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Torres Passage

So here we are in the year 1600….

Has Australia been discovered by Europeans already? Are we all done with this search for the Land Down Under?

The Portuguese are the most likely discovers’ at this stage you must say. But exactly when did it happen and who was it?

And if they did why have they not announced such a momentous achievement to the world?  Why is not some dashing Portuguese discoverer hailed as a hero in the texts of the time?  One argument regarding Portuguese silence is that this discovery was treated as a state secret. Too valuable to share with their competitors. Sharing routes of expeditions to the East was severely punished at the time.

But if no one has reached the shores of Australia, how do we explain the following description by Cornelius Wytfliet of this Great Southern Land in  “Descriptionis Ptolemaicae Augmentum”, published in 1598:

“The “Australis Terra” is the most southern of all lands, and is separated from New Guinea by a narrow strait. Its shores are hitherto but little known, since after one voyage and another, that route has been deserted, and seldom is the country visited unless when sailors are driven there by storms. The “Australis Terra’ begins at two or three degrees from the equator, and is maintained by some to be of so great an extent, that if it were thoroughly explored, it would be regarded as a fifth part of the world.”

It is within reason that Australia had been accidentally visited during the sixteenth century and this is supported by the Dieppe maps to an certain extent. One French map of dated 1542, presents an outline that might support at least one Portuguese ship sailing from Cape York to Tasmania.

So in the year 1600 we have boastful claims of seamen and privateers, a few intriguing charts and the statement of Cornelius Wytfliet as milestones of achievement.

However, let’s  move into a new century. Here, surely, we are bound to find a  seaman we can be more confidently say sailed within sight of, or strode ashore on, this Great Southern Land.

Enter Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, a Spanish seaman with an unshakable belief in the existence of the Great Southern Land. In 1598 he petitioned King Phillip III of Spain to commission an expedition to find this mythical continent. Successful in gaining the King’s assent, he sails three ships from Peru in 1605 to claim this continent for Spain and the Church. Second in command was Luis de Torres.

All was not well, however, on Quiros’s ship. During the voyage it appears Quiros’s crew mutinies, and he is forced  to sail back to Peru, leaving Torres in command of the remaining two ships.

Torres was known as an able seaman. He apparently searched for his lost commander and then sailed towards the southern coast of New Guinea through the strait that now bear his name. Intriguingly, he did seem to know of the strait – that it would lead him back to the open seas and to eventually the Philippines. This knowledge again leads to the prospect that someone, most likely the Portuguese, has previously circumnavigated New Guinea and charted their voyage.

But  did Torres hug the New Guinea coast line, or venture along the Australian Coast line further to the south? Strong arguments exist; based on the prevailing winds (north east trade winds) that he is likely to have sailed through the Endeavour Straight, past Thursday Island. This would have put him in sight of Cape York, the northern tip of Australia.

Torres did not claim to discovery Australia. If he saw it he did not recognise his find. Indeed, much of his account of his trip gathered dusk in the Spanish archives and his voyage achieved little celebration. That is until by various hands, it is likely his notes found there way in the 1760’s to Joseph Banks and then to Captain Cook .

On the other hand, Torres’s disappearing Captain Quiros, announced in 1610 that he had discovered the large southern continent. In doing so he proclaimed it “Austrialia del Espiritu Santo” (in honour of Phillip III, a member of the “House of Austria”).

So is Torres our discoverer? Or, at least first European to sight Australia?  Well, the argument although not conclusive, is sound.

However, you get that sneaking feeling, that just by knowing the strait between New Guinea and Australia existed, that those Portuguese had probably been there before.  And if the trade wind logic applies to Torres, well it must apply to the Portuguese as well.

I am suspecting we may never know…but let’s keep searching anyway ….

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Aboriginal_Art_AustraliaA little about the history of the Great Southern Land….

Australia, as we now know it, covers some 3 million square miles (7.7 million square kilometres) of land. It is thought that in a period of lower sea levels (70-40,000 years), when Australia was perhaps joined to New Guinea and within reach of Asia by canoe, man first reached the continent. From these beginning emerged some 250 nations of Australian aboriginals.

