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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

1871 Java - Port Darwin Cable

Introduction: This short article on the 1871 cable landing at Port Darwin is taken from Australasia and the Oceanic Region, With Some Notice of New Guinea, From Adelaide—Via Torres Straits—To Port Darwin, Thence Round West Australia by William Brackley Wildey
Published by George Robertson, Melbourne, Sydney, and Adelaide, MDCCCLXXVI (1876)

See also James Nicol's account of the landing of this cable in the Cable Stories section, the story of W.G. Stretton and the Overland Telegraph, and the main Overland Telegraph page. There's also a BBC radio programme on this cable.

In June 2020 the cable system was listed under the NT Heritage Act. News story here.

--Bill Burns


PALMERSTON, in latitude south 12° 28' 25", and longitude east 130° 52' 40", is situated about two miles from the heads on elevated table-land. On the beach are the public offices, a row of sheds, constructed of mangrove saplings inserted, upright into the earth, close to each other, roofed with galvanised iron. These are Her Majesty's Custom House, bonded stores, and survey office. The town is arrived at by a steep winding road, to ascend which requires no little exertion; in fact, we saw one new arrival so disgusted with the heat of the sun, and the profuse perspiration he experienced, when half-way up the hill, that he descended and re-embarked on the same vessel that brought him; only having seen the town at a distance. Of such mettle are many who decry the country; but never, by like aid, would England have conquered India, nor would Pizarro's conquest have been effected. The streets are wide and laid out at right angles, north-west and south-east. The principal is Mitchell-street, on the west side of which is the Government House, a large wooden bungalow, most charmingly situated, on a point of land jutting ont into the bay, having a commanding view of the shipping anchored about 300 yards distant.

A ripple on the surface of the water denotes the course of the cable, as it approaches the spot up the side of the hill, where the shore end, or coil, is deposited in an out-house.

LAYING OF THE CABLE.—The exciting scene of landing the cable, previous to paying it out to Java—the forerunner of a new epoch in the history of Australia—has been thus described:

“In October, 1871, the cable expedition arrived. It consisted of the Edinburgh, 2800 tons; the Hibernia, 3100 tons; and the Investigator, 600 tons; Captain Halpin being in command. Messrs. Brown and Stephenson, the electricians for the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, and Messrs. Hockin and Lambert, the electricians of the British-Australian Telegraph Company, and a number of marine engineers and others accompanied the expedition.

Text on the back of the photograph above reads:
“The Hibernia, The Investigator, The Edinburgh, Cable Ships at Pt Darwin”
(written in pencil in an 19th-century hand)

Image courtesy of and copyright © 2010,
Borrow Collection, Flinders University Library,
Adelaide, Australia

Note: The Past Masters Australian history research website has done some careful inspection of the image above, with the conclusion that the pencilled caption is incorrect. Research detailed on their comprehensive page on these cables shows that this photograph is actually of the Stock Fleet at Port Darwin in September 1871. One clue is that none of the ships has a funnel, and reliable motive power is an essential component of a cableship; another is that the ships have bowsprits where the cable sheaves should be.

The photograph below, courtesy of the State Library of Victoria, shows the actual telegraph fleet.

The Telegraph Fleet, Port Darwin, 1871
At left is Bengal with Sweet's ship Gulnare immediately
behind, then Hibernia, Investigator and Edinburgh
Detail of ships

Photographer: Samuel White Sweet
State Library of Victoria H141669

“At daylight on Tuesday, 7th November, several hundred men from the expedition commenced landing the shore-end from the Hibernia, distant about half a mile away. The huge cable was carried to the shore in bights held up by boats, the men on shore pulling the end by means of tackle. The scene was a most animated one, the men singing at their work, the officers waving flags, and the inhabitants of the settlement looking on. About nine a.m. the end was landed, carried up a shallow trench on the beach to an iron hut just above high-water mark, and the end joined on to the electrical apparatus all ready, under the charge of Mr. Stephenson; and signals were at once exchanged with the ship. A photograph of the scene was taken, success to the cable and Captain Halpin's health were drunk, and then everybody embarked.

Landing of the cable at Port Darwin.
CS Hibernia offshore.
Captain Halpin in jacket and hat, facing
the camera just to the left of the cable.
Detail of landing party

The Hibernia instantly commenced paying out, the Edinburgh immediately steamed after her, and the laying of the Australian cable was fairly commenced, the whole proceedings being carried out with the greatest simplicity and celerity imaginable. Constant testing was kept up night and day by the electrical staffs, both on board and on shore, in case of any faults being in the cable. On the 16th a telegram came through, stating that the expedition had arrived within six miles of Banjoewangi, and that the cable would be cut, and the end sealed up and buoyed until the shore end could be got ready. On the 20th they spoke again, and Captain Halpin announced from Java that the cable was complete and in perfect condition, and that telegraphic communication was established between Australia, the mother country, and the western world.

Banjowangie Cable Station, Java, Dutch East Indies
(Now Indonesia)
Dated 1901 in the text.

“The cable consists of seven small copper wires—a central one, with the six twisted round it. It is insulated by gutta-percha, over this is a coating of tarred hemp, then a sheathing of galvanised iron wire, with an outside covering of tarred hemp. The deep sea portion is three-quarters of an inch in diameter, the intermediate one inch, and the shore ends (twenty miles in length) three inches in diameter.”

CABLE COMPANY'S AND OVERLAND TELEGRAPH OFFICES.—The fine stone buildings on the esplanade, a street facing the sea—seldom traversed by anyone—are the offices and quarters of the British-Australian Telegraph Company. Under the same roof, adjoining the Cable Company, are those of the Overland Telegraph Construction Party, and with singular bad taste—whilst handsome entrances face the sea—the back premises, for 300 feet, present to the eye but a row of shanties, stables, pigsties, and out-offices, all offensively facing the principal street, Mitchell-street, and across which back premises, ingress is obtained to the Post and Telegraphic Offices.

Cable Station, Port Darwin.
The Overland Telegraph Line is in the foreground.

The cable operations are carried on by Mr. Squires and six operators, who, having landed direct from Europe, have never been in the other colonies. They are an intelligent, gentlemanly body of men, and the only portion of the community who are furnished with the ordinary comforts of civilisation. Their rooms are lofty, and the walls of the offices are thick. They have a fine billiard table, pianos, and some have wives. Perhaps the greatest luxury they can boast of is plenty of water gratis, for which others have to pay ninepence per bucket.

It is a remarkable fact, that although the cable can be seen whilst the operators thereby receive and flash the news to the various colonies, yet not one atom of intelligence ever ekes out; and Palmerston, with its hundreds of inhabitants, patiently awaits the return of the said news by some ship, perhaps two months on the voyage. The decease of the French Emperor was known only four months after the fact was public in Adelaide. An ably conducted newspaper now—1874—affords intelligence from the outside world.

Last revised: 28 June, 2020

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