Northern Territory Early History

Phillip Parker King - Port Essington 1818
Fort Dundas - Melville Island 1824
Fort Wellington - Coburg Peninsula 1827 - 1829

Captain James Stirling (founder of Perth WA) selected the site for Fort Wellington at Raffles Bay on the Cobourg Peninsular - proclaimed on Waterloo Day 18 June 1827. Capt. HG Smyth appointed commandant - 30 soldiers of the Buffs, 14 Royal Marines, 13 Royal Navy other ranks and 22 convicts from Sydney (Grenville Pike see below)

Smyth succeeded by Capt. Collett Barker (Commandant of Solitude, Mulvaney & Green 1991 see below)
Macassans arrive in 1828 & 29 Wet Seasons

Early 1829 Fort Wellington abandoned - in the following year Macassan trepangers and their families arrived to join the settlement and begin Dry Season trepanging but the settlement was deserted.

Victoria Settlement - Port Essington 1838 - 1849

Captain Gordon Bremer had originally visited Port Essington and rejected it for lack of water in favour of Melville Island. Glenelg - then secretary of state for the colonies under Melbourne  - was under pressure to re-invigorate the notion of northern trading centre and he selected Port Essington as the site and Captain Bremer as the man to make it happen. Bremer left once again set out from Sydney for the north coast in September 1838 in command of a fleet including HMS Alligator, HMS Britomart under Capt. Owen Stanley and the transport Orontes - Capt. John McArthur was to be the commandant of the new settlement. A town of 1,280 acres was planned but land sales in 1841 & 1844 failed. In November 1839 an early cyclone flattened the settlement - HMS Pelorus was driven aground with the loss of a dozen lives - a whaler from Britomart under Captain Owen Stanley rescued the survivors. She was dis-masted, buried in mud, re-floated and back in commission within months - then to Sydney and in July 1840 she was off to the First Opium War.

In J.G. Knight's 'The Northern Territory of South Australia' he includes G.R. McMinn's brief account of the early history in which he writes "The settlement at Port Essington was established by the Imperial Government as a military post and harbour of refuge for distressed vessels. It received no support from private settlers, and consequently secured very little public attention. No attempt appears to have been made to test the producing capabilities of the country. This establishment existed for 19 years, and was finally abandoned in 1850. It was during the period of occupation that Leichardt made his memorable journey from Sydney to Port Essington."(The Settlement pp10)

Escape Cliffs

Some of the most important names in Australian exploration are associated with the discovery of the Adelaide River and the site of South Australia's first colony. 

They were surveying aboard the world's most famous ship of science, HMS Beagle, which had carried Charles Darwin on the pivotal five year journey around the world in search of the origin of species.

​Many of the crew from that voyage (Wickham, Stokes, Fitzmaurice & Forsyth) were still with the Beagle for the Third Voyage which furnished Admiralty Charts of much of the Australian coast and made discoveries including Port  Darwin - the Fitzroy, Adelaide, Victoria and Fitzmaurice Rivers.

They also charted Bass Strait, the north coast of Tasmania and the southern coast of Victoria, including the entrance and significant areas of Port Phillip Bay.

Picture   July 24th 1862 – SLSA B63407

​Charles Darwin had been with the Beagle surveying southern Australia but was no longer among the ship's company when, on 27th July 1839, Commander Wickham anchored her in a broad bay off Clarence Strait.

Wickham ​straight away dispersed his men to search for a great river to carry exploration into the dark interior which would not be crossed until John McDouall Stuart reached the north coast on 24th July 1862.

​Stuart believed that the had travelled through the valley of the Adelaide River and recommended the site for a commemorative northern capital but had mistaken it for the Mary River.

The location of the blazed tree in Chambers Bay was not resolved for many years and this led many to doubt the veracity of Stuart's claim to have been first to cross the continent from south to north. It was found by A/Government Resident & one time resident of Escape Cliffs - Gilbert McMinn in 1883 and photographed by his companion Inspector Paul Foelsche. (Gilbert's brother William was on the Forlorn Hope's epic voyage.)

Stokes' Journal - Discoveries in Australia continues:-​

"Impatient to learn the truth, Mr. Fitzmaurice was despatched to examine the head of the bay, whilst the ship was moved towards it, anchoring againone mile North-West from a very remarkable patch of low red cliffs (which from startling circumstances, hereafter to be related, were called Escape Cliffs)……On returning to the ship we found that Mr. Fitzmaurice had arrived, bringing the expected, and very gratifying intelligence, that a large river with two branches, running South-East and South, with a depth of four fathoms, emptied itself into the head of the bay."
​They had discovered the Adelaide River which they named for the Queen Dowager and Adam Bay for Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Adam. It was to become the site of South Australia’s first attempt at a Northern Capital for its Northern Territory and would be called Palmerston - the original name for Darwin City &  today the name of her satellite city. Sagas of triumph & disaster - not without their lighter moments.


SLSA B-72713-2 'Escape Cliffs, NT looking south' 1899-1918 a


SLSA B-72713-5 'Escape Cliffs NT looking north east'
"An exploring party, however, was at once formed, consisting of Captain Wickham, Lieutenant Emery, and Mr. Helpman, who - the next day being Sunday - did not leave before the morning of the 29th, with two boats and four days' provisions". They were to voyage more than 100kms up river past Goat Island and on through the 'S' bends to the extent of dry season navigation below where the Marraki Road now crosses the stream.