Early Maritime Exploration.
Attempting to assess a reality 400 or so years in the past ensures an element of risk. Who were the first Europeans to view the east cost of Australia? Historians point to the lack of documented evidence to suggest any European before James Cook ever set eyes on this section of Australia. But official historical accounts, while highly useful as parameters have been vulnerable to distortion. Accounts of John Oxley discovering the Brisbane River are compromised by the presence of the shipwrecked trio , Finnigan, Parsons and Pamphlett who had co-existed with the local aborigines for a year in Moreton Bay prior to Oxley's arrival. Mathew Flinders was the first to enter Moreton Bay. But was he? Recent research has revealed the possibility, that escaping convicts in company with Mary Bryant (Father, mother and two young children with other male persons) had entered the Bay several years earlier. How then can the average person relate to the claims from the various sources?
Combining the element of human nature with concepts of probability does not require a life long study of history, nor can such deductions be monopolized by any individual or group who may have a particular bias to promote.
In the 15 th century Prince Henry of Portugal dedicated most of his life to exploration and it is interesting to note what his proclaimed aims were. His chronicler states eight such aims. The first was " to discover what lay beyond the Canaries and Cape Bojador....." The seventh aim "was to attempt the discovery of things that were hidden from other men.." Other stated aims regarding his religious values are not necessarily relevant to this article. Such curiosity was not limited to Henry, but the intensity of this human dilemma can be measured by the experiences of his sailors, struggling manfully so that they could tell their master what was indeed "around the next bend". Between 1420 and 1433 , fourteen known attempts were made to pass Cape Bojador on the NW coast of Africa. What was the hold up? Amongst other things the belief that European man was restricted to the "Northern Temperate Zone" and to travel beyond was to invite disaster. It was believed by many that a zone beyond their own, was exposed to boiling seas and burning land masses due to the close proximity of the sun. This destructive zone was guarded by the "Green seas of Darkness" a fearful area of perpetual fog where sailors who entered did not return. The coastal waters near Cape Bojador are prone to certain local influences. Dust stained water as a result of wind activity from the desert tended to turn the water red and the local geography encourages fogs and wind turbulence. Such phenomena confirmed the fears of medieval sailors seeking new lands. However, Cape Bojador was passed, and by 1488 the Portuguese had entered the Indian Ocean . The subordination of these intense fears to the desire "of attempting the discovery of things that are hidden from other men" is an element of human nature that has remained constant throughout history. Suffice to say that NASA's space program aims and the principles of Prince Henry's desires have common ground.
In 1513 the island of Timor was annexed by Francisco Serrao and it is presumed the Portuguese soon after gave up the desire towards any further discovery in this area. Lawrence Fitzgerald , amongst others, has proposed that the Papal Bulls of the late 15 th century which were designed to diffuse conflict between the two powerful competing Catholic kingdoms were responsible for this sudden demise of Portuguese curiosity. These Papal declarations gained their authority from the established acceptance of the Pope's right to prescribe and authorize any missions to non Christian lands.
The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 was orientated towards giving the "New World " to the Spanish with a demarcation 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. The demarcation would correspond to a similar boundary off the east coast of Australia giving the eastern section to the Spanish. Would the Portuguese have been interested in knowing what they had missed out on? Fitzgerald and others believe the "Dieppe School" of cartographers who produced maps between 1540 and 1570 based their information on early Portuguese discoveries along the east coast of Australia. Fitzgerald (a Brigadier General in the Royal Australian Survey Corps) in retirement examined in detail relevant maps and was able to match the coastline of Australia to the eastern coastline of the land mass of Java la Grande, the mythical land mass south of Java. Coastal indentations matched as did offshore islands, the only trouble was that the land mass on the Dieppe maps (Java la Grande) looked nothing like Australia. His conclusion was that, in the drawings, the coastline had been bent by the cartographer at different points to help encode surveying activities and protect themselves from accusations of breaking the Treaty of Tordesillas. The date this work was undertaken was estimated to be around 1521.
Cartographic Resources of James Cook.
Perhaps the most enduring of historical confusion amongst many Australians is the significance of James Cook’s journey up the East Coast of Australia in 1770. It would appear that for over a century Australian schools taught that this expedition was the major and only one of note in the sequence of Australian discovery. First known English contact with Australia is probably the Tryal captained by John Brooks which was wrecked near Eendracht Island off the coast of Western Australia in May 1622. The surviving longboat crew set foot on the Australian territory of Barrow Island.
In 1681, the London, commanded by John Daniel landed near Houtman’s Abrolhos. The British privateer William Dampier visits twice, the first on board the Cygnet in 1688 and then in 1699 with the Roebuck. The fifth British landing is Cook in 1770 on the East Coast. Combining these activities with the Dutch expeditions has Cook as the 31st known European landing on Australian soil. Analyzing this anglophile subjectivity is perhaps best reserved for another time.
