The first British naval man to see Darwin harbour was the very same Lieutenant John Lort Stokes of HMS Beagle in 1839. In Discoveries in Australia, Volume 2, Stokes wrote of the moment in enormous detail. “Before the veil of darkness was quite removed, we could faintly distinguish the mouth of the opening; and the sight at daylight was most cheering. A white bay appearing between two white cliffy heads and stretching away to a great distance, presented itself to our view. Far to the southward, between the heads, rose a small table-topped hill”.
The ship's captain John Wickham agreed to name the port after Charles Darwin, the naturalist who had sailed with both the captain and Stokes on the earlier expeditions of the Beagle.
The Beagle finally went home to Britain in 1843, having completed her tasks of surveying and naming about half of the Australian coastline. On this final trip, the officers and crew had been away for six long years.
The Northern Territory was initially settled and administered by South Australia. In February 1869 George Goyder, Surveyor-General of South Australia, established a small settlement of 135 people at Port Darwin. Goyder named the settlement Palmerston, after the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston. It is not clear whether Goyder knew the name Stokes had given the place, way back in 1839. Perhaps he assumed that the name just related to the harbour, not to the new settlement?
In 1870, the first poles for the Overland Telegraph were erected in Darwin, connecting Australia to the rest of Australia and to other countries. The discovery of gold at Pine Creek in the 1880s further boosted the young colony's development. But until its transfer to the Commonwealth in 1911, the northern most city remained Palmerston. Only in 1911 did Darwin became the city's official name.
Dictionary of World Place Names Derived from British Names by Adrian Room tells us that Charles Darwin didn’t travel far enough in Australia to see Darwin town. He died, an elderly man, in 1882. But that very same year his son Leonard Darwin, still in the army, led an expedition for the Royal Geographical Society to observe the Transit of Venus. The group spent some time in Palmerston!
The Art Gallery of New South Wales is hosting a conference called Charles Darwin and The Art of Evolution (9th Sep 2010). It will explore the impact of Darwin’s theories upon art and other visual cultures and the ways they, in turn, illuminate intriguing dimensions of his theories. The conference will begin by exploring Charles Darwin’s ventures in Australia through art, his contact with indigenous peoples and his collection of 92 Australian species.