Claudius Ptolemy

Who Discovered Australia? The Discovery of Australia - When was Australia Discovered?

In ancient time people in different parts of the world didn't travel very far from home. Everywhere they travelled, the world basically seemed flat. So they assumed that the world was indeed flat. They also thought that if you ever reached the end of this flat earth you would fall off into the unknown. Ancient Greek astronomers, however, came to the conclusion that the world was a sphere; round like a tennis ball and consisting of two halves, the northern and southern hemispheres.

In about 200AD a Greek astronomer and mapmaker named Claudius Ptolemy believed that the earth had to be balanced or it would topple over. So he figured that there had be a land, yet unknown to Europeans, somewhere below the Indian Ocean to balance the top half of the world that he lived in. So he drew in an imaginary land on the bottom of his maps of the world. Over time this yet to be discovered land came to be referred to as

Terra Australis Incognita which means the Unknown Southern Land

For many centuries people in Europe were certain that there was a land down under but nobody knew how to get to it. For over 200 hundred years European navigators set across the seas searching for the Unknown Southern Land. Many kept sailing right past it or even bumping into it and not realising that they had stumbled upon this unknown land. They expected to find vast quantities of gold and treasure there.

The Aborigines - Discovered Australia The First People in Australia

Aborigines were the first humans to discover Australia. They probably arrived about 50,000 years ago.

They walked out of Africa around 60,000 years ago and migrated through India, Malaysia, Borneo, Papua New Guinea and Timor before they were confronted by an ocean that separated Australia from the rest of the world.

Since humans had not invented canoes and boats at this time it is uncertain as to how they crossed the ocean to Australia. It is most likely that they arrived here by accident, carried on a drifting debris or even by a tsunami which may have transported them clinging on to flotsam as it swept across the ocean.

Related Article: Aborigines - The First Australians

Indonesian outrigger off the coast of Australia

The Indonesians - Traded with the Local Aborigines Visited on Fishing and Trading Expeditions

There is some evidence that fishermen and traders from Indonesia, India and China may have visited northern Australia for thousands of years. This contact was sporadic and inconsequential to the Aboriginal way of life. The Dingo, the wild dog of Australia, may have first arrived in in Australia about 5,000 years ago during such visits.

These early visitors never recorded their visits or had any knowledge of the vastness of Australia. They thought it was just another one of the many islands in the area.

The Portuguese - The First Europeans to See Australia? They had no Idea it was Australia they were looking at

The Portuguese were the first great European explorers. They travelled the world in search of wealth and fortune. Having discovered a way to Asia through the Cape of Good Hope, they ventured far and wide in search of spices which were worth their weight in gold back in Europe.

Portuguese sailors reached the island of Timor just 700 km from the Australia in 1515. So it is conceivable that they may have sailed along the coastline of Australia around that time. Some maps have been found which show parts of what appears to be the Australian coastline. But there is no definite proof that they did.

The Dutch - First Europeans to Land on Australia And they didn't even know it

In 1600 a small Dutch sailing ship named the Duyfken captained by Willem Janszoon set sail from Banten in Indonesia, in search of new trading opportunities. On 26 February 1606 they anchored off the Pennefather River in the Gulf of Carpentaria and went ashore. They found the land swampy and the people there unfriendly. The ship lost ten of its crew on various expeditions on shore. Janszoon named the place "Nieu Zeland" (New Zeland). Janszoon is credited with being the first European to set foot on Australian soil. Janszoon however didn't realise he have discovered Australia. He thought the land was part of the island of New Guinea which is further to the north.

In 1616 a Dutch sailing ship, Eendracht, on its way to Indonesia bumped into west coast of Australia. Captain Dirk Hartog landed at Shark Bay, on the Western Australian coastline, looked around didn't find anything interesting there. He nailed a inscribed pewter dish (now at the Rijksmuseum) to a post on top of a cliff to record his visit and departed. He too did not realize that he had found Australia. This was the second recorded European landing in Australia.

Dutch sailors continued sail along the coastline on their trips and called this land New Holland but didn't bother to visit it. To them it seemed just an empty and barren place with no commercial benefit. On the 4 July 1629 VOC ship Batavia was shipwrecked near Houtman Abrolhos some coral islands near Geraldton, Western Australia. There was a mutiny and some of the crew built a small fort to protect themselves. This was the first structure built by European in Australia.

