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Port Essington, NT

Fascinating ruins of an unsuccessful attempt to settle Australia's northern coast

Today the ruins of Victoria Settlement, sometimes known as Port Essington or just simply Victoria, are part of the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park on the Cobourg Peninsula. The importance of the settlement is that it was the third attempt by the British to settle the northern coast of Australia. The aim was to lay claim to the land and to ensure that other ambitious imperial countries - particularly France - did not establish a settlement in the area. By the time Victoria was established, two previous settlements had already been abandoned, Fort Dundas on Melville Island and Fort Wellington at nearby Raffles Bay. Today the ruins, remarkably well preserved but nothing more than ruins, can be inspected by joining a group tour. The area is part of the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park. Permits are needed to enter and it is jointly controlled by the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park and the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission.
Visiting the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park by car or boat is a major commitment. The drive from Darwin is 570 km, most of which is over a difficult unsealed road. The best option is to book into Seven Spirit Bay Lodge and take a tour to Victoria Settlement. There are also small cruises which leave from Black Point Ranger Station.

Location

The ruins of Victoria Settlement on Port Essington are located on the Cobourg Peninsula some 300 kilometres north of Darwin. It can be reached by plane and boat or by  4WD across a 570 km road from Darwin via Kakadu National Park).

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Origin of Name

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 Victoria Settlement was obviously named after Queen Victoria.

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Things to See and Do

Visiting Victoria Settlement
The Garig Gunak Barlu National Park and the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission have created excellent signage at the site. It is remarkably easy to follow (a photo of the sign is attached) the route around the ruins. The sign reads:

Ngardigawunyanggi
Victoria Settlement
Victoria Settlement was established in 1838 on the traditional lands of the Madjunbalmi clan of the Ngardigawunyanggi. It was a brave but futile attempt by the British Government to establish a small, isolated defence post on Australia's northern coast. Most of the ruins you can see here are the remains of the settlement.
By the time Victoria Settlement was established, two previous settlements had already been abandoned, Fort Dundas on Melville Island and Fort Wellington at nearby Raffles Bay.
Victoria Settlement brought major disruptions to the lives of local Aboriginal people and those posted here. There were benefits such as trade and friendship, but cultural misunderstandings and the introduction of new diseases also occurred.
Macassan fishermen who sailed from Sulawesi (Indonesia), benefited from increased trade.
Abandoned after 11 Years
Victoria Settlement was abandoned by the British in 1849. They gave their unwanted dogs, horses, cattle and spoiled tobacco to the local Aboriginal people in thanks for the help given during the decade of settlement.
The abandoned settlement was used at times by pearlers, pastoralists, salt gatherers, buffalo shooters and timber cutters. Macassan fishermen continued to visit the area regularly until they were banned from Australia in 1906.
In 1981 Cobourg Peninsula and this Heritage Place became part of Garig Gunak Barlu National Park. Madjunbalmi descendants and other traditional Aboriginal owners play an important role in the area's joint management.

Ruins Walk
This walk takes you through the ruins of Victoria Settlement
Time: Allow 2 hours
Distance: 3.7 km
Grade: Easy

Safety and Comfort
* Carry and drink plenty of water
* Wear a shady hat, sun screen and insect repellant
* Wear suitable clothing and footwear
* Avoid strenuous activity during the heat of the day
* Don't walk alone

Please Remember
* Victoria Settlement is a declared Heritage Place and is protected under the Heritage Conservation Act, 1991.
* All cultural items and wildlife are protected

There is a map on the sign which identifies 15 places of interest on the 3.7 km walk around the ruins.
1. Later Ruins - John Lewis came overland from Pine Creek in the early 1870s aiming to provide buffalo meat to Darwin. A few flagging stones are all that remain of his cottages.
2. Aboriginal Midden - Containing the remains of past meals. It can be identified by shell fragments and a dense vegetation cover.
3. Magazine
4. Government House - One of Australia's earliest elevated dwellings. Originally placed on stone piers to avoid levelling the ground, the building was cooler and more resistant to termites.
5. Married Quarters
6. Smithy
7. Jetty - In 1938 a cyclone destroyed the jetty and damaged many buildings.
8. Saw pit, Kiln and Well
9. Hospital - At times the hospital was crowded with over half the garrison desperately ill.
10. Aboriginal Midden
11. Quartermaster's store
12. Lime kiln
13. Cemetery - Malaria took the lives of almost a quarter of the residents.
14. Garden
15. Kiln

How to Get There
Check out these sites. They all offer tours:
(a) Seven Spirit Bay - accommodation and tour - https://sevenspiritbay.com.au.
(b) Outback Spirit - https://www.outbackspirittours.com.au/tours/arnhem-land-wilderness-adventure.
(c) Venture North - departing from Black Point - https://venturenorth.com.au/more-information/blackpoint.

Cobourg Peninsula and Garig Gunak Barlu National Park
There are tours from Darwin to the area but for those who wish to travel to the area by car or boat a permit is required. It can be obtained from Black Point Ranger Station, NT. Tel: (08) 8979 0244. The only accommodation available in the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park are cabins near the Ranger Station at Black Point and they should be pre-booked when applying for entry to the Park.

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Other Attractions in the Area

The Complex History of the Ruins
Port Essington, and the township which was variously known as Victoria or Victoria Settlement, was the third unsuccessful attempt by the British to settle the northern coastline of Australia. The previous attempts at Raffles Bay and Fort Dundas had been short-lived. The Victoria Settlement lasted for a decade and became quite famous when a haggard and exhausted 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 and Port Essington became an isolated location of significance.
The impulse to settle the northern extremity of Australia was driven by the misguided belief that an important trading settlement like Singapore could be established. Trade with South East Asia was a desirable goal. It was hoped that the local trepang (also known as sea cucumber or beche de mer) industry led by Macassan fishermen would lead to an important export market. Equally it was feared that France, Holland and even the USA, had colonial ambitions in northern Australia and the British wanted to establish a presence as quickly as possible.
The problems, many of which still exist today, were prohibitive. Monsoonal weather ("The Wet" was unbearable), dangerous wildlife (it is still impossible to swim in Port Essington courtesy of the presence of crocodiles and bull sharks), less than friendly local Aborigines, and the lethargy which inevitably affects Europeans who try to work in the tropics.
Port Essington had been chosen as the site of the first settlement in the area 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 had been made by Captain James Stirling at Raffles Bay. The history of the settlement was the same as that at Fort Dundas and the settlement lasted only  two years.
In 1837 the British government decided to try again and a settlement was established once again at Port Essington. It was officially known as Victoria. On 26 October 1838 Captain J. J. Gordon Bremer 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.
At the site there is an account of the early years: "A series of setbacks began with a severe cyclone in 1839. It completely destroyed many of the buildings and they were never rebuilt. The carefully constructed jetty had been badly damaged and valuable time was lost in the repair and salvage of boats and buildings. The expected trepang industry never fully developed and vessels rarely called here because it was too far from the trading routes. In the years to come the garden's output declined due to termites and other insect pests, rats, and the harsh climate and poor soils. Malaria and other diseases took their toll on both the British settlers and Aboriginal people who camped nearby. Essential supply ships failed to arrive and the settlement continued to suffer. Fears of foreign interest in northern Australia provided unfounded and even the strategic value of Victoria Settlement disappeared. Instead of living in a thriving township, the occupants found themselves struggling to survive. On 30 November 1849, just 11 years after their arrival, the British abandoned Victoria."
This is a rather over-pessimistic vision. Another sign at the site records: "Central to the township was Victoria Square, a meeting place and parade ground. It was bordered by small houses each with its own garden of tropical fruits and vegetables. A general store, bakery and town garden supplemented the settlers' food. Nearby was a church, hospital and blacksmith's shop. Members of the garrison spent much of their time tending the gardens. Water buffalo, Banteng cattle and Timor ponies were introduced from Indonesia and successfully adapted to their new environment. Each year the Macassans visited the northern coastline in their praus to fish for trepang. Relationships with the local Aboriginal people were good and from their camps around the settlement they provided the garrison with important foodstuffs in return for clothing, bread, rice and tobacco. Activities such as play performances and garrison drills on Victoria Square were organised by Captain McArthur, and when visiting ships arrived, boating regattas and cricket matches livened the settlement. Notable visitors during this time were the crews of two French survey ships in 1839 and the famed explorer Ludwig Leichhardt in 1846."
It was twenty years after the abandonment of Port Essington that a successful settlement at Palmerston (the modern day site of Darwin) was established.
In 1966 Dr. F. J. "Jack" Allen carried out archaeological research at the settlement. It was the first professional excavation of a European site in Australia. He 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 had been virtually wiped out by a cyclone in November, 1839.
The settlement was slowly rebuilt but the second time the builders were assisted by a brick maker who had been shipwrecked during the cyclone. The result was a mixture of local materials 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.
Thomas Huxley, the famous English anthropologist and biologist, passed through the settlement just before it closed down in 1849 and left a graphic description 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."

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History

* The original and continuing inhabitants of the area are the Madjunbalmi clan of the Ngardigawunyanggi First Nation people.

* The first European known to have explored the area was Peter Pieterzoon who sailed around the Cobourg Peninsula in 1636.

* Abel Tasman explored the area in 1644.

* Matthew Flinders sailed around the coast in 1803.

*In 1824 Captain J. J. Gordon Bremer reached Port Essington and found that there was no fresh water and so, after three days, moved to Melville Island where the settlement at Fort Dundas was established.

* The settlement at Fort Dundas lasted until 1828 when a combination of scurvy, tropical diseases, lack of fresh supplies, and antagonistic locals forced it to be abandoned.

*In 1828 a second attempt at a settlement was made by Captain James Stirling at Raffles Bay. The settlement closed down after two years.

*In 1837 a settlement was established at Port Essington (officially known as Victoria). On 26 October 1838 Captain J. J. Gordon Bremer 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 was posted to China to be part of the British forces during the Canton uprising.

* The settlement was virtually wiped out by a cyclone in November, 1839.

* In 1844 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 being built.

* On 17 December 1845, having travelled over 4800 kilometres overland from Moreton Bay, Ludwig Leichhardt reached Port Essington.

* Leichhardt returned to Sydney in March 1846 and was hailed a hero.

* Thomas Huxley passed through the settlement 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.'

* The settlement was abandoned in 1849.

* In 1906 Macassan fishermen were banned from using the site.

* In 1966 Dr. F. J. Allen carried out archaeological research at the settlement. He 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.

* In 1981 Cobourg Peninsula and this Heritage Place became part of Garig Gunak Barlu National Park.

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Visitor Information

Seven Spirit Bay, Garig Gunak Barlu National Park,  tel: 1800 688 222 or https://sevenspiritbay.com.au.

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Accommodation

Seven Spirit Bay, Garig Gunak Barlu National Park,  tel: 1800 688 222 or https://sevenspiritbay.com.au.

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