First European Contact with Australia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the first decade of the seventeenth century, Dutch and Portuguese navigators explored the Pacific islands near Australia, with the Dutch making landfall on the Australian coast in 1605. Europeans thus moved toward a geographical knowledge of the actual outlines of the elusive sixth continent.

Summary of Event

The first contact with Australia by Europeans was not a single event but a series of discoveries, often made quite by chance. The landings on the shores of Australia made it possible to map the outline of the huge landmass and to identify it, eventually, as the sixth continent. [kw]First European Contact with Australia (Apr. 29, 1606) [kw]European Contact with Australia, First (Apr. 29, 1606) Exploration and discovery;Apr. 29, 1606: First European Contact with Australia[0420] Expansion and land acquisition;Apr. 29, 1606: First European Contact with Australia[0420] Economics;Apr. 29, 1606: First European Contact with Australia[0420] Trade and commerce;Apr. 29, 1606: First European Contact with Australia[0420] Organizations and institutions;Apr. 29, 1606: First European Contact with Australia[0420] Environment;Apr. 29, 1606: First European Contact with Australia[0420] Southeast Asia;Apr. 29, 1606: First European Contact with Australia[0420] Indonesia;Apr. 29, 1606: First European Contact with Australia[0420] Australia;Apr. 29, 1606: First European Contact with Australia[0420] New Guinea;Apr. 29, 1606: First European Contact with Australia[0420] Australia;European exploration of Exploration;Dutch and Portuguese of Australia

In the sixth century b.c.e., Greek philosophers had hypothesized that if Earth were indeed round, as they believed, there must then be a large landmass in the Southern Hemisphere of the round Earth to balance the landmass in the Northern Hemisphere. It was not until the early sixteenth century that Terra Australis Incognita, the “unknown” land to the south, first appeared on a map, though it was represented as a vast area that stretched along the entire southern part of the globe.

In December, 1605, Pedro Fernández de Quirós Quirós, Pedro Fernández de left Callao, Peru, as the leader of a Spanish expedition comprising three ships, whose mission was to locate and colonize Terra Australis Incognita. On April 29, 1606, he sighted the islands now called the New Hebrides, which appeared to him to be a single landmass. Believing that he had reached his goal, Quirós christened the land La Australia del Espíritu Santo, thus crediting his success to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Despite skirmishes between the indigenous peoples of the islands and his men, Quirós sent a contingent ashore to establish a colony. However, just three weeks later, without explanation, he ordered his ships back to sea. When his flagship became separated from the other two ships in the expedition, Quirós sailed his ship back to the Americas, leaving two at Espíritu Santo Espíritu Santo .

Taking command of the two vessels that remained in harbor at Espíritu Santo, Luis Vaez de Torres, Torres, Luis Vaez de the chief pilot, first sailed along the coast far enough to ascertain that Espíritu Santo was an island and not the continent they had been seeking. Then he headed northwest, becoming the first explorer to make the difficult passage through the strait between New Guinea and Australia. Although it is most likely that he did not see Australia, Torres had discovered that New Guinea was not attached to land to the south. After his arrival in Manila in May, 1607, Torres submitted a report on his findings, but the Spanish concealed it, fearing that it might enable the Dutch or the British to find new trade routes. Nothing more is known of Torres, but in 1762, when the British took Manila from the Spanish, they found his report and renamed his discovery the Torres Strait.

With Torres’s death came the end of the era of Spanish and Portuguese exploration of the Pacific and the beginning of Dutch domination of the area. Unlike the Spanish, the Dutch did not aim to establish colonies nor to convert the indigenous to Christianity; their interests were purely commercial. In 1602, the Dutch East India Company Dutch East India Company was founded, and it began to operate as the Dutch presence in Southeast Asia.

In 1605, the Dutch East India Company sent Willem Jansz Jansz, Willem and his small ship Duyfken (little dove) to look for sources of gold on the southern side of New Guinea, but only the northern coast of New Guinea New Guinea had been mapped. Along the way, Jansz failed to see the western entrance to the strait that Torres would discover five months later. Instead, the Duyfken sailed south into the Gulf of Carpenteria. Crewmen were sent ashore to explore what is now called the Cape York Peninsula, which they described as a desolate area populated by cannibals, who had attacked them and killed several crew members. Neither Jansz nor his men could have guessed that they would be remembered as the first Europeans to make landfall on the Australian continent.