A diverse range of nations and languages and a rich oral history developed over many thousands of generations. Across these generations the basis of the aboriginal culture was hunting and gathering with a limited use of stone tools. However, that does not mean it was unchanging. Rather it adapted so as to be finely in tune with the diverse range of environments that existed across the vast land.

The population over time reached stability, and harmony with the environment, and was never thought to be more than 750,000 in number.

Almost invisible to any outside modern culture was the aboriginal’s complex oral history, their reverence and oneness with the land, and their belief in the Dreamtime- a fusion of faith, knowledge and ritual that dominated their lives and approach to the outside world.

When the white man arrived, the aboriginal nations knew nothing, and had drawn virtually nothing, from the vast range of civilisations that had risen and fallen in parallel to their history .

For the Australian aboriginal an ocean horizon had bounded their culture from time immemorial.  To the expansionist, white explorers sailing inevitably towards this Great Southern Land, they stood naked, with virtually nothing the white man could comprehend, or value.

We are now witness to the age of European discovery and the aboriginals are unique, of their own time, and totally vulnerable….

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Vasco de Gama had barely returned from his journey to India when, in 1505 a man of the name Binot de Gonneville wanders into the town of Honfleur, France.

He tells a fantastic tale that ends with him running his ship aground nearby (to avoid English pirates) and having to walk many miles back to town on foot. His story covers the two years since he set sail from this very port in his 100 tonne ship the Hope and 170 men. And it all leads to a climactic claim:

“I, Binot de Gonneville, have discovered the great Austral land!”

R H Major in History of Early Voyages to Terra Australis, 1859 summarises de Gonnerville’s  journey:

de Gonneville, who commanded her, weighed anchor in the month of June 1503, and doubled the Cape of Good Hope, where he was assailed by a furious tempest, which made him lose his route, and abandoned him to the wearisome calm of an unknown sea”.

“Not knowing what course to steer, the sight of some birds coming from the south determined them to sail in that direction in the hope of finding land.”

“They remained six months at this land; after which the crew of the ship refused to proceed further, and Gonneville was obliged to return to France. When near home, he was attacked by an English corsair, and plundered of every thing; so that his journals and descriptions were entirely lost. On arriving in port, he made a declaration of all that had happened in the voyage to the Admiralty, which declaration was dated July the 19th, 1505, and was signed by the principal officers of the ship.

This journey was largely forgotten until Jean Paulmier de Courtonne in 1663 wrote of de Gonneville in his book the Memoirs Concerning the Establishment of a Christian Mission in the Austral Land. This claim of discovery tapped into French patriotism, stimulating a new French interest in the ocean exploration. Again it shows the power of the mythology of the Great Southern Land to stir exploration.

So, was it the French who actually discovered this mythical southern land?

No, more likely he reached the southern coast of Brazil somewhere near Santa Catarina. De Gonneville, in fact, returned with a local Indian ESSOMERICQ who was baptised on the return ship and went on to live into his 90’s as a prominent citizen of Honfleur (subsequently adopted by Gonneville).

But de Gonnerville’s story, although discounted even at the time, was one of the first accounts of the discovering down under- only adding to the myth of the Great Southern Land…

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A small digression before we meet Henry the Navigator who will do much to push Europeans into the deeper oceans… any discovery of Terra Australis is also linked to the evolution of shipbuilding technology… and around the 13th & 14th century things were changing…

The Bayeux Tapestry of 1070 gives us our first clues of the type of ships in use during the middle ages. It is clear from the tapestry and other sources that the evolution of ship design was influenced by the North Men, or Vikings.
By the thirteenth century the longship had developed into a fighting galley with low castles at the stem and the stern. The Italian galley, for example, at that time was around 40m long, had a width of 5m and carried 120 oarsmen and up to 50 sailors.  It featured a single mast and a triangular sail.
Vessels were generally pretty lightly armed. Some carried small missile weapons with the crew living together on the deck. Squeezy! The galley as craft of these time were known was both a tool of war and trade and continued to evolve and grow in size and firepower to around the 16th century.

In the northern waters of Europe ships known as cogs evolved (from the Celtic flat bottomed boat). The Cog was a perfect load carrier, square rigged, carrying up to around 140 tonnes of cargo. By the 13th century, with the growth in in the scope of European trade, the Cog appeared in  Mediterranean waters.  However, with only a single mast its handling left something to be desired and was largely relegated as a cargo carrying work-horse.

