Darwin Festival

The Darwin Festival celebrates the multicultural aspects of the Northern Territory lifestyle. The Festival is held over 18 days in the dry season (May-Oct) and comprises a series of events including outdoor concerts, workshops, theatre, dance music, comedy, cabaret, film and visual arts. In 2020, Darwin Festival will be held from 6-23 August.


Darwin has a tradition of street parades and festival events dating back to early European settlement, following the issuing of Letters Patent annexing the Northern Territory to South Australia, 1863.[1] The Township of Palmerston (as Darwin was then named) was surveyed by the South Australian Surveyor General GW Goyder in 1869 and by 1888 the non-Indigenous population of the Northern Territory consisted of around 1200 Europeans and 6 000 Chinese.[2] It is not surprising then that the Chinese New Year processions organised by the Chinese storekeepers, market gardeners and coolies who settled in Palmerston after the gold rushes of the 1870s were hugely popular. Palmerston was renamed Darwin following the Commonwealth takeover of the Northern Territory in 1911. By this time, largely through the restrictions of the White Australia Policy, Darwin's Asian population was in decline and amidst growing civil unrest, trade union organised marches gained in popularity. The Eight Hour Day Movement demonstration processions, popular in the early 1900s, were followed by Labour Day and May Day Marches held by the Darwin Workers' Club between 1919 and the late 1930s. Despite the restrictive immigration policy the Chinese community remained active in the social life of the town and formed the Darwin Chinese Recreation Club in December 1923 to take on all comers in the sports of boxing, Australian rules football, tennis, swimming and soccer. A small number of Italian migrants from Patagonia landed at Port Darwin in 1914 and found employment at Vestey's meat works.

The civilian population of Darwin was ordered to be evacuated following the attacks on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and Darwin and the surrounding area was placed under military control following a bombing raid by the Japanese Air Force on 19 February 1942.[3] The township was extensively damaged during a subsequent series of air raids on Australia by the Japanese Air Force between February 1942 and November 1943. During this time, Darwin was a garrison town under the control of the Department of the Army, who spared no effort to improve recreational and entertainment facilities for troops based in Darwin.[4] At the end of the Second World War, Darwin reverted to civil control, with many of the evacuated administrative staff and the civilian population returning early in 1946. The departure of most of the armed services from the Northern Territory left little in the way of public entertainment facilities and following a public meeting the Darwin Workers' Club was re-established. A combined Stadium, Concert Hall and Meeting Place opened on 31 May 1946 with money subscribed and lent by its members and a series of concerts, fund raisers and boxing tournaments were staged at the Stadium after its completion in December 1946 .[5] The civilian population of the Northern Territory was increasing steadily and the 1947 census return recorded a population of 2 538 people inside the Darwin Town boundary.[6] May Day celebrations resumed in 1947, with a monster sports programme and a street procession led by Qantas staff. A large group of Aboriginal men who joined the march won the prize for the best parade[7][8] Although much of China Town had been dismantled, a small number of Chinese people returned to Darwin after the war, re-establishing their businesses and building new homes in the outlying suburbs. Chinese New Year celebrations resumed in 1950 and in 1953 the Darwin Chinese Recreation Club reformed and participated in a street procession as part of the Coronation Week Celebration in Darwin.

An annual grant to assist Australian cultural organizations was instituted by the Commonwealth Government in 1952 and the sum of 1 000 pounds was distributed through five organisations in the Northern Territory, thereby enabling small festival type events.[9] By 1964 Commonwealth funding for cultural events was available to local organisations through a funding committee attached to the Northern Territory Administration Department of Welfare. Initial applications were made to the Regional Grants Committee in each local centre and passed on to the Administrator or to the Minister for final approval. In 1964/65 the first of these grants for the staging of exhibitions and events was received by the City of Darwin Festival Committee; the North Australian Eisteddfod Council; and the Centralian Arts Society.[10][11] This led to the staging of the first City of Darwin Festival in 1964. In addition to the North Australia Eisteddfod, an exhibition of Aboriginal bark paintings was staged by the local (Darwin) Arts Council.[12]

