The First Europeans in Australia were…

An early map of Australia and New Zealand (1606)

Quiz time! Who were the first Europeans to arrive on Australia’s shores?
Readers of The Last Gundir novel will know the answer to this question (explained in chapter 9) but for the others, the multiple choice answers are:
A) France
B) Holland
C) England
D) Portugal
E) Spain

If you went for England with the arrival of James Cook, you’d be wrong. In fact, he wasn’t even the first Englishman to arrive on Australia’s shores. That would be William Dampier 80 years earlier. If you went with Spain knowing that Torres Strait in Far North Queensland is named after the Spanish explorer Luiz Vaz de Torres and assumed he would have arrived before the others, you’d be wrong. It is debatable whether he actually saw Australia’s shores or not but there is no evidence that he actually landed. If you remembered that Australia used to be called New Holland, recognised the map printed on the front cover of The Last Gundir novel and went for the Dutch…you’d get an A for effort but an F for results.

The sequence of events starts with this Italian chap.

Christopher Columbus

In 1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian explorer sailed under the Spanish flag and encountered North and Central America. On his return to Europe, he stopped over in Lisbon and met the Portuguese King. There he boasted of his “discovery” of the Americas for Spain. Alas, the reception was not what he expected. The King was incensed believing an earlier agreement with Spain granted all new lands “discovered” south of the Canary Islands to Portugal. Signore Columbus legged it and soon afterwards Portugal sent a threatening letter to Spain. Pope Alexander VI was asked to mediate. And that he did with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 that defined a longitudinal line of demarcation at 51°W. Any new lands to the east of this line would belong to Portugal and to the west to Spain.

A glance at the above image reveals why Brazil is the only Portuguese speaking country in South America whilst the rest of the continent was colonised by Spain. All was well with these two global maritime powers until a similar territorial dispute arose in the Moluccas “Spice Islands” in present day Indonesia. Once again, both Catholic countries turned to Pope Alexander VI to mediate and the Treaty of Zaragoza was signed in 1529. Here, the dividing line of longitude was drawn at 129°E and dictated that all new lands to the west would belong to Portugal and to the east to Spain.

1529 Treaty of Zaragoza carved up the world between Portugal and Spain

This Treaty was quite important for a number of reasons. Together with the earlier treaty, it effectively divided the entire world between these two superpowers (albeit not by equal 180° hemispheres as Spain initially wanted). Portugal went on to colonise several countries including Brazil, East Timor, Mozambique and Goa in India without Spanish interference. (Next time you meet an Indian person with the surname Fernandez, you’ll know why it is so). Spain proceeded with the rest of the Americas.

What does all this have to do with Australia?

Look at that line of demarcation again. 129°E cuts right through Australia. When Portuguese explorers left their base in the Spice Islands and ventured south, they came across Queensland’s coast. They charted its coastline but knew they could not reveal its location for to do so would be to hand it to Spain. During this period of secrecy, they prepared a map of Queensland’s coast and omitted the line of longitude to hide its location. However, they did mark the line of latitude – the Tropic of Capricorn. This map, included in The Last Gundir novel is replicated below. Note that it is upside down with North at the bottom.

The Portuguese Map of Queensland dated 1547

The Tropic of Capricorn goes through Sao Paolo (Brazil), Mozambique, Madasgasar and Rockhampton (QLD). Out of those four coastlines, the map above matches only Queensland’s coast. If you can’t see it yet, the sketch below should help…

First Map of Australia

The yellow line is the marked Tropic of Capricorn going through Rockhampton. K’gari (Fraser Island), Moorgumpin (Moreton Island) and Minjerribah (Straddie) are all depicted clearly. Cavanbah (Byron Bay) is also shown as the most easterly point. And whilst the illustrations appear fantastical and probably deriving more from imagination than observation, there is a Portuguese manuscript accompanying this chart which appears to show a sketch of a kangaroo with a joey.

16th century Portuguese manuscript

Chapter 9 of The Last Gundir goes through the sequence of European arrivals in more detail, including more on the Spanish explorer after whom Torres Strait Islanders are named, Bougainville’s remarkable encounter with Queensland before HMB Endeavour and how a province in Holland called Zeeland lent its name to Australia’s favourite neighbours.

It is somewhat ironic that the Dutch map of Australia, believed by many to be Australia’s first map omits the coastline of Queensland. And yet, the first true map of Australia is of the coastline of Queensland.

On a side note, whilst selling The Last Gundir at West End markets, I came across a stallholder who sells old maps. And this map was among her collection! If you’re lucky enough to visit West End markets when The Last Gundir stall is there, do consider purchasing this map from her stall at the same time. The two compliment each other quite well.

The Last Gundir novel is currently all sold out in Avidreader, Riverbend Books, SL Bookshop and Berkelouw (Brisbane based bookshops) but the next re-print should be available in late August 2021.


One thought on “The First Europeans in Australia were…

  1. There is more and more that you reveal Nayef – now I want to know more about the Portuguese manuscript you mention.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: