European exploration of Australia

European exploration of Australia
Exploration by Europeans till 1812
  1606 Luís Vaz de Torres
  1616 Dirk Hartog
  1644 Abel Tasman
  1770 James Cook
  1797–1799 George Bass
  1801–1803 Matthew Flinders

The European exploration of Australia encompasses several waves of seafarers and land explorers. Although Australia is often loosely said to have been discovered by Royal Navy Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook in 1770, he was merely one of a number of European explorers to have sighted and landed on the continent prior to English settlement, and he did so 164 years after the first such documented encounter. Nor did the exploration of Australia end with Cook; explorers by land and sea continued to survey the continent for many years after settlement.


Early European sightings

The first documented and undisputed European sighting of and landing on Australia was in March 1606, by the Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon aboard the Duyfken.[1][2][3] It is possible that Luís Vaz de Torres, working for the Spanish Crown, sighted Australia when he sailed through the Torres Strait several months later, in October 1606.[4]

Occasional claims have been made in support of earlier encounters, particularly for various Portuguese explorations. Evidence put forward in favour of this theory, particularly by Kenneth McIntyre,[5] is primarily based on interpretation of features of the Dieppe Maps. However, this interpretation is not accepted by most historians.[6]

Dutch exploration in the 17th century

Hollandia Nova, 1659 map prepared by Joan Blaeu

The most significant exploration of Australia in the 17th century was by the Dutch. The Dutch East India Company traded extensively with the islands which now form parts of Indonesia, and hence were very close to Australia already. In early 1606 Willem Janszoon encountered and then charted the shores of Australia's Cape York Peninsula. The ship made landfall at the Pennefather River in the Gulf of Carpentaria. This was the first authenticated landing of a European on Australian soil. Other Dutch explorers include Dirk Hartog,[7] who landed on the Western Australian coast, leaving behind a pewter plate engraved with the date of his landing; and Abel Tasman, for whom Tasmania was eventually named—he originally called it Van Diemen's Land after a senior member of the Dutch East India Company.[8] Maps from this period and the early 18th century often have Australia marked as "New Holland" on account of the voyages of these Dutch explorers.[9][10]

When Who Ship(s) Where
1606 Willem Janszoon Duyfken Gulf of Carpentaria, Cape York Peninsula (Queensland)
1616 Dirk Hartog Eendracht Shark Bay area, Western Australia
1619 Frederick de Houtman[11] and Jacob d'Edel Dordrecht and Amsterdam Sighted land near Perth, Western Australia
1623 Jan Carstensz[12] Gulf of Carpentaria, Carpentier River
1627 François Thijssen[13] het Gulden Zeepaerdt 1800 km of the South coast (from Cape Leeuwin to Ceduna)
1642–1643 Abel Tasman Heemskerck and Zeehaen Van Diemen's Land, later called Tasmania
1696–1697 Willem de Vlamingh[14] Geelvink, Nyptangh and the Wezeltje Rottnest Island, Swan River, Dirk Hartog Island (Western Australia)

One Dutch captain of this period who was not really an explorer but who nevertheless bears mentioning was Francisco Pelsaert, captain of the Batavia, which was wrecked off the coast of Western Australia in 1629.[15]

Joan Blaeu's 1659 map on the right shows the clearly recognizable outline of Australia based on the many Dutch explorations of the first half of the 17th century.


Map of William Dampier's voyage.

Throughout the 18th century, knowledge of Australia's coastline increased gradually. Explorers such as the Englishman William Dampier contributed to this understanding, especially through his two-volume publication A Voyage to New Holland (1703, 1709)

1770: Cook's Expedition

Cook's 1770 voyage shown in red

In 1768 British Lieutenant James Cook was sent from England on an expedition to the Pacific Ocean to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti, sailing westwards in HMS Endeavour via Cape Horn and arriving there in 1769. On the return voyage he continued his explorations of the South Pacific, in search of the postulated continent of Terra Australis.

He first reached New Zealand, and then sailed further westwards to sight the south-eastern corner of the Australian continent on 20 April 1770. In doing so, he was to be the first documented European expedition to reach the eastern coastline. He continued sailing northwards along the east coast, charting and naming many features along the way.

