Chapter 1 [A Short History of Australia, by Ernest Scott]

[Editor: This is a chapter from A Short History of Australia (6th edition, 1936) by Ernest Scott (1867-1939).]

A Short History of Australia

Chapter I

The dawn of discovery

Early maps of the southern regions — Speculations as to Antipodes — Discovery of sea-route to the East Indies — Discovery of the Pacific — The Portuguese and Spaniards — Discovery of the Solomon Islands — Quiros at the New Hebrides — Torres Strait.

There was a period when maps of the world were published whereon the part occupied by the continent of Australia was a blank space. On other maps, dating from about the same time, land masses were represented which we now know to have been imaginary. Let us look at four examples.

The first is a map drawn by Robert Thorne in the reign of Henry VIII (1527). He said in an apology for his work that ‘it may seem rude,’ and so it was; but it serves the purpose of proving that Thorne and the Spanish geographers from whom he derived his information knew nothing about a continent near Australia. Sixty years later a map published at Paris showed a portion of New Guinea, but still the place occupied by Australia was left as open ocean. A Dutch map published at Amsterdam in 1594 did indeed indicate a large stretch of southern land, and called it Terra Australis, but it bore no resemblance to the real continent either in shape or situation. In 1595 a map by Hondius, a Dutchman living in London, was published to illustrate the voyage of Francis Drake round the globe. It represented New Guinea as an island, approximately in its right position, though the shape of it was defective. To the south of it, and divided from it by a strait, appeared a large mass of land named Terra Australis. The outline is not much like that of the continent of Australia, but it was apparently copied from an earlier Dutch map by Ortelius (1587), upon which were printed words in Latin stating that whether New Guinea was an island or part of an austral continent was uncertain. Many other early maps could be instanced, but these four will suffice to exhibit the defective state of knowledge concerning this region at the end of the sixteenth century.

By that time the belief had grown that there probably was a large area of land in the southern hemisphere. Much earlier, in the Middle Ages, some had seriously questioned whether there could possibly be antipodes. Learned and ingenious men argued about it, for and against, at considerable length; for it was much easier to write large folios in Latin about the form of the earth than to go forth in ships and find out. One famous cosmographer, Cosmas Indicopleustes, scoffed at the very idea of there being countries inhabited by people who walked about with their feet opposite to those of Europeans and their bodies (as he imagined) hanging downwards, like flies on a ceiling. How, he asked, could rain ‘be said to “fall” or “descend,” as in the Psalms and Gospels, in those regions where it could only be said to come up?’ Consequently he declared ideas about antipodes to be nothing better than ‘old wives’ fables.’

Another class of speculators maintained that there necessarily must be antipodes, because the globe had to be equally poised on both sides of its own centre. As there was a large mass of land, consisting of Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and North America, on the one side of the Equator, they argued that there had to be ‘a balance of earth’ at the opposite extremity.

To understand how speculation was set at rest and Australia came to be discovered, it is necessary to bear in mind a few facts connected with the expansion of European energy in maritime exploration, trade, and colonization.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a great and wonderful series of events opened new sea-routes and fresh lands to the enterprise of mankind. There was keen competition to secure the profits arising from trade with the East — from the silk and cotton fabrics of China and India, the spices, gold, jewels and metal work, the rice and sugar, and many other things which European peoples were glad to purchase and oriental lands could supply. This trade had in earlier years come partly overland, along caravan routes to the Levant, partly by water to the Red Sea, and then through Egypt to Alexandria. The goods were collected by Venetians, Genoese, and other merchants, chiefly Italians, in vessels plying in the Mediterranean, and sold to European buyers. But the Portuguese discovered that by sailing round Africa they could bring commodities from the East cheaper and safer than by the old routes. They had made many voyages down the west coast of Africa during the fifteenth century, until at last, in 1486, Bartholomew Diaz steered his ships round the Cape of Good Hope, and in 1497 Vasco da Gama beat that record by conducting two vessels all the way to India and back to Lisbon.

That was one important step towards the discovery of Australia — the finding of the way to the East from Europe by sea.

It was for the purpose of discovering a still shorter route to the east that Christopher Columbus, a Genoese in the service of Spain, proposed to sail west. He argued that if the world were round, a ship sailing west, straight towards the sunset, must come upon the shores of further Asia. His reasoning was right, but there was one immense factor which it was impossible for him to anticipate. He could not know that the path to the East by the westward passage was blocked by the continent of America. Columbus, indeed, never did realize that fact to the day of his death. He never knew that he had found a new world. He always believed that he had discovered what we may call the back door of Asia.

