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Western Australian history: The next assignments: Address to the History Council of Western Australia

Bolton, G. (2005) Western Australian history: The next assignments: Address to the History Council of Western Australia. History Australia, 2 (2). 48-1-48-7.

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When Pope Alexander VI in 1494 divided the world between Portuguese and Spanish spheres of influence he can never have imagined that he was creating Western Australia. By placing the dividing line of longitude at a point which would give Brazil to Portugal he inadvertently ensured that the western third of the then unknown Australian continent would lie in the Portuguese zone while the rest went to Spain. Three centuries later when the British asserted sovereignty over Australia they at first laid claim only to the former Spanish sphere of influence, at first east of longitude 135 and subsequently as far as the ‘Pope’s line’ at longitude 129 degrees. It has been suggested that the failure to annex Western Australia was due to respect for the British East India Company, who could be seen as inheriting the shadowy Portuguese entitlement in the Indian Ocean region. When in 1826 Governor Darling eventually sent a garrison to show the flag at King Georges Sound, now the site of Albany, the East India Company’s authority had waned and it seemed necessary to discourage foreign powers from laying claim to Western Australia. Soon afterwards Captain James Stirling established the Swan River Colony and Western Australia was defined as all that part of the continent lying west of longitude 129 east. For much of its length this boundary line has some justification, as the Nullarbor Plain and the Great Sandy Desert are geographic features which might well foster a sense of separateness; however there is little logic in dividing the Kimberley district from the western part of the Northern Territory. Nevertheless Western Australia has been defined by ‘the Pope’s line’ for close on two centuries and has been the subject matter of historians for more than one century. Nearly all of them have remarked that one of the most obvious defining features of Western Australia has been a sense of isolation, not only from the rest of Australia but from the rest of the world.

Publication Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation: Vice Chancellery
Publisher: Australian History Association
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