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Port Essington - Victoria Settlement

Port Essington pre-dates the formation of the NT Police but in the early settlements police like functions were carried out. The story below provided by Barry Frew outlines one such event.


WILLIAM MASLAND - The first Policeman in Northern Australia at Port Essington, Victoria Settlement, Coburg Peninsula.

As happened so many times in Australia’s early days, ventures were undertaken which were meant to forestall the French, who it was feared intended to establish an outpost in North Australia. Commodore Sir Gordon Bremer was selected by the Admiralty to establish a settlement in the north. He sailed from Sydney in September 1838 in HMS Alligator, accompanied by HMS Britomart, under the command of Lieut. Owen Stanley, and the transport Orontes. The ships reached Port Essington on the 22nd October 1838. The Commandant of the settlement Captain John McArthur named the settlement Victoria after their young Queen. Capt. McArthur came ashore with a linguist, a subaltern and a party of Royal Marines. Bremer decided to pitch camp at the southwest corner of the harbour; a fort was constructed and guns were placed in position. Government House was built, gardens laid out, a hospital, officer’s quarters and pier were built. Bremer was most impressed with Port Essington and reported it to be an ideal harbour which would be suitable for a naval dockyard. Shortly after the establishment of the settlement, reports came in from natives in the area that two big white “Proas” had been sighted in Raffles Bay. They were white men, speaking a different language. Lieut. D.B.Stewart was sent overland with a detachment. It was February 9th 1839. The ships were French, the Welee and the Astrolabe, circumnavigating Australia, in search of La Perouse. They came to Port Essington where they stayed for 3 days and departed in peace. Port Essington did not prosper, ships were too few; 14 months passed without a sail. McArthur was left in command after Bremer departed for India, to become the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy for that area. McArthur in one of his reports described the Settlement failure to intemperance, but Thomas Huxley, surgeon of HMS Rattlesnake, bluntly remarked in a report that the Commandant had made the place as much of a hell morally as it was physically. However during that time the military did appoint one of the Royal Marines as a Senior Constable of Police. William MASLAND was a Sergeant in the British Royal Marines. Appointed by the British Military to Constable at Port Essington from 1844 to 1849. He came to Port Essington as a Corporal of the Royal Marines in the Convict Ship Cadet in April 1844. He originally sailed from England on HMS Royal William but were transported to the Cadet in Dublin as guards for the convicts. They delivered the convicts to Hobart (Tasmania) and continued on to Port Essington where the Royal Marines landed to relieve the sick troops that were there. While at Port Essington he was promoted to Sergeant and selected by the Settlement Commandant Capt. McArthur as a Constable to Police the settlement. During this period as Settlement Constable he had cause to pursue two Aboriginal men by boat and arrest them for theft. Masland warned the prisoners, that if they attempted to escape he would shoot them. The prisoners managed to slip their manacles and dive overboard. Masland again called on them to stop however they dived again and again to avoid capture. And Masland fired at one of them. The dead Aboriginal was found the next morning on the shore. Masland was arrested and charged with the killing. He gave evidence in his own defence that he was carrying out his duty as an officer to prevent the prisoner from escaping. McArthur was distressed by the killing as until to then there had been no deaths by violence. Fearing reprisals from the natives, he placed Masland on bail for his appearance in the Supreme Court in Sydney. However Masland was recommended by McArthur as being of good character. No one could accuse him of malice against Aboriginals as he treated them very humanely and had been a great help when they were sick during an epidemic. The Attorney-General in the Colony of Sydney was of the opinion that the unfortunate deceased Aboriginal was in Constable Masland’s custody on a charge of felony. To prevent his prisoner from escaping he was justified in firing at him. There was no prosecution against Sergeant Masland and he remained as Constable. Masland left the Northern Australian Settlement to return to England in the HMS Meander in November, 1849. This story comes from the records held by the NT Police Museum and Historical Soc. – B.Frew 25.6.2007 A second account for consolidation


Port Essington Captain Parker King, R.N. completed a survey of North and the North-West coast of Australia in 1818. On this voyage he discovered Port Essington on Coburg Peninsula on 19th April, 1818, naming it after Vice Admiral, Sir William Essington. King recommended that a settlement should be established at Port Essington, Melville Island or Bathurst Island. King on the 16th May, 1818 anchored in the entrance of Apsley Straits and spent 4 days examining the extent of Apsley Strait between Bathurst and Melville Islands. He named Bathurst Island after the Secretary of State, Earl Bathurst; and Melville Island after Viscount Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty. Military Period 1824 -1849 In the year 1823, it was suggested by a Mr. William Barnes, a merchant with the backing of the East India Company, that the British Government should establish a settlement in North Australia, which at the time was part of New South Wales. Barnes’ letter was presented to the British Government in conjunction with the report by Captain King The British Government approved and Captain James John Gordon Bremer, R.N. was appointed to command an expedition to establish a settlement in North Australia at one of the places suggested by KING. He sailed from England in HMS Tamar, arriving at Port Jackson on the 28th July, 1824. The expedition sailed from Sydney on the 24th August, 1824. Bremer’s party consisted of Captain Maurice Barlow, 3rd Regiment of Foot (the Buffs) to be the first Commandant; Lieut.John Rowe, Lieut. Everard, 23 rank and file of that regiment; a subaltern and 26 rank and file of Royal Marines, a surgeon,3 commissariat workers, 3 free men, mechanics and 44 convicts, including 6 women. The expedition arrived at Port Essington on the 20th September, 1824. Fresh water could not be located, so Bremer decided to sail for Melville Island, arriving at Kings Cove, on the 30th September,1824. The ships which took part in the expedition were HMS Tamar; the Transports Countess of Harcourt, and Lady Nelson. The site chosen for the settlement was 15 miles down Apsley Straits from the heads between Melville and Bathurst Islands. It was named Fort Dundas

A third account for consolidation


Port Essington, Victoria Settlement, Coburg Peninsula As happened so many times in Australia’s early days, ventures which were undertaken were meant to forestall the French, whom it was feared intended to establish an outpost in North Australia. Capt. J.C.Bremer, now Commodore Sir Gordon Bremer was again selected by the Admiralty to establish another settlement. He sailed from Sydney in September 1838 in HMS Alligator, accompanied by HMS Britomart, under the command of Lieut.Owen Stanley. In the convoy was the transport Orontes. The ships reached Port Essington on the 22nd October 1838. The Commandant of the settlement was Capt. John MacArthur, with a subaltern and a party of Royal Marines and a linguist. Mrs. MacArthur accompanied her husband with a few garrison wives. The party also had a regimental Piper. Bremer decided to pitch camp at the southwest corner of the harbour; a fort was constructed and guns were placed in position. Government House was built, gardens were laid out, and a hospital, officer’s quarters and pier were built. Bremer was most impressed with Port Essington and reported it to be an ideal harbour which would be suitable for a naval harbour dockyard. Shortly after the establishment of the settlement, reports came in from natives in the area that two big white “Proas” had been sighted in Raffles Bay. They were white men, speaking a different language. Lieut. D.B.Stewart was sent overland with a detachment a distance of 50 miles to investigate. It was February 9th 1839. The ships were French, the Welee and the Astrolabe, rounding Australia, searching for La Perouse. They came to Port Essington where they stayed for 3 days and departed in peace. Port Essington did not prosper, ships were too few; 14 months passed by without a sail. MacArthur was left in command after Bremer had departed for India, there to become the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy for that area. Ludwig Leichhardt and his starving party in an exhausted condition and nearly naked arrived at Port Essington in 1845. They had crossed the country from Brisbane. MacArthur in one of his reports ascribed the Settlement failure to intemperance, but Thomas Huxley, surgeon of HMS Rattlesnake, bluntly remarked in a report that the Commandant had made the place as much of a hell morally as it was physically. HMS Meander came in December 1839 to remove the settlers. Although the garrison changed in the period 1838-49, Capt.MacArthur and his wife remained at the settlement for the whole period. After the settlers had been evacuated and stores loaded, it is stated in some reports that Capt.Keppel of the Meander blew the settlement up by gunfire. This is doubtful as the ammunition was roundshot and there was no entry in the ship’s log to this effect. So ended the last of the British Military settlements in North Australia.

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