History of Australia (1606–1787)

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The documentation of Aboriginal history is challenging,[1] because Aboriginal people lived in an oral culture prior to 1788. Although humans had lived in Australia for approximately 40-45,000 years (possibly more) before 1606, this time is regarded as belonging to the prehistory of Australia rather than history because of this lack of written documentation.

Known European discovery[edit]

The first undisputed sighting of Australia by a European was made in early 1606. The Dutch vessel Duyfken, captained by Willem Janszoon, followed the coast of New Guinea, missed Torres Strait, and explored part of the western side of Cape York, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, believing the land was still part of New Guinea.[2][3][4][5] On 26 February 1606, the Dutch made landfall near the modern town of Weipa and the Pennefather River, but were promptly attacked by the Indigenous people.[6] Janszoon proceeded down the coast for some 350 km. He stopped in some places, but was met by hostile natives and some of his men were killed. At the final place, he initially had friendly relations with the natives, but after he forced them to hunt for him and appropriated some of their women, violence broke out and there were many deaths on both sides. These events were recorded in Aboriginal oral history that has come down to the present day. Here Janszoon decided to turn back, the place later being called Cape Keerweer, Dutch for "turnabout".

A Spanish expedition commanded by Luís Vaz de Torres charted the southern coast of Papua, and possibly sighted Cape York in late 1606.[7][2]

Further Dutch sightings[edit]

Hollandia Nova, 1659 map prepared by Joan Blaeu based on voyages by Abel Tasman and Willem Janszoon. This image shows a French edition of 1663

The discovery that sailing east from the Cape of Good Hope until land was sighted, and then sailing north along the west coast of Australia was a much quicker route than around the coast of the Indian Ocean made Dutch landfalls on the west coast inevitable. Most of these landfalls were unplanned. The first such landfall was in 1616, when Dirk Hartog landed on what is now called Dirk Hartog Island, off the coast of Western Australia, and left behind an inscription on a pewter plate. (This plate may now be seen in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.)

Further voyages by Dutch ships explored the north coast of Australia between 1623 and 1636, giving Arnhem Land its present-day name. The most famous and bloodiest landfalls were those associated with the mutiny and murder that followed the wreck of the Batavia off Western Australia in 1629. In 1642, Abel Tasman sailed from Mauritius and on 24 November, sighted and landed in Tasmania, before reaching New Zealand and Fiji, and visiting New Guinea en route to Batavia (now Jakarta). He named Tasmania Van Diemen's Land, after Anthony van Diemen, the Dutch East India Company's Governor General at Batavia, who had commissioned his voyage.

Tasman claimed Van Diemen's Land for the Netherlands. In 1644 he made a second voyage, on which he mapped the north coast of Australia from Cape York westward. Other notable Dutch explorers of the Australian coast include François Thijssen (with Pieter Nuyts on board), who discovered much of the south coast in 1627; and Willem de Vlamingh, who mapped the west coast in 1696-1697.[7][2]

First English sighting of Australia[edit]

On 1 May 1622, the Tryall, a British East India Company owned East Indiaman of approximately 500 tons, under the command of John Brooke, sighted the coastline of Western Australia at Point Cloates, although they mistook it for Barrow Island. They did not land there, and a few weeks later were shipwrecked on an uncharted reef northwest of the Montebello Islands; the reef is now known as Tryal Rocks. The shipwreck caused the death of 93 men, but the captain and nine men escaped, and made their way to Batavia by longboat, and later back to England. This was the first known shipwreck in Australian waters, and it was this wreck that William Dampier came looking for in 1688 (he was not even born when the shipwreck occurred).

First English visit to the mainland[edit]

William Dampier, a former pirate, was the first Englishman to land on the Australian mainland. On 5 January 1688 his ship the Cygnet, a small trading vessel, was beached on the northwest coast, near King Sound. While the ship was being careened he made notes on the fauna and flora and the indigenous peoples he found there. He made another voyage to the region in 1699, before returning to England. He described some of the flora and fauna of Australia, and was the first European to report Australia's peculiar large hopping animals.

James Cook[edit]

Portrait of the English navigator, James Cook.

Lieutenant James Cook was the first European known to have explored the more habitable east coast. Cook had been sent to chart the transit of Venus from Tahiti, but he also charted much of the Australian and New Zealand coastlines. He reached New Zealand in October 1769, and mapped its coast. On 19 April 1770, the crew of the Endeavour sighted the east coast of Australia and ten days later landed in a bay now located in Sydney's southern suburbs.

The ship's naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks, was so impressed by the volume of flora and fauna hitherto unknown to European science, that Cook named the inlet Botany Bay. Of the "Natives of New Holland" (Aboriginal Australians) he encountered on his voyage, Cook wrote in his journal on 23 August 1770: "these people may truly be said to be in the pure state of nature, and may appear to some to be the most wretched upon the earth; but in reality they are far happier than ... we Europeans".

