Early European cartographers had long suspected that there was a “great southern land” located in the Southern Hemisphere; hypothesizing the existence of such a continent seemed to make good sense, as it would “balance out” the continents known to exist in the Northern Hemisphere.
The first documented discovery of Australia by Europeans was made by the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon in 1606. Whilst some theories have been put forward over possible sightings of Australia by Portugese or Spanish sailors, these claims are not supported by any satisfactory evidence.
Dutch sailors made several sightings of, and even landings upon, the Australian coastline in the 1600s. From the time of Abel Tasman, they called the newly-discovered continent Hollandia Nova (New Holland). Many of them were sailing for the Dutch East India Company (the Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie, sometimes just referred to as the VOC) and — following the VOC’s instructions — they utilized the “roaring forties” (strong winds which constantly blow around the Earth, usually located between 40 to 50 degrees latitude) to give them fast passage from the southern point of Africa right across the Indian Ocean; however, due to navigational errors, it was almost inevitable that some of the ships would accidentally end up on the western coast of Australia.
1606: Willem Janszoon, in the Duyfken, landed at the Pennefather River on the western shore of Cape York (Queensland) on 26 February 1606. This was the first confirmed European landfall on the continent. Janszoon charted some 320 km of the coast, although he mistakenly thought it was a continuation of the island of New Guinea; this was an error that persisted for many years.
1616: Dirk Hartog, in the Eendracht, sighted “various islands” in Shark Bay (Western Australia) on 25 October 1616. He landed at one island called Eendrachtsland (named after Hertog’s ship; now called Dirk Hartog Island) and nailed a metal plate to a post with a note of his being there; then he sailed northwards, charting the western coast of Australia.
1619: Frederick de Houtman in the Dordrecht (accompanied by Jacob d’Edel, in the ship Amsterdam) landed on the Australian coast (in the area of Perth) which was then named d’Edelsland (after Jacob d’Edel). Houtman went north and landed on Dirk Hartog Island.
1623: Jan Carstenszoon, in the Pera (accompanied by Willem Joosten Van Colster, in the ship Arnhem), sailed along the Cape York Peninsula and the Gulf of Carpentaria. He made landings on the coast, including one where he and his men fought against some two hundred Aborigines near Cape Duyfken (Carstenszoon previously had peaceful contact with other Aborigines).
1627: François Thijssen, in the Gulden Zeepaerdt (Golden Seahorse), caught the “roaring forties” and ended up at Cape Leeuwin (at the southern tip of Western Australia). In line with Dutch instructions to explore the southern land, he travelled along the southern coast, right up to present-day Ceduna and then sailed back again, mapping over 800 nautical miles in the process.
1629: Francisco Pelsaert, in the Batavia, was wrecked off the coast of Western Australia. The loss of life from the shipwreck was compounded by a mutiny, with the mutineers murdering over 110 of the survivors, and later on most of the mutineers were killed by the rescue party. Interestingly, two mutineers (considered to be less culpable) were left behind and may have joined an Aboriginal tribe, as evidenced by Dutch genes in the modern-day Aborigines of that area (although the intermixture may be due to Europeans surviving other shipwrecks, like the Zuytdorp wreck of 1712).
1642: Abel Tasman, in the Heemskerck (accompanied by the Zeehaen), discovered the west coast of Tasmania in November 1642, naming it Anthoonij van Diemens Landt (Van Diemen’s Land, in honour of the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies), and then sailed south around island to the east coast, where he claimed Van Diemen’s Land for Holland on the 3rd of December 1642. He then sailed westward and discovered New Zealand.
1644: Abel Tasman made a second voyage to Australia (using the ships Limmen, Zeemeeuw and Bracq) and mapped most of the northern coast of the continent, from Cape York to the North West Cape; as he did not map the far north-eastern coast of Australia, it meant that he did not find out that Australia’s north-east was not connected to New Guinea, as was then thought.
1696-1697: Willem de Vlamingh, in the Geelvink (accompanied by Gerrit Collaert, in the ship De Nijptang, and Joshua de Vlaminghin the Weseltje), went to Western Australia where he landed on Rottnest Island, sailed up the Swan River, and visited Dirk Hartog Island (Western Australia), where he replaced Hartog’s plate with a new one (taking the original back to Holland, where it is now in a museum).
1770: The English explorer James Cook, in the Endeavour, discovered the eastern coast of Australia in April 1770 (although he has, in the past, often erroneously been credited with the discovery of Australia itself). Cook (a navy lieutenant at the time) mapped the eastern coast and claimed that side of the continent for Great Britain. He was later promoted to captain for his services. Captain Cook’s work paved the way for the British settlement of Australia, at Sydney Cove, in 1788.
The discovery of Australia, as it is described in history books, has been considered by some to be a Eurocentric viewpoint, as the continent was found by the Australian Aborigines some thousands of years beforehand. However, to say that Australia was “discovered” is quite correct in terms of what could be described as the then “known civilised world”. In a similar fashion, if a hitherto unknown stone age tribe was found in the Amazon jungle today, it would quite proper to say that the tribe had been discovered – it would not be a Eurocentric viewpoint, but rather just the viewpoint of the “known civilised world”.
Australia, in its pre-1788 existence, was a land with very few outside contacts. The continent remained in an undeveloped state, with no cities, lacking higher cultural growth, and being without advanced technological abilities.
It is thanks to the efforts of the early explorers that Australia was eventually opened up to the world and thus went on to become a thriving modern nation.
References and further information:
“Accidental discoveries”, National Library of Australia
“Nuyts, Pieter (1598 – 1655)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
“Abel Tasman and the South Land” (“translation of information on the Dutch National Archives website”), National Library of Australia
Heather Catchpole, “Roaring forties”, ABC
“Roaring Forties”, Wikipedia
“European_exploration of Australia”, Wikipedia
“Batavia (ship)”, Wikipedia
Last updated 18 June 2021