Cooking Up a Lie: Who Really Discovered Australia?

WHEN IT COMES to hailing an explorer as the first to set foot on any landmass, what the history books really mean – especially British history books – is who was the first white guy to get there. Ask anyone at random who discovered Australia and the chances are they will confidently reply ‘Captain Cook’, but the first and true discoverers of the Australian continent were African travellers who beat him to it by over 40,000 years. The Australian Aborigines are living descendants of Africans who migrated from their homeland and, as their DNA proves, intermingled on their way through India, Malaysia and Borneo until they pitched up on Timor to complete the last 650 miles of their journey on primitive rafts to land on Australia’s northern coast.

The ancient Chinese made frequent visits to Australia as evidenced by mention in 338 BC of the Imperial Zoo of Peking exhibiting kangaroos and the existence of a 2,000-year-old Chinese vase bearing a map of the eastern Australian coastline. The first full-scale Chinese exploration of Australia was conducted in 1422 by Admiral Zheng, who divided his fleet to explore the east and west coast of the continent simultaneously. And before the Chinese came hunter-traders from many other parts of Asia who, visiting about 5,000 years ago, brought with them their domesticated hunting dogs, some of which escaped to go feral and evolve into the dingo we know today. Next, and a long way down the list, came the Europeans with the first being the otherwise little-known Willem Janszoon (1570–1630), a Dutchman who sailed into what is now called the Gulf of Carpentaria to drop anchor on 26 February 1606 on the Pennefather River on the western shore of Cape York in northern Australia. Establishing a makeshift settlement, he began charting hundreds of miles of the coastline but was eventually forced to abandon his settlement due to what he claimed to have been inexplicable hostility from the locals. Local oral tradition, on the other hand, records the hostilities having been due to the Dutch interlopers kidnapping local women and trying to force the men into hunting and labouring for them.

Next came the Dutchman Dirk Hartog who, in 1616, sailed into the Shark’s Bay area of Western Australia; he was the first to recognize Australia as a continent and not merely the island presumed by Janszoon. In 1644, the Dutchman Abel Tasman, the man who gave his name to Tasmania, explored and charted most of Australia’s northern coastline – so the Dutch had been charting and establishing settlements in the land they called New Holland a century before James Cook (1728–79) was even born. Australians certainly recognize Janszoon as the first European to make it to their shores, commemorating his landing with a replica of his ship, Duyfken (Little Dove), currently in Perth.


Although he could not lay claim to the discovery of Australia, James Cook was the foremost explorer, cartographer and navigator of the eighteenth century, and made three important voyages of discovery. On his last and fateful voyage, between 1776 and 1779, he became the first European to make contact with the natives on Hawaii. Suspecting the Hawaiians of stealing supplies and possibly a longboat, Cook marched ashore to take the king of the island hostage, only to be clubbed to death along with other members of his shore party. Cook’s body was pit-roasted on the beach with the bones later returned to his crew on HMS Resolution for burial at sea.

The first Englishman to take any interest in the new Dutch acquisition was the truculent pirate/privateer William Dampier (1651–1715) who, after landing near King Sound on the western coast, returned to London to report his findings to the Admiralty. In January 1699 he was given command of HMS Roebuck and sent back to chart 900 miles of the western coast, so claims that nobody in Britain was aware of Australia’s existence before Cook’s voyage of 1768 are ridiculous.

In that year Lieutenant (not Captain) Cook was hired by the Royal Society to make for Tahiti and record the transit of Venus over that island, predicted for 3 June 1769; that done, he was to continue south-westward to check out New Zealand, first explored and charted by Abel Tasman in 1642–3, and establish whether it was insular or continental. All of this Cook completed with typical diligence and attention to detail to prove that Tasman’s discovery was indeed insular and not part of the Australian continent. Next, and of his own volition, Cook set sail for the southern tip of Australia’s east coast, which he sighted on 19 April 1770, before following that coastline north to narrowly avoid the total loss of his ship on the Great Barrier Reef. That Cook was an intrepid navigator and a meticulous cartographer is beyond dispute, but how he managed to wrest the accolade of Australia’s discovery from the Dutch is itself a mystery – or is it? The British of the time were in serious competition and frequently at war with the Dutch so they simply ‘cooked’ the history books to shoehorn Cook into the discovery seat and airbrush the Dutch out of the picture. Their only other possible candidate was the bumptious pirate William Dampier and he would never do. He wasn’t even an officer of the Royal Navy. But Dampier does at least have one other claim to fame, as it was his notoriously foul temper that was ultimately responsible for inspiring Robinson Crusoe (1719).

In 1704, having returned to his piratical ways, Dampier was sailing in partnership with Thomas Stradling, captain of the Cinque Ports, and in command of the St George off the coast of Chile. Dampier’s temper caused a rift in the partnership and the two ships ended up going their own ways, causing hostility between Stradling and his leading crewman, Alexander Selkirk, who had run away to sea to avoid prosecution in Fife for indecency in a churchyard, no less. In a fit of pique, Selkirk demanded to be put ashore at next landfall, which just happened to be the deserted island of Juan Fernández, his home for the next five years. When Captain Woodes Rogers of the Duke dropped anchor on 1 February 1709 in search of fresh water, Selkirk’s initial joy at his salvation soon abated: as the Duke’s longboat neared the ship, he could see his old friend Dampier snarling over the side. At first, Selkirk demanded that he should be taken back to his island but, eventually placated, he boarded the Duke for return to England, where his tale helped inspire Daniel Defoe to pen his classic.


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