Willem Jansz Lands on the Australian Mainland and Sets Off a Century of Dutch Exploration of the Region

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Willem Jansz Lands on the Australian Mainland and Sets Off a Century of Dutch Exploration of the Region


In 1606 Dutchman Willem Jansz (1570-?) arrived on the Australian mainland, becoming perhaps the first European to do so. His achievement did not lead to Dutch rule of the area, as the Dutch were not interested in colonizing it. Nevertheless, his voyage was a milestone because it launched almost a century of successful Dutch exploration of Australia.


Scholars, including the ancient Greeks and Romans, had long contended that a continent must exist in the Southern Hemisphere to balance the large land areas in the Northern Hemisphere. Ptolemy's (fl. a.d. 127-145) world map in the second century and later Renaissance maps depicted a Pacific terra australis, Latin for "southern land." Gerardus Mercator's (1512-1594) 1541 map of the world referred similarly to a territory south of Indonesia.

Some sixteenth-century Portuguese maps clearly depict the outline of the northern part of Australia. The most important are the Dieppe maps, so-named after the then-famous cartographic center located in Dieppe, France. The Dieppe maps were well known to eminent geographers of France and England until the mid-nineteenth century; moreover, they were accepted as proof that Portugal had seen and charted the coast of Australia some 60 years before Jansz.

Portugal's impressive maritime history can be traced to Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) and to the great Portuguese explorers of the late fifteenth century, such as Vasco da Gama (c. 1460-1524) and Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500). Inspired by Prince Henry's dream that Portugal should promote trade and spread the Christian faith to India, Portuguese mariners ventured into the Atlantic Ocean and around Africa's Cape of Good Hope in search of a passage to India and the Spice Islands. Within a century, Portugal had established a colonial empire in South America and in the Pacific Far East.

On their voyages to the Dutch East Indies, Portuguese sailors were sometimes blown off course by treacherous winds in the Indian Ocean and found themselves along the shoreline of an unknown land somewhere southeast of the Dutch East Indies. The mariners charted part of the northern and eastern coasts of the territory and named this region "Java La Grande." Sixteenth-century cartographers were certain that Java La Grande was the southern continent that had long been sought. One of the Dieppe maps, the 1536 Dauphin Map, shows a rough outline of northeastern Australia as charted by Portuguese sailors. Decades later, the narrow waterway between New Guinea and northwestern Australia was named Torres Strait after Portuguese navigator Luis Vaez de Torres (d. 1613); de Torres sailed under the Spanish flag through the passage north of Cape York only a few months after Willem Jansz. At the time, Torres made no special mention of the landmass he must have seen to the south because, as some historians claim, he was already aware of terra australis from earlier Portuguese explorers and maps.

Besides the Dieppe maps, however, there is simply no other tangible evidence that points to a Portuguese discovery of Australia. Therefore, historians still credit the Netherlands and Willem Jansz with the first documented sighting of Australia in 1606.

In November 1605 Jansz set out to explore the area southeast of the Spice Islands. Jansz received his orders from Jan Willem Verschoor, a director of the Dutch East India Company in Bantam on the island of Java (today Indonesia). Jansz's mission was to explore the new region and to determine its trade possibilities with the Netherlands. Commanding the Duifken (Dove), Jansz sailed in March 1606 across what was later named the Torres Strait. He and his crew then continued for 200 miles (322 km) along an uncharted coastline. After losing a man in a clash with Aborigines (native Australians), Jansz spotted a land projection that he named Cape Keer-Weer (Turn Again). Unbeknownst to them, Jansz and his crew had actually discovered what is today known as Cape York, the northeastern tip of Australia. Jansz eventually lost nine men in battles with the Aborigines.

After the Duifken returned to New Guinea, Dutch cartographer Hessel Gerritsz traced Jansz's voyage and in 1622 drew a map of Australia that showed the continent as a tiny bit of land in the midst of the surrounding sea. Gerritsz's map, although distorted like previous maps of Australia, was important because it charted the earliest documented exploration of the continent. A more accurate map would not be drawn for more than a hundred years, when British seaman James Cook (1728-1779) circumnavigated Australia.


Jansz's expedition proved to be the catalyst for a concerted Dutch effort to explore the region. In fact, Dutch explorers who followed Jansz were so numerous that Australia was called New Holland for almost 200 years. However, because the Dutch had no interest in colonizing the territory, their interest in the region was gradually eclipsed by the British.

