A national park was first suggested in the region in 1965 at a time when Australians were becoming more interested in declaring national parks for conservation and in recognising the land interests of Aboriginal people. Discussions continued over the next decade. During this time the name Kakadu was suggested to recognise Gagudju, an Aboriginal language which used to be spoken in the park.
Kakadu National Park was declared under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 (NPWC Act) in three stages between 1979 and 1991. The NPWC Act was replaced by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 in 2000.
In 2013 a culturally-rich area of woodland known as Koongarra was added to Kakadu National Park protecting it forever. For more than a decade, Koongarra’s key traditional owner, Jeffrey Lee fought to prevent mining in his ancestral lands.
The Chinese, Malays and Portuguese all claim to have been the first non-Aboriginal explorers of Australia's north coast. However, the first surviving written account comes from the Dutch. In 1623 Jan Carstenzoon made his way west across the Gulf of Carpentaria to discover Arnhem's or Speult's Island (believed to be Groote Eylandt). One of the two vessels under his command was the Arnhem.
Abel Tasman was the next documented explorer to visit this part of the coast on his voyage from Cape York to Shark Bay in 1644.
He mapped the eastern opening of Van Diemen's Gulf and was the first person to record European contact with the Aboriginal people of the region.
Then came Matthew Flinders. He surveyed the western shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1802 and 1803. Flinders was not impressed with the country and he found the natives he encountered hostile. He does record more favourably his contact with Macassan fisherman.
The first English navigator to enter the Gulf of Carpentaria was Phillip Parker King. Between 1818 and 1822 he made a number of coastal voyages, during which he explored and named the three Alligator Rivers after the large numbers of crocodiles, which he mistook for alligators. He was generally unenthusiastic about the region, finding the country low, dreary and flat, although the mangroves supported vast numbers of waterbirds. He saw no Aboriginal people but noted their fires.
Ludwig Leichhardt was the first land-based European explorer to visit the Kakadu region, in 1845 enroute from Moreton Bay in Queensland to Port Essington in the Northern Territory.
He followed a creek down from the Arnhem Land escarpment, then went down the South Alligator before crossing to the East Alligator and proceeding north. Leichhardt showed remarkable skill in finding his way through unknown country. On 26 November 1845 he recorded the return to camp by one of his party, accompanied by a 'whole tribe of natives'. They were armed with small goose spears, and with flat wommalas. Although they were extremely noisy, they did not show the slightest hostile intention. One of them had a shawl and neckerchief of English manufacture; and another carried an iron tomahawk, which he said he got from north-west by north. The starting of the Leichhardt search expedition Engraving by Frederick Gross 1828-1894, La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria.
In 1862 John McDouall Stuart travelled along the south-western boundary of Kakadu but did not see any people.
In 1866 John McKinlay set out from Escape Cliffs on an expedition that lasted six months and is recorded as a complete fiasco. The party travelled south and east, possibly as far as the East Alligator River. Hampered by rising waters and boggy conditions caused by a severe wet season, they were forced to retreat. After killing and skinning their horses they built a raft using the skins and rafted along the river to the coast and on to Escape Cliffs.
The first non-Aboriginal people to visit and have sustained contact with Aboriginal people in northern Australia were the Macassans from Sulawesi and other parts of the Indonesian archipelago.
They travelled to northern Australia every wet season (probably in late 17th Century) in sailing boats called praus. Their main aim was to harvest trepang (sea cucumber), but they also collected turtle shell, pearls, pearl shell, timber and buffalo horn for Asian markets (Press et al. 1995). Aboriginal people were involved in harvesting and processing the trepang, and in collecting and exchanging the other goods.
There is no evidence that the Macassans spent time on the coast of Kakadu but there is evidence of some contact between Macassan culture and Aboriginal people of the Kakadu area.
Among the artefacts from archaeological digs in the Park are glass and metal fragments that probably came from the Macassans, either directly or through trade with the Coburg Peninsula people.
The British attempted a number of settlements on the northern Australian coast in the early part of the nineteenth century, including Fort Dundas on Melville Island in 1824, Fort Wellington at Raffles Bay in 1829, and Victoria Settlement (Port Essington) on the Coburg Peninsula in 1839. They were anxious to secure the north of Australia before the French or Dutch, who had colonised many other islands. The British settlements were all subsequently abandoned for a variety of reasons, such as lack of water and fresh food, sickness and isolation.
It is difficult to assess the impact of these settlements on the local Aboriginal people and the type of relationship that developed between them and the British. Certainly, some Aboriginal labour was used at the settlements. Exposure to new sickness was an ever-present danger. As in other parts of Australia, disease and the disruption to society it caused devastated the local Aboriginal population. Accounts from settlers at Port Essington tell of an influenza outbreak among the Aboriginal population in 1847, which reduced them to such a state of destitution and wretchedness that it aroused the pity of all who came in contact with them. As the season passed, the disease spread until it reached epidemic proportions, with many dying and the others too sick and weak to help themselves.
