan was suggested by James Maria Matra, who was with Captain Cook on his trip to Australia and was also supported by Joseph Banks for transporting them to Australia.  Australia was the real solution for such a colony because it was the farthest from England, it was empty land and French were showing interest in Australia. The First Fleet of eleven ships left for Australia on 13th May 1787 under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip as Governor General.  His instructions were that the Aborigines should be treated with kindness and be civilized; and barter trade with them to be developed.  The ships were all ex EIC ships for trade with India. Occupation of Australia was a far cry from colonizing India.  The fleet arrived on 26th January, 1788 at Sydney Cove.  Australia Day, celebrating this first arrival in the Great South land and Indian’s  Republic Day are both celebrated on the same day right round the world.


The First fleet arrived almost broke.  They did not bring any currency for circulation.  EIC started minting their own coins in India at the same time.  First coins were of EIC and later with effigy of King Charles IIII.  The silver coins of Shah Alam, the last of Mughal Rulers, minted at Murshidabad, were withdrawn from India and shipped to Australia, along with Spanish dollars.  The Spanish currency was made into two coins, central punched-out piece as a dump and the outer ring as Holey Dollar.  However Shah Alam’s coin was used as a normal coin for circulation. *   


Things were not good for the EIC in India.  Corruption was rife amongst their own community and individual English was more interested in making his own fortune then in supporting the company.  Thomas Pitt returned to Madras (now Chennai) as the governor and made a fortune that would continue to his grandson and great grandson (William Pitt the younger).  India at that time was the only supplier of diamonds and Thomas Pitt bought the Pitt Diamond for £45,000 and sold it for £ 135,000.


Amongst many people who came to India to make fortune was a young Scottish Merchant by the name of Robert Campbell (1769-1846).  He became the partner of the Calcutta (now Kolkata) firm of Campbell, Clarke & Company in 1798 and by 1799 it was Campbell & Co.  Competing with EIC in India was matter of concern (Corruption?) so he moved to Australia conducting his business of importing grains and cattle from India.  He was provided with a freehand in trading, establishing his own Campbell’s Docks, which can be seen in Sydney.  During the floods of 1806, the crop of Hawkesbury Plains was lost and the new colony faced famine.  The Government commandeered Campbell’s Ship Sydney to get food from India.  The ship was lost and Campbell lodged a claim for compensation.


In the new colony the search for new lands for expansion continued.  Crossing the Great Dividing Range explorers, with the help of local Aborigines found their way to inland Australia.Governor Macquarie had already named Lake George.  From there Charles Thorsby Smith, Joseph Wilde and James Vaughan left on an expedition in search of the unknown river.  Following the Yass River they arrived at north of what is now Gungahlin, on 7th of December 1820 they arrived at the place which they named as Lime Stone Plains.  This is where today’s Canberra is located.  


This was the time to properly ‘define’ Australia.  In India it was George Everest who conducted the world’s greatest survey to define the boundary of India.  Australian coast was well chartered by Gook and later by Flinders and Bass, but there were still some gaps.  In 1819 HMS Cutter was bought from India and under the command of Lt. King Mermaid circumnavigated Australia and chartered the inner passage through Great Barrier Reef.*  A street in Red Hill is named after her.


Governor Macquarie reinstated Campbell in 1810.  After the discovery of Lime Stone Plains the first land grant was given to Joshua Moore in 1824.  He registered the title as Canberry. The old Royal Canberra Hospital was located where his homestead was which the location of the National Museum is now.  In 1825, after waiting for 19 years 400 acres of land was granted to Campbell occupying the present suburbs of Ainslie, Reed and Campbell.  He named it Duntroon,* after the Duntroon Castle of Scotland.  It was later acquired by Australian Government for the military college.  Robert Campbell stopped using convict labour and introduced his own gentlemen farmers.


Campbell established his own little settlement for farming community.  He built St. John’s Church, a house for the Glebe, a school, a post office and other necessary institutions.  With his gentlemen farmers he proceeded to form a close community village.  In 1901 the free colonies of Australia joined together to form new nation – One Nation One People [Parkes] 


The new federation of Australia required a new Capital, as centralised controlling centre.  During the 1901 congress of planners design for the new capital was discussed.  An idealised and romantic ‘picture’ was produced by Robert Coulter of Sydney on the bank of Lake George.* This romantic vision could have been anywhere, even in India.*  It was decided to have it in between Melbourne and Sydney to avoid the rivalry between the two large urban centres.  While Australia was contemplating on its new capital, England had already taken the control of Indian from EIC, and was also looking for a new Imperial capital.


It was in 1910 the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) held a conference on town planning and John Sulman presented his paper setting out the principles for design of a city for the capital of Australia. It was later in the same year that British decided to make a new capital for India at New Delhi.  Issue of the new capitals in two separate nations under the British became a self-contested competition.  In 1911 the Coronation Durbar at Delhi, with all pomp and show, unseen by the world, was organised to rival the Mughal magnificence.  The world soon forgot the publicity of Australia’s capital.  That was the first time British Monarch stepped on Indian soil.  In the durbar King-Emperor created the Queen the Knight Commander of the order of the Star of India.  Under all these publicity Australia’s new capital was almost forgotten.  While the new capital of New Delhi was to be the pride and power of the English crown; Australia’s capital was still facing controversy at home.  The King said in reply to the address at New Delhi “It is my desire that the planning and design of the public buildings to be erected will be considered with the greatest deliberation and care, so that the new creation may be in every way worthy of this ancient and beautiful city.” [Robert Grant Irvin].


During the site selection process while looking for the site of the new capital the Committee was most impressed with the setup of Duntroon.  This resulted in selecting Yass-Canberra site over Dalgety in 1908 by only eight votes.


An International Competition was organised to design the new capital of Australia and Walter Burley Griffin was awarded the first prize* for his interesting design promoting the Democratic nature of Australia in 1913.  It is only time will tell whether New Delhi, designed as an Imperial city, following the heritage trail of India is a sustainable and better place to live compared to democratic vision of Canberra which is still looking and searching for its image.   On 12th of March 1913, in presence of the Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher and King O’Mally, the Minister of Home Affairs; Lady Denman the wife of the Governor General announced – ‘I name the capital of Australia, Canberra.’ {Alan Fitzgerald]


That is the beginning of the first hundred years of Canberra that we are now celebrating.  


(*) – Illustration available