To really understand who discovered Australia, we need to first start with some background information.
In ancient time people in different parts of the world didn't travel very far from home. Everywhere they went, the world basically seemed flat. So they assumed that the world was indeed flat. 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 150AD 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 to 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 unknown 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. This map, from 1570, shows a huge imaginary landmass on the bottom of the globe somewhat proportional to the rest of the world on top. For over two hundred years European explorers set across the seas searching for the Unknown Southern Land. Many explorers kept sailing right past it or bumped into it and didn't realise that they had stumbled upon it. They expected to find vast quantities of gold and treasure there.
While the Europeans were searching for this unknown land, there were people already living there. These people were the Aborigines, the first humans to arrive in Australia. They probably arrived on the Australian continent around 50,000 years ago.
The ancestors of the Aborigines 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 drifting debris or even by a tsunami which may have transported them clinging on to flotsam as it swept across the ocean. They had no idea where, in the world, they were.
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 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 were the first great European explorers. They travelled the world in search of wealth and fortune. Having found 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 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.
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 had 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 the west coast of Australia. Captain Dirk Hartog landed at Shark Bay, on the Western Australian coastline, looked around and didn't find anything interesting there. He nailed an 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 to 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.
On the 1 May 1622, the Tryall, a ship of the East India Company was the first British vessel to sight the Australian coastline. On 22 May 1622 it had the dubious distinction of being the first recorded British shipwreck in Australian waters. The crew was stranded on Montebello Islands off the Pilbara coast of north-western Australia for seven days before sailing back to Banten Indonesia in a longboat.
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, 32 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.
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 to 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 completely disregarded the local inhabitants who have lived in these lands for thousands of years. This practice came to be known as "imperialism" and "colonialism".
The Aboriginals were the first people to arrive in Australia. They did so around 50,000 years ago.
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.
Dictionaries define 'discovery' as the act of finding something new, or something "old" that was unknown. At the heart of the term discovery is the bringing to light new thoughts, ideas and facts.
Europeans have frequently used the term 'discovery' in the context of their Age of Exploration when many explorers and adventurers set out from Europe in search of foreign lands and places. In most instances, they were by no means the first humans to find a place. They were merely the first Europeans to arrive at a foreign land or place. So, for example, western history tells us James Cook discovered Australia even though Aborigines had been living there for tens of thousands of year before Cook arrived.
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 named the land they saw.
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 to 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.
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.
First Prize – The Aboriginals. They were the first humans to arrive in Australia around 50,000 years ago and settled throughout the continent. (Strictly speaking, however, they didn't discover Australia in the true sense of the word when used in the context of European exploration).
Second Prize – The British. They finally established that this place was indeed Terra Australis. They also colonised and settled the whole continent.
Third Prize – The Dutch. They came ashore and charted and named some places but they didn't clearly determine that they had landed on Terra Australis.