Disease and other social consequences also took a huge toll on the population of the Alligator Rivers region. It is estimated that the area between the Adelaide and East Alligator Rivers supported an Aboriginal population of 2000 in pre-European times.
There are now only about 500 Aboriginal people living in Kakadu.
By the 1880s the number of buffaloes released from early settlements had increased to such an extent that commercial harvesting of hides and horns was economically viable. The industry began on the Adelaide River, close to Darwin, and moved east to the Mary River and Alligator Rivers regions.
The first buffalo hunter to operate in the Alligator Rivers region was Paddy Cahill, who came to the area in the 1880s intending to establish a cattle station and farm and to shoot buffalo for hides. He pioneered the practice of shooting buffalo from horseback.
Most of the hunting and tanning was done towards the end of the dry season, when buffaloes congregated around the remaining billabongs. During the wet season hunting ceased because the ground was too muddy to pursue buffalo and the harvested hides would rot. The buffalo-hunting industry became an important employer of Aboriginal people during the dry-season months.
Aboriginal men on foot were employed to stalk and flush the animals out of dense vegetation onto open floodplain, where shooters on horseback could run down the animals, shooting them in the spine. Hides were taken to local waterholes and cleaned before salting.
Salting was primarily the task of Aboriginal women and was done repeatedly over a number of days. The hides were then dried, folded and transported to a river landing to await shipment by lugger to Darwin. Until World War 2 Aboriginal workers throughout the Northern Territory were paid in supplies, usually of the most basic kind-tobacco, flour and tea.
The fortunes of the buffalo industry fluctuated over the industry's 70 years of operation for a number of reasons, but its final collapse is attributed to poor processing of the hides, the development of synthetic substitutes, and the disruption to shipping caused by the 1956 Suez crisis (Press et al.1995).
Missionaries had a big influence on the Aboriginal people of the Alligator Rivers region, many of whom lived and were schooled at missions in their youth. Two missions were set up in the region in the early part of the century.
Kapalga Native Industrial Mission was established near the South Alligator River in 1899, but lasted only four years. The Oenpelli Mission began in 1925, when the Church of England Missionary Society accepted an offer from the Northern Territory Administration to take over the area, which had been operated as a dairy farm mostly under Paddy Cahill. During Cahill's time the station became a focus for Aboriginal people in both Kakadu and eastern Arnhem Land. The Oenpelli Mission operated for 45 years, the last few of which were severely disrupted by the availability of alcohol from the Border Store near Cahills Crossing (Press et al, 1995). In 1975 responsibility for Oenpelli was transferred to an Aboriginal town council.
The extent to which missions have influenced Aboriginal society is the subject of debate. Some writers and anthropologists argue that missionaries, in seeking to 'civilise and institutionalise' Aboriginal people, forced them to abandon their lifestyle, language, religion and ceremonies indeed, the whole fabric of their lives. Others argue that, although criticism can be levelled at the methods used to achieve their goal, the missionaries did care about the welfare of Aboriginal people at a time when wider Australian society did not and that without missions many more Aboriginal people would have perished (Cole 1988).
A number of Aboriginal people now living in the Kakadu area were sent to missions on Melville, Bathurst and Croker Islands. Their experiences were as different as the quotes below:
The priests were mongrels.
They would call and if you didn't come
they'd wait until you were in the classroom
and strip you naked in front of the class.
They used a fine belt from a Singer sewing machine
to belt us over the backside, cutting us all up because we were late.
The more I think about it,
we were sent there to be changed,
to get the Aboriginality out of us;
there was no other reason.
--Senior Murumburr Traditional Owner
Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
I was nine when I reached Garden Point.
All the nuns and girls were waiting for us.
I didn't speak English.
I had to learn, and when I learned I became happy.
I enjoyed my stay there, it was excellent.
The nuns were really nice.
I enjoyed going to school.
We played games and they took us swimming on the weekends.
When I finally came home I had to learn my language again.
It took me ten years.
I had to learn how to know my country and learn how to hunt.
I had to learn about my relationships with all the people here.
--Jessie Alderson, Murumburr clan
Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
The first mineral discoveries in the Top End were associated with the construction of the Overland Telegraph line between 1870 and 1872, in the Pine Creek - Adelaide River area. A series of short mining booms followed.
The construction of the north Australian railway line gave more permanency to the mining camps, and places such as Kurrundie and Pine Creek became permanent settlements. The mining camps and new settlements drew many Aboriginal people away from southern Kakadu.
Although no Aboriginal people are known to have worked in the mines, their sudden exposure to drugs (opium and alcohol) and disease at the camps proved devastating for the population of the entire Alligator Rivers region (Press et al. 1995).
