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The First Europeans in Australia



The first inhabitants of the continent of Australia, the Aboriginal peoples, migrated from somewhere in Asia to Australia about 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. The Aboriginal people walked to Australia across land bridges, and sailed between the islands of Southeast Asia. At that time the sea levels were lower than what they are today. These people quickly covered the whole continent. The Aborigineal people were hunters and gathers that moved with the changing seasons and only took with them things that were necessary. Scholars estimate that at the time of the first European settlement in 1788 the Aboriginal population was between 300,000 to 750,000. The Chinese, Malays, Hindu and Buddhist colonists of the islands of Southeast Asia suspected the existence of a "great Southland." Its existence was even found on many maps. Later, Muslims and Bugis trepang fishers also knew of Australia, otherwise known as the "North Coast." Only many years later did Europeans learn of Australia.

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A series of maps from France between 1536-1567 based on Portuguese originals show a large landmass named "Java la Granda." This would become known as Australia. Many scholars use this as proof of Portuguese discovery, but they are independent of an actual voyage. There is also a questionable account of a supposed discovery of Australia by a French navigator by the name of De Gonneville in 1504. In 1536 a map form Dieppe was published showing a large landmass "Java la Granda", but there is no evidence to prove that De Gonneville ever made the voyage.

The first European whose claim to having sighted and landed on Australia can be substantiated was a named Willem Janszoon (Jansz). Janszoon was a Dutch sea captain who set sail under the command of the Dutch East India Company to explore the south coast of New Guinea. The Dutch East India Company was in search for new lands and new places to trade. The "Duyfken," which means 'little dove," was the ship that made this voyage. It would become very well known, more so than Janszoon. Janszoon and his men sailed past the islands known as Kai and Aru and went 220 miles along through the undiscovered part of New Guinea. Then the ship sailed into Torres Strait. It is believed that instead of the ship running into what is thought of as a cul-de-sac, the Duyfken continued to head south. In 1606 Janszoon and his crew sailed southeast beyond Papua New Guinea (Os Papuas) and found Australia. Janzoon encountered the Cape York Peninsula and sailed along the coastline for 300 kilometers. It is also said that Janszoon sailed off from the island Banda Indonesia, in search for gold and trade in the island of Nova Guinea. Willem Janszoon was the first European to record his voyages to Australia; thus this is the beginning of Australia's history. Because of his discovery, Australia was first known as "New Holland."

This was not only the first time that Europeans encountered Australia, but also the first time Europeans encountered Australia's native people, the Aborigines. The contact did not go very well. Nine crewmembers of the Duyfken were killed in a fight as the crew attempted to trade. The Aborigines were later referred to as "heathen man eaters" and "Wild Cruel black savages". Janzoon and his crew returned to Europe and had to report bad news.


"A Brief History of Australia between 1600-1788." Online posting. http://www.goulburn.net.au/~lzs/page1.htm Netscape. 21 Feb. 1999.

Baker, Daniel B., ed. Explorers and Discovers of the World. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1993.

Clark, C.M.H. A History of Australia. London: Melbourne University Press, 1968.

"Discovery of Australia." Encyclopaedia of Australia. London: Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd., 1968.

"Early Explorations." Online posting. http://www.austemb.org/earlyexp.htm Netscape. 21 Feb. 1999.

Greenup, Warren. "History of Australia." Online posting. InfoAustralia. http://www.infoaustralia.com.au/history.htm Netscape. 21 Feb, 1999.

"Jansz (Jannssen) Willem." Encyclopaedia of Australia. London: Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd., 1968.

"They set sail from Holland." 27 Jan.1999. Online posting. http://www.iinet.net.au/~cari/maritime.htm Netscape. 21 Feb. 1999.

Edited by: Christopher O. Peterson
Researched by: Raymond M. Gherardini
Written by: Victor G. Kramer, vkramer
November 19, 1997

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