Australian History/Early Explorers

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Prior to the arrival in Australia of Captain James Cook, Australia has been the focus both of European mythology, as Terra Australis. Similarly, contrary to popular mythology, a number of non-Indigenous explorers have travelled to Australia prior to Captain Cook's 'discovery' of the continent.

Terra Australis[edit | edit source]

The term "Terra Australis" was first introduced by Aristotle. Aristotle's ideas were later expanded by Ptolemy, a Greek cartographer from the first century AD, who believed that the Indian Ocean was enclosed on the south by land. When, during the Renaissance, Ptolemy became the main source of information for European cartographers, the land started to appear on their maps. Although voyages of discovery sometimes did reduce the area where the continent could be found, cartographers kept drawing it on their maps and scientists argued for its existence with such arguments as that there should be a large landmass in the south as a counterweight against the known landmasses in the Northern Hemisphere. Usually the land was shown as a continent around the South Pole, but much larger than the actual Antarctica, spreading far north in particular in the Pacific Ocean area. New Zealand, discovered by Abel Tasman in 1642, was by some regarded as a part of the continent as well as Africa and Australia.

The idea of Terra Australis was finally corrected by James Cook. On his first voyage he circumnavigated New Zealand, showing it could not be part of a large continent. On his second voyage he circumnavigated the globe at a very high southern latitude, at some places even crossing the south polar circle, showing that any possible southern continent must lie well within the cold polar areas, and not in regions with a temperate climate as had been thought before.

Key Explorers[edit | edit source]

Marco Polo and Cristóvão de Mendonça[edit | edit source]

In about 1300, Marco Polo made reference to the reputed existence of a vast southern continent, although there is no evidence that he had specific knowledge of Australia. Some writers have suggested that maps compiled in Europe from the late 1400s show parts of the Australian coastline. Some believe that Australia was sighted by a Portuguese expedition led by Cristóvão de Mendonça in about 1522. A number of relics and remains have been interpreted as evidence that the Portuguese reached Australia in the early to mid 1500s, 200 years before Cook. These clues include the Mahogany Ship, an alleged Portuguese caravel that was shipwrecked six miles west of Warrnambool, Victoria (although its remains have never been found); a stone house at Bittangabee Bay; the so-called Dieppe map, a secret map drawn by the Portuguese; a cannon and five keys found near Geelong. Most historians do not accept these relics as proof that the Portuguese discovered Australia.

Binot Paulmyer[edit | edit source]

The French navigator Binot Paulmyer claimed to have landed at Australia in 1503, after being blown off course. However later investigators concluded it was more likely he was in Madagascar. French authorities again made such a claim in 1531.

Luis Vaez de Torres[edit | edit source]

Luis Vaez de Torres was the first of the 17th century Portuguese maritime explorers. A Portuguese expedition commanded by de Torres and piloted by Pedro Fernandez de Quiros set out for Australia in 1605. They sailed from east to west along the southern coast of Papua, and sighted the islands of Torres Strait. When de Quiros landed on the New Hebrides, he named the island group "Austrialia del Espiritu Santo", translated as "South Land of the Holy Spirit".

The first undisputed sighting of Australia by a European was made in 1606. The Dutch vessel Duyfken, captained by Willem Jansz, explored perhaps 350km of western side of Cape York, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Dutch made one landing, but were promptly attacked by Aboriginals and subsequently abandoned further exploration.

Dirk Hartog[edit | edit source]

In 1616 Dirk Hartog landed on what is now called Dirk Hartog Island, off the coast of Western Australia, and left behind an inscription on a pewter plate. (This plate may now be seen in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.) The Dutch named the western half of the continent New Holland, but made no attempt to colonise it. Further voyages by Dutch ships explored the north coast of Australia between 1623 and 1636, giving Arnhem Land its present-day name.

Abel Tasman[edit | edit source]

In 1642, Abel Tasman sailed on a famous voyage from Batavia (now Jakarta), to Papua New Guinea, Fiji, New Zealand and, on November 24, sighted Tasmania. He named it Van Diemen's Land, after Anthony van Diemen, the Dutch East India Company's Governor General at Batavia, who had commissioned his voyage. Tasman claimed Van Diemen's Land for the Netherlands.

The discovery that sailing east from the Cape of Good Hope until land was sighted, and then sailing north along the west coast of Australia was a much quicker route than around the coast of the Indian Ocean made Dutch landfalls on the west coast inevitable. Most of these landfalls were unplanned. The most famous and bloodiest result was the mutiny and murder that followed the wreck of the Batavia.

William Dampier[edit | edit source]

William Dampier first explored the north-west coast of Australia in 1688, in the Cygnet, a small trading vessel. He made another voyage in 1699, before returning to England. The first Englishman to see Australia, he was able to describe some of the flora and fauna of Australia, being the first to report Australia's peculiar large hopping animals.

Sources[edit | edit source]

  • Lepailleur, François-Maurice. 1980. Land of a Thousand Sorrows. The Australian Prison Journal 1840-1842, of the Exiled Canadien Patriote, François-Maurice Lepailleur. Trans. and edited by F. Murray Greenwood. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver. ISBN 0-7748-0123-9.
  • Duyker, Edward & Maryse. 2001. Voyage to Australia and the Pacific 1791 - 1793. Melbourne University Press.
  • Duyker, Edward & Maryse. 2003. Citizen Labillardiére - A Naturalist's Life in Revolution and Exploration. The Miegunyah Press.
  • Horner, Frank. 1995. Looking for La Perouse. Melbourne University Press.
  • Wikipedia Terra Australis Article
  • w:History_of_Australia_before_1901:Wikipedia History of Australia Before 1901

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