This series has three easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: First Sightings of Australia.
Who discovered Australia? As with the natives of the Americas, distant ancestors “discovered” the lands in distant times but here we speak of discoveries that made this continent known not to just local islands but to the rest of the world. This is the story of how Australia entered the common community of mankind and how that changed it.
This selection is from The Naval Pioneers of Australia by Louis Becke and Walter Jeffrey published in 1899.
Learned geographers have gone back to very remote times, even to the Middle Ages, and, by the aid of old maps, have set up ingenious theories showing that the Australian continent was then known to explorers. Some evidence had been adduced of a French voyage in which the continent was discovered in the youth of the sixteenth century, and, of course, it has been asserted that the Chinese were acquainted with the land long before Europeans ventured to go so far afloat. There is strong evidence that the west coast of Australia was touched by the Spanish and the Portuguese during the first half of the sixteenth century, and proof of its discovery early in the seventeenth century. At the time of these very early South Sea voyages the search, it should always be remembered, was for a great Antarctic continent. The discovery of islands in the Pacific was, to the explorers, a matter of minor importance; New Guinea, although visited by the Portuguese in 1526, up to the time of Captain Cook was supposed by Englishmen to be a part of the mainland; and the eastern coast of Australia, though touched upon earlier and roughly outlined upon maps, remained unknown to them until Cook explored it.
Early Voyages to Australia, by R.H. Major, printed by the Hakluyt Society in 1859, is still the best collection of facts, and contains the soundest deductions from them on the subject, and although ably written books have since been published, the industrious authors have added little or nothing in the way of indisputable evidence to that collected by Major. The belief in the existence of the Australian continent grew gradually and naturally out of a belief in a great southern land. G.B. Barton, in an introduction to his valuable Australian history, traces this from 1578, when Frobisher wrote:
Terra Australis seemeth to be a great, firm land, lying under and about the south pole, being in many places a fruitful soil, and is not yet thoroughly discovered, but only seen and touched on the north edge thereof by the travel of the Portiugales and Spaniards in their voyages to their East and West Indies. It is included almost by a parallel, passing at 40 degrees in south latitude, yet in some places it reacheth into the sea with great promontories, even into the tropic Capricornus. Only these parts are best known, as over against Capo d’buona Speranza (where the Portiugales see popinjayes commonly of a wonderful greatness), and again it is known at the south side of the Straight of Magellanies, and is called Terra del Fuego. It is thought this south land, about the pole Antarctic, is far bigger than the north land about the pole Arctic; but whether it be so or not, we have no certain knowledge, for we have no particular description thereof, as we have of the land under and about the north pole.”
Then Purchas, in 1578, says:
This land about the Straits is not perfectly discovered, whether it be continent or islands. Some take it for continent, and extend it more in their imagination than any man’s experience toward those islands of Saloman and New Guinea, esteeming (of which there is great probability) that Terra Australis, or the Southern Continent, may for the largeness thereof take a first place in order and the first in greatness in the division and parting of the Whole World.”
The most important of the Spanish voyages was that made by De Quiros, who left Callao in December, 1605, in charge of an expedition of three ships. One of these vessels was commanded by Luis Vaez de Torres. De Quiros, who is believed to have been by birth a Portuguese, discovered several island groups and many isolated islands, among the former being the New Hebrides, which he, believing he had found the continent, named Tierra Australis del Espiritu Santo. Soon after, the ships commanded by De Quiros became separated from the other vessels, and Torres took charge. He subsequently found that the land seen was an island group, and so determined to sail westward in pursuance of the scheme of exploration. In about the month of August he fell in with a chain of islands — now called the Louisiade Archipelago and included in the British possession of New Guinea — which he thought, reasonably enough, was the beginning of New Guinea, but which really lies a little to the southeast of that great island. As he could not weather the group, he bore away to the southward, and his subsequent proceedings are here quoted from Burney’s Voyages:
We went along three hundred leagues of coast, as I have mentioned, and diminished the latitude 2-1/2 degrees, which brought us into 9 degrees. From thence we fell in with a bank of from 3 to 9 fathoms, which extends along the coast to 7-1/2 south latitude; and the end of it is in 5 degrees. We could go no further on for the many shoals and great currents, so we were obliged to sail south-west in that depth to 11 degrees south latitude. There is all over it an archipelago of islands, without number, by which we passed; and at the end of the eleventh degree the bank became shoaler. Here were very large islands, and they appeared more to the southward. They were inhabited by black people, very corpulent and naked. Their arms were lances, arrows, and clubs of stone ill-fashioned. We could not get any of their arms. We caught in all this land twenty persons of different nations, that with them we might be able to give a better account to your Majesty. They give (us) much notice of other people, although as yet they do not make themselves well understood. We were upon this bank two months, at the end of which time we found ourselves in twenty-five fathoms and 5 degrees south latitude and ten leagues from the coast; and having gone 480 leagues here, the coast goes to the north-east. I did not search it, for the bank became very shallow. So we stood to the north.”
The “very large islands” seen by Torres were, no doubt, the hills of Cape York, the northernmost point of Australia, and so he, all unconsciously, had passed within sight of the continent for which he was searching. A copy of the report by Torres was lodged in the archives of Manila; and when the English took that city in 1762, Dalrymple, the celebrated geographer, discovered it, and gave the name of Torres Straits to what is now well known as the dangerous passage dividing New Guinea from Australia. De Quiros, in his ship, made no further discovery. He arrived on the Mexican coast in October, 1606, and did all he could to induce Philip III of Spain to sanction further exploration, but without success.
Continued on Sunday, November 20th.