The Fascinating History of Tiwi Islands

The Fascinating History of Tiwi Islands

Written by: Cameron Ward

Published: 06/11/2024

Reading time: 3 mins

Learn about how the Tiwi Islands first came about to how it is today.

The Tiwi Islands are a unique part of Australia, situated 80 kilometres north of Darwin. Renowned for their Aboriginal art culture and beautiful coastal landscapes, they are nicknamed the Island of Smiles.

Tiwi Islands consist of two islands called Bathurst Island and Melville Island. Visitors require a permit, so ensure you apply for one before arriving on the Tiwi Islands.

The Tiwi people have inhabited these lands for thousands of years

Over 18,000 years ago, before the last Ice Age, the Tiwi people occupied the land. Around the time, the Tiwi Islands were still connected to Australia’s mainland. Up until 8000 to 12,000 years ago, the mainland and islands became separate. This left the residents on the islands to develop their own culture over the next thousands of years.

European sightings and first contact

The first recorded European sightings were Pieter Pieterszoon Hein in 1636, followed by Abel Tasman in 1644. Later in 1705, the first contact was when three Dutch ships arrived. The explorers spent months on the Tiwi Islands’ coastline and Coburg. When the ships first arrived north of Melville Island, a group of Tiwi men attacked the explorers with people to protect their land.

British establishment

Over 100 years later, in 1818, Phillip Parker King realised the Tiwi Islands were two separate areas and named them Bathurst Island and Melville Island. He explored the islands, leading to the establishment of a settlement. In 1824, Fort Dundas was established on Melville Island. However, the Tiwi people had impressive fighting skills which deflated the British, resulting in Fort Dundas being abandoned in 1829.

Tiwi Islands today

The Tiwi Islands have always been a beautiful place. The Tiwi people are known and proud of their artwork, which is seen in galleries worldwide. You can purchase their artwork directly from the artist when you visit the island.

If you’re planning a time to visit, March is the best time. Visitors don’t need a permit during this time, as the football grand final is on and the sale of arts and crafts across different venues.

Visit the Tiwi Islands

Take some time to explore the Islands and join a Tiwi Islands tour that departs from Darwin. You spend the day with the Tiwi people as they share their culture and history. You’ll be blessed with a traditional smoking ceremony, take part in cultural activities, eat a local lunch, and see their traditional arts and crafts.

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.