Synopsis: Fort Dundas was the first outpost of Europeans in Australia’s north. It was a British fortification manned in 1824, by soldiers, marines and convicts, and built by them on remote Melville Island. The fort lasted until February, 1829, when it was abandoned and left to the termites.
The fort’s purpose was twofold. First, it was a physical demonstration of Britain’s claim to the New Holland continent as far as longitude 129°E that excluded the Dutch and the French from starting similar colonies, and it was the first of a series of fortified locations around the coast. Second, it was promoted as the start of a British trading post that would become a second Singapore and compete with Batavia.
The settlement was named in a ceremony on 21 October 1824 but it was not a success. In its short existence, we have tales of great privation, survival, greed, piracy, slavery, murder, kidnapping, scurvy, and battles with the Indigenous inhabitants of the islands, the Tiwi. It was also the site of the first European wedding and the birth of the first European children in northern Australia.
None of the three military commandants who managed the outpost wanted to be there and all were gratefully relieved after their posting. They left behind thirty-four dead - victims of disease, poor diet and Tiwi spears. Others died when the crews of the fort’s supply ships were slaughtered and beheaded by Malay pirates on islands to the north. Two cabin boys from one of them, the Stedcombe, were enslaved by the pirates.
What happened at Fort Dundas and why it was abandoned has been largely untold. Nevertheless, it is one of the most engaging stories of nineteenth-century Australia, presented here in Derek Pugh’s usual captivating style.
Book Launch speech by Dr Matthew Stephen, NT Archives 23/3/17
Fort Dundas. The British in North Australia, 1824-29 If my memory is correct I first met Derek at Katherine High school in 1988. I was a PE & History Teacher and I think Derek was teaching Maths, Science, Health Geography and anything else that was asked of him. The Northern Territory has taken many of us on unexpected journeys to unexpected places. Both Derek and I have seen and learnt a great deal about the Northern Territory since then but certainly neither of us would have predicted that 29 years later we would be at the Northern Territory Archives Centre because he had authored a book about one of the most unexpected and little known places in Northern Territory history, Fort Dundas: 1824-29.
Derek’s history of Fort Dundas traces a fascinating but often overlooked part of Northern Territory history. It reminded me of my first Australian History tutorial and essay at Flinders University in 1981 which considered why New South Wales was settled in 1788. Was it just a penal colony conveniently on the other side of the world? Was it a part of British colonial official strategy to ensure that its ‘new’ discovery was settled and put out the grasp of the pesky French? Or was it an economic imperative, in particular to take advantage of the resource potential of Norfolk Island and its magnificent Pines that were thought to be ideal for mast making?
The British Colonial Office’s interests had not changed 36 years later when Fort Dundas was settled. The interrelated priorities of global trade, military strategy and colonisation remained the same. The idea that a ‘new’ Singapore on Australia’s North Coast could both secure the region for the British while at the same time drive a lucrative trade with the East Indies was just too attractive to ignore. The experience at Fort Dundas demonstrates how precarious this type of colonial adventurism could be. At best it was a lesson in how not to establish a colony!
Reading Derek’s account of Fort Dundas it is difficult to see how it was not just one mistake after another compounding into an inevitable failure. It does make you wonder about the British Colonial office and just how little planning went into an expedition to one of the most isolated parts of its empire. Why not try and settle a place you know almost nothing about, with people completely unacquainted and ill equipped to deal with the climate or terrain? Why not select people with none of the experience or skills necessary to live in tropics or engage with the Indigenous owners of the land? And then having decided to establish a new colony equip and supply them so poorly that survival was an achievement in itself.
For those of us who live in the Northern Territory today it is barely believable just how dire it must have been at Fort Dundas 1824-1829. The beauty of Derek’s account of Fort Dundas is that amidst this slow boat wreck of a colony he puts a human face on some of those who made British Colonialism possible in the most adverse of circumstances. It is a journey from misplaced optimism to incurable pessimism. Along the way we meet many of the Settlement’s leaders, soldiers, settlers and convicts who tried, and some of whom died, to make a go of Fort Dundas. One of the most interesting aspects of this history, given the Northern Territory history to follow, is that it provides a rare account of successful Aboriginal resistance to White settlement. And somewhat unexpectedly Derek’s history also raised a question that until now I had not seriously considered in my own history writing. What history is not improved by pirates? I don’t wish to steal any more Derek’s thunder. I will hand over to him but before doing so I want to congratulate him on his book, thank him for shining a light on this short but important episode in Northern Territory history, and finally recommend the book to you.
The remnants of a large stone building (8mX6m). Much of the stone was removed during the construction of the barge landing around 1940.
REVIEW Early in the nineteenth century the British tried to plant outposts on the Northern Territory coast. This proved to be the last burst of Imperial expansionism in Australia, designed to ensure that the whole of this great continent belonged to Britain alone and in hopes of generating trade from Asia. Now Derek Pugh’s book completes the story of Fort Dundas, first and most significant of the outposts, for it set the pattern or all three (outposts). Here the soldiers, marines and convicts of the garrison struggled to survive against the hostility of the land, the climate, the native Tiwi people, and an isolation beyond our modern imagination. In clear and popular style, Derek Pugh tells the epic story of this gallant and ultimately misguided attempt to plant the first settlement on the wild coast of the future Northern Territory. It is truly an essential part of Territory and Australian history, which should be known to all. Professor Alan Powell, Emeritus Professor of History Charles Darwin University