Inhabited for at least forty thousands years by the Aborigines, the first recorded sighting of the Northern Territory coastline was by William Jootszoon van Colster aboard the Dutch vessel Arnhem in 1623. Maccassan, and probably many other seamen, had visited the coast long before that time. The Dutch left a few names on the map such as Groote Eylandt, Vanderlin Island, Arnhem land, Cape Arnhem, Cape Keerweer, Van Diemen Gulf and the Gulf of Carpentaria, after Peter Carpenter, then governor of the VOC. In 1644 Abel Tasman sailed along the northern coast and named Cape Van Diemen on Melville Island. The French also named many sites along the coast. The interest shown by both the Dutch and French resulted in efforts by the British to settle the north of Australia long before many of the other colonies were established.
Soon after the establishment and settlement of Australia at Port Jackson, the first of several British settlements were made on the north coast, partly as a result of Philip Parker King's surveys. Fort Dundas, on Melville Island, was started 30 September 1824 by Captain James Gordon Bremer who arrived on the Tamar. He named the fort for Sir Philip Dundas, First Lord of the Admiralty.
The settlers and convicts soon found that the natives were anything but friendly. Apart from the problems with the Tiwi Aborigines there were the white ants and the occasional cyclone which made life rather difficult. The soil was good but there were no animals to do the heavy work. Water buffalo were imported from Timor and they became the nucleus of the herd which was later transferred to the Cobourg Peninsula.
In 1827 Major John Campbell arrived to take command but relations with the Aborigines deteriorated all the time. Dr John Gold and storekeeper John Green were speared to death. The fort was abandoned in 1828 and by February 1829 the Tiwi Aborigines were once again in control of their land.
On 18 June 1827, the twelfth anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, Fort Wellington, on the mainland at Raffles Bay, came into being when Captain James Stirling established another outpost on Cobourg Peninsula, after having rejected Croker Island. With four ships, supplies and men he was much better prepared than Bremer but here the Aborigines were even more troublesome. When Captain Stirling left, Captain Smyth took command. In September 1828 Captain Collet Barker arrived to take charge and for a while conditions improved. His convicts soon grew vegetables and fruit. Collet Barker was liked by the Malay fishermen and his own men who described him as honourable, just, indefatigable and dauntless.
Although there were still many problems to be solved it was decided in England that the settlement should be abandoned and Governor Darling was instructed accordingly. Both Fort Dundas and Fort Wellington were abandoned by 1829. Barker left reluctantly as he was convinced that permanent settlement was possible. Collet Barker was later murdered by Aborigines after swimming the River Murray in 1831.
Neither the Dutch, French nor anyone else had shown much interest in the north of Australia during those years, but the British government made a third attempt in 1838. This time it was Fort Victoria at Port Essington and by no other than Gordon Bremer on 27 October 1838. This time he had sailed in the Alligator and brought another two ships with supplies with him. During July 1839 the settlement was visited by Captain J.C. Wickham and the Beagle, in which Charles Darwin had sailed.
This time it seemed that all would be a success. Fruit and vegetables grew in profusion as did bananas, oranges, sugarcane and cotton. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge was confident too about the success of the settlement and made money available for a Church. After Bremer left in June 1839, the little town and the settlement began slowly to deteriorate.
In 1843 a migration scheme was hoped to bring both white and coloured migrants to the settlement. Cheap land for this purpose was advertised in Singapore and China but no interest was shown.
In 1846 Father Angelo Confalonieri became the first Catholic priest to come to the Northern Territory to establish the Church at Victoria. He died two years later without having been able to carry out his objectives. Victoria, and Fort Essington with it, was abandoned on 1 December 1849.
A fourth attempt at establishing a settlement on the north coast was made at Escape Cliffs, about 75 kilometres from present day Darwin, in 1864. This was a year after South Australia had gained control of the Northern Territory. After three disasters it was decided that this time it was going to be bigger and better than all the others before it. Some 250,000 acres of land were sold before anyone had arrived at the site.
Lieutenant Colonel Boyle Travers Finniss was appointed in March 1864 to take charge as Government Resident of the Northern Territory. On 28 June he, his son Frederick, surveyors, two women, forty officers and men went ashore. From the very start there were problems. Finniss had been advised to settle at Adam Bay but against protests insisted on Escape Cliffs.
Once again there were problems with the Aborigines and it was Finniss who gave the first order to 'shoot every bloody native you see'. Needless to say that it did not take long before the first white man was killed. Finniss' style of governing did not endear too many of the settlers and seven left in an open boat to start their own paradise but landed in Fremantle.
By the end of 1865, the South Australian government sent explorer John McKinlay up north to check out the area east of Adelaide River and find a better place for a settlement. With the onset of the wet season he and his men had a terrible time. They returned after five months without finding a suitable site.
Meanwhile Finniss had been recalled to Adelaide and summoned before a Royal Commission where he was censured and criticized. By 1867 Escape Cliffs was also abandoned. The Marananggu Aborigines had again a few years peace until George Woodroffe Goyder and his men arrived in 1869 to establish Darwin.