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The European exploration of Australia encompasses several waves of seafarers and land explorers. Although Australia is often said to have been discovered by Royal Navy Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook in 1770, he was merely one of a number of European explorers to have sighted and landed on the continent prior to English settlement, and he did so 164 years after the first such documented encounter. Nor did the exploration of Australia end with Cook; explorers by land and sea continued to survey the continent for many years after settlement.


Early European sightings

Although it is possible that Luis Váez de Torres, working for the Spanish Crown, sighted Australia when he sailed through the Torres Strait in 1605, the first documented and undisputed European sighting and landing of Australia was in 1606, by the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon aboard the Duyfken.

Occasional claims have been made in support of earlier encounters, particularly for various Portuguese explorations. Evidence put forward in favour of this theory, particularly by Kenneth McIntyre,[1] include rock paintings of what appear to be the type of ships used by the Portuguese, the Mahogany Ship, the Geelong Keys, coins found on the Victorian coast, and evidence based on the Dieppe maps. These are not accepted by most historians.

Dutch exploration in the 17th century

Hollandia Nova, 1659 map prepared by Joan Blaeu

The most significant exploration of Australia in the 1600s was by the Dutch. The Dutch East India Company traded extensively with the islands which now form parts of Indonesia, and hence were very close to Australia already. In early 1606 Willem Janszoon encountered and then charted the shores of Australia's Cape York Peninsula. The ship made landfall at the Pennefather River in the Gulf of Carpentaria. This was the first authenticated landing of a European on Australian soil. Other Dutch explorers include Dirk Hartog who landed on the Western Australian coast, leaving behind a pewter plate engraved with the date of his landing, and Abel Tasman for whom Tasmania was eventually named—he originally called it Van Diemen's Land after a senior member of the Dutch East India Company. Maps from this period and the early 18th century often have Australia marked as "New Holland" on account of the voyages of these Dutch explorers.

When Who Ship(s) Where
1606 Willem Janszoon Duyfken Gulf of Carpentaria, Cape York Peninsula (Queensland)
1615 Willem Schouten  ?
1616 Dirk Hartog Eendracht Shark Bay area, Western Australia
1619 Frederick de Houtman Sighted land near Perth, Western Australia
1623 Jan Carstensz Pera and Arnhem Gulf of Carpentaria, Carpentier River
1627 François Thijssen het Gulden Zeepaerdt 1800 km of the South coast (from Cape Leeuwin to Ceduna)
1642-1643 Abel Tasman Heemskerck and Zeehaen Van Diemen's Land, later called Tasmania
1696-1697 Willem de Vlamingh Geelvink, Nyptangh and the Wezeltje Rottnest Island, Swan River, Dirk Hartog Island (Western Australia)

One Dutch captain of this period who was not really an explorer but who nevertheless bears mentioning was Francisco Pelsaert, captain of the Batavia which was wrecked off the coast of Western Australia in 1629.

Joan Blaeu's 1659 map on the right shows the clearly recognizable outline of Australia based on the many Dutch explorations of the first half of the 17th century.


Map of William Dampier's voyage.

Throughout the 18th century, knowledge of Australia's coastline increased gradually. Explorers such as William Dampier contributed to this understanding.

Explorers of this period:

1770: Cook's Expedition

Cook's 1770 voyage shown in red

In 1768 British Lieutenant James Cook was sent from England on an expedition to the Pacific Ocean to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti, sailing westwards in HMS Endeavour via Cape Horn and arriving there in 1769. On the return voyage he continued his explorations of the South Pacific, in search of the postulated continent of Terra Australis.

He first reached New Zealand, and then sailed further westwards to sight the south-eastern corner of the Australian continent on 20 April 1770. In doing so, he was to be the first documented European expedition to reach the eastern coastline. He continued sailing northwards along the east coast, charting and naming many features along the way.

He identified Botany Bay as a good harbour and one potentially suitable for a settlement, and where he made his first landfall on 29 April. Continuing up the coastline, the Endeavour was to later run aground on shoals of the Great Barrier Reef (near the present-day site of Cooktown), where she had to be laid up for repairs.

The voyage then recommenced, eventually reaching the Torres Strait and thence on to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta, Indonesia). The expedition returned to England via the Indian Ocean and Cape of Good Hope.

Cook's expedition carried botanist Joseph Banks, for whom a great many Australian geographical features and at least one native plant are named.

