João de Barros sits down to write a manuscript about the Portuguese in India and Asia around 1550, and some 225 years later a Mr John Mason, of Belfast, rides along the coast of Southern Australia near Warrnambool. What is the connection?
Well, it starts with the noted historian Barros, writing his work Décadas da Ásia, where he mentions a Portuguese sailor named Cristóvão de Mendonça.
Mr. Mason, on the other hand writes of a curious site as he rides his horse along the coast in 1846. A ship wreck.
Mr. Mason writes:
“Sir, Riding along the beach from Port Fairy to Warrnambool in the summer of 1846, my attention was attracted to the hull of a vessel embedded high and dry in the Hummocks, far above the reach of any tide. It appeared to have been that of a vessel about 100 tons burden, and from its bleached and weather-beaten appearance, must have remained there many years. The spars and deck were gone, and the hull was full of drift sand. The timber of which she was built had the appearance of cedar or mahogany.”
So we come to the view that the Portuguese in fact discovered Australia in 1522. That Mendonca sailed the eastern coast of Australia in 1522, and that the Mahogony ship so described by Mr Mason is really a wrecked Portuguese caravel.
And the glue to this story? The Dieppe Maps. A number of world maps produced in Dieppe, France between the 1540s and 1560s. These exquisite maps were thought to be based on Portuguese maps, based on such travels as Mendonca and Testu to name but two potential sources.
So, from such sources comes the punch line: in 1521-4 Mendonça captained a fleet of three caravels which eventually sailed and charted the east coast of Australia.
Why is this not widely known? The theory is that at the time the Portuguese jealously guarded such cartographic knowledge. It was their nations so called “competitive edge”. Such knowledge was only drawn into the hands of other nations through bribery and corruption. Such was the way we think the resultant chartings of Mendonca’s voyage found their way into the Dieppe maps (where there is said to be a good representation of parts of Queensland).
Furthermore, it is thought that one of Mendonça’s caravels met its doom near Warrnambool the wreck having been variously sighted (although no longer) and dubbed the legendary “Mahogany ship”.
So we have the enticing story, albeit with thin evidence, that perhaps the French and/or the Portuguese have well and truly “pipped Captain Cook to the post” in discovering Australia…
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