Unknown to Europeans, but not uninhabited

Australia was not an uninhabited continent when the first Europeans arrived accidentally on the west coast 400 years ago, and before Duyfken visited the Cape York Peninsula in 1606. Indigenous peoples had inhabited and shaped Australian landscapes for tens of thousands of years.

Australia was first reached by humankind at least 40,000 years ago, perhaps as much as 60,000 years ago. Australia has never been joined to Asia by a land bridge. Even at the sea-level minima of the ice-ages of the last 60,000 years, reaching Australia has always entailed crossing seaways. The ancient forebears of the Australian Aborigines must have had watercraft of some sort.

Dingoes—domesticated dogs—reached Australia much more recently, and must have been brought to Australia by seafaring people. The dingoes’ arrival coincides with the early maritime expansion of the people known as Malayo-Polynesian or Austronesian (Austronesian means “Southern-Islanders” and does not imply Australia). The Austronesians were at that time, a neolithic people who developed exceptional tool-making and wood-working techniques in southern China, and began making finely crafted dugout canoes before people anywhere else, or anywhere that we know about through archaeological discoveries. At some point they invented the outrigger canoe. By the time Europe was in its early medieval phase the Austronesian peoples were spread over the globe from Easter Island and Hawaii to Madagascar and East Africa, from Taiwan to New Zealand.

Austronesians from Indonesia never settled in Australia in any significant way, but they certainly visited. A few years before the first European ships reached Southeast Asia an Italian traveller, Ludovico di Varthema, who had taken passage on a Javanese ship asked the captain about land to the south of Indonesia. The captain said there was land to the south. He had never been there himself, but he had heard that the days were short in winter. Another writer and geographer, of Portuguese and Indonesian parentage, known as Eredia, also recorded the knowledge that there was land to the south where the natives were hostile, it was dry and there was alluvial gold in the river beds.

There is archaeological evidence of Southeast Asian visitors to Australia. Carbon dating of material from Macassan sites in northern Australia has frequently produced much earlier dates than expected. The Macassans visited northern Australia, including the Kimberley region, to collect and process trepang (sea slugs) for export to China. Since the export of trepang to China started in the late-17th century, visitors from Indonesia cannot have come to collect trepang before then.

1606 European discovery of the fabled South Land

Although Dirk Hartog was the first recorded European to land on the west Australian coast and is credited with being the first European to leave behind physical evidence of his visit to the southern continent, the crew of another Dutch VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) vessel, a jacht called Duyfken (Little Dove), had discovered an Australian coast ten years before Hartog made landfall on Dirk Hartog Island. The Duyfken’s crew are the first Europeans known to have laid eyes on the Australian continent. In early 1606 they reached the Cape York Peninsula in the Gulf of Carpentaria (later named by Jan Cartensz after Pieter de Carpentier, VOC Governor-General of Batavia in 1623 who was also the upper-merchant on board the Trouw, one of the ships in the 1616 fleet that Hartog had become separated from in a storm).

Skippered by Willem Jansz, the Duyfken made landfall at the Pennefather River on the western side of Cape York Peninsula having been instructed to search for Nova Guinea and other southern lands, perhaps in the hope that they would find the gold which some said there was “great store of”. The Duyfken sailed along and charted more than 300 km of the west coast of Cape York. Whether Jansz and his crew speculated that they were the first Europeans to encounter the ‘Unknown South Land’ we cannot know. On a chart they called the land Nova Guinea, but our New Guinea they called Os Papuas. Unfortunately, no ship’s journal or original chart survive from this voyage although a 1670s copy of the original map records the outward and return voyage that Duyfken made to ‘...lands east of Banda unto Nova Guinea’.

Clash of cultures

Contact between European mariners and Australia’s Aborigines sometimes brought violent confrontation and bloodshed on both sides.

It is recorded that the Duyfken‘s skipper Willem Jansz lost one man, and perhaps more, during his 1606 visit to the Cape York Peninsula. Dutch skipper Jan Carstensz, who in 1623 retraced Jansz’s route into the Gulf of Carpentaria in the ships Pera and Arnhem, also encountered trouble.