However, the Cog influenced the development of the Carrack which adopted the rudder of the Cog and added a lateen rig to the mizzenmast.

Carracks became the first true ocean going vessel, with the stability and size to withstand the rigors of the deeper ocean. Carracks that were used by the Portuguese as they first ventured from their shores along the West African coast in the Atlantic.

During the 14th century another Mediterranean boat becomes central to our story of exploration. It was a lighter three masted Mediterranean lateener known as a Caravel. The origin of the Caravel is not clear, but is thought to have been influenced by Moorish ships design.

These Caravels started out quite small at 50 tonnes, but grew larger and, in the 14th century, adopted similar rigging of the Carrack (a foresail, square mainsail and lateen mizzen).

The main reasons it was also chosen by the Portuguese for exploration were its speed, ability to sail windward and its maneuverability. Indeed, it was in Carracks and Caravels that Columbus set out in for America in 1492.

And so, under the sponsorship of  Henry the Navigator, Portugal now had the technology to venture past the north coast of Africa towards the far ends of the earth…and a continent unknown…

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CeutaWhat has Ceuta, northern Africa, barely 20 km across the straight of Gibraltar got to do with the Discovery of Terra Australis?

Let’s find out…

In 1400 Ceuta is an exotic port town of  “walled palaces and gardens”, busy with the activities of “merchants, officials and navigators”.  This vibrant Moorish port city is a melting pot of cultures with  peoples from such exotic places as Ethiopia, Alexandria, Syria and more doing business within its walls.

So why, in 1415, in one of the first expansionary oceanic expeditions of Europe, is a fleet  of some 200 Portuguese ships and 50,000 men sailing to this city with war on their minds?

The reasons are many-fold. Residual tensions from the Moorish invasion of Europe certainly still existed, with both sides alternately trading with each other across the Mediterranean as well as undertaking open acts of piracy. Portugal at this time is locked out of any African claim by an agreement in 1291 between Castile and Aragon (at that time it made no claims) and yet it is increasingly reliant on trade and the supply of cereals from Northern Africa for its survival. Ceuta, it is thought is also an excellent defensive position against the Moors, as well as providing excellent access to the profits of Saharan and Mediterranean trade.

So, with all of the above on their minds, and after much debate and urging by some of the younger, more hot headed fidalgos mancebos (nobles) there commences six years of preparations for this attack. This includes the building of a great fleet of more than 200 ships, powering the growth of the country’s ship building expertise.

Finally, in 1415, the Portuguese King  launches his seaboard attack. Catching Ceuta by surprise, it takes no more than a day to drive out the Moors and sack the city. Soon after the victors gather in a general council and debate if the city should be held or abandoned (leading some weight to the argument that this was little more than “robbery and a corsair adventure” and the winning of spurs by the son’s of King John I).

In the end the council decides to hold the city and so Portugal appoints its first overseas Governor, the Count of Viana, leaving with him a force of a little more than 2,500 men. Soon the surrounding Muslim’s besiege Ceuta, but against the odd, the Count manages to hold the city. From here the Portuguese begin to tentatively explore and trade along the Northern Atlantic African Coast, also  providing a base for noble born Portuguese corsairs to attack local Muslim traders (a long held custom of both sides).

So, for the first time, sea-born power delivers Portugal (and Europe) its first overseas beach-head in Africa. And a stage for one of King John’s sons to launch his career…

Enter, Henry the Navigator…who would launch the Portuguese into the unknown…


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Black-death

Let’s move our story of discovery to the 14th century. It is a tumultuous period in Europe’s history and comes as a shock to the increasingly prosperous and ordered population.

In the preceding centuries Europe has experienced a rapid growth in population. Political stability is on the rise with fewer Viking and Arab raids and Feudalism has brought some order to society.

However, if you walk about Europe in 1300 all is not well. Some 75 million people now live off a land that is not increasing in productivity (for example England’s population had grown seven fold in three hundred years).  There are signs of population stress. More and more marginal land is cropped and is now essential to the survival of more and more people.

