Australia in the Before Time


Dutch explorers


For hundreds of years prior to the colonisation of Australia, there were many reports around the world of a great land mass situated to the south of Asia. It became known as the Great South Land or Terra Australis Incognita, the 'Unknown South Land'. As navigational technology became more sophisticated, ships travelled into uncharted waters in search of new and exotic raw materials. Traders were reaping the rewards of bartering in spices, gold, precious stones and food commodities. Increased scientific knowledge propelled the imperial powers to compete with each other to claim this new land for themselves.

In the 16th century, Portugal, Spain and Holland sent ships into the southern ocean but didn't find the 'unknown' land. In 1605 the Spanish captain, Luis Vaez de Torres (1565–1607), sailed through the sea strait between Australia and New Guinea, naming it Torres Strait. Dutch explorers charted about two-thirds of the Australian coastline during the 17th century.

In 1606, Captain William Janszoon (1570–1630) in his ship the Duyfken looked for trade and economic opportunities with Indigenous peoples. Janszoon took a route down the west coast of Cape York, naming it Cape Keer-weer. At this stage the Dutch thought that this coastline was part of New Guinea. At Cape Keer-weer he sent men ashore to make contact with the local Wik people. According to Wik oral history records, a fight broke out between the sailors and the Wik people when the sailors took some of their women. Nine of the sailors and several Wik people were killed, and boats burned. As a result of this conflict, Janszoon was forced to retreat to Bantam in Indonesia. This conflict was the earliest recorded contact between Aboriginal people and Europeans.

In 1629, the Dutch ship Batavia was shipwrecked off Western Australia. The navigation of the ship had been sabotaged by a mutinous group. The 322 survivors set up camp on a small island but it didn't have any fresh water. Skipper Adriaen Jacobsz, Commander Francisco Pelsaert (1595–1630) and some of his crew commandeered a longboat to sail to Batavia (Jakarta) for help. They left behind Jeronimus Cornelisz (1598–1629) who plotted and systematically murdered many of the survivors in a quest for power. Fleeing survivors formed a second camp on the mainland and built a fort for protection. When Pelsaert returned, war broke out between the two camps with Pelsaert victorious. Pelsaert conducted a trial on the islands, because the return voyage to Batavia would have been overcrowded with survivors and prisoners. After a brief trial, the worst offenders were executed. Two mutineers were left behind on the mainland and may have been cared for by local Aboriginal people.

In 1636, Antonie Van Diemen (1593–1645) sent ships to explore more of Australia's north and north-western coast. In 1642 Abel Tasman (1603–1659) sighted the land he named Van Diemen's Land, now Tasmania. Tasman called the Great Southern Land by the name of New Holland. The English explorer William Dampier (1651–1715) also used the name New Holland in his account of his explorations as the first Englishman to explore and chart some of the continent in 1688.


A snapshot of NaN

  • January
    • The Royal Society approached King George III for financial assistance to fund an expedition to observe the transit of Venus from the South Seas.

  • April
    • The ship HM Bark Endeavour (formerly the Earle of Pembroke) was commissioned by the British Royal Navy Board to undergo a voyage to the South Seas. She was to be captained by Lieutenant James Cook.

  • July
    • Cook was involved with fitting out HM Bark Endeavour while moored in Deptford.

  • August
    • Lieutenant James Cook left Plymouth Harbour for Madeira.

  • November
    • Cook wrote to the Royal Society complaining of the poor treatment he received from the Portuguese viceroy at Rio de Janeiro. The viceroy believed that Cook's real purpose was smuggling or piracy.

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