Australia - International communication via Eastern.
The third cable - from Java to Roebuck Bay, W.A


1. Very early thoughts.

As described elsewhere, the first telegraph line in Western Australia - between Perth and Fremantle - was opened on 21 June 1869. By that time, there had been considerable discussion about the possibility of linking the Australian colonies to the "Mother Country". But within a few months of the first W.A. telegraphic connection, discussions were being held as to the possibility of that connection being made from Western Australia. Pessimistic? Yes - but worth of further discission.

The Inquirer of 13 October 1869 reported as follows:

"We hear that Governor Weld has introduced a discussion on the Anglo-Australian Telegraph proposal, as submitted to him during his brief sojourn in South Australia.

The interest here is concentrated, as may be supposed, on the route passing through this colony; but it is considerably cooled down by the knowledge that New South Wales and Queensland have already all but secured the Anglo-Australian link, and that there is little if any probability of the South Australian project seeing the light of day for many years hence. It is a proposal most unpromising on its own face, and one which the Government of Victoria or South Australia were never likely to subsidise.

The geographical position of our North-west coast as a point of landing, its proximity to the Dutch settlements, and other advantages, especially in timber and other materials to be found in the colony, were all highly favourable; but the projectors must be entirely ignorant of the serious dangers on the North-west coast to a submarine cable. Those well acquainted with the whole seaboard affirm — and we have some experience from our pearl shellers at Roebourne — that it is not possible to conceive of a coast more unfavourable and so full of obstacles to the laying down and safety of telegraph cables. But passing over this, the expense of maintenance, as shown by the projectors, is too costly to give encouragement to the scheme. Two thousand miles of aerial line from the landing in the North to South Australia, maintained at a cost of £10,000 a-year, and passing, with the exception of the settled districts in this colony, over country unoccupied, save by the wildest of the aborigines, where the line would constantly be exposed to danger!

Our Government must be alive to the important advantages we should derive through being brought into direct telegraphic communication with the Eastern colonies and would, there is little doubt, undertake a line from Perth to King George's Sound were the Sound connected, as it should be, being a mail packet station, with the Telegraph system at South Australia; but before this is consummated, the project for aerial lines will give place to one for a light submarine cable across the Great Bight.

The time is coming, no doubt, when a rival to the North-Eastern route for Anglo-Indian communication will take the field and indeed we hear of a company already projected in London to construct and lay a cable from England to India, Ceylon and West Australia (at King George's Sound). When this scheme gets nearer maturity, it will be found that a saving of probably a quarter of a million sterling is to be effected by landing the cable from Ceylon, not at the Sound, but at Rottnest, an island not many miles from the mainland and at the port of Fremantle, affording every natural safety; and that this colony is prepared to take up the communication there and carry it on to Albany, at its own expense".

Of course, the South Australian project "saw the light of day" within three years.


2. The difficulties with the position of the first cables.

The first (1872) and second (1879) cables between Banjoewangi and Port Darwin were revolutionary connections. The position and nature of the seabeds made the connections tenuous at best. Breakdowns were too frequent for connections which were so critically important. Given the scientific understanding of the time, the nature of the breakdowns could not be explained reliably. Indeed it would not be until the late 1950s that the implications of plate tectonics would explain the real causes.

It was considered that moving the cable a few hundred miles would overcome the problems of the breakages. The Eastern Extension Telegraph Company therefore decided to lay a third cable from Java to Australia - with a landing at Roebuck Bay (later called Broome) in Western Australia . That cable could then link with the Western Australian lines planned for the Kimberley region to be constructed from Perth. The far sighted telegraphic visionaries then saw messages could traverse the inter-colonial lines via Eucla to Adelaide and from there to the other Colonies and indeed to far north Queensland.


3. Suggestions for an alternate route within an emerging environment.

After only four years of operation of the Adelaide to Darwin line, the Sydney Evening News of 4 November 1876 reported:

Mr. Cracknell and the Duplicate Cable.

From Melbourne we have particulars of the contents of Mr. Cracknell's letter to the New South Wales Government, enclosing an offer for a duplicate cable from a company, and strongly recommending its immediate acceptance. The Eastern Extension Company is offering to duplicate the cable from Singapore to Banjoewangi for £21,780 per annum and from Banjoewangi to  North-west Cape, Western Australia, for £23,220.

Mr. Cracknell recommends that the cable from Singapore to Banjoewangi be arranged for at once, the cost of which to the colonies would be £14,520 for interest and £7,260 for renewal.

The cable from Banjoewangi to North-west Cape could follow if necessary.

It was not improbable, in Mr. Cracknell's opinion, that the Imperial Government would assist in the subsidies for the new cable from Singapore to Java, and the reduction of the present telegraphic charges to the colonies.   If this were carried out, there would be a duplicate line the whole way from London to Banjoewangi, as a new cable was almost completed from Penang and Rangoon and duplicate cables were being shipped for the Red Sea and Bombay sections.

The Western Australian of 24 November 1879 included very early comments from the Governor about the possibility of laying the duplicate cable to Western Australia. After some information about possible financing, the article goes on to note:

"With a duplicate cable starting from our north-western seaboard, it is believed that the line in course of construction to Eucla, there to join the South Australian line, will prove remunerative; and, if only for this reason, the colony is naturally anxious that the projected cable should start from our coast. It is also felt that until we have established direct telegraph communication, not with Adelaide, but with Asia and Europe, we shall not have attained our proper place in the circulation of knowledge, or our due relation to the civilisation of the world, or the prominence which our geographical position accords to us. Referring to this matter in his speech, His Excellency said: There is an old saying that it is bad policy to blacken boots and stop before you come to the polish. I think that in building the Eucla line we have blackened the boots; and if the proposed extension would make the whole thing pay, it would certainly be foolish on our part to stop short of the polish".


