Australia History: European 'Discovery' and Exploration of Australia

Captain James Cook is popularly credited with Australia's discovery, but a Portuguese was probably the first European to sight the country, while credit for its earliest coastal exploration must go to a Dutchman.

Portuguese navigators had probably come within sight of the coast in the first half of the 16th century; and in 1606 the Spaniard, Luis Vaez de Torres, sailed through the strait between Cape York and New Guinea that still bears his name, though there's no record of his actually sighting the southern continent.

In the early 1600s Dutch sailors, in search of gold and spices, reached the west coast of Cape York and several other places on the west coast. They found a dry, harsh, unpleasant country, and rapidly scuttled back: to the kinder climes of Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta in Indonesia).

In 1642 the Dutch East India Company, in pursuit of fertile lands and riches of any sort, mounted an expedition to explore the land to the south. Abel Tasman made two voyages from Batavia in the 1640s, during which he discovered the region he called Van Diemen's Land (renamed Tasmania some 200 years later), though he was unaware that it was an island, and the west coast of New Zealand.

Although Tasman charted the coast of New Holland from Cape York to the Great Australian Bight, as well as the southern reaches of Van Diemen's Land, he did not sight the continent's east coast. The prize for being Australia's original Pom goes to the enterprising pirate William Dampier, who made the first investigations ashore, about 40 years after Tasman and nearly 100 years before Cook.

Dampier's records of New Holland, from visits made to Shark Bay on the west coast in 1688 and 1698, influenced the European idea of a primitive and godless land, and that perspective remained unchanged until Cook's more in-, formed and better documented voyages spawned romantic and exotic notions of the South Seas and the idealized view of the 'noble savage'.

The dismal continent was forgotten until 1768, when the British Admiralty instructed Captain James Cook to lead a scientific expedition to Tahiti, to observe the transit of the planet Venus, and then begin a search for the Great South Land. On board his ship Endeavour were also several scientists, including an astronomer and a group of naturalists and artists led by Joseph Banks.

After circumnavigating both islands (New Zealand), Cook set sail in search of the Great South Land, planning to head west until he found the unexplored east coast of New Holland.

On 19 April 1770 the extreme south-eastern tip of the continent was sighted and named Point Hicks, and when the Endeavour was a navigable distance from shore Cook turned north to follow the coast and search for a suitable landfall. It was nine days before an opening in the cliffs was sighted and the ship and crew found sheltered anchorage in a harbour they named Botany Bay.

During their forays ashore the scientists recorded descriptions of plants, animals and birds, the likes of which they had never seen, and attempted to communicate with the few native inhabitants, who all but ignored these, the first White people to set foot on the east coast. Cook wrote of the Blacks: 'All they seemed to want was for us to be gone'.

After leaving Botany Bay, Cook continued north, charting the coastline and noting that the fertile east coast was a different story from the inhospitable land earlier explorers had seen to the south and west. When the Endeavour was badly damaged on a reef off north Queensland, Cook was forced to make a temporary settlement. It took six weeks to repair the ship, during which time Cook and the scientists investigated their surroundings further, this time making contact with the local Aboriginal people.

After repairing the Endeavour, navigating the Great Barrier Reef and rounding Cape York, Cook again put ashore to raise the Union Jack, rename the continent New South Wales and claim it for the British in the name of King George III.

James Cook was resourceful, intelligent, and popularly regarded as one of the greatest and most humane explorers of all time. His incisive reports of his voyages make fascinating reading even today. By the time he was killed, in the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) in 1779, he had led two further expeditions to the South Pacific.