The Spaniards, having possessed themselves of America through the discoveries of Columbus and his successors, were still dissatisfied when they realized that this new continent was not the Orient whence their Portuguese rivals drew so rich a trade; and for many years they searched for a strait through it or a way round it. When their explorers crossed the narrow isthmus of Panama they saw before them an ocean hitherto unknown to Europeans. This, then, was the sea which Columbus had striven to reach when his track was barred by the American continent. This was the sea which it was necessary to traverse to get to the spice islands by the western route. Columbus was now dead, but Spain had other gallant navigators in her service. One of them, Ferdinand Magellan, in 1520, led the way down the east coast of South America, through the narrow passage named after him, and into what he for the first time called Mare Pacificum, the quiet sea.

That was the next important step towards the discovery of Australia — the finding of the Pacific.

To realize the importance of these two series of discoveries, look at a map showing the position of Australia in relation to South America and South Africa, and remember that the main purpose of voyagers by either route was to get as quickly and as safely as possible to the parts with which there was rich trade to be done — to Ceylon, India, China, Japan, Java, the Phillipines, and the Spice Islands. It will be seen that neither the Portuguese sailing round the Cape into the Indian Ocean, nor the Spaniards sailing round South America into the Pacific, would be likely to see the coasts of Australia unless they were blown very far out of their true course, or unless curiosity led them to undertake extensive voyages of exploration. Taking the two sides of a triangle to represent the two routes, Australia lay upon the centre of the base line.

That several ships did, accidentally or in pursuit of geographical knowledge, make a passing acquaintance with parts of Australia during the sixteenth century is suggested by a few charts, though we do not know the name of any navigator who did so.

A curious French map of which six copies are known to exist, the earliest dated 1542, presents an outline of a country lying south of Java and inscribed ‘Jave la Grande,’ the great Java. On a copy which was presented to King Henry VIII (by John Rotz, who came to England in the suite of Anne of Cleves, it is conjectured), Java itself was marked by way of distinction as ‘the lytil Java,’ or Java the small. It is probable that the French map-maker worked from information obtained from a native or a Catalan map, not from original observations of his own.

If the map could be accepted as an authentic representation of part of Australia it would suggest the possibility that at least one ship had sailed not only along the north-western coast of Australia, but also along the east coast, from Cape York to the south of Tasmania, two centuries and a half before the celebrated voyage of Captain Cook.

But we cannot depend upon this map, because we know from the fourteenth-century Genoese traveller, Marco Polo, that the island of Sumatra was known to him as ‘Java the Less,’ or the little Java, and that both to him and to the Arab traders Java proper was known as ‘Java the Great.’ Francis Drake, also, on his voyage round the world, called at ‘Java major’ (1580), by which name he certainly did not mean Australia, but the island of Java. Moreover, on some examples of the map the inhabitants of ‘Jave la Grande’ are pictured as carrying umbrellas, riding horses and camels, and wearing clothes, and their wooden houses are shown. The aboriginal inhabitants of Australia were not far enough advanced to possess such conveniences. This interesting map, therefore, cannot be accepted as affording evidence that the Portuguese had such a knowledge of Australia as some writers have claimed for them.

In 1598 Cornelius Wytfliet, in a book published at Louvain, wrote as follows: ‘The Australis Terra is the most southern of all lands, and is separated from New Guinea by a narrow strait. Its shores are hitherto but little known, since after one voyage and another that route has been deserted, and seldom is the country visited unless sailors are driven there by storms. The Australis Terra begins at two or three degrees from the Equator, and is maintained by some to be of so great an extent that if it were thoroughly explored it would be regarded as a fifth part of the world.’ Those from whom the Louvain geographer drew his information seem to have had a correct knowledge of the division of New Guinea by a strait from the land to the south of it, but they imagined that the southern continent was far vaster than was actually the case. The supposed Terra Australis of these old cosmographers was indeed a continent stretching right round the South Pole.

The evidence concerning Australian discovery before the seventeenth century is so clouded with doubt that it has been asserted to be unworthy of credence. It has been argued that there is ‘no foundation beyond mere surmise and conjecture’ for believing that any part of this country was known to Europeans until the Dutch appeared upon the scene in 1606. We certainly do not know the name of any sailor who made discoveries prior to that date, nor of any ship in which they were made. We have only a few rough charts, the statement of Cornelius Wytfliet, and the persistence of a vague tradition. Yet this evidence, unsatisfactory as it is, cannot be ignored. There is no extant Portuguese map showing any part of Australia before the seventeenth century. These early intimations are

Faint as a figure seen at early dawn
Down at the far end of an avenue.