He identified Botany Bay as a good harbour and one potentially suitable for a settlement, and where he made his first landfall on 29 April. Continuing up the coastline, the Endeavour was to later run aground on shoals of the Great Barrier Reef (near the present-day site of Cooktown), where she had to be laid up for repairs.

The voyage then recommenced, eventually reaching the Torres Strait and thence on to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta, Indonesia). The expedition returned to England via the Indian Ocean and Cape of Good Hope.[16]

Cook's expedition carried botanist Joseph Banks, for whom a great many Australian geographical features and at least one native plant are named. The reports of Cook and Banks in conjunction with the loss of England's penal colonies in America after they gained independence and growing concern over French activity in the Pacific, encouraged the later foundation of a colony at Port Jackson in 1788.[17]

French eighteenth-century explorers

Marc-Joseph Marion Dufresne visited Van Diemen's Land in 1772 and was the first to encounter the Tasmanian Aborigines (who had not been seen by Abel Tasman).[18] Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse visited Botany Bay in 1788.[19]Bruni d'Entrecasteaux discovered Esperance in Western Australia and the D'Entrecasteaux Channel and the Derwent and Huon Estuaries in Van Diemen's Land. His expedition also resulted in the publication of the first general flora of New Holland.[20]

Later exploration by sea

Voyages of Bass, who the Bass Strait is named after.
Voyages of Matthew Flinders
King's voyages around Australia.

The charting of Australia's coast continued well into the 19th century. Matthew Flinders was one of the most important explorers of this period, and was the first to circumnavigate the continent.[21]

When Who Ship(s) Where
1773 Tobias Furneaux[22] Adventure South and east coasts of Tasmania
1776 James Cook Resolution Southern Tasmania
1788 Jean de La Pérouse Astrolabe and Boussole encountered First Fleet in Botany Bay
1796 Matthew Flinders Matthew Flinders and George Bass[23] Norfolk Circumnavigated Tasmania
1801–1802 Nicolas Baudin, accompanied by Thomas Vasse and numerous naturalists (see below)[24] Le Géographe and Le Naturaliste The first to explore Western coast; met Flinders at Encounter Bay
1801 John Murray[25] Lady Nelson Bass Strait; discovery of Port Phillip
1802 Matthew Flinders Investigator Circumnavigation of Australia
1817 King expedition of 1817Phillip Parker King[26] accompanied by Frederick Bedwell edit] Land exploration 1788–1900
Blaxland's expedition to cross the Blue Mountains
John Oxley's expeditions
Route of the Sturt, Hume and Hovell expeditions

The opening up of the interior to European settlement occurred gradually throughout the colonial period, and a number of these explorers are very well known. Burke and Wills are the best known for their failed attempt to cross the interior of Australia, but such men as Hamilton Hume and Charles Sturt are also notable—if only because major geographical features, landmarks, and institutions have been named after them.

For many years, plans of westward expansion from Sydney were thwarted by the Great Dividing Range, a large range of mountains which shadows the east coast from the Queensland-New South Wales border to the south coast. The part of the range near Sydney is called the Blue Mountains. Governor Philip Gidley King declared that they were impassable, but despite this, Gregory Blaxland successfully led an expedition to cross them in 1813. He was accompanied by William Lawson, William Wentworth and four servants. This trip paved the way for numerous small expeditions which were undertaken in the following few years.[27]

In 1824, Governor Thomas Brisbane asked Hamilton Hume and William Hovell to travel from Hume's station near modern-day Canberra, to Spencer Gulf (west of modern-day Adelaide). However, they were required to pay their own costs. Hume and Hovell decided that Western Port was a more realistic goal, and they left with a party of six men. After discovering and crossing the Murrumbidgee and Murray rivers, they eventually reached a site near modern-day Geelong, somewhat west of their intended destination.[28][29]

Inland Sea

After the Great Dividing Range had been crossed at numerous points a great many rivers were discovered; the Darling, Macquarie, Murray and Murrumbidgee rivers. All of these rivers flowed west. A theory was developed of a vast inland sea into which these rivers flowed. Another reason behind the idea of an inland sea was that Matthew Flinders, who had very carefully mapped much of Australia's coast had discovered no great river delta where these rivers should have emerged by had they reached the coast. The Murray-Darling basin actually drains into Lake Alexandrina. Matthew Flinders had noted this on his maps but viewed from the sea does not look like the outfall of a large watershed, but instead as a gentle tidal basin.

