So Guillaume Le Testu (c. 1512- 1573), a Frenchman, was the first European to discover Australia! What you have not heard of him?
Well possibly he did – may be – perhaps, but probably not likely is the considered view. Although let’s dig a little deeper into the story… it just could have an element of truth….
Guillaume Le Testu was one of those typical colorful characters that sailed the oceans during the Elizabethan Age. He was a privateer, out for money and glory on behalf of his country, and of course, himself. Andre Thevet, cosmographer to Henry II, boasted at the time of having often sailed with him, and styles him as “renomme pilote et singulier navigateur!”
For the sake of our story let’s describe him as an explorer, navigator, and a fine cartographer. And true to form he met his end in 1573 in style, when with Frances Drake, he attacked a Spanish convoy, was captured and killed. However, before his demise Testu produced one of the fine Dieppe maps in 1555 which seemed to describe “Jave la Grande”, or the mythical Terra Australis.
But here is the twist…
Some 200 or so years later Alexander Dalrymple, (a hydrographer to the Admiralty) wrote in his memoirs in 1786 that there existed a similarity between the names Captain James Cook names gave to parts of New Holland (Terra Australis) and those in the Tetsu’s map. He points out such similarities as: “Bay of Isles is in the MS. called R. de beaucoup d’Isles.”
Dalrymple somewhat sarcastically commented on Captain Cook’s achievements: “‘There is nothing new under the sun'”.
Whilst Dalrymple was jealous of Cooks appointment to the Endeavour and had reason to malign Cook, the similarities are worth noting. For this reason the name Testu should not be overlooked in our journey of discovery. Not only for the map itself and its possible relationship with Captain Cook, but for the following question – From what source did he draw the map? Did he visit Terra Australis himself? And if so when?
Testu produced other maps in 1536 and 1542 thought to be based on his earlier trip to the Spice Islands around 1531. So that leaves us with frankly an unanswered question.Was his knowledge of Terra Australis based on these voyages and an actual visit to the then mythical land? Or are they based on the stories and voyages of others, such as Binot Paulmier de Gonneville between 1503 and 1504?
We will never probably know exactly how close Testu got to Terra Australis. But let’s leave this byte with the thought that perhaps the French first made it to this distant land, or they had a hand in providing to Captain Cook with a little information that assisted him on his latter, much more famous voyage…