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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

On This Day, 28 January; James Stirling's birthday

James Stirling isn't well known in eastern Australia (or indeed in his native Britain) but he was instrumental in the early days of the Swan River Colony, which we know better as Western Australia. A series of mighty French scientific expeditions to Australian had made nervous the British Admiralty, so the hitherto ignored western half of the continent suddenly became of interest in London and Sydney, and to forestall any undesirable ambitions the French may have had a settlement was proclaimed in 1826 at King George's Sound (site of modern Albany) on the south coast, to keep an eye on the sea lanes. The following year James Stirling, captain of the HMS Success, was sent to check out the Swan River, on the west coast, following reports by Dutch and French visitors. 

Stirling was a Scot, born in 1791 as the halfway point of his parents' 15 children! Entering the navy at age 12, he saw considerable fighting in the Americas. Things went quiet for him after Napoleon's defeat and he filled in time by marrying, touring the continent and having his own children. It was the French interest in the southern continent that revived his career. He liked what he saw on the Swan River and recommended that a colony be established there. Indeed he rhapsodised he even had a name for the colony – Hesperia, because it faced the setting sun! This was Greek, denoting ‘far western’, ultimately from Hesperus, the evening star, ie Venus. Hesperia was a nymph, one of the Hesperides who inhabited a fabulous peaceful garden somewhere in the far west. Neither the New South Wales governor or the British government were very enthusiastic, partly due to the cost, partly because the French seemed to have lost any interest they might have had. 
James Stirling, some time in the 1820s (ie probably before his governorship).
Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia.
Stirling, lobbying in London, tilted the balance by proposing that private enterprise bore the main cost, and finding some willing investors. The western third of the continent was claimed for the British crown in 1829. Stirling was instructed to ask the Aborigines if they minded; he was satisfied that they didn't…. All of Australia was now formally claimed by the British. The name of Perth was bestowed upon the town, it being the home of Sir George Murray, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Perth was formally proclaimed the Capital of the Swan River Country and the ceremony took the simple form of cutting down a gum tree – it all sounds pretty prophetic! 

For the next decade, except for a two year break, Stirling ruled the colony with little effective counter-balance. This is not the place for a detailed history, but it was not a happy time for anyone much; in his absence virtual war broke out with the indigenous inhabitants and savage retribution followed. English farming practices were inappropriate and many settlers were unwilling to adapt. There were also fundamental schisms based on the old class system. He resigned in 1837 and returned to naval duties, but maintained an active interest in the western colony. 

Unusually in the context of this blog, Stirling had little obvious interest in the natural world, but his name is forever associated with one of Western Australia's special places, as well as an interesting plant genus.

The Stirling Ranges, inland from Albany, were named by Surveyor Septimus Roe. They mark the tearing apart of Antarctica and Australia 54 million years ago, 'unzipping' from the west and pinching the land (then sea bed) to the east, compressing and hardening it, and squeezing it upwards. 
Stirling Ranges, from Central Lookout.
Photo courtesy Louise Maher.
Biologically this is a remarkable place; over 1500 plant species are known from the 115,000 hectare national park, including at least 87 known from nowhere else. It is also an important part of the program to reintroduce the seriously endangered Numbat Myrmecobius fasciatus to parts of its former range from which foxes have been removed. 
Signpost, western Stirling Ranges.
Below, Numbat, Perth Zoo.
 
Finally, among the many genera and species of the great Gondwanan plant family Proteaceae (Proteas, Grevilleas, Banksias etc) which are endemic to Western Australia is one dedicated to James Stirling. Stirlingia was published by the Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher in 1838, after it was realised that Robert Brown's earlier Simsia had already been used, and was hence not available. There are seven species, all restricted to the south-west. The best known is Blue Boy, Stirlingia latifolia.
Stirlingia latifolia, Badgingarra NP, above and below.
 

I would feel perfectly safe in offering you 500 guesses as to why the name 'Blue Boy'. It derives from the doubtless surprised observation that when sand from its vicinity is used to make cement, the cement turns blue!

And on that note I might wish James a happy birthday, and leave him and you to it.

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