His report on his discoveries along the Australian coast, in conjunction with the loss of England's penal colonies in America after they gained independence and growing concern over French activity in the Pacific led to the later foundation of a colony at Port Jackson in 1788.

French eighteenth-century explorers

Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne visited Van Diemen's Land in 1772 and was the first to encounter the Tasmanian Aborigines (who had not been seen by Abel Tasman). Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse visited Botany Bay in 1788. Bruni d'Entrecasteaux discovered Esperance in Western Australia and the D'Entrecasteaux Channel and the Derwent and Huon Estuaries in Van Diemen's Land. His expedition also resulted in the publication of the first general flora of New Holland.

Later exploration by sea

Voyages of Bass, who the Bass Strait is named after.
Voyages of Matthew Flinders
King's voyages around Australia.

The charting of Australia's coast continued well into the 19th century. Matthew Flinders was one of the most important explorers of this period, and was the first to circumnavigate the continent.

When Who Ship(s) Where
1773 Tobias Furneaux Adventure South and east coasts of Tasmania
1776 James Cook Resolution Southern Tasmania
1788 Jean de La Pérouse Astrolabe and Boussole encountered First Fleet in Botany Bay
1796 Matthew Flinders Tom Thumb Coastline around Sydney
1798 Matthew Flinders and George Bass Norfolk Circumnavigated Tasmania
1801-1802 Nicolas Baudin, accompanied by Thomas Vasse and numerous naturalists (see below) Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste Eastern coast; met Flinders at Encounter Bay
1801 John Murray Lady Nelson Bass Strait; discovery of Port Phillip
1802 Matthew Flinders Investigator Circumnavigation of Australia
1817 King expedition of 1817 - Phillip Parker King accompanied by Frederick Bedwell HMS Mermaid Circumnavigation of Australia; charting of the north-western coasts

Land exploration 1788-1900

Blaxland's expedition to cross the Blue Mountains
John Oxley's expeditions
Route of the Sturt, Hume and Hovell expeditions

The opening up of the interior to European settlement occurred gradually throughout the colonial period, and a number of these explorers are very well known. Burke and Wills are the best known for their failed attempt to cross the interior of Australia, but such men as Hamilton Hume and Charles Sturt are also notable—if only because major geographical features, landmarks, and institutions have been named after them.

For many years, plans of westward expansion from Sydney were thwarted by the Great Dividing Range, a large range of mountains which shadows the east coast from the Queensland-New South Wales border to the south coast. The part of the range near Sydney is called the Blue Mountains. Governor Philip Gidley King declared that they were impassable, but despite this, Gregory Blaxland successfully led an expedition to cross them in 1813. He was accompanied by William Lawson, William Wentworth and four servants. This trip paved the way for numerous small expeditions which were undertaken in the following few years.

In 1824, Governor Thomas Brisbane asked Hamilton Hume and William Hovell to travel from Hume's station near modern-day Canberra, to Spencer Gulf (west of modern-day Adelaide). However, they were required to pay their own costs. Hume and Hovell decided that Western Port was a more realistic goal, and they left with a party of six men. After discovering and crossing the Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers, they eventually reached a site near modern-day Geelong, somewhat west of their intended destination.

In 1829-30, Charles Sturt performed an expedition similar to the one which Hume and Hovell had refused: a trip to the mouth of the Murray River. They followed the Murrumbidgee until it met the Murray, and then found the junction of the Murray and the Darling before continuing on to the mouth of the Murray. The discovery that the Darling, Macquarie, Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers all flowed west had led many to believe that the interior of Australia contained an inland sea. The search for an inland sea was an inspiration for many early expeditions west of the Great Dividing Ranges. This quest drove many explorers to extremes of endurance and hardship. Charles Sturt's expedition explained the mystery. It also led to the opening of South Australia to settlement.

Thomas Mitchell, the Scottish born Surveyor-General of New South Wales, made a significant discovery in 1836. He led an expedition along the Lachlan River, down to the Murray River. He then set off for the southern coast, mapping what is now western Victoria. There he discovered the richest grazing land ever seen to that time and named it Australia Felix. He was knighted for this discovery in 1837. When he reached the coast at Portland Bay, he was surprised to find a small settlement. It had been established by the Henty family, who had sailed across Bass Strait from Van Diemen's Land in 1834, without the authorities being informed.

