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Posts Tagged ‘Exploration’

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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Joao de BarrosJoão 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.

Dieppe MapsAnd 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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Jave la GrandeSo 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…

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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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Edward III seal Let’s take a small digression on our journey to the Great Southern Land…

As we have seen, the Spanish and the Portuguese have moved out into the Indian Ocean on their journeys of discovery.

Soon the English and the Dutch will enter our south sea adventure, and in the process, the English will create arguably one of the most successful trading companies the world has ever known, The British East India Company.  A company that eventually not only dominated global trade, but rules millions of people across the globe.

But first, let’s look at the origins of the British taking to the seas…

The first tentative steps are taken in England, around beginning of the 14th century…

The English in trade are largely inward looking. Local Guilds dominate local trade and manufacturing activities, while overseas trade is largely in the hands of foreigners. What overseas trade that occurs is largely in the hands of foreigners, and uncoordinated from a national perspective. The seas are high risk, they have no refined laws, while the typical merchant displays more than a streak of the pirate in his competitive actions.

This all begins to change when, in 1341, Edward III establishes by decree the Staple of Wool and other Merchandise. He signs this decree the year after his destruction of the French fleet at the battle of Battle of Sluys. It is probably still in his mind that the fleet involved in his victory were mostly hired merchant ships.  No doubt, having no organised navy, any growth in English controlled trade will reduce his risk of a successful invasion.

Edward  III decrees states clearly that this critical trade with Flanders should be ordered and controlled. And the nature of that control should be self control.

Edward directs all those merchants involved in overseas wool trade through Bruges in Flanders to elect a mayor and constables and enforce the “rules of trade” covering behaviour, location and (of course) the levying of tax’s for the Crown’s benefit. There is no shared capital; rather they raise fees from members to cover running costs in return for access to a nationally endorsed trade monopoly.

So essentially national interests, as opposed to a pure mercantile hunger, create the first structured English approach to overseas trade, and the first form of a regulated overseas trading company.

In 1407 the Merchant Adventurers establishes itself under the sponsorship of Henry IV.  As Henry provides the royal charter he is well aware that all the recent naval victories of Edward III and Richard II are due to pressed merchant fleet.

So, for the time being, with only two ships at royal disposal, the Crown must promote and support overseas trade. It was in everyone’s interest…

So launches a glorious, and sometimes inglorious, English sea-born adventure…

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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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