Here is a brief story of the European maritime discoveries of Australia and the mysteries surrounding these discoveries.

The English had in mind to go exploring to see what vast distant lands lay ahead that they could colonise. Exploration would give them knowledge about other cultures, new lands both inhabited and uninhabited and the world. When Captain James Cook and Sir Joseph Banks came back from their adventures with stories of a distant land to the south in the 1770’s, this started the course of history that has formed the reality of today. The vast and different environmental surroundings that Banks had come across in his travels made the British curious. They had overpopulation; their gaols were full and exploding onto Prison hulks in the Thames. The British were using prisoner hulks, repurposed ships, to house the overabundance of criminals. It has to be remembered what was considered criminal was different back then. If you were caught stealing, today you might just be given a slap on the wrist and a small fine, back then would get you 7 years imprisonment or more. Mixed in with the petty thieves were the murderers. Also, the living conditions were harder in 18th Century Britain, for the working class food was scarce and people were starving hungry and not always able to work. Jobs were not always available or the jobs were not paying much money and therefore it was very difficult to survive. It was a tough time and the penalties much harsher for all.

But let’s go back even further in history before we delve into the exciting history of British exploration to Australia. Other maritime cultures were also exploring the worlds vast and distance oceans, and mapping lands as they saw them for the first time. People were, as they are today, curious and wanted to know what lay around the corner and they also wanted land to claim to expand their empires and have trading partners. When you have talented mariners coming back telling stories of what they have seen and experienced it must of sounded exciting and like something out of a storybook, a curiosity for the people of the day.

The Chinese in the 1400’s were great traders and navigators. They had large sailing ships called Junk’s. These ships were often built of soft pliable wood, such as pine, they were extremely sturdy, and had rotatable sails that allowed the ships to effectively sail into the wind. Junk’s also had watertight bulkheads that added an element of safety to their ships that helped their many successful sea voyages.

Did the Chinese reach Australia? Did they explore Australia? Gavin Menzies is his book ‘1421, the year China discovered the world’ indicates that the Chinese discovered and explored the east coast of Australia under the emperor Zhu Di. Here, Menzies believes that historic maps such as the Dieppe map provide evidence that the Eastern coast of Australia was mapped before Cook, and that it was the Chinese who mapped it. The Dieppe Map shows an unknown southern land mass to the south under Java called Jave La Grande, that Menzies believes proves the Chinese discovery and that Jave La Grande was a representation of Australia.

A lot of the evidence of what we know about the rediscovery of Australia by various cultural groups comes down to us via oral traditions, artefacts, genetics, and drawings, which include maps.

The Dieppe Maps for example were written in French and Portuguese. Where did the French get the idea of a vast continent to the south called Jave La Grande? Research varies, some indicating it was a fictitious island, others indicate its mapping from French discoveries of exploration as they were keen explorers too, and some say it was from Portuguese explorers who gave that information to the French. Not to mention Gavin Menzies’ idea that the map was developed from Chinese maps and their discoveries and information. The maps and the large vast continent that the Europeans were envisioning in the south was an interesting concept indeed.

The Portuguese and Spanish were also believed to have reached Australia pre Cook. They were extremely talented seafarers during the 15th and 16th century and beyond and were out trading and exploring the unknown oceans and lands. There are reported sightings of shipwrecked galleons, along the eastern and southern coast of Australia that could be either Spanish or Portuguese. One example is the Stradbroke Island galleon researched by Greg Jefferies. The wreck of a galleon is believed to be located in a swamp that is very difficult to access on Stradbroke Island near Brisbane in Australia. With this wreck, artefacts have been found including a coin and a masthead that show evidence of a shipwreck being in that location. In addition, it was suggested that the survivors of that wreck stayed and intermixed with the local Indigenous population. Other similar wrecks have been reported including one at Warrnambool. It is extremely challenging to prove these findings have full authenticity. What we can see here is the Spanish and Portuguese were talented seafarers and could have been to Australia prior to Cook. We need evidence. 

Many Melanesians and pacific Islanders had been exploring the vast oceans of the pacific and it is not impossible that other cultures from all around the world were not exploring as well. Our understanding of our ancestor’s seafaring is that they had boats that were not seaworthy, or that they did not explore the oceans of the world. There were waves of exploration and population in different areas of the world. It is certainly an interesting area of study. What we do know is that the Spanish and Portuguese were present in the northern waters of Australia in the 16th century and there is every possibility they explored beyond in the south.