In 1611, the Dutch sea captains discovered that they could travel from Africa to the East Indies in half the usual time if they took a more southerly route. Inevitably, those who made a slight miscalculation as to when to turn back north found themselves facing an unfamiliar land. However, they did not realize that they had found the continent so many had sought. Thus, on October 25, 1616, when Captain Dirk Hartog Hartog, Dirk of the Eendracht landed on a sandy island, looked around, and nailed an engraved pewter plate to a post before sailing on, he had no idea that he had discovered the west coast of Australia.

Dutch ships on their way to Java (Indonesia) soon began to delay turning north until they had reached this landmass, which the company named New Holland New Holland to distinguish it from Terra Australis, which everyone still thought lay farther south. Thus, more and more of the western coast was revealed. In 1619, after high waves prevented his ship’s landing near what is now Perth, Frederick de Houtman Houtman, Frederick de continued northward and later reported seeing 150 miles of unbroken coastline on the western side of New Holland. In 1629, after the ship Batavia went aground in the same area that Houtman attempted to land, its captain, François Pelsaert, Pelsaert, François sailed 500 miles along the coast on his way to Batavia to find help for those he had to leave behind. His notes were the most detailed reports yet on a sizeable area of northwestern Australia.

Two years earlier, another captain had explored the southwestern shoreline. When he realized that his ship, the Gulden Zeepaert, was hopelessly off course, its captain, François Thijssen, Thijssen, François decided to do a little investigating. He sailed eastward along the coast for 1,000 miles, stopped long enough to name two island groups—St. Francis and St. Peter—then turned back and found his way to Batavia.

Meanwhile, the Dutch East India Company had not forgotten about southern New Guinea. In 1623, Jan Carstenz Carstenz, Jan was placed in command of two ships, the Arnhem and the Pera, to explore the coast. However, like Jansz, he missed the strait and landed at Cape York Peninsula. Venturing westward, the crew of the Arnhem found a new coastal area, which they named Arnhem Land. However, the company was not impressed. All Carstenz could report about southern New Guinea was that it had no commercial possibilities.

In 1636, the company sent another expedition to see whether there was a strait between New Guinea and New Holland. After the expedition’s commander was killed by tribesmen, though, the enterprise ended. There would be no more such ventures until 1642-1644, when Abel Janszoon Tasman Tasman, Abel Janszoon was able to prove, unwittingly, however, that Australia indeed was a separate continent after his circumnavigation of the landmass.


In the early decades of the seventeenth century, Europeans believed they could locate a sixth continent. Those who actually happened upon Australia did not realize the significance of their discoveries; but find the sixth continent they did, whether by exploratory expeditions or by accidental landfall. One of the most valuable and significant discoveries of the period, the existence of a strait that separated New Guinea from the area to the south, would not be made public for 150 years.

Most of the reports sent to the Dutch East India Company by the leaders of expeditions or by ship captains involved in trade described New Holland as an uninviting land, populated by hostile and savage peoples if populated at all. Later explorers, venturing inland, would discover the commercial possibilities of this huge and varied land.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Oliver E. The Pacific Navigators. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980. A lavishly illustrated book that is an ideal starting point for a study of Pacific explorations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beaglehole, J. C. The Exploration of the Pacific. 3d ed. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966. One of the most detailed sources available. Map inserts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Day, Alan Edwin. Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of Australia. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2003. A good source with a range of details, cross references, and an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Estensen, Miriam. Discovery: The Quest for the Great South Land. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Describes the search for the sixth continent from the time of the ancient Greeks to the eighteenth century. Maps and illustrations.
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    xlink:type="simple">Fischer, Steven Roger. A History of the Pacific Islands. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Emphasizes the degree to which the Dutch East India Company guarded its monopoly of commercial ventures and exploration in the Pacific.
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    xlink:type="simple">Flannery, Tim F., ed. The Explorers: Stories of Discovery and Adventure from the Australian Frontier. New York: Grove, 2000. Among the sixty-seven firsthand accounts in this volume are those of explorers Janz, Carstenz, and Pelsaert. Includes an introduction by the editor and a comprehensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gaastra, F. S. The Dutch East India Company: Expansion and Decline. Zutphen, the Netherlands: Walburg, 2003. Reviews the development of the company, analyzing its initial policies, strategies, and resources for confronting and defeating the Portuguese for trade dominance in the early seventeenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robert, Willem C. H. The Dutch Explorations, 1605-1756, of the North and Northwest Coast of Australia. Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1973. Extracts from journals, logbooks, and other documents relating to the voyages of Dutch explorers of Australia. Includes original Dutch texts, edited and with English translations, a critical introduction, and notes. Also includes appendices, a bibliography, and indexes.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

William Dampier; Engelbert Kämpfer; Abel Janszoon Tasman; Zheng Chenggong. Australia;European exploration of Exploration;Dutch and Portuguese of Australia

Categories: History