It was during a search for new commercial opportunities in 1606 that a ship owned by the Dutch East India Company made the first recorded European contact with Australia. Captain Willem Janszoon sailed the Duyfken east of Indonesia to investigate rumours that New Guinea had large deposits of gold. Janszoon sailed along New Guinea’s south coast to the country’s most southwestern point before heading south east.
When Janszoon and his crew next saw land, they entered history as the first known Europeans to sight Australia. They anchored at Pennefather River, about 150km south of Cape York, before becoming the first Europeans to walk on Australian soil. Janszoon went on to map over 300km of the Cape York Peninsula’s western coast – the very first section of Australian coastline to be charted. But he never realised that the strange coast he’d stumbled upon was part of a continent unknown to Europeans. This was due to the fact that he had no evidence of the existence of the channel of water that separates New Guinea and Australia (we now call Torres Strait). Looking at the two unfinished coastlines on his map of New Guinea and the western side of Cape York Peninsula, he suggested the two land masses might be connected.
Ironically, in the same year as the Duyfken’s expedition, a Spanish ship negotiated the strait from the east. Records made by the ship’s captain, Luis Vaz de Torres, were largely unknown until they were translated by Scottish geographer Alexander Dalrymple in 1769.
Despite the best efforts of the Dutch, it would take another century and a half before the unknown south land would be identified as a separate continent by Captain James Cook.
Future explorers were to refer to Janzoon’s map and log. But the significance of the Duyfken’s first landing would eventually fade from human memory over the centuries. Fortunately, copies of the original chart were made in the 1670s. One of these became part of a collection of sea charts, sometimes referred to as the ‘secret atlas’ of the Dutch East India Company.
Sold to the Vienna Imperial Library in 1737, the collection remained in obscurity for nearly two centuries. It wasn’t until the chart was brought to light and published in 1930 that Australia was provided with significant evidence of its earliest European history. Through their travels, the crew of the Duyfken also became the first Europeans to encounter Australian Aborigines. It was not to be an auspicious start to relations between the two peoples – a bloody conflict ensued with lives lost on both sides.