Escape Cliffs: Almost Northern Territory’s Capital

Hands up if you think you know the history of the Northern Territory at least in basic form? OK, now hands up who knows what the Capital of the Northern Territory is? Darwin of course … and I’m sure you all got that one right.  Now hands up who knows what the Northern Territory’s FIRST capital was (or should I say “was going to be”)?

No? No-one? Well nor did I, until yesterday. It was Escape Cliffs! And I doubt that many have even heard of it, right?

I made this discovery when reading up about a voyage that the brother of my great great grandma, Phebe Randell (nee Robbins) was on.

In the ‘tin of treasures’ (the one mentioned in my EVACUATE! post) that I’ve been going through, I found a letter that Abner Mark Robbins of Findon, South Australia (sometimes known as Abner, sometimes known as Mark) wrote to his sister Phebe Robbins in 1864, detailing the voyage he was about to embark upon to look for a suitable place for the “capital” in the Northern Territory.

page 1

page 1

page 2

page 2

page 3

page 3

You can click on the images above to enlarge them, but to make life easier I have transcribed it for you. Just a note, I have kept the out-of-place upper and lowercasing and spelling just as Abner himself did, but have added in some fullstops to help it make sense.

Sunday 6 Mar 1864
6 March

Dear Sifter,

I now take the opportunity of sending a few lines to you hoping they will finde you in good health as it leaves me at present[.] Mother is quite well and has been to Hindmarsh this morning[.] Mary Ann and Richard and family are all quite well[.] I am still in town with Commr Hutchison and he is going out For a six months voyage round to the Northern coast of Australasia to survey and pick our a place for the Capital of the new Northern Territory. And I am going with him[.] I think I shall like it very …. [unreadable]

page 2

when well we shall start some time about the latter end of this month in the Beatrice the Schooner that the Captain sails in. there will soon be a New Colony there[.] there is allready a large quantity of land taken up on the Road[.] There we shall sotop[sic] at Sydney and coming back so I shall see A little of the world.

There is a doctor going with us to collect specimens of Natural History. I shall have to go with him And be Dr Man to catch snakes and young crockodiles when we get there.

So no I have tolde you what

page 3

what I am going for [crossed out] you may write as soone you can let me know youre opinion and if you have any good advice to send me I shall be very thankful for it.

With these few lines I now conclude and Remain you Affectionarte Brother
AM Robbins

I think next Sunday will be the last Sunday at Home I shall have though I am not certain

Reading this letter I was under the impression that Abner Robbins was involved in finding a place for the City of Darwin. Wrong!!

After reading up about the history Darwin. When it was founded, who founded it etc. I realise that this wasn’t the case, as Darwin wasn’t settled until 1869.

The 1864 expedition was in fact the fourth attempt to create a settlement in the Northern Territory, and one that followed the footsteps of the earlier attempts and failed.

To discover more about this I headed to Google and Trove, and came up with details of the voyage in numerous articles. But it was a paper by Earl Bruester McDonald James A.M., titled “The Ill-fated Escape Cliffs (Northern Territory) Survey Expedition 1864-66” that really enlightened me.

In short, the project to settle at Escape Cliffs was abandoned about two years after it began as the area was deemed unsuitable. The Captain was recalled to South Australia, and a new survey then took place … and that was the beginning of Darwin!

I could make this a really long post, as it is a fascinating story. But instead I’ll direct you to further sources of information if you want to read more about this amazing story:

And for a history of Australia’s States and Territory boundaries as they evolved, be sure to check out this page on Wikipedia, it’s really interesting to see the states evolve.

So that’s my connection to a little piece of Australia’s history. And one that never knew existed until reading an old family letter!

3 Responses to “Escape Cliffs: Almost Northern Territory’s Capital”

  1. Pauleen says:

    Alona, isn’t it intriguing what we assume until research tells us otherwise. BTW Earl is a friend of ours so will have to send him your link. Pauleen

  2. DP says:

    See the new books “Escape Cliffs: The First Northern Territory Expedition 1864-69” and then “Darwin, 1869: The Second Northern Territory Expedition” both 2018.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *