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Charles Darwin never visited northern Australia. But there are Darwinian connections. In early September 1819, one of Australia’s most accomplished navigators, Phillip Parker King in the cutter HMS Mermaid sailed through the stretch of waters to be later named the Beagle Gulf, along the eastern borders of the Timor Sea. Seven years latter King as the commander of HMS Adventure accompanied HMS Beagle on her first voyage of surveys around South America (1826-30). In charge of the Beagle was Captain Pringle Stokes, who killed himself afflicted by depression. After his tragic death captain Robert Fitzroy was appointed as Beagle’s commander.
The second voyage of the Beagle (1831-36) took young Charles Darwin and Robert Fitzroy on a momentous journey around the world. Lieutenant John Clement Wickham, one of the officers on this memorable journey later became the Beagle’s commander. He took the Beagle on her third voyage (1837-1843) to carry out marine surveys of Australian coastal waters. It was Wickham, who in September 1839 steered the Beagle into a spacious harbour. He named it Port Darwin in memory of his companion with whom he previously circumnavigated the world. And Wickham was not alone. The second in command was Lieutenant John Lort Stokes (not related to Pringle Stokes) who had served on all three voyages of the Beagle, and who subsequently succeeded Wickham as the Beagle’s commander in 1841.
Larrakia Aboriginal people who live around Port Darwin were used to sailing ships. They had previously encountered Europeans when Dutch sailors explored these waters 200 years earlier. They also engaged in trade with annual fisherman visitors from Makassar for a few hundred years. And a small colonial outpost, Palmerston, was established there in the mid nineteenth century. From the mid 1860s the prospect of telegraph, linking Australia to Southeast Asia and, ultimately to England, began transforming into reality. Accordingly, Palmerstone grew in importance. A discovery of gold followed in the footsteps of construction of the overland telegraph line that linked Palmerston with the southern and eastern Australian colonial centres. Indeed the tradition has it that the precious metal was discovered while digging holes for the telegraph poles. Palmerstone was renamed Darwin in 1911, growing into an important administrative centre.
In 1878 the Australian Museum collector Alexander Morton assembled a substantial collection of biological specimens and Aboriginal artefacts in the Port Darwin area. As it happened, the collection of artefacts was made when it was still possible to document some aspects of the old Larrakia tradition, but unfortunately just in time to be included, partially, in the international World Exposition held in Sydney in 1879-80. It is assumed that this collection was largely destroyed in the fire of 1882 that incinerated the Exposition venue, the Garden Palace. It is possible, however, that in the confusion of this tragic event some artefacts may have survived destruction and may be still in our collection.