How Darwin got its name

How Darwin got its name

Written by: Cameron Ward

Published: 10/11/2019

Reading time: 3 mins

European settlers first reached Darwin in 1839, but the city wasn’t always named Darwin.

When European sailors reached Darwin in 1839 aboard the HMS Beagle, captain Lt. John Lort Stokes named the harbour after his previous shipmate; the naturalist, geologist and biologist, Charles Darwin. The story isn’t that simple though!

Charles Darwin

Sixty-nine years after the first European settlement in Australia, Darwin’s harbour was spotted. After reaching land, the captain and his lieutenant named the port ‘Darwin’ after their former shipmate Charles Darwin. The trio had met when Darwin took a five-year voyage around the globe, observing geology around the world.

Naming the land

Thirty years after Port Darwin was first found and named by Europeans, they sent the first settlement of people to live there. The settlement was named Palmerston after the then British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston. The first settlement was small, comprising only 135 people.

Keeping Darwin alive

In the 1870s gold was found 200km south of Darwin and saw an influx of Chinese settlers. They were mostly contracted to work in the goldfields and later worked on building railways through the Territory.

The influx was well-timed, as several devastating shipwrecks saw the population of Darwin drop significantly. At the same time, the pearling industry saw people arriving from Japan, Timor, and the Philippines. The Asian population in Darwin took a sharp downturn after the implementation of the White Australia policy in the 1890s, however, those who stayed played a key role in the commercial development of the city. Today, many prominent families in Darwin are descendants of those who came pearling in the 1800s.

In 1897 a huge cyclone tore through the settlement, destroying everything. It was the worst cyclone to hit the Northern Territory before Cyclone Tracy in 1974. 24 people died in the settlement, and it also killed those working on Darwin Harbour. Only eight buildings survived the cyclone and were used to house the entire population until the settlement could rebuild.

A new name

Originally under the control of the South Australian government, Darwin was handed over to the Commonwealth of Australia in 1911. The handover also saw its name officially change from Palmerston to Darwin.

Just 15 minutes from modern Darwin, you can find Palmerston, a planned satellite city. Darwin and Palmerston are the only recognised cities in the Northern Territory and boast a modest combined population of less than 200,000.

Since its first settlement, Darwin has had a varied history. From devastating cyclones and war bombings to a thriving tourism hub and modern city, Darwin has the historical significance and modern flare to appeal to anyone. The gateway to some of the Northern Territory’s best environments, a visit to Darwin should be on everyone’s bucket list!

Related article: What is Darwin Australia known for?

Cameron Ward
Cameron Ward
Managing Director at Sightseeing Tours Australia

Cameron Ward turned his travel passion into a thriving Australian tourism business. Before he co-founded his own business, Sightseeing Tours Australia, he was enjoying being a Melbourne tour guide. Even now, Cameron delights in helping visitors from all around the world get the most out of their incredible Australian trip. You’ll see Cameron leading tours or writing about his favourite Australian places where he shares his local insights.