Port Essington is an inlet and historic site located on the Cobourg Peninsula in the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory. It was the site of an early attempt at British settlement, but now exists only as a remote series of ruins.
In the early 19th century, the British government became interested in establishing a settlement on Australia's northern coastline in order to facilitate trade with Asia. In 1824, Port Essington was proposed as the first such settlement, but was later passed over in favour of Fort Dundas on Melville Island and Fort Wellington at Raffles Bay. In 1831, a small station was constructed in the area, in the hope of using it as a stopping point for ships, but it was rarely used. When both Fort Dundas and Fort Wellington failed within several years, the Port Essington site was revisited. As a result, a settlement, officially named Victoria Settlement after the young Queen Victoria, but popularly known as Port Essington, was surveyed by Charles Tyers in 1838, consisting of 24 houses and a hospital.
On 24 August 1839, the only play ever staged in Port Essington was performed, the 1797 comedy in five acts Cheap Living by Frederick Reynolds. The set and costume design was by Owen Stanley (1811–1850). The play was performed again in 2010 with a grant from the Government of the Northern Territory, with Tom Pauling, Administrator of the Northern Territory, acting as narrator in the play.
While the British government intended to establish Port Essington as a major trading port, along the lines of Singapore, the new settlement suffered from the same adverse conditions that had previously plagued Fort Dundas and Fort Wellington. The settlement lacked resources and supplies and skilled labour. While some prefabricated buildings were brought from Sydney, many had to be built with what materials could be found in the area, and due to the unskilled nature of the builders, many of these were of poor quality. Disease was also rampant among the small population, and living conditions were poor. Consequently, it struggled to attract settlers, and the post was much-disliked by the troops stationed there.
Port Essington suffered a further setback when the settlement was demolished by a cyclone on 25 November 1839. The cyclone killed twelve people, drove the ship HMS Pelorus aground, and caused a 3.2 metre storm surge. The settlement was rebuilt afterwards, with some stone and brick buildings, due to the assistance of a brick maker who had been shipwrecked during the storm.
Despite these setbacks, there was still widespread hope that Port Essington may be able to break the curse, as evidenced by Ludwig Leichhardt's 1844/1845 expedition. The New South Wales government had hoped to establish a direct line of communication with Asia, India and the Pacific, and supported Leichhardt's journey, which successfully charted an overland route between Moreton Bay (now Brisbane) and Port Essington.
In 1844, a group of convicts, which included trained masons and quarry men among them, was stationed at Port Essington. They were able to build a hospital of some quality at a beacon. This was followed by the 1846 decision of Father Angelo Confalonieri to found a Catholic mission nearby, in an attempt to convert the local population. He had some success, converting around 400 people, but he died of fever in 1848, and the mission died with him. Port Essington was still failing to attract settlers, and it was becoming increasingly clear both that the 1844 works had come too late, and that the settlement was unsustainable. Soon before its closure, British scientist Thomas Huxley wrote that Port Essington was "most wretched, the climate the most unhealthy, the human beings the most uncomfortable and houses in a condition most decayed and rotten".
Finally, in 1849, Port Essington was, like the two previous attempts, abandoned. The demise of the settlement saw the end of British attempts at occupying the north coast. There would be one further unsuccessful attempt, by the South Australian colonial government and Frederick Henry Litchfield in 1864, at Escape Cliffs (also known as Palmerston) near the mouth of the Adelaide River, before the first permanent settlement was established at Darwin (also initially known as Palmerston), in 1869.
The ruins of Port Essington still exist today, and while access is difficult, it is possible to do so by several means. It is possible to fly in through tours that can be arranged in Darwin, or to travel to the area alone by four-wheel drive or boat – although, as the ruins lie on Aboriginal land, a permit must be obtained first. Cabins and some camping sites are available at Black Point Ranger Station.
- Port Essington Travel Fact Sheet, The Sydney Morning Herald (2 December 2010)
- "Victoria's secrets reveal death and noble failure" by Mark Day, The Australian (30 October 2010). Accessed 9 April 2011
- "Owen Stanley", Dictionary of Australian Artists Online, 25 February 2011. Accessed 9 April 2011
- "Art Grants Awarded To Territorians", Media release by Gerry McCarthy, Government of the Northern Territory (18 June 2010). Accessed 9 April 2011
- Cobourg Peninsular historic sites: Gurig National Park. Darwin, N.T. Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory. 1999–2000. 7 volumes
v. 1. Cobourg Peninsular historic sites conservation plan – v. 2. Executive summary – v. 3. Raffles Bay heritage precinct – v. 4. Victoria Settlement heritage precinct – v. 5. Port Essington heritage precinct – v. 6. Cape Don Lighthouse complex – v. 7. Cobourg Peninsular historic sites original reference documentation. Record at the National Library of Australia
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Port Essington, Northern Territory.|
- Photographs in 2009 from Northern Territory Library
- Bibliography from Northern Territory Library (subscription required)
- Search for historic photos on Port Essington