Birth Pains: Establishing Darwin
Let’s start at the start. The Aborigines have lived in Australia for at least 40,000 years. Whoever was next to visit is somewhat doubtful, there are suggestions that a Chinese exploration fleet may have reached Australia’s shores in the 1400s. I rather believe that the Portuguese, great sailors and explorers, would have looked around in the 1500s - especially as their colony in Timor was a relative swim across the ocean and the Macassan fishermen were visiting from about that time: but the Portuguese were secretive and left few records. There is no doubt the Dutch visited in 1606 and their later explorers named Arnhem Land in 1623. Even the French, on lengthy scientific and exploratory voyages, travelled around the coasts in the early 1800s.
The British, focussed on asserting their colonial claims to the entire continent, were keen to pre-empt any other national aspirations, so establishing a colony at Australia’s “Top End” became a priority. In doing so, they ran into far more difficulties than they had to the south. Here’s the list of failed attempts at a colony:
● Fort Dundas, established on Melville Island in 1824 and abandoned in 1828
● Fort Wellington, at Raffles Bay, lasted only from 1827 to 1829
● Fort Victoria on the Cobourg Peninsula came closest to success, but still lasted only from 1838 to 1849.
● A settlement was established at Escape Cliffs, 75km from the present Darwin, in 1864 – it lasted only until 1867.
All the previous attempts to establish a colony had been military. In 1869 the new colony of Palmerston (later renamed Darwin) was established. South Australia had assumed responsibility for the north from New South Wales in 1863 and needed an administrative centre. The Palmerston colony (nothing to do with the new Darwin suburb of Palmerston) took on more significance in 1872 when the Overland Telegraph was built and an undersea cable connected Australia via Darwin to the rest of the world. Nothing remains of the first settlements and the ruins of Fort Victoria are quite inaccessible. Fortunately, on our trip through Arnhem Land we were able to see the marker cairn at Smith Point on the Cobourg Peninsula, erected in the 1840s to warn shipping headed for Fort Victoria of the location of a dangerous reef.