First Europeans in Australia

By Doolan, Paul | History Today, June 1999 | Go to article overview

First Europeans in Australia


Doolan, Paul, History Today


WE ALL REMEMBER that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and his achievement in the year 1492 is an ingrained part of our cultural baggage. One could fill a modest library with academic and popular studies of Columbus's arrival in what he thought was Asia But what of the first European settlement in Australia? Most people think of the First Fleet that went to Botany Bay 1788, but our ideas may require rethinking, following recent research on DNA analysis, and studies of a rare disease.

Which European country was the first to encounter the Australian continent? In ten years of teaching in international schools in Europe and Asia I know this is not a straightforward question for many students. The British invariably call out `Great Britain' -- Captain Cook inevitably gets a mention. Australian students might venture Britain too, but more hesitantly. Dutch students, though, generally haven't a clue, despite the undoubted appearance of the Australian coast on Dutch maps of the seventeenth century. And the early sailors may have left a more permanent legacy on the continent than has hitherto been realised.

The European arrival in Australia does not perhaps speak to the imagination as much as that of the Spaniards in the American New World. The Columbus myth has had the additional power of being supported by the richest country on Earth. Australia, on the other hand, has suffered from an image problem. Is it an extension of Britain, and a former open-air prison? Or it is a part of Asia, a vibrant participant in the Asia Pacific boom of the 1990s?

If European Australians are searching for a past that predates British settlement, they need look no further.

In February 1606, the Dutch ship, the Duyfken, gained sight of the Cape York Peninsula of northern Australia. Under the command of Willem Janszoon, a party was landed; a bloody encounter with `wild, cruel, black savages' ensued, and 200 kilometres of the coastline were charted. Then the ship turned around and headed back to Bantam, in present-day Indonesia. They reached port in June with a rather dull report of their journey. Janszoon and his crew believed they had simply charted a piece of the coast of New Guinea. They had no idea that they had discovered a new continent for Europe.

No great jubilation surrounded the Duyfken, and Janzsoon and his shipmates simply drifted out of history. But things are changing. In January 1997, the heir to the Dutch throne, Crown Prince Willem Alexander of Orange, opened an exhibition dedicated to the early Dutch explorers of Western Australia, at the Western Australia Maritime Museum in Freemantle, just south of Perth. He then proceeded to lower the keel of a ship that looked remarkably like a seventeenth-century Dutch vessel. In fact it is a replica of the Duyfken. The Dutch East India replica, the first to be built outside the Netherlands, will be finished in two years. It will be transported to Holland to be displayed in Amsterdam. The plan is that the Duyfken will then re-enact her original journey and, with great fanfare, sail to Australia. If this journey captures the public imagination then surely the Dutch will be more frequently remembered as the discoverers of Australia.

Of course there is a difference between an accidental discovery and actually settling the continent. The tiny Dutch nation can boast of a host of great seamen who made major contributions to charting the Southern Land in the wake of the Duyfken's voyage, men like Willem de Vlamingh and Abel Tasman. The continent still carries their names, or the names of their ships, in places such as Tasmania, Arnhem Land, or Dirk Hartog Island (named after the man who surveyed the western Australian coastline in 1616). But the Dutch failed to settle the inhospitable, dry continent and the real history of Europeans in Australia began with Captain Cook arriving in Botany Bay and the founding of the first British settlement there in 1788.

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