Now we move to the Dutch and their explorations around the Australian coast. The Dutch had set up the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for the trading of spices. VOC had set up a company-trading centre in Java and from their Java trading centre they sent their seafarers south to discover trade opportunities and to explore a land that was titled Nova Guinea. That is when in 1606, Willem Janszoon; the captain of the Duyfken, meaning little dove, sailed south and discovered the north of Australia, the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The Duyfken anchored at the Pennefather River along the coast north of modern day Weipa. From there Janszoon sailed south to a place called Cape Keerweer, anchored and met some Indigenous Wik people in order to make contact and trade. There he came into conflict with them as his men tried to take a Wik woman. Janszoon lost nine of his crew, turned around and sailed back to Bantam, Java. Janszoon had discovered northern Australia and did not realise it. He did not know that Australia was a separate continent from Papua New Guinea at this point in time as he did not sail through the Torres Strait.

Following on from this 1606 discovery the Dutch had many more to come. They had a talented bunch of navigators and seafarers who were able to explore even more parts of the Northern and Western Australia coastlines. In 1616 Dirk Hartog a Dutch explorer working for VOC was on his way to Java in a ship called the Eendracht and was blown off course and as a result he and his crew discovered the western coast of Australia, Dirk Hartog Island and the Shark Bay area. Hartog and crew set anchor for two days and then sailed north, and in the process mapped the west coast of Australia. Dirk Hartog left a plate on the Dirk Hartog Island marking his visit. The Eendracht was built in 1615, was a 700 tonne vessel and could hold just under 200 men on board. Being blown off course resulted in the exploration and charting of a large section of the Australian continent and it has brought many benefits for latter sailors and explorers who were now aware of the western Australia coastline.

The Dutch mariners working for VOC continued to travel and discover. In 1619 the Dutch explorer Fredrick De Houtman and his companions including, Jacob D’Edel discovered the coast near Perth on the western coast of Australia. Houtman was travelling for VOC in the ship called Dordrecht. This area around Perth and Swan River was named d’Edelsland. Houtman continued to travel north and mapped areas of the coast of Western Australia on his Journey. Here we can see segments of the Western Australian coastline being mapped by Dutch mariners as they went along their shipping journeys. Each mariner contributed to the larger body of knowledge about the new land coming into view.

The mapping of Australia continued under Abel Tasman who discovered the south of Tasmania and the northern coast of Australia from the west all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria. In 1642 Tasman set sail in charge of two ships to explore the oceans and it is in his first voyage that he discovered the southern coast of Tasmania. Then in his second voyage in 1644 he sailed along the northern coast of Australia, including the top end of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and The Gulf of Carpentaria that had been earlier charted by Willem Janszoon. Abel Tasman had called this new land that the Dutch had mapped, New Holland and it was appearing on maps in the mid 1600’s. 

Here there were many Dutch mariners who each contributed to the charting and exploration of Australian waters. The Dutch VOC explorer’s contributed knowledge about the Australian coastline and its environment and were extremely skilled navigators, explorers and were willing to chart their course into the unknown for the company VOC. A map of their discoveries of New Holland is included below.

Image 3.A Map of New Holland – Dutch Discoveries: Map created in 1744 for VOC by Emanuel Bowen, curtesy of the National Library


With the west coast of Australia mapped, the British were aware of a large land mass to the south. The Dutch had provided them with details about the West and northern coast of Australia, and the Spanish about the Torres Strait. Next it was William Dampier a British mariner who went on to explore the oceans around Australia.

William Dampier was born in 1651 in East Coker, Somerset. His main achievements were that he circumnavigated around the world three times and learned about the currents and wind patterns as well as describing the plants and animals he passed. He was a buccaneer and was rather harsh on his crew. Dampier had reached Australia in 1688 as a buccaneer on the Cygnet. In relation to his exploration of New Holland, in 1699 he was put in charge of a ship the Roebuck to explore New Holland where he reached Shark Bay and described it as:

“The land everywhere appeared pretty low, flat and even: but with steep cliffs to the sea; and when we came near it there were no trees, shrubs or grass to be seen.” William Dampier – Voyage of New Holland (Australia). 

During William Dampier’s time at Shark Bay and exploring the coast of New Holland, he noted that it was rather flat and sandy. Also, he took note and wrote about the animals and plant life that existed in the area. Seeing birds and animals you have never seen before must have been an interesting event for mariners where they described them in relation to animals and plants they were familiar with and had seen at home or along their oceanic voyages.

In addition to William Dampier’s observations about the animal and plant life, he also came into contact with the Indigenous Australians on his 1688 voyage and on his 1699 voyage. On the 30th of August 1699, Dampier and his crew could see smoke upon the shore indicating people were there camping. So when Dampier and crew went to the shore on the 31st of August to look for water they took their cutlasses and muskets with them and there was some fighting between the two parties, his crew and the aboriginals. 