On 8 August 1883, the Inquirer reported that "Sir Julius Vogel, who has secured the right to lay additional telegraphic cables to the Australian Continent, is taking steps to float a company for the object of laying the cables from a point on the coast of Western Australia to Ceylon or Singapore, or to both places, thus bringing the Australian Colonies into direct telegraphic communication with Europe via Suez, Ceylon, Perth and Eucla. Sir Julius intends to effect a considerable reduction in the charges at present made for telegrams transmitted from England to Australia, and vice versa".


4. New initiatives and definite action.

During the significant time lapse following the first 1870s initiatives:

Further planning of a third cable was then possible within a context which was very different from that in the early 1870s.

The West Australian of 30 July 1888 noted:

"The Postmaster General and Superintendent of Telegraphs has handed us for publication the following telegram with reference to the new cable between Banjoiewangi and Western Australia from Mr. S. Knevitt, Manager of the Eastern Telegraph Extension Company at Adelaide:

"To Postmaster General, Perth.
s.s. Recorder has been ordered, when the duplicate cable has been restored, to go and sound the route for the new Java-Western Australian cable. The Colonial Office have undertaken to arrange with regard to obtaining landing rights for the new cable and the contract for its manufacture and laying has already been entered into. Please furnish this information to the Government and the Press".

It will thus be seen that the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company are, with all possible speed, taking steps to prevent a recurrence of the late stoppage of communication which has been and is still causing us and the colony generally such grave inconvenience".

On 5 September 1888, the Perth Inquirer published the following note from their London Correspondent:

"In my last letter I mentioned that the origin of the simultaneous rupture of the telegraphic cables was probably due to volcanic activity and, in consequence of the conversation I had with the Secretary of the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company, I called at their offices yesterday to learn what further information he might have for me as to this point.

I learned that after the Banjoewangi end of the broken cable had been safely grappled at a depth of 900 fathoms and buoyed for reattachment, the steamer proceeded to take up the Port Darwin portion. This, however, broke from the tension in raising and was lost so that a new cable had to be supplied and the broken fragment recovered. When the two ends are compared, and not till then, experts will be able to form their opinions as to the cause of the accident.

While on this subject I may inform you that the negotiations between the Telegraph Company, the Colonial Office and your Executive are rapidly proceeding. The idea at first appears to have been to ask for the landing rights at Beagle Bay, but inasmuch as the land line seems only to have been carried as far north as Roebuck Bay, the point arises that either the 150 miles between that point and Beagle Bay would have to be completed at once, or the landing take place at the nearest available spot to Roebuck Bay. The point is, of course, not one of great importance, as certainly it is to be hoped that no long time will be allowed to elapse before the entire circuit is completed as far as Port Darwin; so that, in case of accident, an alternative route of intercolonial communication may remain open.

The proposal of the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company has been so well received by the authorities that they have felt themselves justified in placing the order for the new cable to be laid to your coast, and the same, which will be nearly one thousand miles in length — about 950 miles I believe to be particular — is already in course of manufacture".

The boat appointed for that purpose will, immediately after recovering the lost portion of the now re-united cable and repairing the second, proceed to take soundings for the third, which, it is anticipated, will be about 2000 fathoms.

I must here interpolate a remark with respect to the projected Indo-Australian cable of Messrs. Millar Brothers to the effect that the recent annexation of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean by Captain May of H.M.S. Impérieuse, was made in view of its being carried into effect. Now, however, I suppose the matter will probably lapse".

In October 1888, a survey vessel was taking soundings along the proposed route which kept to the east of a direct line so as to avoid a very deep depression between Java and Australia.

A suitable landing place on the Western Australian coast was difficult to identify.

The first preference of the Western Australian Government was for the cable to be brought ashore at Derby in King Sound. As noted elsewhere, it was intended to complete construction of the the land line From Condon in the Pilbara region to Derby in 1889. There were however insuperable difficulties at the entrance to King Sound and so the constructors selected Beagle Bay as the most suitable spot at which to take the cable ashore. Unfortunately the nature of the country inland from Beagle Bay proved almost impassable - even the line to Derby was to pass south of that point - so Roebuck Bay, an inlet still further south, was selected. The Daily News of 17 January 1889 reported some additional information: "The Adelaide agent of the E.E. Company states that the Company's steamer 'Recorder' has surveyed the route from Banjoewangi (Java) to Roebuck Bay (W.A.) and found the soundings perfectly satisfactory. A landing-place has been fixed at about three miles north of Broome".

By early 1889, telegraph lines had almost reached Broome so direct telegraphic connection to Perth was almost a possibility. From Perth, communication had been established through the wires to Adelaide and the Eastern States about 11 years previously - on 8th December 1877 - and so was very reliable..

The Telegraph & Maintenance Company's S.S. Seine left London for Java with 970 nautical miles (about 1,120 miles) of the most improved design of cable. The Inquirer reported, with a dateline of 1 January 1889, that "the Eastern Extension Telegraph Company are diligently prosecuting the work of laying their new cable, the Australian terminus of which is Roebuck Bay, on the North-west coast. It is expected that the cable will be available for use by the end of February". A later note in the Inquirer of 27 February reported that the Seine had arrived in Roebuck Bay at 5:30 pm on 23 February having laid the new submarine cable.

The cost of the cable was about £120,000.

Once the cable had been completed, new issues had to be debated about use of the cable and the rates to be charged.