It may be thought that, if the Portuguese had really found a great new land to the southward of the spice islands, they would be proud of the achievement and would proclaim it to the world.

The suggestion has been made that their policy was to conceal the whereabouts and the resources of the countries which they discovered. They desired to secure for their own profit the whole of the trade with the East. Especially were they suspicious of the Spaniards, their neighbours in Europe, their rivals in oversea empire. The Portuguese being the first to discover the sea-route to the east round the Cape of Good Hope, and the Spaniards being the first to discover the way to America across the Atlantic, both realized that their interests would be bound to clash. Where was to be the dividing line between their respective spheres of operation? Pope Alexander VI settled their differences in 1493 by appropriating to the Portuguese all the discoveries to the east of a certain meridian, whilst the Spaniards were to take all that lay to the westward of that line. A little later the two nations voluntarily agreed to an amendment of the Pope’s award, and fixed upon a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands as the line separating their two dominions.

But, while this line drawn through the Atlantic did very well before the discovery of the Pacific Ocean, the agreement needed readjustment after Magellan sailed out of the Atlantic into the Pacific. The Moluccas were regarded as a very valuable possession on account of the spices yielded by them. The Portuguese, who had discovered these islands in 1512, contended that they were theirs. The Spaniards, however, contended that the Moluccas were on the western side of the line of partition; they were, urged the King of Spain, ‘in his part of those countries which pertained unto him according to the Pope’s bull.’ Consequently there was ‘great contention and strife between the Spaniards and the Portugals about the spicery and divisionn of the Indies.’ King John of Portugal, records a contemporary Spaniard, ‘what of stoutness of mind and what for grief, was puffed up with anger, as were also the rest of the Portugals, storming as though they would have plucked down the sky with their hands, not a little fearing lest they should lose the trade of spices if the Spaniards should once put in their foot.’ After much dispute the King of Spain and the King of Portugal each married the other’s sister, ‘whereat this matter waxed cold.’ The Portuguese kept the Moluccas and paid a sum of money to the Spanish King for the dropping of his claim to them; whereat, says the Spanish chronicler, ‘some marvelled, others were sorry, and all held their peace.’ But the Spanish traders did not acknowledge that their rights had been surrendered by this amicable financial and nuptial bargain between the two kings, though it was for the moment expedient for them to hold their peace.

In view of these disputes between the rivals as to the possession of lands in the Pacific, and as the agreement of the kings did not imply any principle of permanent settlement by the two nations concerning this part of the globe, it has been argued that it was in the interest of the Portuguese, if they did discover Australia, to publish nothing about it. The Spaniards would have had quite as good a claim to this country as to the Moluccas, and would have insisted that the sum which the Portuguese had paid on account of those islands by no means covered the large country to the south. The dispute about the Moluccas was ended in 1529. If the Portuguese became aware of the existence of a large area of new country, was there not good reason for their suppressing what they knew? But we really have no good reason for assuming that they knew anything. The few books written by Portuguese travellers during the sixteenth century show no knowledge of any land south of Java, and even of that island they were acquainted only with the north coast. ‘The south coast,” wrote a Portuguese traveller, ‘is not frequented by us, and its bays and ports are not known; but the north coast is much frequented and has many good ports.’

We conclude, therefore, that the evidence that the Portuguese had any definite knowledge of Australia during the sixteenth century is exceedingly vague and obscure. It is too unsatisfactory to be reliable. Although we can understand that they had a motive for concealing knowledge of their discoveries from their rivals the Spaniards, we are not justified in believing that in regard to this continent they had any knowledge to conceal.

Not until 1606 do we reach certain ground. In that year both Dutch and Spanish vessels were voyaging within sight of the Australian coast; and here at last we get in touch with people whom we know by name, and with first-hand contemporary documentary evidence which we can read and analyse.

