Sunday, August 31, 2008

port essington

We all went out on the boat looking for marine creatures. Apart from the abundant crocodiles we also spotted a snub-nosed dolphin, sea turtles and manta rays.

Our destination was the abandoned ruins at Port Essington, also known as Port Victoria. The story of this port is a classic tale of the Brits and their bungled attempts to settle on the northern coastline of Australia.

The peninsula was named by the explorer Phillip Parker King ( the chap who mistook crocodiles for alligators ) 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, so he was a bit of a sycophant as well as misguided.

The impulse to settle the northern extremity of Australia was largely driven by the prospect of a rival French settlement. There were three unsuccessful British settlements in the area. Problems 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 organising 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. This lasted a mere 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 closed down after two years

You would assume that they would be getting the message by now, but far from it- off they went again......

In 1837 the British government decided to try again and a settlement was established at Port Essington . In 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.

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 were amateurs. It would have been too much to bring some qualified construction workers obviously.

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 ( unlucky sod!). 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 and today it is nothing more than a collection of ruins.

The 2 hour walk around the settlement in light cotton clothing was sweltering, so it is easy to see how the residents in their heavy woollen uniforms and clothing failed to thrive. We had a welcome break in the partial shade sitting on all their tombstones.

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.'

1 comment:

Ted Whiteaker said...

I have been reading up on the history of that era, and enjoyed your tale.

The misery of the settlers at Victoria the settlement is well expressed in this quote:

“Leichardt recorded that on reaching Port Essington, and announcing that Gilbert had been speared to death on the journey, an unnamed marine broke down in despair, for he had volunteered to go to Port Essington with the explicit intention of killing Gilbert when the latter arrived there for having seduced the marine’s sister.”

History can be very absorbing and amusing from a removed context...