Cook charted the East coast to its northern extent and, on 22 August, at Possession Island in the Torres Strait, Cook wrote in his journal: "I now once more hoisted English Coulers [sic] and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third, took possession of the whole Eastern Coast from the above Latitude 38°S down to this place by the name of New South Wales." Cook and Banks, then reported favourably to London on the possibilities of establishing a British colony at Botany Bay.

The Kingdom of Great Britain thereby became the first European power to officially claim any area on the Australian mainland. "New South Wales", as defined by Cook's proclamation, covered most of eastern Australia, from 38°S 145°E / 38°S 145°E / -38; 145 (near the later site of Mordialloc, Victoria), to the tip of Cape York, with an unspecified western boundary. By implication, the proclamation excluded: Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania), which had been claimed for the Netherlands by Abel Tasman in 1642; a small part of the mainland south of 38° (later southern Victoria) and; the west coast of the continent (later Western Australia), which Louis de Saint Aloüarn officially claimed for France in 1772 — even though it had been mapped previously by Dutch mariners.

The German scientist and man of letters Georg Forster, who had sailed under Captain James Cook in the voyage of the Resolution (1772–1775), wrote in 1786 on the future prospects of the English colony: "New Holland, an island of enormous extent or it might be said, a third continent, is the future homeland of a new civilized society which, however mean its beginning may seem to be, nevertheless promises within a short time to become very important."[8]

In 1779 Sir Joseph Banks, the eminent scientist who had accompanied Cook, recommended Botany Bay as a suitable site.[9] Banks accepted an offer of assistance made by the American-born Loyalist James Matra in July 1783. Matra had visited Botany Bay with Banks in 1770 as a junior officer on the Endeavour commanded by James Cook. Under Banks's guidance, he rapidly produced "A Proposal for Establishing a Settlement in New South Wales" (23 August 1783), with a fully developed set of reasons for a colony composed of English convicts.[10]

Bass and Flinders[edit]

The last great naval explorer was Matthew Flinders, who was responsible for filling in the gaps in the map left by other explorers. In 1796 (after settlement), with George Bass, he took a 2.5 metre long open boat, the Tom Thumb, and explored some of the coastline south of Sydney. He suspected from this voyage that Tasmania was an island, and in 1798 Bass and he led an expedition to circumnavigate it and hence prove his theory. The sea between mainland Australia and Tasmania was named Bass Strait. One of the two major islands in Bass Strait was named Flinders Island.

Flinders returned to his homeland of England, but was soon sent back to Sydney with a much more ambitious task—to circumnavigate Australia. He did this in 1802-03, sailing first along the south coast to Sydney, then completing the circumnavigation back to Sydney. At the same time of Flinders' expedition, the Australian coast was also mapped by Frenchman Nicolas Baudin.[7]


  1. ^ Stannage, T. (Ed) (1981) "A New History of Western Australia" (UWA Press)
  2. ^ a b c Raymond John Howgego: Encyclopedia of Exploration to 1800, 2003. Potts Point NSW: Hordern House. ISBN 1-875567-36-4.
  3. ^ George Collingridge (1895) The Discovery of Australia. P.240. Golden Press Facsimile Edition 1983. ISBN 0-85558-956-6
  4. ^ Ernest Scott (1928) A Short History of Australia. P.17. Oxford University Press
  5. ^ Heeres, J. E. (1899). The Part Borne by the Dutch in the Discovery of Australia 1606-1765, London: Royal Dutch Geographical Society, section III.B
  6. ^ Davison, Graeme; Hirst, John; Macintyre, Stuart (1999). The Oxford Companion to Australian History. Melbourne, Vic.: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-553597-9. 
  7. ^ a b c Eric Newby: The Rand Mc.Nally World Atlas of Exploration, 1975. London: Mitchell Beazley. ISBN 0-528-83015-5.
  8. ^ Georg Forster, "Neuholland und die brittische Colonie in Botany-Bay", Allgemeines historisches Taschenbuch, (Berlin,Dezember 1786), English translations at: http://web.mala.bc.ca/Black/AMRC/index.htm?home.htm&2 and at: http://www.australiaonthemap.org.au/content/view/47/59/
  9. ^ John Gascoigne, Science in the Service of Empire: Joseph Banks, the British State and the Uses of Science in the Age of Revolution, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p.187.
  10. ^ Harold B. Carter, "Banks, Cook and the Eighteenth Century Natural History Tradition", in Tony Delamotte and Carl Bridge (eds.), Interpreting Australia: British Perceptions of Australia since 1788, London, Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, 1988, pp.4-23.

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