Early Explorers to Australia

(previous ... Early Discoverers)

Australia was the last part of the world to be visited and explored. In the 1600's, during the times of Shakespeare, the region to the south of the East Indies was still as little known as ever ; the crude maps of those ages had nothing but a great blank space where the islands of Australasia ought to be. Most people thought there was nothing but the ocean in that part of the world; and as the voyage was dangerous and very long (requiring several years for its completion) scarcely any one cared to run the risk of exploring it. 

Duyfden, the Dove, Pedro Fernandez De Quiros 

There was, however, an enthusiastic seaman who firmly believed that a great continent existed there, and longed to go in search of it. This was De Quiros, a Spaniard, who had already sailed with a famous voyager, and now desired to set out on an expedition of his own.  Click here to read more about Pedro Fernandez De Quiros .

Luis Vaez de Torres

Whilst De Quiros was left to explore the New Hebrides Islands, Torres sailed westward and was able to show that what they thought to be a continent was only an island. He passed the south west point of New Guinea and was the first European to sail through the great straits between Australia and New Guinea, which would be named in his honour "Torres Straits". He saw Cape York rising from the sea in the distance, but thought it only another of the many islands he had seen, thus narrowly missing the honour of being the first to discover Australia.

The Dutch 

De Quiros and Torres were Spaniards, but at this time the Dutch also displayed a great deal of anxiety to reach the great South Continent. From their colony at Java they sent out a small vessel, the Duyfden (or Dove) which sailed into the Gulf of Carpentaria and passed half way down along its eastern side. Some sailors landed , but so many of them were killed by the natives that the captain was glad to embark again and sail for home, after calling the place of their disaster Cape Keer-Keer or Turnagain. These Dutch sailors were the first Europeans , as far as can now be known, who landed on Australian soil ; but as they never published any account of their voyage, it is only by the merest chance we know anything of it. During the next twenty years various Dutch vessels, while sailing to the settlements in the East Indies, met with the coast of Australia. In 1616, Dirk Hartog landed on the island in Shark Bay, which is now called after him. Two years later Captain Zaacherr sailed along the north coast, which he called after one of his vessels, the "Arnheim". Next year (1619), another captain, called Edel, surveyed the western shores, which for a long time bore his name. In 1622 a Dutch ship the Leeuwin (or Lioness), sailed along the southern coast and its name was given to the south-west Cape of Australia. In 1627, Peter Nuyts entered the Great Australia Bight ; and in 1628 General Carpenter sailed completely around the large Gulf to the north.  Thus by degrees all the northern and western (together with part of the southern) shores, came to be roughly explored by the Dutch who had formed the idea of colonizing the continent.

Captain Francisco Pelsart 

Accordingly they prepared a fleet of ten ships, and Captain Pelsart was sent with the expedition in a large war-ship (Batavia) to protect the other vessels. They safely rounded the Cape of Good Hope; but shortly after, a storm scattered the ships and destroyed most of them. Click here to find out the fate of the Batavia and the mutiny that ensued. Out of the great concourse of people who had set sail with Pelsart from Holland, very few ever returned home. None of the other vessels reached Australia ; and the Dutch never again attempted to colonize the continent.

Abel Tasman 

During the next 14 years, we hear of no more voyages to Australia ; but in 1642 Antony Van Diemen, the Governor of the Dutch possessions in the East Indies, sent out his friend Abel Jansen Tasman, with two ships , to make new discoveries in the South Seas. Tasman first went to the Island of Bourbon, from which he sailed due south for a time ; but finding no signs of land, he turned to the east and three month after setting out he saw a rocky shore in the distance. Stormy weather coming on, he was driven out to sea and it was not until a week later that he was able to reach the coast again. He called the place Van Diemen's Land and sent some sailors onshore to examine the country. These men heard strange noises in the woods and saw trees of enormous height, in which notches were cut seven feet apart. These they believed were the steps used by the natives in climbing the trees, and they, therefore, returned to report that the land was exceedingly beautiful, but inhabited by men of gigantic size. Tasman, next day, allowed the carpenter to swim ashore and set up the Dutch flag; but having himself seen from the ship, what he thought to be men of extraordinary stature moving about on the shore, he lost no time in taking up his anchor and setting sail (chickens!). Further to the east he discovered the islands of New Zealand and after having made a partial survey of their coasts, he returned to Batavia. Two years after, he was sent on a second voyage of discovery, and explored the northern and western shores of Australia itself, but the results do not seem to have been important, and are not now known. His chief service in the exploration of Australia was the discovery of Tamania, as it is now called after his name. This he did not know to be an island ; he drew it on his maps as if it were a peninsula belonging to the main land of Australia.

William Dampier 

The discoveries that had so far been made were very imperfect for the sailors, generally, contented themselves with looking at the land from a safe distance. They made no surveys such as would have enabled them to draw correct charts of the coasts; they seldom landed, and even when they did, they never sought to become acquainted with the natives or to learn anything as to the nature of the interior country. The first who took the trouble to obtain information of this more accurate kind was the Englishman, William Dampier. Unfortunately, after he published his book on his adventures travelling around the world, it seemed no one was interested in exploring the continent, he so misguidedly described as "the most barren spot on the face of the earth".

Captain Cook

In 1770 a series of important discoveries were indirectly brought about. The Royal Society of London, calculating that the planet Venus would cross the disc of the sun in 1769, persuaded the English Government to send out an expedition to the Pacific Ocean for the purpose of making observations. A small vessel, the Endeavour, was chosen and astronomers with their instruments were signed up. The whole expedition was under the leadership of James Cook, a sailor whose admiral character fully merited the position. Click here to find out more about the highs and lows of Captain Cook's first journey to Australia.

More Visits

Several ships visited Australia during the next few years, but their commanders were content to merely view the coasts which had already been discovered and return without adding anything new. In 1772, Marian, a frenchman, and the next year Furneaux, an Englishman, sailed along the coasts of Van Diemen's Land. In 1777, Captain Cook, shortly before his death, anchored for a few days in Adventure Bay, on the east coast of Van Diemen's Land. La Perouse, Vancouver, and D'Entrecasteaux also visited Australia and though they added nothing of importance, they assisted in filling in details. By this time nearly all the coasts had been explored and the only great point left unsettled was whether van Diemen's Land was an island or not.

(continues ... Pedro Fernandez De Quiros, Fate of Batavia, William Dampier, Captain Cook's First Journey to Australia)


History of Australia