In 1642 a Dutchman named Abel Tasman sighted an island he called Van Diemen's Land. He did not realise that this island was a part of Australia. This island was later renamed Tasmania in honour of Abel Tasman. He also went on to discover New Zealand (this earlier name was reused by Able Tasman), Tonga Islands and Fiji.

The British Colonised Australia

On the 1 May 1622, the Tryall, a ship of the East India Company was the first British vessel the sight the Australian coastline. On 22 May 1622 it had the dubious distinction of being the first recorded shipwreck in Australian waters. The crew were stranded on Montebello Islands off the Pilbara coast of north-western Australia for seven days before sailing back to Banten Indonesia in a longboat.

Endeavour the ship that came to Australia

In 1770 an expedition from England lead by Lieutenant James Cook sailed to the south pacific on board the sailing ship Endeavour. They were supposed to make astronomical observations, but Captain Cook also had secret orders from the British Admiralty to find the southern continent. This expedition landed on the east coast of Australia on the 29th of April 1770. Cook first called this place Stingray Bay, then he changed it to Botanist Bay and finally called it Botany Bay because of all the strange and unusual plants there.

He named this new land New Wales and then changed it to New South Wales. He claimed the land for Britain (even though the land already occupied by the Aborigines). Cook had no idea of the enormity of his discovery or that it was actually an island - a whole continent in fact, 31 times larger than Britain itself.

Captain Cook was also the first European to visit the Great Barrier Reef. Actually he ran into it and damaged his ship pretty badly. He had to spend seven weeks repairing his ship.

The British returned, in 1778, to colonise this new land they claimed they had discovered. The unknown southern land is known today as Australia.

Related Article: The First Fleet - First European Settlers of Australia

So Who Really Discovered Australia?


During the Age of Discovery Europeans sailed the seas "discovering" new lands that had been unknown to them till then. Columbus sailed to America, Magellan found the Philippines, and James Cook visited Australia. These visitors had a nasty habit of claiming these new lands as belonging their home countries. Columbus claimed America for Spain. Magellan too claimed the Philippines for Spain James Cook claimed Australia for England and so on. In doing this the European totally disregarded the local inhabitants who have lived in these lands for thousands of years. This practice came to be know as "imperialism" and "colonialism".

The First People to Discover Australia

The Aborigines were the first people to discover Australia. They did so around 50,000 years ago.

The First Asians to Discover Australia

The first Asian people to visit Australia were probably early traders from Indonesia and possibly China and India. They had no idea it was a huge continent. They thought it was just another island. No records exist of their visits.

The First Europeans to See Australia

Portuguese sailors travelling to and from Timor and other islands around Indonesia were probably the first Europeans to see Australia. They saw the seemingly barren coastline of North-western Australia as they sailed past. There is no solid evidence to suggest that they ever come ashore or even named the land they saw.

The First Europeans to Land on Australia

This honour goes to the Dutch. The Duyfken captained by Willem Janszoon anchored off the Gulf of Carpentaria and came ashore on 26 February 1606 and named the place "Nieu Zeland" (New Zeland). He thought the land was part of New Guinea. Another Dutch ship, the Eendracht arrived at Shark Bay in 1616, but they too didn't realise this was Terra Australis. Dutch sailors continued sail along the coastline on their trips and called this land New Holland. Another Dutchman, Abel Tasman, sighted the island we call Tasmania today. He called it Van Diemen's Land, but he too didn't realise it was part of Australia.

The First to Realise this was Australia

It was James Cook in the ship the Endeavour who landed on the east coast of Australia at Botany Bay on 29 April 1770. He then went on to chart the eastern coastline of Australia and realised this was it - Terra Australis (or New Holland as it was referred to in Europe by then). He didn't however realise that it was so huge.

And the Winner is!

First Prize: The Aborigines. They got to Australia around 50,000 years ago and migrated throughout the continent.

Second Prize: The Dutch. They came ashore and charted and named some places.

Third Prize: The British. They finally established that this was indeed Terra Australis. They also settled and colonised the whole continent.


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