Think of Australia’s Top End and you’re likely to imagine crocodile-infested waterways, wild buffalo grazing among the melaleuca, white-bellied sea eagles riding the thermals, huge barramundi just waiting to be caught. Few people would expect brick chimney stacks standing defiantly in the blazing sun and tufts of grass sprouting through the mortar. Yet, on the remote Cobourg Peninsula – at the northern end of the Northern Territory – are the remains of a colonial settlement, optimistically established in 1838 and abandoned eleven years later. A haunting testament to the British government’s determination to claim this part of Australia for the Crown, and the naivety of their mission.
The remains of Victoria Settlement at Port Essington, lie on the traditional lands of the Madjunbalmi clan, some 300 km north east of Darwin, in the rugged wilderness of the Garig Gunak Barlu National Park. Practically unreachable by road, but a very manageable one-hour boat ride from Seven Spirit Bay wilderness lodge. We come ashore on a white sandy beach, just as the settlers would have done, but I’m in shorts and a breathable cotton shirt, plenty of water in my backpack, a picnic lunch waiting for me back in the boat. The first 36 marines to set foot here would have been in woollen uniforms, their wives and children – some of them fresh from England – more suitably attired for a stroll along the Thames than the hostile tropical bushland. They were ill-prepared for the extreme hardships that lay ahead in this alien landscape.
Victoria as the settlement was stoically named, was the British government’s third attempt to get a foothold on the northern coast of Australia. Two previous endeavours at nearby Raffles Bay and Melville Island had failed, but the government was eager to establish a garrison to thwart the colonial ambitions of their European rivals: the Dutch and the French. There were also hopes the settlement at Port Essington, would develop into a trading hub – akin to Singapore.
The reality was very different. The colonial contingent arrived in the dry season, and the fresh water streams, promised on the survey maps, were nowhere to be found. It was only with the help of the local clan that the settlement got off the ground at all. But the industrious settlers managed to transform the harsh landscape into a tiny English village within a year – building a church, a Governor’s house, cottages with shingled rooves. Cricket matches were played and sailing regattas were held. Then came the cyclone. The settlement was completely devastated, ships were wrecked and eight people drowned. Victoria was eventually rebuilt, but far from prospering, the lonely settlement stagnated. An entire year would pass without a single sail being sighted in the harbour. Disease, food shortages and isolation proved too much. World’s End as the remote enclave had been dubbed was finally abandoned in 1849. By then the graves apparently outnumbered the survivors, and the burnt-out buildings were left to the buffalo hunters and sea cucumber traders.
The 3.7 km walk through the remains of Victoria offers an eerie glimpse into the life of the settlement, with many of the buildings in surprisingly good condition. The magazine where munitions were stored, hunkers into a hillside overlooking Port Essington, and could almost be mistaken for a modern holiday home with commanding views of the bay. Further along the track is a row of Cornish style chimneys. The remains of the married men’s quarters might appear incongruous – out here among the acacia trees and eucalypts – but the brickwork remains sound. The grass is making inroads into the old hospital and a wild pig has taken up residence in the kiln, but the locally quarried ironstone and mortar – made from fired shells and coral – have stood the test of time, even if the colony itself didn’t.
A solitary monument in the old cemetery is perhaps the most poignant sight on the walk. Set against a backdrop of tangled vines, the structure marks the graves of an officer’s wife and her child. Emma Lambrick sailed from Dublin to the far-flung settlement in 1844, where her lieutenant husband was appointed second in command and quartermaster, but tragedy soon struck. A son, born on the sea voyage, died not long after they arrived. Emma succumbed to fever the following year, while another infant son met the same fate just a month later. Malaria went on to claim a quarter of Victoria’s population – grave-digging becoming the settlement’s biggest occupation. English biologist Thomas Huxley who visited Port Essington just before its final demise, described the settlement as ‘most wretched… the human beings the most uncomfortable and houses in a condition most decayed and rotten.’
German explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt, had a very different view of the isolated outpost. He led an overland expedition from the colony of Moreton Bay, in South East Queensland, some 4800 km away. Despite being given up for dead, his starving band of explorers finally staggered through the heat haze and into Victoria settlement in 1845, over a year after setting out to map a route to the north. Leichhardt broke down in tears at the sight of the thatched rooves. After spending a month at the settlement to regain his strength, he returned to a hero’s welcome in Sydney.
There were other bright spots in the history of Port Essington. Our guide Lachlan shows us a chunk of heavy glass on the beach near the garrison’s ruined pier. The base of a champagne bottle, he explains. According to journals from the time, two French research ships appeared in the bay not long after the settlement was established. Instead of loading the cannons, the marines invited their imperial rivals ashore. Bottles of champagne and fancy wine were drunk late into the night before the French bid adieu. The chunks of glass on the beach, according to our guide, are evidence of the 19thcentury knees-up.
The relationship between the settlers and the local clans adds another intriguing layer to the story of Port Essington. In contrast to frontier wars that dominate much of Australia’s colonial history, relations here were reportedly harmonious. Five clans lived on the Cobourg Peninsula at the time, trading with the settlers. The marines developed a deep respect for the people who clearly understood their environment. One officer noting in his journal the extraordinary precision indigenous people found their way through the bush. ‘Far better than we could have done with the best compasses ever made.’
When the government finally called time on Victoria settlement and the last of the ships set sail, the departing marines apparently performed a kangaroo dance. A celebration that their misery was finally at an end, and a tribute, perhaps, to the people who had helped them survive in this unforgiving landscape.