Following Jansz's 1606 expedition, the next notable Dutch landing on Australia occurred a decade later. In 1616 Dutchman Dirck Hartog (fl. 1610s), commanding the Eendracht, was accidentally blown off course as he was sailing from the Cape of Good Hope to the Dutch East Indies. For three days he explored the western coast of Australia from 35° to 2° south latitude. At a place that is today called Shark Bay, Hartog left a tin (or perhaps pewter) plate inscribed with handwriting that described his ship's arrival at the Bay on October 25, 1616. Until the eighteenth century a stretch of land running parallel to Shark Bay was called Eendrachtsland, in honor of Hartog's ship. Today a small island in the bay is still called Dirk Hartog Island. The Dutchman returned several times, in 1618, 1619, and 1620, for further exploration of Australia's western coast. In 1696 Willem de Vlamingh landed in the same area as Hartog had. He found Hartog's plate, copied the words onto a new plate and added his own, describing his visit. (Hartog's original plate now resides in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.) Vlamingh continued with his expedition and discovered a river, later named the Black Swan River. He took with him live black swans, a species unusual enough to have caused quite a sensation when he returned with them to Batavia (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia).

In addition to Dirk Hartog Island, another small island off Australia's west coast is named after a Dutch explorer. In 1619 Frederik de Houtman (1571-1627) and Jacob Dedel sailed the vessels Dordrecht and Amsterdam along Australia's western shore and described the dangerous shoals off the coast, a site of numerous shipwrecks. There, Houtman Island was named in memory of the captain of the Dordrecht.

In January 1623 Dutch East Indies Governor General Jan Pietersz Coen ordered Jan Carstens to command an expedition to explore New Guinea. The Arnhem, captained by Willem van Colster, and the Pera, commanded by Carstens, landed at Cape York on January 21, 1623. In April Carstens explored the area inland from the Cape and became the first white man to penetrate the interior part of Australia. However, natives killed him and some of his crew. Part of Australia's Northern Territory is named Arnhem Land to commemorate Carstens's expedition in 1623 that explored the western shore of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

In October 1628 Francisco Pelsaert sailed the Batavia from Texel, on the northwestern coast of the Netherlands, to the Dutch East Indies. The vessel shipwrecked June 4, 1629, on the Abrolos reefs, the same dangerous shoals southwest of Dirk Hartog Island that had been described by Frederik de Houtman. While Pelsaert explored the shore for water and food, some of his crew mutinied. Pelsaert punished the instigators and after returning to Europe, wrote about his ordeal. Pelsaert's gripping tale of the shipwreck, mutiny, and his days spent on the mainland is one of the earliest about the discovery of Australia and includes the following of the kangaroo: "...a species of cat, which are very strange creatures—the forepaws are very short—and its hindlegs are upwards of half an ell, and it walks on these alone." Pelsaert's is the first known description of the Australian marsupial.

Finally, by 1636, with the information gathered from the many Dutch sightings of Australian territory, including the Leeuwin (1622), the Gulden Zeepard (1627), and William De Witt's voyage in 1628, cartographers were able to draw more accurate maps of Australia. In 1642 Anthony van Diemen (1593-1645), governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, dispatched fellow Dutchman, the brilliant Abel Tasman (1603-1659), on an expedition to Australia. Tasman's voyages took him to the southern coast of Australia and on to New Zealand. The body of water between the latter two countries was named the Tasman Sea; the island off the southwestern coast was called Van Diemen's Land and then later received its present-day name, Tasmania.

Despite their extensive exploration of Australia, the Dutch showed no interest in colonizing New Holland. When Britain became the world's supreme naval power in the eighteenth century, James Cook claimed Australia for Britain in 1770. Subsequently settled by the English, Australia became part of the British Empire. Proud of their English heritage, Australians came to think of Cook as the true discoverer of Australia. This pro-British bias was especially evident by the early twentieth century, when some scholars belittled the Dutch role in Australian history and decried any claim that Portugal could have discovered Australia. Several Australian historians engaged in an academic battle over the veracity of the Dieppe maps. Hampered by being unfamiliar with the Portuguese language and blinded by a deep-seatedpro-British prejudice, a few historians claimed that the maps were a sixteenth-century hoax. Otherwise brilliant scholars went to extremes to discredit the maps as plausible evidence that Portugal had discovered Australia. These misconceptions were gradually rectified and the authenticity of the Dieppe maps acknowledged. Historians now not only agree that Willem Jansz sighted Australia in 1606, but by the late twentieth century they had recognized that the intrepid Portuguese navigators of the sixteenth century most likely did, too.


Further Reading


Eisler, William. The Furthest Shore. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

McIntyre, Kenneth Gordon. The Secret Discovery of Australia. Souvenir Press, 1977.

Internet Sites

"European Discovery of Australia." http://www.finalword.com/Touring_Australia/gta_www/gta_011a.htm.

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Willem Jansz Lands on the Australian Mainland and Sets Off a Century of Dutch Exploration of the Region

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