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History of Australia

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The first definite sighting of Australia by European explorers was in 1606. This date marks the beginning of the written history of Australia.

The documentation of Aboriginal history is challenging,[1] due to the fact that Aboriginal people lived in an oral culture prior to 1827. Although humans had lived in Australia for approximately 40-45,000 years (possibly more) before 1606, this time is regarded as belonging to the prehistory of Australia rather than history because of this lack of written documentation.


First European discovery

The French navigator Binot Paulmier de Gonneville [2] claimed to have landed at a land east of the Cape of Good Hope in 1504, after being blown off course. For some time it had been thought he discovered Australia, but nowadays the land where he landed has been shown to be Brazil.[3]

A Spanish expedition commanded by the Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernandez de Quirós and piloted by the Spanish or Portuguese Luis Váez de Torres set out for Terra Australis in 1605. When de Quiros landed on the New Hebrides, he named the island group "La Austrialia del Espiritu Santo", translated as "South Land of the Holy Spirit". After Quiros had left the expedition, Torres sailed from east to west along the southern coast of Papua, and sighted the islands of Torres Strait.[3][4]


Portuguese sightings

Some believe in the theory that the Portuguese were the first Europeans to sight Australia, that the continent was sighted by a Portuguese expedition led by Cristóvão de Mendonça in about 1522. In which they named it Jave La Grande. A number of relics and remains have been interpreted as evidence that the Portuguese reached Australia in the early to mid 1500s.

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); the so-called Dieppe maps, secret maps drawn by the Portuguese; a cannon and five keys found near Geelong. Most historians do not accept these relics as proof that the Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach Australia.

Dutch sightings

The first undisputed sighting of Australia by a European was made in 1606. The Dutch vessel Duyfken, captained by Willem Janszoon, followed the coast of New Guinea, missed Torres Strait, and explored perhaps 350 km of western side of Cape York, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, believing the land was still part of New Guinea. [4] The Dutch made one landing, but were promptly attacked by Aborigines and subsequently abandoned further exploration. This was followed by an exploration by Luis Váez de Torres, who passed through Torres Strait without sighting Australia, but the existence of the strait became a close kept Spanish state secret.

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 first such landfall was in 1616, when 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 most famous and bloodiest result was the mutiny and murder that followed the wreck of the Batavia.

Hollandia Nova, 1659 map prepared by Joan Blaeu based on voyages by Abel Tasman and Willem Jansz, this image shows a French edition of 1663

Further voyages by Dutch ships explored the north coast of Australia between 1623 and 1636, giving Arnhem Land its present-day name. In 1642, Abel Tasman sailed from Mauritius and on 24 November, sighted Tasmania, before discovering New Zealand, Fiji and visiting Papua New Guinea en route to Batavia (now Jakarta). He named Tasmania 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. In 1644 he made a second voyage, on which he mapped the north coast of Australia from Cape York westward. Other notable Dutch explorers of the Australian coast include François Thijssen (with Pieter Nuyts on board) who discovered much of the south coast in 1627 and Willem de Vlamingh who mapped the west coast in 1696-1697.[4][3]

William Dampier, a former pirate, was the first Englishman to see Australia. He 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. He described some of the flora and fauna of Australia, and was the first European to report Australia's peculiar large hopping animals.

Captain Cook

Captain James Cook was the first European to explore the more habitable east coast. Cook had been sent to chart the transit of Venus from Tahiti, but he also charted much of the Australian and New Zealand coastlines. He reached New Zealand in October 1769, and mapped its coast.

He then sailed across to south-east Australia, which he first sighted on 20 April 1770 at a point between Orbost and Mallacoota on the south east coast of what is now Victoria. He then sailed all the way up the east coast. He claimed the east coast, which he named New South Wales, for Great Britain on 22 August 1770. Cook's expedition identified Botany Bay as an appropriate place for settlement. (Sydney Cove was later, in 1788, used as the first settlement instead.)

Bass and Flinders

The last great naval explorer was Matthew Flinders, who was responsible for filling in the gaps in the map left by other explorers. In 1796 (after settlement), with George Bass, he took a 2.5 metre long open boat, the Tom Thumb, and explored some of the coastline south of Sydney. He suspected from this voyage that Tasmania was an island, and in 1798 Bass and he led an expedition to circumnavigate it and hence prove his theory. The sea between mainland Australia and Tasmania was named Bass Strait. One of the two major islands in Bass Strait was named Flinders Island.

Flinders returned to his homeland of England, but was soon sent back to Sydney with a much more ambitious task—to circumnavigate Australia. He did this in 1802-03, sailing first along the south coast to Sydney, then completing the circumnavigation back to Sydney. At the same time of Flinders's expedition, the Australian coast was also mapped by Frenchman Nicolas Baudin.[3]

See also


  1. ^ Stannage, T. (Ed) (1981) "A New History of Western Australia" (UWA Press)
  2. ^,,,, etc. (all in French)
  3. ^ a b c d Eric Newby: The Rand Mc.Nally World Atlas of Exploration, 1975. London: Mitchell Beazley. ISBN 0-528-83015-5.
  4. ^ a b c Raymond John Howgego: Encyclopedia of Exploration to 1800, 2003. Potts Point NSW: Hordern House. ISBN 1-875567-36-4.

Further reading

External links


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