Almost as inaccessible today as it was in the 19th century, the vast inlet which once hosted a lonely outpost of the British Empire still holds dazzling surprises for intrepid visitors. Equipped with necessary permits, travellers can arrive overland by 4WD (in the Dry), 'yachties' can sail in ~ or, for a more refined experience, visitors can arrive by air at a secluded eco-wilderness resort!

Part of today's 4,500 Garig Gunak Barlu National Park at the tip of the Top End, the settlement of Victoria was Leichhardt's destination in 1845. Today it is a forlorn collection of ruins in the scrub on the southwest coast of a protected body of water much larger than Sydney Harbour. Arrival at the ruins is only by sea, preferably after a call at the Park Rangers' station at Black Point, on the northeast peninsula. The Park is administered by the Parks & Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory and the Iwaidja people.

Port Essington 1839 chart B57 300W thumb

The Cobourg Peninsula reaches out from Arnhem Land and, together with the Tiwi Islands to tthe west, encloses the huge body of water of Van Diemen Gulf northeast of Darwin.

Port Essington is a 35km-long inlet on the north side of the peninsula, opening to the Arafura Sea.

Surveyed by Lt Charles Tyers of HMS Alligator in 1838, this later edition of the Port Essington nautical chart indicates the location of the ruins of the "former gov't settlement" about half-way down the west coast of the southern bay.

Click on the chart to see a larger version.

Port Essington c1845 WikiCommons Proj.Gutenberg 300W thumb Artist's portrayal of part of the settlement in 1845, which included a hospital, bakery, Governor's residence, cottages, kilns, wells, gardens, and military buildings including a magazine, troops' quarters and an officers' mess. (Click to see larger)
New-Victoria Atlas pittoresque pl 118 300W thumb This lithograph was published in the 'Atlas Pittoresque' and shows the view seaward down Port Essington, with some of the (rare) visiting ships anchored beyond the jetty and a variety of small craft on the secluded waters of the bay. (Click to see larger)
New-Victoria Atlas pittoresque pl 120 300W thumb Another elegant lithograph from the Atlas depicts the variety of buildings around the cleared grounds of the settlement, referring to it as 'New Victoria' ~ perhaps to distinguish it from the plethora of other locations bearing Her Majesty's name! (Click to see larger)

Port Essington today

The experiment of settlement at Victoria was neither happy nor lasting, the remote outpost dogged by its isolation, dependence on the sea for re-supply and communication, frequent outbreaks of disease and cruel extremes of tropical weather.

Scarcely eight years after its establishment, it was completely destroyed by a cyclone in November 1839 and laboriously rebuilt, partly by convict labour. When the appearance of Leichhardt and the remains of his bedraggled party startled the occupants late in 1845, there was a brief flurry of hope for the settlement's future. Surely now the demonstrated overland route from the southeast might create new links and incentives? But it was not to be and, four years later, the ailing settlement was finally abandoned. You can find an interesting summary of the Port Essington story here.

In addition to its tourist attractions, Port Essington has been immortalised in print and music (yes, again! ~ see also 'Dr Leichhardt's March' for piano here). Here we have gathered three eclectic examples to whet your appetite: something for archaeologists, for sailors, and for music-lovers!

 SUP Port-Essington study FC 200W

A fascinating archaeological examination of the ruins of Victoria was undertaken by Jim Allen in 1966, and was republished as part of a series of monographs in 2008 by Sydney University Press

With broad appeal as a reference book to students and practitioners of historical archaeology and to people interested in Australian colonial history, the 140 pages of this A4-size softback include more than 110 maps, drawings and photos.

Find out more, and order your copy by clicking here.


The December 2013 issue of Cruising Helmsman magazine included a colourful feature by Liz Coleman about a visit which she and husband Steve had made to Port Essington on their yacht, while en-route from Sydney to Darwin. "Nothing could prepare me for the surprise we encountered," wrote Liz of their first sighting of the huge waterway, before going on to describe their walk around the ruins and other features of the scenic region.

Click on the cover image to read the article PDF (3.2MB).

PortEssington Peter-Sculthorpe cover Russell-Drysdale painting 300W

The 15-minute, six-part Peter Sculthorpe piece titled "Port Essington" for string trio and string orchestra was commissioned by Musica Viva Australia for the Australian Chamber Orchestra and first performed at the University of Queensland in August 1977. The cover featured one of Russell Drysdale's paintings, and the score was described as "absolutely sterling ...  accessible yet boldly original, conceptually fascinating and musically compelling" by The New York Times.

It was not Sculthorpe's first musical connection, however.

Peter Sculthorpe ABC 300W

Peter's 1977 piece evolved from a 1974 composition, titled simply "Essington" and written for a four-part ABC TV feature film with a script by Thomas Keneally. That score was co-composed with Michael Hannan and David Matthews, and adapted from an Aboriginal melody "Djilile" (whistling-duck on a billabong) from a recording collected in northern Australia in the late 1950s.

You can find out more about the life and prolific work of Peter Sculthorpe AO OBE by clicking here.

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