The Aboriginal people of the Territory, while being displaced and dispossessed like their southern neighbours, maintained more of a grip on their land, perhaps because it was less attractive to Europeans. Today, together with Torres Strait Islanders, they make up 29% of the Territory's population, compared with the national average of 2.4%. About half the Territory has been handed back to the traditional owners under the Land Rights Act, and much is managed jointly with National Parks and other government agencies.
During Aboriginal times, trading routes with south-east Asia were established and imported goods have been found as far afield as South and Western Australia. Established 'songlines' penetrated throughout the country, allowing stories and histories to be told and retold along the routes, while the Top End's links with Asia go back far beyond European settlement.
Although Dutch seamen visited this coastline as far back as the early seventeenth century, Europeans did not make a foothold here until late in the nineteenth century. Dutch names, such as Arnhem Land, Groote Eylandt, Van Diemen Gulf and Vanderlin Island are all coastal and indicate that the Dutch sailed past, probably blown off course on their way to the Spice Islands, rather than stopping and settling.
The construction of the Overland Telegraph line, following the explorer John McDouall Stuart's journey across the country from south to north in the 1860s, established communication lines not only from the 'settled' parts of Australia to the Top End, but from Australia to the rest of the world. The opening up of the country following the telegraph link established the Territory as a more viable place for pastoralists and graziers, and settlers began to arrive.
Stuart had flagged the country as likely to contain gold, and the diggers on the telegraph line actually struck some while laying the lines. The highway linking Darwin with Alice Springs is named in honour of this feisty Scotsman's efforts, and it was indeed gold that lured thousands to the Outback in search of their fortunes during the 1870s to 1890s.
Stuart also gave his name to the town now known as Alice Springs. It was the telegraph station that was named Alice Springs, but confusion reigned and in 1933 the town name was officially gazetted and changed. The Arrernte name for Alice Springs was Mparntwe, which is still in use in some quarters. Darwin itself has a rich and multicultured history. The indigenous Larrakia people found plentiful food here and traded goods for centuries with the Macassans (forbears of of modern-day Indonesians). Evidence of Malay and Chinese settlements have been found, indicating a peaceful coexistence with the Aborigines. European settlers first arrived in the 1820s and bagged some of the islands in an effort to establish British dominance. These and later attempts at settlement were abandoned, and it was not until 1869 that the Port of Darwin was established and the city founded. Darwin too underwent a name change: orginally only the port bore the name Darwin and the city was called Palmerston after the British prime minister of the time.
Darwin attracted some unwanted attention during World War II, being the site of the first bomb to land on Australia during the war. The city became the main Allied base for the war in the Pacific, and the road to Alice Springs was at last surfaced, making the long trek south much easier.