Life is delicately poised – particularly for the common person – who is very much tied to the produce of the their land. Then climate change strikes. When there is so little margin for error. Enter the Little Ice Age . Longer winters, higher rain fall and shortening ripening periods starts around 1315 and sets the stage for famine in 1317 the Great Famine. It strikes when the communities reserves are depleted. Seed grain is eaten as opposed to sown, animals are slaughtered, children  abandoned,  and the old died followed by the young, then by the healthy.

Can things get worse? Oh yes they can! Let’s hear Michael Platiensis words about 1337:

“At the beginning of October… twelve Genoese galleys . . . entered the harbor of Messina. In their bones they bore so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death. The infection spread to everyone who had any contact with the diseased. Those infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed on the thighs or upper arms a boil about the size of a lentil … This infected the whole body, and penetrated it so that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired… Soon the corpses were lying forsaken in the houses. No ecclesiastic, no son, no father and no relation dared to enter, but they hired servants with high wages to bury the dead.”

The Black Death decimates Europe’s population killing some 30% of the population a few short years. The Dead litter the countryside. And a new nursery rhyme is born:

Ring around the rosie,
A pocketful of posie,
Ashes, ashes
All fall down!

But as always, there are unintended consequences to this calamity. The path this disease takes to Europe is the Silk Road. The life blood of trade with the far East. As it ravages this key trade route we also see the disintegration of the Mongol Empire starting from the 1330’s.  Chaos from the break down of established order derails eastern trade (which had been rendered largely safe by the stability of the Mongol Empire). Soon access to the riches of the East are at risk. And an alternative must be found!

One option is for Europe to turn to the sea – where they can themselves pursue the tales of the wealth to be had from trading with far off lands…

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Marco PoloThe last byte introduced the logical argument for a Southern Land. Let’s move to more earthly and tactile experiences.

We commence our physical journey of the discovery & colonisation of the Great Southern Land in an unusual place, in Lyon, where Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, (c.1180-1252) becomes one of the first great explorers to write of lands outside Christendom.

It’s the start of the 13th century. A time of Crusades, Kings and Moorish conflict on the Iberian peninsula.

This is the time when Giovanni Carpine sets off in 1245 to Mongolia and the Court of the Great Khan. Tasked with delivering a letter to the Great Khan by Pope Innocent IV, he makes a  3000 miles journey into unknown lands across Rus and into Mongolia (when he is well into his 60’s).

It is an arduous journey of great hardships traveling north of the Caspian sea. It’s an amazing feat of endurance. But it is what he does on his return that counts. He writes a book, Historia Mongolorum based on his travels. In it he describes the Tartar peoples, the lands, the customs and even how to wage war on them. This is one of the first books to open the eyes of many to the world outside Europe.

William of Rubruck follows soon after and similarly travels to, and  writes of, crossing the whole of central Asia traveling to far away Mongolia.  Although, it must be said, not all of the observations written of were necessarily accurate, or there was some “tongue in the cheek” employed by locals in the stories they told him.

Take for example this story repeated by  Friar Rubruck…

“On one occasion there sat by me a priest from Cathay, wearing a rede material of a very fine hue, and when I asked him where he got such as colour from, he told me that in the eatern district of Cathay there are lofty crags in which dwell creatures having in every respect human form except that do not bend their knees but walk hopping… they are but a cubit high and the woke of their small bodies is covered with hairs… when men go hunting them they carry withy them… very intoxicating mean (mead), and they set traps among the rocks in the shape of cups and they fill them with mean…”

It gets better… so continues William of Rubruck…

“…(then) these animals come out of the caves and toast the drink and they cry out “Chinchin;” from this shout they got their name, for they are called Chinchins. Then they assemble in vast numbers and drink the mean and, becoming intoxicated, they fall asleep… the hunters… bind them hand and foot as they sleep. NExt they open a vein in their necks and… extract three or four drops of blood… and that blood, so I am told is most valuable for dying purple.”

(Before European Hegemony, JL Abu-Lughod, p 162)

Soon it is Marco Polo’s turn to open peoples eyes to what lies out of Christendom. He journeys far and wide throughout Asia for over 20 years, ending up at the court of Kublai Khan in far distant China. His book Travels, like Giovanni Carpine ‘s book, helps Europe in later years lift the shroud of darkness on the outside world.

Europe is reaching out. The spirit of exploration is beginning…

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