Who discovered Australia?


Who discovered Australia?

Depends what you mean by “discover”. The Indigenous people got there first, of course, though without having a sense of inhabiting a continent or the knowledge of others.  Once in a while an amateur historian will make a claim about discovery of some ancient artefact or rock inscription that would have the Egyptians, the Phoenicians or the Greeks getting to Australia centuries or even millennia before the historically acknowledged European discovery and exploration.

It is possible that the Portuguese, who as first of the Europeans reached the Indian Ocean, India and the Spice Islands, sighted Australian coastline having discovered the nearby East Timor. If so, this has not made enough impression to leave any record in Portuguese archives.

It was left to the 17th century and the Dutch to put Australia on the map – literally.

It’s certainly one of the consequential facts of the Australian history that the Dutch came, saw, but did not stay. The British did.

The Dutch exploded on the exploration scene in the late 1500s and the early 1600s, following in the footsteps of the Portuguese, the Spanish and the French, and quickly catching up with them in terms of the reach and the ambition; their main vehicle the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC).

In 1606, Willem Janszoon, having chartered parts of Papua New Guinea coastline, sailed along the western coast of Cape York, however, having missed the Torres Strait, he thought he was still mapping Papua. It took Dirk Hartog in 1616 to realise he was sailing along a coast of a new land as he began charting the northern coastline of Western Australia. He named his new island after his ship, T Landt van d’Eendracht (shortened to Eendrachtsland), and it stayed that way for nearly thirty years until another Dutchman, Abel Tasman, renamed it New Holland. It could not have been more different to the land of polders and windmills hugging the stormy coast on the North Sea.

And so, this year we are celebrating the 400 years of Hartog’s discovery of Australia. Later next month the King and Queen of the Netherlands will visit Australia on a week-long tour to commemorate four centuries of shared Australian-Dutch history. They will even bring the famous pewter plate with them, which Hartog affixed to a pole in Shark Bay, Western Australia to mark his landing, and which is now permanently back in a Dutch Museum. Hartog’s scratched inscription reads: “1616 On 25 October arrived the ship Eendracht, of Amsterdam: Supercargo Gilles Miebais of Liege, skipper Dirch Hatichs of Amsterdam. on 27 d[itt]o. she set sail again for Bantam. Deputy supercargo Jan Stins, upper steersman Pieter Doores of Bil. In the year 1616.”


I’m walking the quiet and picturesquely tidy streets of Lutjegast, a village of about a 1000, in the northernmost part of the Netherland, Frisia or Friesland; the birthplace of Abel Tasman.

Four centuries ago the village was close to the coast; today, thanks to centuries of land reclamation for which the Dutch are so famous, it’s about 15 kilometres inland. This is a farming and grazing country, far from the excitement and bustle of the great port cities in the south of the country. No wonder an adventurous spirit like Tasman did not stay. Even today the northerners are known for their tacitum and unassuming ways, with a slight chip on their shoulders about watching the history from the sidelines. In an increasingly secular modern Netherlands, this is still a heavily Protestant part of the country, where even recently working on one’s garden on the Sabbath was frowned upon.

Tasman’s old house doesn’t exist any more and no one knows precisely where it was situated. The old Dutch Reformed church he went to as a boy burned down in the 19th century. The rebuilt structure which occupies the highest point in the village bears a copper plaque from the Tasmanian state government presented on the occasion of the 350th anniversary of Abel’s birth in 1953.

Nothing much has happened to the sleepy Lutjegast since then. The locals say that the second most exciting thing in the village’s history was a violent gust of wind that destroyed 50 houses. Wind comes and goes, so Lutjegast lives on Tasman’s memory. There is the small museum, there is the historic walk. Australia, and more particularly Tasmania, as well as New Zealand which Tasman discovered, are ever present in the village’s collective mind. The locals are reserved but warm and welcoming, and proud of the history that links them with the great southern land on the other side of the globe. The only exuberant villager is a middle-aged Viking-looking woman who is active in the local historical society and who entertains visitors playing accordion at the church, and play-acting, while her quiet companion accompanies her on Frisian bagpipes.

The Dutch, more than any other European peoples, have a claim to discovery and mapping Australia prior to the British settlement. Lutjegast’s favourite son once sailed to the other side of the world to discover new lands; it was time enough for this Australian to discover Lutjegast.