The Arts Council of the Northern Territory formed from a public meeting held in 1968 and affiliated with the newly formed Australian Council for the Arts, thereby enabling the Territory body to give greater opportunities to local artists and stage performances from visiting international artists.[13] For the next 10 years, the festival featured sporting and cultural events that increasingly reflected the 'ocker' image of many Darwin residents, culminating in a beer drinking competition and the staging of the first Beer Can Regatta in 1974.[14] The festivities were temporarily halted by the evacuation of Darwin following Cyclone Tracy, which devastated the city and its northern suburbs on Christmas Day 1974. Following the evacuation of Darwin and a short intense period of reconstruction, by late 1977, plans were under way for a Back to Darwin Event to be held in May 1978.[15] The modern festival evolved from the Bougainvillea Festival staged a year later to celebrate the first year of Northern Territory Self Government.[16][17] During the 1980s the festival featured floral processions, sporting events and a Mardi Gras concert, however, by the 1990s the focus of the festival shifted to include community arts and aspects of Darwin's multiculturalism. The event was renamed the Festival of Darwin in 1996 and later renamed Darwin Festival in 2003 to reflect its growing international status.[18][19]


  1. "Letters Patent annexing the Northern Territory to South Australia, 1863". Documenting a Democracy. Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.
  2. Table showing ‘Population of Northern Territory (Exclusive of Aboriginals) from 1881 to 1910 Inclusive’. In Commonwealth of Australia. Northern Territory. Report of the Government Resident for the year 1910. Mebourne : Govt. Printer,1911. Page 15.
  3. "DARWIN UNDER MEASURE OF ARMY CONTROL". Canberra Times. ACT. 23 February 1942. p. 2. Retrieved 14 June 2015 via National Library of Australia.
  4. "Darwin Garrison to be Relieved". The Advocate. Burnie, Tas. 23 September 1941. p. 5. Retrieved 7 July 2015 via National Library of Australia.
  5. "Editorial: Reiteration Brings Recitation". The Northern Standard. Darwin, NT. 20 September 1946. p. 2. Retrieved 7 July 2015 via National Library of Australia.
  6. Commonwealth of Australia. "The Northern Territory Report for the Period 1st July 1949 to 30th June 1953" (Commonwealth Government Printer: Canberra, 1955), p. 29.
  7. "02 May 1947 - May Day Fittingly Celebrated In Darwin". nla.gov.au.
  8. "May Day Fittingly Celebrated In Darwin". Northern Standard. Darwin, NT. 2 May 1947. p. 1. Retrieved 17 June 2015 via National Library of Australia.
  9. Commonwealth of Australia. "The Northern Territory Report for the Period 1st July 1949 to 30th June 1953" (Commonwealth Government Printer: Canberra, 1955), p. 33.
  10. ‘Cultural organisations and institutions – Establishment of an Australian Council for the Arts’. NAA: A1838,553/3/89 PART 1. P.295.
  11. Northern Territory Administration. Welfare Branch. Annual report 1964–65. [Darwin: The Branch]. p.36. url=http://trove.nla.gov.au/work/12488134 | accessdate=6 June 2015
  12. "Current Topics: Darwin and the Top End." North Australian Monthly. September 1964, p.1
  13. Darian Smith (2011) "Chapter 2: History of Agricultural shows and rural festivals in Australia". In: Gibson, Chris & Connell, John. Festival places: revitalising rural Australia. Channel View Publications. pp. 25-43. ISBN 978-1-84541-167-1.
  14. Dewar, Mickey. A Festival Event: Aspects of the Changing Nature and Content of Some Community Celebrations in Darwin in the Twentieth Century [online]. Journal of Northern Territory History, No. 19, 2008: [33]-49.
  15. "Back to Darwin May '78". Supplement. Northern Territory News: Darwin: N.T. News Services, 4 May 1978. p.6
  16. "The year was 1979. An historical overview of the Territory at the time".
  17. 'A new festival blossoms: A colorful beginning to Darwin's Bougainvillea Festival.' Northern Territory Digest. Northern Territory Government Printer, Darwin 1979. p.11.
  18. "History | Darwin Festival". www.darwinfestival.org.au. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  19. "Festivals in Australia". Australian Government. Retrieved 3 June 2015.
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