Local history

The Indigenous people of North East Arnhem Land have lived in this region for more than 50,000 years.

Below is a short history of the Gove Peninsula from the 17th century onwards.

1623 – Dutch explorer Jan Van Carstens was considered to be the first European to have seen East Arnhem Land. Carstens skirted the Gulf of Carpenteria in command of two vessels.

1644 – Abel Tasman sailed the shores between Groote Eylandt and Blue Mud Bay.

17th century – the Macassans from the trading centre of Macassar in southern Sulawesi, Indonesia, first travelled to Australia. They were trepang (sea cucumber) and pearl shell fishermen who enlisted the help of Indigenous people to collect, cook, dry and smoke the trepang.

1803 – British explorer Matthew Flinders visited Arnhem Land and made contact with Indigenous people. He stayed for a time at what is now known as Gray’s Bay and named Mount Saunders, Melville Bay, Mount Dundas and Dundas Point.

1907 – Australian Government legislation prevented the Macassans from travelling to Australia.

1911 – the Australian Government assumed responsibility for the Northern Territory and the protection system for Indigenous people – as detailed in the Northern Territory Aboriginals Act 1910.

1931 – the Proclamation of the Arnhem Land Reserve, covering an area of 96,000km2, was made to provide adequate land to meet the requirements of Indigenous people in ‘preserving their race’.

1932-1933 – a number of Japanese and Europeans were killed by Indigenous people on the north east coast of Arnhem Land for trespassing on the reserve. Five Japanese fishermen were speared to death in a fight over Indigenous women.

1934 – Reverend Wilbur Chaseling established a Methodist Mission Station at Yirrkala.

1942-1945 – during World War II, approximately 4,000 personnel were stationed on the Gove Peninsula. Gove Airport was officially named and designated operational.

1954-1970 – the European Launcher Development Organisation was established. When the operation was disbanded, their buildings were used as the Dhupma residential college for Indigenous children until 1980.

1955 – exploration of the area’s bauxite reserve commenced.

1963 – the Bark Petition, outlining the concerns of the local Indigenous people about possible future mining and land rights was presented to the House of Representatives. A select committee was appointed to investigate the grievances of the Yirrkala people. Recommendations made to government included bestowing rights to Indigenous people for hunting areas and access to, and protection of, sacred and other sites.

1968 – the Gove Agreement to establish the mine and refinery was negotiated in 1968 between the Commonwealth Government and Nabalco. The Nhulunbuy Corporation was established to provide municipal services to Nhulunbuy.

1969 – Nabalco assigned its interest in the Gove Agreement to the Gove Joint Venture Participants (Swiss Aluminium and Gove Aluminum). The Commonwealth Government granted a Special Mineral Lease (SML 11) and a number of Special Purpose Leases to the Joint Venture Participants.

1971 – Local Indigenous people took court action against Nabalco and the Commonwealth Government, seeking freedom from occupation of their lands, damages and prevention of further mining activities. The central issue was the recognition by Australian law of the rights of Indigenous people to ownership of the land through the doctrine of communal native title. Justice Blackburn’s decision was against the plaintiffs.

1972 – the alumina plant and associated infrastructure was completed. The first shipment of alumina was exported.

1974 – the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs reported on the conditions of the Yirrkala people, as a result of the 1963 recommendations of the House of Representatives Select Committee.

1975 – Yirrkala ceased to exist as a mission and the Yirrkala Dhanbal Community Association was formed.

1977Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 was proclaimed.

2001 – Alcan purchased 100% of the Gove project. Nhulunbuy celebrated 30 years of operation.

2002 – the name of the mining operation changed to Alcan Gove.

2004 – Alcan Gove announced a major exdpanion of the Gove alumina refinery that would increase production from 2 million to 3.8 million tonnes of alumina per year by 2007, with the potenial for additional capacity in the future. This became known as ‘G3’.

2007 – the first bauxite was fed into the newly commissioned third stage of the Alcan Gove refinery. Rio Tinto purchased Alcan and the name was changed to Rio Tinto Alcan, Gove Operations.

2011 – the historic Gove Traditional Owners Agreement was signed with the Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation, Gumatj Aboriginal Corporation and Galpu Traditional Owners, the Northern Land Council and Rio Tinto Aluminium. This formally acknowledged Traditional Owners for the first time in the operation’s history. The Gove Traditional Owners Agreement runs for 42 years until 2053

2013 – Rio Tinto announced it would suspend alumina production at Gove and focus on its bauxite operations. The phased suspension of alumina production occurred between February and July 2014. The refinery moved into to care and maintenance in August.