Small-scale gold mining began at Imarlkba, near Barramundi Creek, in 1920 and at Moline, south of the Park, in the 1930s. The mines employed a few local Aboriginal people.
In 1953 uranium was discovered along the headwaters of the South Alligator River valley. Thirteen small but rich uranium mines operated in the following decade, at their peak in 1957 employing over 150 workers. The scars from the open-cut mine at Coronation Hill can still be seen. No Aboriginal people were employed at any of these mines.
Early in the 1970s large uranium deposits were discovered at Ranger, Jabiluka and Koongarra. Following receipt of a formal proposal to develop the Ranger site, the Australian Government initiated an inquiry into land use in the Alligator Rivers region.
The Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry (known as the Fox inquiry) recommended (Fox et al. 1996, 1997), among other things, that:
- mining begin at the Ranger site
- consideration be given to the future development of the Jabiluka and Koongarra sites
- a service town be built.
The impact of the Ranger mine and the service town (Jabiru) on Aboriginal people has been enormous. Traditional owners of the mine area negotiated royalty payments, to be paid as compensation for the loss of access to country. Aboriginal people express varying opinions about mining.
I don't like him, it's a nuisance. I mean, mining worry me. It wrecks the place. Look at Jabiru.
-- Bill Neidjie, Bunidj clan
Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
Mining brought good things,
brought social problems too.
It gave an income to us people.
Bought and built things
which our kids will benefit from.
-- Senior Murumburr Traditional Owner
Warradjan Aboriginal Cultural Centre
The pastoral industry made a cautious start in the Top End. The first pastoral lease was not taken up until 1876 and no stocking took place until 1879, when cattle arrived at Glencoe, near Gove Hill. Glencoe was owned by a Victorian pastoralist, C.B. Fisher, who leased an extensive area that included the Alligator Rivers region.
Fisher and his partner, M. Lyon, first attempted to run cattle in the Beatrice Hill, Marrakai and Humpty Doo areas, subsequently extending east into what is now Kakadu. The Kakadu area was progressively abandoned from 1889, because Victoria River and the Barkly Tablelands proved to be better pastoral regions. Paddy Cahill at Oenpelli and Fred Smith at Kapalga also attempted pastoralism in the Alligator Rivers region. Cahill was particularly successful. His Oenpelli station, established in 1906, was prospering by 1913 and was officially described as a model for what might be achieved in the Northern Territory.
In southern Kakadu much of Goodparla and Gimbat was claimed in the mid-1870s by two pastoralists, Roderick Travers and A. W. Sergison. The leases where subsequently passed on to a series of owners, all of whom were unable for one reason or another to make a go of it.
Pastoralism in these areas first began to produce a meagre return in 1907, for George Cooke at Goodparla, and in 1937, for Joseph Callanan at Gimbat.
When Cooke died in 1937 Goodparla was sold and subsequently had a number of owners. In 1965 it was sold to two Americans, who brought stockmen from the United States to work with Aboriginal labour. A period of more intensive development followed and both cattle and buffalo were grazed. New Goodparla homestead and an outstation were established at Minglo and Shovel billabong. Despite the American owners' optimism, the demise of Goodparla as a cattle station was complete by 1975, hastened by a slump in the beef market. Only a few Aboriginal men were ever employed as stockmen there. In 1987 the station was acquired by the Commonwealth and incorporated in Kakadu National Park. The outgoing owners were given until December 1988 to clear the area of buffalo and cattle.
Joseph Callanan established Gimbat in about 1937. He employed Aboriginal men as station hands, and Aboriginal women were employed to look after 'coachers' (quiet cattle that on a muster were put with the wild cattle to steady them down).
Callanan is described by some as a tough man who wanted hard work for little reward. As was the practice on many pastoral stations in northern Australia, Aboriginal people were paid in food rations. In 1964 Gimbat was bought by Sir William Gunn, but by the late 1960s Gunn's ventures were in financial difficulty
and Gimbat was virtually abandoned. In 1980 Helmut Schimmel bought Gimbat with the intention of exploiting the large number of buffaloes that were now on the station. The Commonwealth bought the station in 1987 and incorporated it in Kakadu National Park.
Chinese operators set up a sawmill at Nourlangie Camp, probably before World War 1, to mill stands of cypress pine in the area. After World War 2 a number of small-scale ventures, including dingo shooting and trapping, brumby shooting, crocodile shooting, tourism and forestry, began.
Again in 1950s Nourlangie Camp was again the site of a sawmill, until the local stands of cypress pine were exhausted. In 1958 the mill was converted into a safari camp for tourists. Soon after, a similar camp was started at Patonga and at Muirella Park. Clients were flown in for recreational buffalo and crocodile hunting and fishing.