Home to the world’s oldest living culture, the Northern Territory’s history is a rich tapestry of interwoven traditions and lives, all played out against an ancient landscape of rock formations, monsoonal forests and desert sands. Aboriginal society has the longest continuous cultural history in the world. Settlement in Arnhem Land dates back more than 50,000 years and the region’s Yolngu people still live semi-traditional lives. At the time of British settlement in 1788 at least 300,000 Aboriginal people, speaking approximately 250 languages, inhabited Australia.
More than 80 indigenous language groups live in the Northern Territory, with approximately 40 indigenous languages still spoken today. The largest language groups include the Red Centre’s Arrernte, Pitjantjatjara and Warlpiri and east Arnhem Land’s Yolngu. Approximately 50 percent of the Northern Territory is Aboriginal land.
Darwin is the only Australian location to have been a major WWII battlefield. More bombs were dropped there than at Pearl Harbour. On February 19, 1942, it endured the first and worst of 64 Japanese air raids that took place over two years and resulted in 243 deaths, including many civilians. The city was bombed to near devastation. To this day, Darwin maintains a major military presence.
Significant WWII historical sites in Darwin include the Wharf Precinct, the WWII oil storage tunnels, Bicentennial Park, the Darwin Military Museum at East Point, the Aviation Heritage Centre and Burnett House at Myilly Point. War history can also be revisited at the Tiwi Islands, Adelaide River, Katherine and Alice Springs.
European Exploration and Settlement
The first European contact with the people of northern Australia was between the Dutch and the Tiwis in 1705. In 1824, the British established the first European settlement in the Northern Territory at Fort Dundas on Melville Island, one of the Tiwi Islands, but abandoned it five years later.
Darwin Harbour was discovered in 1839 by John Lort Stokes, Captain of the Beagle, who named it after former shipmate Charles Darwin. Darwin was founded in 1869. In 1871, Alice Springs was established as a repeater station on the Overland Telegraph line between Adelaide and Darwin. The line, completed in 1872, connected Australia to the world and opened up settlement in the NT as never before.
Makassan trepangers from Sulawesi in Indonesia visited the coast of northern Australia for centuries to fish for trepang, commonly known as sea cucumbers. Trepang was used for its healing properties in pharmaceuticals and was believed to be an aphrodisiac.
For centuries Makassans traded with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, including the Yolngu of Arnhem Land, to supply the markets of Southern China. This was the first recorded trade between inhabitants of mainland Australia and nearby Asia. This trade has influenced the language, art, economy and genetics of the people of Northern Australia.