The story of the Spanish voyage is this. The viceroys who were sent out to govern the American possessions of that country were accustomed to despatch expeditions to discover new lands. In 1567 an expedition from Peru under the command of Alvaro de Mendaña had discovered the Solomon Islands, to the east of New Guinea. According to one account of the voyage, Alvaro would appear to have thought that he had actually discovered the Great Southern Continent of which men suspected the existence. ‘The greatest island that they discovered was according unto the first finder called Guadalcanal, on the coast whereof they sailed 150 leagues before they could know whether it were an island or part of the mainland; and yet they knew not perfectly what to make of it, but think that it may be part of that continent which stretcheth to the Straits of Magellan; for they coasted it to eighteen degrees and could not find the end thereof. The gold that they found was upon this island or mainland; but because the Spaniards understood not the language of the country, and also for the Indians were very stout and fought continuously against them, they could never learn from whence that gold came, nor yet what store was in the land.’

Alvaro named the group of islands the Solomons with the deliberate purpose of alluring other Spaniards to settle there — ‘to the end that the Spaniards, supposing them to be those isles from whence Solomon fetched gold to adorn the temple at Jerusalem, might be the more desirous to go and inhabit the same.’ Alvaro, indeed, thought that it would be advantageous to establish a Spanish colony at the Solomons; so in 1595 he brought another expedition into the Pacific with that purpose in view. On his second voyage he discovered the Marquesas Island, but he could not now find the Solomons where he had been twenty-eight years before. It was no uncommon circumstance in those days for a navigator to lose his way at sea; and Alvaro had not been sufficiently precise in his reckoning to know their exact whereabouts. He died at Santa Cruz, a small group of islands south-east of the Solomons, before he had rediscovered the object of his quest.

One of the officers on this second expedition of Alvaro was Pedro Fernandez de Quiros. He was one of those Spaniards who believed that there was a Great Southern Continent which, from the vicinity of the Solomons, ‘stretcheth to the Straits of Magellan.’ The acquisition of this continent would, he urged, be full of advantage for Spain. He laid his case before King Philip III, and as a result was commissioned to command three ships for the purpose of colonizing Santa Cruz and searching for the continent.

On December 21, 1605, the expedition sailed from Callao in Peru. The officer second in command was Luis de Torres. But Quiros was not able to manage his crew. They were mutinous, and, as Torres tells us in his relation of the voyage, ‘made him turn from the course.’ When the ships reached the island of Espiritu Santo, in the New Hebrides, they parted company. At midnight on June 11, Quiros’s flagship, the St. Peter and St. Paul, slipped out of harbour, ‘and,’ says Torres, ‘although the next morning we went out to seek for them and made all proper efforts, it was not possible for us to find them, for they did not sail on the proper course nor with good intention.’ It is to be inferred from Torres’s language that Quiros’s mutinous crew had compelled him to sail back to Peru, leaving behind the two other ships, with Torres in command of them.

What was he to do now that the leader of the expedition had departed? Was he tamely to abandon the voyage, and steer back to Callao? Torres resolved that he would not return until he had achieved some amount of exploration. At this determination he arrived ‘contrary to the inclinations of many, I may say of the greater part’; but he added, with a touch of pride in his own capacity for command, and also with a spice of scorn for the failure of Quiros, ‘my condition was different from that of Captain Pedro Fernandez de Quiros.’

Torres, therefore, after satisfying himself that the land whereat they had been lying was an island, and not a portion of a continent, sailed till he fell in with the southern coast of New Guinea. Then for two anxious months he threaded his way through the reefs and islands of the intricate and dangerous strait which separates that country from Australia. It is improbable that he sighted any part of the coast of Australia. We have two narratives of the voyage, that of Torres himself, and a second by the pilot Diego de Prado. From no point on the route could Australia have been seen, unless a hill (Mount Ernest), rising to a height of 750 feet from an island in Torres Strait, had been climbed. In that case, given perfectly clear weather, the coast might have been seen in the distance. But neither narrative mentions that the hill was climbed. To have ascended to that height in a tropical climate, and in very rough conditions, would have involved an amount of exertion which surely would have caused the adventure to be mentioned.

Quiros stoutly professed that he had discovered the Great Southern Continent, and in 1610 a narrative of the voyage was published wherein it was announced that ‘all this region of the south as far as the Pole’ should be called ‘Austrialia del Espiritu Santo.’ The word ‘Austrialia’ was intended to pay a compliment to Philip III of Spain (a Hapsburg sovereign, and as such a member of the House of Austria) as well as to convey the meaning that this new land was a southern continent. The word was chosen, says Quiros, ‘from his Majesty’s title of Austria.’ But Torres knew that he had by no means discovered a continent, but merely an island of no very large proportions. Quiros had never been within a thousand miles of the real continent.

Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, London: Oxford University Press, 6th edition, 1936, pages 1-12

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