Eyre's expeditions on the Nullarbor Plain and to the Flinders Ranges
Kennedy's expeditions in the interior of Queensland
Leichardt's exploration
The ill fated expedition of Burke and Wills

Perhaps the most famous Australian explorers were Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills who in 1860-61 led a well equipped expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Due to an unfortunate run of bad luck, oversight and poor leadership, Burke and Wills both died on the return trip. See Burke and Wills expedition for a full account.

Expeditions (in chronological order):

When Who Where
1804 William Paterson Port Dalrymple, Tamar River, North Esk River (Tasmania)
1813 Blaxland, Wentworth, and Lawson From Sydney across the Great Dividing Range via the Blue Mountains; first penetration into inland New South Wales
1817-1818 John Oxley Interior of New South Wales; discovered Lachlan River and Macquarie River
1818 Throsby, Meehan, Hume and Wild Throsby and Wild discovered an overland route from Sydney to Jervis Bay via the Kangaroo and Lower Shoalhaven rivers

Meehan and Hume followed the Shoalhaven upriver and discovered Lake Bathurst and the Goulburn Plains[2]

1820 Joseph Wild discovered Lake George[3]
1823 Currie, Ovens and Wild Region south of Lake George[4]; discovered Isabella Plains (now a suburb of Canberra), charted the upper reach of the Murrumbidgee River and discovered Monaro [5]
1824 Hume and Hovell expedition Sydney to Geelong; discovered Murray River
1828-1829 Charles Sturt and Hamilton Hume Macquarie River area; discovered Darling River
1829 Currie, Drummond, Dr Simmons and Lieut Griffin South of Fremantle; explored region, now Rockingham and Baldivis, and sighted the Serpentine River[6]
1829 Dr Collie and Lieut.Preston discovered Harvey, Collie and Preston rivers
1829-1830 Charles Sturt Along the Murrumbidgee River; found and named Murray River, and determined that western-flowing rivers flowed into the Murray-Darling basin
1830 John Molloy Blackwood River, Western Australia
1830-1834 Alfred and John Bussell Blackwood River and the Vasse, Western Australia
1831 Robert Dale and George Fletcher Moore Avon River area in Western Australia
1831 Collet Barker Mount Lofty and the Murray Mouth
1834 Frederick Ludlow Augusta to Perth; discovered Capel River
1834-1836 George Fletcher Moore Avon River and Swan River; discovered that they are the same river; discovered rich pastoral land near the Moore River
1839-1841 Edward John Eyre The Flinders Ranges and Nullarbor Plain
1840 Paweł Edmund Strzelecki Ascended and named Mount Kosciuszko, New South Wales
1840 Patrick Leslie Condamine River, New South Wales
1840-1842 Clement Hodgkinson North-eastern New South Wales, from Port Macquarie to Moreton Bay
1844 Charles Sturt North-western New South Wales and north-eastern South Australia; discovered and named Simpson Desert
1847 Anthony O'Grady Lefroy and Alfred Durlacher Gingin, Western Australia
1854 Austin expedition of 1854 - Robert Austin, Kenneth Brown Geraldton, Mount Magnet, Murchison River
1858-1860 John McDouall Stuart North-western South Australia; discovered water sources used as staging points for later expeditions; found and named Finke River, MacDonnell Ranges, Tennant Creek
1860 Burke and Wills expedition including Robert O'Hara Burke, William John Wills Melbourne to Gulf of Carpentaria (traversing Australia south to north); determined non-existence of inland sea
1897 Frank Hann Pilbara region of Western Australia; named Lake Disappointment

Other explorers by land (in alphabetical order):

Stuart was the first to cross the country from south to north successfully.
Map of John Forrest's expeditions

20th century explorers

By the turn of the 20th century, most of the major geographical features of Australia had been discovered by European explorers. However, there are some 20th century people who are considered explorers. They include:

Indigenous Australians participating in European Exploration

A number of Indigenous Australians participated in the European exploration of Australia. They include:

Naturalists and other scientists

There are a number of naturalists and other scientists closely associated with European exploration of Australia. They include:

Uncategorised explorers


  1. ^ McIntyre, Kenneth (1982). Secret Discovery of Australia: Portuguese Ventures 200 Years Before Captain Cook. Sydney: Pan Books Australia. pp. 237. ISBN 0330270338.  
  2. ^ Year Book Australia 1931 - Canberra Past and Present
  3. ^ NSW Government Collections, Joseph Wild
  4. ^ M.J.Currie, Journal of an excursion to the south of Lake George 1823
  5. ^ The Discovery of Monaro
  6. ^ Reference to the Serpentine in Murray River (Western Australia)

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