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The White Hat Guide to

European Voyages of Discovery
in the history of Australia

European Voyages of Discovery

Australia's history

European Voyages of Discovery in the history of Australia

European Voyages of Discovery

Australia's History

Aboriginal peoples first arrived from mainland Asia some 50,000 years ago. For 99% of that time the great south land remained hidden from the view of Europeans. It was only in the last 1% of that time that Europeans started to 'discover' parts of the coast.

The Dutch

Dutch map of southern lands from about 1690

By the second half of the 16th century, Portuguese mariners had established trading links with the spice islands of Indonesia and they were later joined in the region by Dutch. The standard route to the ‘Indies’ was around the Cape of Good Hope then keep well south to pick up the good winds before eventually turning north to head for the islands. Using this route it was inevitable that some would be blown too far east and in their subsequent northward journey would bump into Australia. Some bumped harder than others as attested by the shipwrecks along the Western Australian coast. However the first recorded Europeans contact with Australia was a deliberate voyage of discovery undertaken by Willem Janszoon aboard the Duyfken.

Janszoon set out from the spice islands with a crew of 20 and in March 1606 sighted the west coast of Cape York. To our current knowledge, Janszoon and his crew were the first Europeans to set foot on Australia and the first to encounter Aborigines, but who knows what shipwrecks and evidence are yet to be discovered. The chart from Janszoon's voyage is the earliest known European mapping of part of Australia. 1

Janszoon was followed by Dirk Hartog on board the Eendracht a decade later when Hartog unintentionally arrived at Shark Bay in October 1616. Subsequent voyages by the Dutch saw much of the west coast of Australia mapped in the early 17th century. Perhaps the best known episode from this period was the wreck of the Batavia with its ensuing tale of mutiny, horror and murder amongst the survivors. The rescue party hanged eight of the mutineers and abandoned two others on the mainland. Were they the first European Australians?

In 1627 François Thijssen aboard the Gulden Zeepaert sailed along a substantial section of the coast of the Great Australian Bight. However, probably the most remarkable voyage by the Dutch explorers was that of Abel Tasman aboard the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen in 1642-3. Tasman sailed from Batavia to the Southern Ocean and his expeditioners were the first Europeans to sight Tasmania. Tasman charted part of the west, south and east coasts of Tasmania. Tasman (or to be precise, the ship's carpenter) staked claim of the land on behalf of the Netherlands on 3rd December 1642. Tasman continued on to New Zealand where he mapped the west coast of part of the South Island and all of the North Island. He then continued back to Batavia via Tonga, Fiji and to the north of New Guinea. He had thus become the first known European to sail completely around Australia - even if it was was at considerable distance for most of the journey.

By 1700, Dutch mariners had charted most of the north, west and south coasts of Australia. Their reports of the land had been almost all of a dismal nature and, apart from Tasman's effort of having his carpenter swim ashore with a flag and flagpole, the Dutch made no attempts to establish a colony. As fortune would have it, the one coast they had not examined was the fertile east coast.

Useful references

The naming of Australia

1. A 17th century copy of the original chart is held in Atlas Blaue-Van dr Hem, Austrian National Library, Vienna. ML XX/15 v.5, plate 125

First Sight: The Dutch Mapping of Australia 1606-1697. State Library of New South Wales, 2006


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Some forthcoming events related to European Voyages of Discovery:

The Art of Science: Baudin’s Voyagers 1800 -1804

In Australia for the first time in 200 years

This exhibition brings over 340 of the original paintings and drawings from the Museum of Natural History in Le Havre, France to Australian audiences for the first time, with a different suite of paintings showcased at each touring venue.

The exhibition also showcases material from other French institutions, much of which has never before been displayed in Australia. These include Baudin’s chronometer, exquisite coastal profiles, hand drawn maps, and Baudin’s personal journal from France’s National Archives.

An exhibition fro the height of Napoleonic Tensions

Baudin’s ships, Géographe and Naturaliste embarked from Le Havre in October 1800 for the Southern continent carrying an impressive contingent of scientists and scientific assistants. Lavishly funded by Napoleon Bonaparte, the expedition’s agenda was the discovery and study of natural sciences, underpinned by the emergence of new ideas and philosophies of reason. 

The exhibition showcases original sketches and paintings created by Baudin’s artists Charles Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit during the voyage of 1800-1804. Lesueur and Petit created their paintings and drawings on the shores and off the coasts of Australia and captured some of the first European views of Australian animals, landscapes and very first portraits of Aboriginal people. You can find related information at The White Hat Guide to Voyages of Discovery

South Australian Maritime Museum: 30th June – 11th December 2016
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, Launceston: 7th January – 20th March 2017
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart: 7th April – 9th July 2017
Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney: 31st August – 26th November 2017
National Museum of Australia, Canberra: 15th March –  11th June 2018
Western Australian Museum, Perth: 12th September 2018 – 12th February 2019 

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