The information provided by Dampier about the winds, New Holland, the birds, and fish gave information to the British for their further explorations leading to the eventual settlement of a penal colony in New South Wales in 1788.

Captain James Cook was an English explorer and talented navigator born in Yorkshire in I728. He started his career as a sea cadet in Whitby. But it was later on in his career that he was commissioned by the royal British navy to find the unknown southern continent and as a result of trying to find this continent, he travelled to the pacific and found and then charted the East coast of Australia. On the south side of the continent, there were earlier maps called the Dieppe Maps that showed a land mass called Jave La Grande. This landmass on the maps supported the claim for earlier discoveries of Australia. The Dutch had mapped the west coast of Australia and southern Tasmania. The British knew there was land to the south and were interested in exploring this area further and to lay claim to the land.

In 1770, Captain Cook on board the Endeavour discovered the southern end of the east coast of Australia. The botanist Joseph Banks who had paid 10,000 pounds to be on the journey joined him. Captain Cook, sailed the Endeavour north along the east coast, mapping it, until he reached a place to anchor. This place to anchor was in a harbour and was named Botany Bay. The crew on board the Endeavour disembarked at Botany Bay for eight days, where Banks and the crew discovered over 130 new species of plants. Captain Cook had mapped a coastline that was believed to not have been mapped previously. It helped complete the map the Dutch had created. Cook claimed the land for the British.

In addition to mapping the east coast, Cook and Banks were able to return to England and report their many findings. These findings informed the English of a land to the south that many years later they were to colonise with convicts. The British were overcrowded and had resulted to housing their convicts on prison hulks and were looking for new lands to expand and send their convicts. These prison hulks were old ships no longer fit for purpose to provide transportation and gun power at war, so they were repurposed to house the over abundance of convicts. These hulks were not nice places to be housed. They were crowded, cold and a place full of disease. The convicts in these hulks were to be transported, some  7 years and others for life. Therefore, the British needed somewhere to send these convicts as space was at a premium. Why did they choose the land discovered to the south?

The British were considering were to send their convicts and Banks recommended, Botany Bay. Convicts were being sent to the America’s but after the United States’ independence the British had to find an alternative location to send them. The British did not rule America anymore. Sir Joseph Banks had spent time exploring the land around Botany Bay, taking note of the plant life, the inhabitants and state of the land and had presented a case to the British government. Therefore, the British having explored other options for settlement decided on sending their convicts to Australia, Botany Bay. The prime minister, William Pitt agreed and they selected Captain Arthur Philip to lead the voyage. The reason for the decision to move convicts to Botany Bay was also centred around trade and economics. Having a colony closer to other trading countries, such as China, would, given the chance, increase economic prosperity.

On the 13 May 1787 the first fleet, led by Captain Arthur Philip, set sail from Portsmouth with a fleet of 11 ships bound for Botany Bay. Of the 11 ships, 6 were to transport the convicts, 3 for supplies, and 2 navy ships. The 6 convict ships were called, Alexander, Friendship, Charlotte, Lady Penhryn, Prince of Wales and Scarborough. The number on board all ships in total was around 1,485 with babies born on the voyage. This number consisted of naval officers, wives, officials, passengers, convicts and children born. It was a big feat as they had limited knowledge of what lay ahead of them when they arrived in Botany Bay. The ships were cramped, the convicts stowed in cells beneath with the rotting smells wafting around the ships and they were susceptible to disease. The convicts were allowed walks on deck for fresh air. Setting up a penal settlement was an experiment and colonisation of great proportions. Imagine sending over a thousand people cramped in ships to the unknown. During the long voyage, the fleet stopped off at Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town. The fleet arrived at Botany Bay in January 1788, but found it not suited for purpose and set anchor at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson instead. They had enough supplies for 2 years.

If we take a look at one of the 11 ships, Charlotte, a convict transport ship, it was 335 Tons, 105ft feet long and 28 ft. wide and housed 84 male convicts and 24 female convicts as well as the crew. The ship had 2 decks and 3 masts and was led by Captain Thomas Gilbert. It was a long journey, with the ship travelling over 20,000 kilometres.

For the convicts on board the vessels it would have been a relatively uncomfortable voyage. They were cramped, being sent miles from their homeland, they had to be tough to survive. The women especially would have had it tough, with debauchery, and living in such harsh conditions, firstly on board the ship and then when they arrived in the new colony. A new life for them, but was it better or worse than back in their homeland? The conditions in England were miserable but to them being sent to the other side of the world was not a good choice either.

The arrival of the first fleet was the beginnings of the British colony in Australia. They had a harbour, supplies, and convicts. They had to make the most of their new settlement. What would have happened if the first fleet never arrived in Australia? These histories and mysteries still intrigue researchers to this very day.

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