Many ancient Greek and Roman thinkers felt that to properly balance the great northern landmasses, there had to be equivalent land in the south. Over the centuries, European mapmakers gave it various names, such as Terra Australis Incognita – ‘unknown southern land’.

From the late 16th century, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch seafarers ventured south, drawn to south-east Asia by the lure of spices and the wealth they brought in Europe.

The Duyfken voyage

In late 1605 the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, or Dutch United East India Company) a trading company established in 1602, sent Willem Janszoon off in the Duyfken (Little Dove). His mission was to seek out new trading opportunities in the ‘south and east lands’.

In February 1606 Janszoon sailed down New Guinea’s south coast, then crossed the Torres Strait, which he believed to be a shallow bay. He continued along what he assumed was still the coast of New Guinea. He went as far as the Aurukun wetlands, home of the Wik people, on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula. The Duyfken anchored at Pennefather River, about 150 kilometres south of the tip of Cape York.

Without realising it, Janzsoon had become the first European whose landing on Australian soil has been documented.

Janszoon sent men ashore and conflict broke out when the sailors abducted some Wik women. Several Wik people and nine sailors were killed and their boats burned. Janszoon was forced to end his voyage and retreat to Bantam in Indonesia. This was the earliest recorded conflict between Indigenous Australians and Europeans.

Photograph of a wooden model of the ship called Duyfken (Little Dove)
Model of Duyfken (Little Dove), Michel Laroche, 1996. From the Australia National Maritime Museum. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

New Holland is charted

Hessel Gerritsz was the chief cartographer of VOC. This chart records for the first time in print a recognisable section of New Holland (Australia). It shows parts of its western and southern coastlines. While this chart is dated 1618, it includes details surveyed as late as 1628. The chart is remarkably accurate considering the uncertainty over how to determine longitude at that time.

Chart of the Malay Archipelago and Dutch Discoveries in Australia showing the outlines of the countries discovered by foreigners
Chart of the Malay Archipelago and Dutch Discoveries in Australia, Hessel Gerritsz, 1618–28. Image from the National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove

New Holland is named

Joan Blaeu’s Archipelagus Orientalis, sive Asiaticus is the earliest large-scale depiction of Dutch mapping of the Pacific, including the surveys of Abel Tasman's expeditions of 1642-43 and 1644. Particularly interesting is his sighting of Tasmania, which he named ‘Van Diemen’s Land’. Until the maps from James Cook's first Pacific voyage in 1768–71 were published, this was how the rest of the world saw Australia.

Drawing of Australia's outline, missing the east coast. Predominant colours are creme and brown.
Joan Blaeu, Archipelagus Orientalis, sive Asiaticus, (Eastern and Asian Archipelago), Amsterdam, 1663. From the National Library of Australia. Click here to view this item digitally in Trove.

Cook’s search

In 1768 the British Admiralty and the Royal Society sent James Cook in HMB Endeavour to observe the upcoming transit of Venus. After observing the transit, Cook searched for the ‘southern land’ south of New Zealand. Failing to find it, he turned west towards New Holland (Australia).

Early in the morning of 19 April 1770 Lieutenant Zachary Hicks first sighted land emerging from the morning mists.

Over the next few months, Cook travelled along and charted the entire east coast of Australia. Endeavour averaged about 50 kilometres a day. Finally, on 22 August, Cook rounded Cape York and, on what is now known as Possession Island, he laid claim ‘in the Name of his Majesty’ to the whole east coast of the continent.

Cook was following in the wake of earlier European voyagers who had explored or mapped parts of the Australian coastline.