The performance of a 213-year-old play and the discovery of lost grave sites temporarily revive the site of Victoria settlement, Britain’s third attempt to colonise the tropical north.

Story By Mark Day

The voice of Tom Pauling, the top-hatted administrator of the Northern Territory, booms across the ruins. “Roll up! Roll up!” he cries. “And welcome to the strangest show on Earth.” It is indeed a theatrical event of unparalleled curiosity – the performance of a play written 213 years ago, last staged in this spot 171 years ago. It has a cast of 11 and an audience of 18, including several yachties attracted by radio chitchat while sailing across the Top End.
When the final curtain falls – well, figuratively, because there is no curtain – the audience gives the performance a standing ovation. It is a bizarre and wonderful moment in a remote and all-but-forgotten part of Australia, where history lies in ruins. This is Victoria Settlement in Port Essington, 230 kilometres north-east of Darwin, on the flat top of Australia, site of the third British attempt to colonise Australia’s tropical north.
The settlement was established as a military garrison in 1838, manned by 60 British marines. It was aimed at providing a strategic balance against the trading clout of the Dutch East India Company and the perceived colonial ambitions of the French.
Victoria Settlement lasted 11 years until it was abandoned in 1849. It was buffeted by cyclones, beset by disease and burdened by its isolation and an incoherent bureaucracy dictated from London and Sydney. But it was a bustling construction camp in August 1839 when Captain Owen Stanley, who gave his name to a mountain range in today’s Papua New Guinea, staged the play Cheap Living, a farce written by Frederick Reynolds and first performed in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, in 1797. The audience included perhaps 200 construction workers and crews from visiting ships.
The recent repeat performance was the brainchild of Darwin heritage architect and researcher, Peter Dermoudy, 77, who is writing a book about Victoria Settlement. Peter attracted enthusiastic vice-regal support for his project from Tom Pauling. A former repertory actor, Tom was once a member of the Grin and Tonic theatrical troupe in north Queensland. When he left the troupe for more lucrative fields as a lawyer in the Northern Territory, Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush took his place.

This story excerpt is from Issue #77

Outback Magazine: June/July 2011