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This article is from the In-Depth Report Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Darwin

An Australian city named for Darwin is already celebrating his birthday

If you can’t wait until tomorrow to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, just call someone in Darwin, Australia. That northern Australian city, nine and a half hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time – near Darwin’s birthplace of Shrewsbury, England – has already begun celebrating the 200th birthday of its namesake.

It’s a bit unclear when Darwin – population 120,900 – got its name. Here’s the story, as best we can tell: The first Westerners who paid a visit to the area, which was and still is home to the Aboriginal group the Larrakia, were the Dutch in the 1660s. They were busy mapping the coast and didn't bestow the spot with a name.  

Fast-forward to 1836. Darwin returns from his journey around the world, which included stops along the southern side of Australia on the HMS Beagle. The next year, the Beagle set out on a surveying expedition with the same captain, John Clements Wickham, and admiral, John Lort Stokes. In September 1839, they spotted the harbor, which Wickham and Stokes decided to dub Darwin Harbor in honor of their former traveling companion.

Perhaps owing to the lack of a British population at that point, the name didn't evolve to cover the land around it. In 1869, ten years after the publication of On The Origin of Species, a surveyor named George Goyder launched a tiny settlement (of about 135) at Port Darwin and called it Palmerston–in honor of England's then-Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston.

But Wickham and Stokes were vindicated in 1911, when the area became part of the British Commonwealth, and the city was officially named Darwin. (Today, there is an adjacent town called Palmerston, which is about a fifth the size of Darwin.)

To celebrate in this, the biggest in – and capital city of – the Northern Territory, there's slated to be an Ozzie Darwin Pow-wow. Throughout the country, other cities and towns will be celebrating with their own events, including a public Darwin Day barbecue in Melbourne (though it's BYO food and drink, so you can hold the kangaroo meat if you want).

Darwin is across the continent from the bushfires that have so devastated Victoria*. But it has weathered its fair share of hardships, including a World War II bombing raid and 1974’s deadly Cyclone Tracy, which had some of the most violent winds the continent has ever felt.

There are of course other places that bear the naturalist's name. Among them: Darwin Sound (along the Beagle Channel by Tierra del Fuego), Mount Darwin in the Andes, and the Northern Territory's own Charles Darwin University and Charles Darwin National Park.

See our in-depth report wishing Darwin a happy birthday for more stories and background.

Image credit: Flickr/Giselleai

* Erratum: (2/12/09): This sentence was changed after publication. It originally stated that the fires were in New South Wales.

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