The motivation of British interests in the eastern section of Australia was most likely caused by a long standing competitive animosity existing between Spain and Britain as well as the usual long standing need for resources. The Anson expedition in the 1740’s was almost totally orientated towards the destruction of Spanish settlements in the Pacific regions of South America. As late as 1788, the Spanish attacked and destroyed a British fur trading settlement on the west coast of North America. All shipping and infrastructure were burnt and all the personnel imprisoned. It can be noted that the choice of Arthur Phillip as the first Governor of New South Wales is also influenced by considerations of Spanish power. Phillip was seconded to the Portuguese Navy for several years where he experienced running the Spanish blockade, skills the British authorities believed he may need during the initial establishment of the settlement, later to be known as Sydney. These political considerations combined with the British need to rid themselves of their prison surplus ensured their interest in the Australian Pacific region.
The initial reconnaissance was undertaken by Cook on board HM Bark Endeavour. Cartographic information mentioned in the official account by John Hawkesworth published in 1773 includes information from Willem Corneliszoon Schouten who in 1616 spent some time around the north of New Guinea. This can be disregarded as irrelevant to the east coast. French publications by Vaugondy and Bellin showing the Isles of the New Hebrides joined to Tasmania and New Guinea are referred to by Cook only as examples of inaccuracy. He also had information gathered by Alexander Dalrymple regarding the voyage of Luis Baez Torres who passed through the Torres Strait in 1606. British awareness of this expedition had only been obtained seven years prior to Cook’s first journey when the British occupied Manila in 1762.
While not directly relevant to the east coast, the knowledge of the Torres journey heavily influenced decisions the commander of the Endeavour had to make while passing the northern section of the Queensland coast. To me, as an historical observer it has become indisputable that Cook had no cartographic information of the area as suggested by some writers. Gavin Menzies in his book 1421 suggests Cook had a Chinese chart of great detail gathered by a group of vessels which sailed the coast at that time. While I admire his work I feel he lacks local perception in some areas. This is one such area.
The navigable waters off what is now the Queensland Coast is almost a 2,000 kilometer long funnel , wide at it’s southern base tapering to a bottleneck just south of Cooktown . For most of the year the dominant weather forces are from the S.E, pushing upwards (north) into the apex of the triangular funnel. Being restricted on two sides of the compass is stressful to a blue water sailor.
The Endeavour had a round hull with a limited sail angle. Her ability to “back out” against the weather in a complex shoal area was extremely limited. No ocean going sailor of his day would willingly sail into a "blind alley", but that is exactly what Cook does. To complicate matters, their lack of basic food stocks did not bode well for this option. There were crew members already ill due to nutritional deficiences. The funnel shape was driven home off Cape Tribulation when the Endeavour struck a reef late in the evening. Cook had been sailing at night straight into an extremely complex section of the Barrier Reef he later referred to as the “Labyrinth”. During the frantic next seven days his lack of information and his realisation that they are locked into an apex of shoals with no where to go but further into them causes great stress. This is the dominant pressure in the lives of Cook and his crew and thus the source of much discourse for the next seven weeks.
Some quotes from the two hundred and forty year old official history.
Sunday 8th July 1770. “. the master returned, having been seven leagues out to sea, (in one of the ships rowing boats) and he was now of opinion, that there was no getting out where before he thought there had been a passage.
Tuesday.17th July 1770 “I sent the Master and one of the Mates in the pinnace to look for a channel to the northward..”
Wed. 18th July. “ . I went again with Mr. Banks to take a view of the country, but chiefly to indulge an anxious curiosity, by looking around us upon the sea, of which our wishes almost persuaded us we had formed an idea more disadvantageous than the truth. After having walked about seven or eight miles along the shore to the northward, we ascended a very high hill, and were soon convinced that the danger of our situation was at least equal to our apprehensions, for in whatever direction we turned our eyes, we saw rocks and shoals without number, and no passage out to sea.”
Thursday. 19th July. “ at night the Master returned, with the discouraging account that there was no passage for the ship to the northward. ’’
Sat. 4th August. “.. I did not think it safe to run in among the shoals till I had viewed them at low water from the mast head, which might determine me which way to steer, for as yet I was in doubt whether I should beat back to the south, round all the shoals , or seek a passage to the eastward or the northward, all of which present appear to be equally difficult and dangerous.
Sun. 5th Aug. “ Being now convinced that there was no passage to sea, but through the labyrinth formed by these shoals, I was altogether at a loss which way to steer.
It was the Master’s opinion that we should beat back the way we came, but this would have been an endless labor as the wind blew strongly from that quarter.
These anxious deliberations engaged us until eleven o’clock at night..”
Sat 1th Aug. “ About one o’clock, we reached the island (Lizard) and immediately ascended the highest hill with a mixture of hope and fear….”
After gaining the open sea on Mon 13th Aug Cook writes, “we had been little less than three months entangled amongst shoals and rocks, that every moment threatened us with destruction , “
In 1770 Lieutenant James Cook was one man in dire need of a map.
Other works by Edwin Clark.
"Pilgrims Progress" A collection of music, now on Spotify.
"Pilgrims Progress" A collection of music, now on Spotify.