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by Nick Burningham

The Anglocentric claim that Captain Cook "discovered" Australia still has wide currency. A more insidiously anglocentric fable accepts that Dutch mariners were on the Australian coast before Cook's time but characterises those mariners as clumsy navigators who stumbled on Australia's west coast while sailing to the Indies intent on trade.

There were cases of VOC ships running too far east and meeting the west coast, in four cases with disastrous results. The sensational horrors of the Batavia wreck attract much attention and obscure the less sensational fact that VOC mariners engaged in deliberate and accurate exploration of Australia's northern, western and southern coasts (plus Tasmania).

Who has heard of Francois Thijssen? Almost no one. Yet, back in 1627, in command of the VOC ship t'Gulde Zeepaert, he explored a full 1800km of the southern coast from Cape Leeuwin to about where Ceduna now stands.

Those who have heard of Duyfken and Willem Janszoon usually repeat the story first put forward by Matthew Flinders that Janszoon reached the Cape York Peninsula but mistook it for part of New Guinea. Flinders, who admired the Dutch navigators, penned that story about Duyfken in the cabin of Investigator with little resource for research. The continuing popularity of the story is part of the prevailing characterisation of the Dutch exploration as bumbling and accidental, quite different from the noble work of dedicated Royal Navy officers.

In fact, Willem Janszoon was sent by the VOC on a deliberate voyage of exploration which he carried out with great skill and courage. Though he was on the Cape York coast during the northwest monsoon, the stormy wet-season, when it was a dangerous lee shore, he produced a detailed chart easily reconcilable with a modern chart and better than anything produced until the 19th century. It is true that he wrote the name Nova Guinea on that land we call Cape York Peninsula and this has been taken to show that he thought it part of the island we call New Guinea. But for Willem Janszoon, an educated and expert navigator at the beginning of the 17th century, "Nova Guinea" had a different meaning.

The most accurate and up-to-date maps of the world then available were produced in the Netherlands by cartographers including Plancius, Hondius, Ortelius and Flanders-born Mercator. What lands existed to the south and east of the Spice Islands was a matter of geographic speculation. All cartographers agreed that there was a great southern continent filling much of the southern hemisphere. Perhaps following information provided by Indonesian mariners, it was agreed that a large promontory of the southern continent, or perhaps an island separated from the rest of the continent by a long narrow strait, lay to the southeast of the Spice Islands. Ortelius drew it as an island but explicitly wrote on his map that it is not known whether it was an island or an integral part of the southern continent.

It was speculated that King Solomon's fabled gold mines were there— that like Guinea in west Africa it would be a source of much gold — that it would be a "new Guinea". That was the unknown Nova Guinea that Janszoon was sent to search for and found. It lay entirely in the southern hemisphere, further south than the island that later became known as New Guinea. Janszoon himself explored parts of our New Guinea. He knew it by a Portuguese name "Os Papuas". Its northern coast was already known in Janszoon's time and it lay in the northern hemisphere, a long way from the cartographer's hypothesised Nova Guinea.

But, but, but, say the Captain Cook cheer squad, even if Janszoon had another understanding of "Nova Guinea", he mistakenly thought Cape York (his Nova Guinea) was joined to our New Guinea. There is no evidence at all for that claim and a good deal of evidence against it. Janszoon's chart definitely shows no connection between Cape York and land to the north. It does show an accurate charting of Torres Strait. We can be sure that he wasn't just there for an afternoon. He was there for some time carrying out a survey. As a clever and experienced mariner he would have noted the strong current running through the strait. He would have understood that it was a strait leading to a wide sea, not a bay or a river mouth.

Schouten in 1616, approaching the Indies from the Pacific apparently had advice that one could sail south of New Guinea but it would be dangerous. Carstenszoon was sent in 1623 to make a further survey of the strait, but being more prudent than valiant he gave it a wide berth. Tasman was also sent to look for the strait and prudently gave it an even wider berth in contravention of his orders. It was Tasman who suggested that there was no strait, just a shallow bay. However, no reputable Dutch map showed Cape York joined to New Guinea before Tasman's voyage and even after Tasman not many cartographers accepted the connection.

For Willem Janszoon, Nova Guinea was a part of Terra Australis. Its western coast lay about 800 miles east-southeast from the Banda islands. He searched for Nova Guinea and found it where it was supposed to be. He knew he had found a part of the Great South Land. It was the beginning of the mapping of Terra Australis by Europeans and Janszoon would have understood that. His was the first of the deliberate, planned, voyages exploring Australia, ordered by the Dutch East India Company.


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