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Charles, Samuel (1818–1909)

Strnge fortunes have been made in Australia, and strange stories have been told of the manner of their making. But of these the fortunes made in mining, in wool-growing, in land speculation, and in trade, though by no means too common, have at least become commonplace. No person with colonial experience affects a surprise now at the stories of great financial successes on these lines. Though not entitled to rank among the very great financial successes, however, the story of the fortune of the Honourable Captain Charles is certainly out of the common groove, and may take a place apart. The story-teller of the future—upon whom every writer of biography and history appears to keep a considerate eye now-a-days—will find in the recital a novelty of incident which will perhaps prove a welcome if practical change from fabulous fortunes and over-gilded Arabian Nights luxuriousness of the apotheoses of colonial heroes to whom we have become accustomed. As a representative of an honest familiar type of popular representative, too, the story of Captain Charles will bear re-telling here.

Samuel Charles was born in the north of Ireland of an old Protestant settler- family. After receiving a good commercial education, he entered on a sea-faring life, which he followed with such application and ardour that in a comparatively short time he became captain of his own ship. Mr. Charles saw many strange ports and countries while pursuing his profession. In early life he traded to Owyhee in the Sandwich Islands—now Hawaii—and its capital, Honolulu. As a Pacific mail station this island has a special interest for us; but as a factor in history it has a still earlier claim. It was here that Captain Cook, the discoverer of the eastern coast of Australia, was killed by the natives on his third and last voyage. Captain Charles had the fortune to meet with an ancient native on one of his visits, who claimed to be an eye-witness of the event. A certain mystery has always surrounded the cause of this tragedy, as the reception of Cook and his party had been most cordial. The version contributed by Captain Charles gives us to understand that Cook landed some of his party on a part of the island sacred to the deities of the people, and on which stood one of their places of sacrifice. This profanation was heightened by the fact that the ships themselves had cast anchor in a part of the bay also sacred to a sea-deity whom the islanders appeared to hold in special reverence. With such a comprehensive Olympiad as these people seemed to boast of, it might well have been a difficult matter to a stranger to keep out of this kind of mischief. However, the priests resented the sacrilege, and persuaded their people that the summary sacrifice of Cook would alone appease the offended shades. He was sacrificed accordingly: and so far the story of the ancient islander of Captain Charles. Later on, our subject engaged in the Australian trade, and was the first person to open up a coaling trade with San Francisco, and captain of the first ship that took coal there, thus opening up a magnificent foreign market for one of our most valuable natural products. After experiencing nearly as many losses as profits on the uncertain seas, Captain Charles finally resolved to try his fortune on land. He therefore bought an estate near Kiama, on the South Coast, facing the Pacific, whose broad surface had been for him the field of so many adventurous quests during many changeful years, and there settled down. Here he made the large fortune that afterwards rewarded his speculation. The manner of its coming is peculiar, and quite characteristically Australian, but of the Australia of a past day. Mr. Charles first inspected the estate, approved, and came back to Sydney and concluded the purchase. As he left the office, another intending purchaser walked in, only to hear of his disappointment. For many years, quite unconscious of the strange wealth that lay at his door, the purchaser carried on a dairying industry on his new property. Every day as he walked abroad he idly kicked his fortune of the future from his path. It escaped more than one peril. A certain bishop of the Church of England had formed a fancy for that part of Captain Charles' estate that looked out upon the sea, as a site for a country residence. He offered the owner £25 per acre for twenty acres which he had bought for £60. The land was the rockiest and least valuable of his estate. His friends advised him to accept the offer. Fortunately for himself he declined what he himself considered an advantageous proposal. A short time after a shrewd speculator opened the worthy Captain's eyes to the fantastic value of those rough and apparently worthless whinstones lying by the water's edge ready for shipment. Captain Charles is now receiving a royalty of £1000 a-year from the sale of these stones for " metalling" the streets of Sydney. This is perhaps the most curious story of an Australian fortune on record.

Captain Charles represented the electorate of Kiama in the Legislative Assembly. He was opposed to Sir Henry Parkes during the greater part of this time. He took an active part in politics, and spoke on all the larger questions of the day. In 1881 he became a life member of the Legislative Council.

Original Publication

  • Australian Men of Mark, vol 1, 1889, pp 149-50

Citation details

'Charles, Samuel (1818–1909)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/charles-samuel-3196/text33269, accessed 18 August 2019.

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