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Posts Tagged ‘New Guinea’

“I first set out of England on this voyage at the beginning of the year 1679, in the Loyal Merchant of London, bound for Jamaica…” 

So starts Captain William Dampier in his book A New Voyage Around The World, which describes his first circumnavigation of the World.

Dampier was a character of the age, variously described as a buccaneer, explorer, sea captain, author and scientific observer. From our point of view he is a man who is to contribute greatly to the unveiling of the Great Southern Land.

Dampier was born in 1652, the son of a farmer near Yeovil, south west of London. Some 20 years or so later we find him on the other side of the world cutting and loading log-wood on the Bay of Campeachy in the present day Gulf of Mexico. Not satisfied with life there, in 1679 he sets sail on a grand adventure that will lead to his first circumnavigation of the World. Importantly he would popularise this voyage in his very successful book A New Voyage Around The World which regales stories of his travels and numerous buccaneering adventures.

It was in fact the very success of his journals that propel him into our journey of discovery. The British Admiralty become aware of his experience in the Pacific and seek his advice on the exploration of this part of the World. In 1699 they provide him with the command of the Roebuck and a commission to explore the east coast of New Holland (the name the Dutch had given to our Great Southern Land, Australia).

So at the age of 47 Dampier, Englishman and buccaneer, is at the helm of the Roeback, and at the centre of our journey of discovery.

However, not all goes well, supporting a view that perhaps notoriety, not talent put him in command of this expedition. He sets off late in the season in 1699 traveling via the Cape of Good Hope and the roaring forties. It is soon clear, however, that the 21-gun ship was not up the task of such an arduous trip, nor did he have good relations with his crew, actually having to clap one of his lieutenants into irons on the way. Scurvy follows, as well as chronic water shortages not making for a happy time when he reaches the coast of Western Australia.

But despite all of this Dampier pushes on, following the Western Australian coast north to Roebuck Bay near modern day Broome, then heading for Timor.

From January to April 1700 he follows the North Coast of New Guinea and during this time discovers New Britain. But instead of heading to explore the east coast of Australia he heads homeward, the cause, the poor state of the Roeback. In fact Dampier and his crew barely makes the volcanic Ascension Island in the mid Atlantic. Soon after their arrival their ship flounders and sinks. Dampier and sixty men have to wait two months until they are rescued.

Although in reality doing little more than previous visitors (like the accidental visitor Dirk Hartog) Dampier does popularise the exploration of the Pacific, again publishing a book of his journeys, A Voyage to New Holland in 1703 and 1709 (Part 2). Dampier’s visit also produces the first detailed observations of Australian flora and fauna. But other than this, the voyage is not much of a success, and falls well short of the goal of exploring the east coast of Australia.

Dampier himself was disappointed in what he saw. Viewing this new land as a mixture of dangerous shoals and reefs surrounding a barren land inhabited by ‘the miserablest people in the world’.

On Dampier’s return to England things did not get much better. He was court martialed for his treatment of Lieutenant Fisher (who he had clapped in irons), found guilty, fined all his pay and declared to be “not a fit person to be employed as commander of any of His Majesty’s ships.”

However, this did not stop Dampier. With the outbreak of the Spanish War of Succession his buccaneering experience again puts him to the fore with the Admiralty. Sought out as because of his knowledge of the Pacific and experience as a privateer he is given command of a ship the St. George in 1703. From there he fades from our story of discovery, but he will still circumnavigate the world another two times.

Dampier’s role in the exploration of the Great Southern Land is indirect, but significant. His ability with the pen, along with his scientific observations, inspires his fellow countrymen to join in the exploration of the Pacific. Once again, here come the English…and they are serious this time…

SIDENOTES:

Books by William Dampier

  • A New Voyage Round the World, (1697)
  • Voyages and Descriptions, (1699)
  • A Supplement of the Voyage Round the World
  • The Campeachy Voyages
  • A Discourse of Winds
  • A Voyage to New Holland, (Part 1 1703, Part 2 1709)

Wikipedia provides the following interesting list on the impact of William Dampier:

  • His observations and analysis of natural history helped Charles Darwin’s and Alexander von Humboldt’s development of their theories,
  • He made innovations in navigation technology that were studied by James Cook and Horatio Nelson.
  • Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was inspired by accounts of real-life castaway Alexander Selkirk, a crew-member on Dampier’s voyages.[5]
  • His reports on breadfruit led to William Bligh’s ill-fated voyage in HMS Bounty.
  • He is cited over a thousand times in the Oxford English Dictionary notably on words such as ‘barbecue’, ‘avocado’, ‘chopsticks’ and ‘sub-species’. That is not to say he coined the words, but his use of them in his writings is the first known example in English.
  • His travel journals depicting Panama influenced the undertaking of the ill-fated Darien Scheme, leading to the Act of Union of 1707.
  • His notes on the fauna and flora of northwestern Australia were studied by naturalist and scientist Joseph Banks, who made further studies during the first voyage with Captain James Cook. This helped lead to the naming of and colonization of Botany Bay and the founding of modern Australia.
  • He is mentioned in the Gabriel García Márquez short story The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship.
  • Jonathan Swift explicitly mentions Dampier in his Gulliver’s Travels as a mariner comparable to Lemuel Gulliver.
  • He is believed to have influenced the writing of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

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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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