In 1644 Abel Tasman became the first European to officially sight the island although he incorrectly assumed that it was part of the northern coast of Australia.
In 1818 Phillip Parker King, the son of NSW Governor Philip Gidley King, explored the island. King found to his surprise that the Aborigines knew some Portuguese words suggesting that they had made contact with Portuguese sailors and that a Portuguese ship had possibly been wrecked nearby. King named the island after Viscount Melville.
King sailed between Bathurst and Melville Islands and was the first European to discover the dangers of the changing tides in the narrow Apsley Strait. The mangroves on the coast and the low wooded hills were hardly inviting but this did not stop the government.
In 1824, convinced of the need to establish a settlement on the north coast of Australia, the British government sent a party to settle the area. Under the leadership of Captain J.J.G. Bremer three vessels left Port Jackson on 24 August, 1824. They arrived at Port Essington on 20 September and, determined to lay claim to the area, declared that the north coast of Australia from 129° to 135° east was a British colony.
On 26 September the party landed at King Cove and over the next month a settlement was built. On 21 October it was named Fort Dundas.
There was no reason, beyond a vague notion that the French or Dutch may lay claim to the region, to settle the area. This became very obvious when sickness, attacks from the local Aborigines and pirates, and dissension over policies caused pressures in the community. By 1826 the post was being wound down and it was officially closed in 1829. Today the site of Fort Dundas is known as Pularumpi and is home to a community of about 300 Tiwi people
It has long been thought that the wild buffalo which exist on the island were feral versions of buffalo brought by the Fort Dundas settlers. Certainly by the 1890s the herd had grown to such a size that they were hunted for their hides.
Like Bathurst Island in 1978 the ownership of Melville Island was formally handed back to the Tiwi people and today the island is run by the Tiwi Land Council. It is said that the word 'Tiwi' means 'people; we, the people; or, perhaps, we, the chosen people'. Certainly the Tiwi people are distinctively different in both their culture and personality to mainland Aborigines.