The Discovery of Australia

The European exploration of Australia encompasses several waves of seafarers and land explorers. This article is a summary of important dates, facts and events leading to the discovery of Australia before European settlement.
Created: May 2012
Latest Feedback: September 2012

Sea Exploration

The continent of Australia was one of the last pieces of the puzzle in creating Earth’s first “world” map. For a long time, both speculation and ambivalence about “Terra Australis Incognita” the unknown South-land, kept explorers and traders away.

Although Australia was first claimed by the British when James Cook landed in 1770, he was certainly not the first and was merely one of a number of European explorers to have sighted and/or landed here. In fact, Cook's landing occurred 164 years after the first documented encounter with the Australian coastline.

The Dutch traders who visited the Indonesian islands towards the end of the 16th Century were the first to hear rumours of great bounties of Gold to be found in the South-land and so started numerous attempts to reach it.
Despite an “accidental” landing on the eastern coast of the Cape York Peninsula in 1606 by the Dutch ship Duyfken, this “discovery” of Australia was not fully realised, nor celebrated at the time. However, the drawings of the coast charted by Janszoon, captain of the Duyfken, are the first known European markings of the Australian continent. Many years of accidental landings and shipwrecks (on the West Australian coastline) continued for the next 40 years, with huge losses and repeated reports of barren land, violent natives, and nothing of worth to trade. Eventually the Dutch, and the world, gave up their interest in Australia.

Even when Captain James Cook reported safe harbours found on the east coast at Sydney, and claimed the continent for Britain in 1770, this find was uncontested during their absence to prepare for settlement which came almost 20 years later!

Key Dates & Explorers

1606 - Dutchman Janszoon, aboard the Duyfken, lands at Cape York Peninsula and returns to Holland with first chart of the Australian coastline

1616 – Dutch sailor Dirk Hartog, aboard the Eendracht, strikes land at Western Australia (Shark Bay) and explores and charts north to Exmouth

1642 – Dutch sailor Abel Tasman, claimed part of Australia for Holland and named it “Van Diemen’s Land”. This was Tasmania, although they had not realised it was an island separated from mainland Australia.

1688 – William Dampier and company of buccaneers gathered in covers of Kimberley coastline – “Buccaneers Archipelago”. Published detailed accounts of voyage and experiences with Aboriginals.

1699 – English Government sponsor William Dampier’s exploration of North West WA aboard the Roebuck. Dampier reported the land was worthless. This was consistent with the Dutch reports and coupled with negative reviews of the local inhabitants, the world gave up interest in colonising “Australia” for nearly a century!

1768 - Englishman, Captain Cook was sent by the British aboard the Endeavour to make astronomical observations of the transit of Venus in the Pacific. He also had secret orders to then look for the Southern Continent.

1770 – April 28, Captain Cook lands the Endeavour at Botany Bay and claims the country for Britain naming it “New South Wales”. Heading north up the East Coast of Australia he stopped for hull repairs in Cooktown, and were first to make passage through Torres proving New Guinea and Australia were not joined.

It would be another 18 years until the British returned to Australia, however when they did they came with a fleet of ships and a thousand people to establish a penal colony which also served as a strategic move to gain a naval base in the Pacific.

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