Port Essington - Culture and History

The ruins of Port Essington are located on the Cobourg Peninsula some 300 kilometres north of Darwin (570 km by road in a 4WD via Kakadu National Park). The peninsula was named by the explorer Phillip Parker King after Queen Victoria's uncle, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Cobourg. King also named the bay Port Essington after his friend Vice Admiral Sir William Essington.

The early history of the area is typical of the north coast of Australia. The first white person known to have explored the area was Peter Pieterzoon who sailed around the Cobourg Peninsula in 1636. He was followed by Abel Tasman in 1644 and Matthew Flinders in 1803.

The impulse to settle the northern extremity of Australia was largely driven by the prospect of a rival French settlement. The impulse was largely misguided because the area was extremely difficult to settle. The three unsuccessful British settlements give an idea of the problems which were caused by monsoonal weather, voracious wildlife, very unfriendly local Aborigines, and the lethargy which inevitably affects Europeans who try to work in the tropics.

Port Essington was actually chosen as the site of the first settlement but when the settlement party, led by Captain J. J. Gordon Bremer, arrived in 1824 they found that there was no fresh water and so, after three days, they moved to Melville Island where the settlement at Fort Dundas was established. The settlement lasted for four years before scurvy, tropical diseases, lack of fresh supplies, and antagonistic Aborigines forced it to be abandoned.

In 1827 a second attempt at a settlement was made by Captain James Stirling at Raffles Bay. The history of the settlement was a carbon copy of the problems at Fort Dundas and the settlement closed down after two years.

In 1837, against all common sense, the British government decided to try again and a settlement was established at Port Essington (officially known as Victoria). On 26 October 1838 Captain J. J. Gordon Bremer (who, by this time, must have been convinced that he was really out of luck when it came to leading expeditions) arrived at Port Essington. It was a military outpost and for the next eleven years was manned almost exclusively by Royal Marines. The population never exceeded 78 and the conditions were harsh.

In June 1839 Bremer had the good fortune to be posted to China to be part of the British forces during the Canton uprising. He never returned to the settlement which was smitten with fever and the problems which had beset the other settlements in the area.

Bremer was certainly not in the colony when a haggard and very bedraggled Ludwig Leichhardt arrived on 17 December 1845 having travelled over 4800 kilometres overland from Moreton Bay. It was Leichhardt's finest hour and when he returned to Sydney in March 1846 he was hailed as a hero.

The settlement was abandoned in 1849 and it wasn't until twenty years later that the successful settlement at Palmerston (the modern day site of Darwin) was established.

For over 100 years the ruins of Port Essington remained intact. Then in 1966 Dr. F. J. Allen carried out archaeological research at the settlement. What he found was a fascinating piece of early Northern Territory history.

Allen found that in the first 12 months the settlement, which had comprised of a hospital, officers quarters and 24 cottages had been a mixture of prefabricated buildings brought from Sydney and cottages built from local materials but lacking any real skill as the builders had lacked the necessary trade skills. The settlement was virtually wiped out by a cyclone in November, 1839 which meant that they had to start all over again.

The second phase involved the rebuilding of the settlement but this time the builders were assisted by a brick maker who had been shipwrecked during the cyclone. The result was a mixture of local materials (again rough hewn) with stone chimneys and some brick buildings including fortifications and a baker's oven.

The final phase of building occurred in 1844 when a group of convicts including trained masons and quarry men were stationed briefly at Port Essington. The skills of these tradesmen resulted in a beacon and a sophisticated hospital but it was all too late. The settlement was abandoned in 1849 and today it is nothing more than a fascinating collection of ruins. If you look carefully around the area you can see roadways, jetties, fences and bits of houses and cottages.

It is worth remembering that Thomas Huxley passed through the settlement just before it closed down in 1849 and left a graphic description of the sheer awfulness of Port Essington describing it as 'the most wretched, the climate the most unhealthy, the human beings the most uncomfortable and houses in a condition most decayed and rotten.'