At Carpentaria River, Carstensz was involved in a skirmish with a large group of Aboriginal people who he said appeared to

"have knowledge of muskets whose terrible effects they learned in 1606 from the men of the Duyfken who landed here".

Similar encounters occurred in the early 19th century during expeditions led by Frenchmen Nicolas Baudin in 1801–1803, and by Louis de Freycinet in 1818–1821. De Freycinet’s artist Jacques Arago recorded a tense encounter at Cape Peron with a group of Malgana people who, ‘watched us as dangerous enemies, and were continually pointing to the ship, exclaiming, ayerkade, ayerkade [sic] (go away, go away)’. This encounter, however, ended positively.

Jacques Arago, Nouvelle Hollande: Baie des Chiens-marins Presque île Peron, entr
Jacques Arago, Nouvelle Hollande: Baie des Chiens-marins Presque île Peron, entrevue avec les sauvages [New Holland:Shark Bay, Peron Peninsula. Meeting with the savages]; note Arago with his castanets.
[Public Domain] National Library of Australia []

The first map—Willem​ Jansz (c.1570–c.1630)

Willem Jansz (Janszoon) is described in the Biographisch woordenboek der Nederlanden (Biographical Dictionary of the Netherlands), simply as the ‘discoverer of Australia’.

Sent by the VOC, Jansz’s mapping of part of the Cape York Peninsula in the north of Australia in 1606 is significant as the beginning of Australia’s recorded history.

Jansz was born in Amsterdam and was, according to the historian of the VOC, François Valentijn, abandoned as a child.

In December 1603, a year after the newly-formed VOC was granted monopoly in the trade with Asia, Jansz was given command of Duyfken and set out to the Indies in a fleet of twelve ships under the commander Steven van der Haghen.

On 18 November 1605, Jansz sailed from Bantam, Java, instructed to explore ‘the great land of Nova Guinea and other East- and Southlands’. He sailed first to Banda in the Moluccas, then to the Kei Islands and Aru Islands. From there he sailed to the southern coast of Papua and charted the area around the Digul river. He reached the western coast of the Cape York Peninsula at the Pennefather River, probably in early 1606, and mapped some 320km of coastline and islands in the strait that is now called Torres Strait. (Torres sailed through the strait later in 1606.)

Jansz’s ship log and journal, which were handed over to the VOC, are lost. However, his chart of the coasts that he surveyed was copied into the Atlas Blaeu van der Hem in 1670. After the Duyfken’s voyage to Australia, Jansz was appointed to increasingly large ships. He was made Governor of the VOC fortress on Solor Island, which had been captured from the Portuguese, and later Governor of the Banda Islands. In both posts he was brought in when there were serious problems.

Jansz retired in 1629, and is thought to have died in 1630.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Jansz was diligent, unassuming and good-tempered; and though he appears to have lacked outstanding ability, ‘his qualities made him a valuable executive officer’. He does not appear to have ever married.

Additional information about the Duyfken can be found here. .

Unexpected encounters with the west coast: the problem of calculating longitude

Why did ships come to grief on reefs off the west Australian coast? Although latitude could be measured accurately, calculating longitude was much more difficult and could only be done in particular circumstances. As Europeans ventured into unknown waters occasionally ships were wrecked as a result of not knowing how far they had sailed from their port of departure. Trading vessels heading to the East Indies via the southern Indian Ocean were aided by the strong ‘roaring forties’ winds. However, if their longitudinal position was miscalculated and they turned north too late, they faced the risk of perishing on the treacherous west coast reefs. Yet, only four Dutch ships are known to have been wrecked on the west Australian coast in nearly two-hundred years of regular VOC voyaging, although the Zeewijk's disaster was due to negligence rather than miscalculation.

The navigational problem of longitude calculation led the British Government in 1714, by Act of Parliament, to offer a substantial prize of £20,000 to anyone who could solve the problem. English clockmaker, John Harrison, was eventually at least partly recognised for inventing the marine chronometer which made possible relatively easy and regular calculation of longitudinal position at sea.