The mystery was solved by Charles Sturt. In 1829–30, Sturt performed an expedition similar to the one which Hume and Hovell had refused: a trip to the mouth of the Murray River. They followed the Murrumbidgee until it met the Murray, and then found the junction of the Murray and the Darling before continuing on to the mouth of the Murray. The search for an inland sea was an inspiration for many early expeditions west of the Great Dividing Ranges. This quest drove many explorers to extremes of endurance and hardship. Charles Sturt's expedition explained the mystery. It also led to the opening of South Australia to settlement.[30]

The theory of the inland sea had many adherents. Major Thomas Mitchell, the Scottish born Surveyor-General of New South Wales. He set out to disprove Sturts claims and in doing so made a significant discovery in 1836. He led an expedition along the Lachlan River, down to the Murray River. He then set off for the southern coast, mapping what is now western Victoria. There he discovered the richest grazing land ever seen to that time and named it Australia Felix. He was knighted for this discovery in 1837. When he reached the coast at Portland Bay, he was surprised to find a small settlement. It had been established by the Henty family, who had sailed across Bass Strait from Van Diemen's Land in 1834, without the authorities being informed.[31]

Eyre's expeditions on the Nullarbor Plain and to the Flinders Ranges
Kennedy's expeditions in the interior of Queensland
Leichardt's exploration
The ill fated expedition of Burke and Wills

Perhaps the most famous Australian explorers were Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills who in 1860–61 led a well equipped expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Due to an unfortunate run of bad luck, oversight and poor leadership, Burke and Wills both died on the return trip.[32]

Expeditions (in chronological order):

When Who Where
1804 William Paterson Port Dalrymple, Tamar River, North Esk River (Tasmania)
1813 Blaxland, Wentworth, and Lawson From Sydney across the Great Dividing Range via the Blue Mountains; first penetration into inland New South Wales
1817–1818 John Oxley[33] Interior of New South Wales; discovered Lachlan River and Macquarie River
1818 Throsby, Meehan, Hume and Wild Throsby and Wild discovered an overland route from Sydney to Jervis Bay via the Kangaroo and Lower Shoalhaven rivers

Meehan and Hume followed the Shoalhaven upriver and discovered Lake Bathurst and the Goulburn Plains[34]

1820 Joseph Wild[35] discovered Lake George[36]
1823 Currie, Ovens and Wild Region south of Lake George;[37] discovered Isabella Plains (now a suburb of Canberra), charted the upper reach of the Murrumbidgee River and discovered Monaro[38]
1824 Hume and Hovell expedition Sydney to Geelong; discovered Murray River
1828–1829 Charles Sturt and Hamilton Hume Macquarie River area; discovered Darling River
1829 Currie, Drummond, Dr Simmons and Lieut Griffin South of Fremantle; explored region, now Rockingham and Baldivis, and sighted the Serpentine River[39]
1829 Dr Collie and Lieut.Preston discovered Harvey, Collie and Preston rivers
1829–1830 Charles Sturt Along the Murrumbidgee River; found and named Murray River, and determined that western-flowing rivers flowed into the Murray-Darling basin
1830 John Molloy Blackwood River, Western Australia
1830–1834 Alfred and John Bussell Blackwood River and the Vasse, Western Australia
1831 Robert Dale and George Fletcher Moore Avon River area in Western Australia
1831 Collet Barker Mount Lofty and the Murray Mouth
1834 Frederick Ludlow Augusta to Perth; discovered Capel River
1834–1836 George Fletcher Moore Avon River and Swan River; discovered that they are the same river; discovered rich pastoral land near the Moore River
1839–1841 Edward John Eyre[40] The Flinders Ranges and Nullarbor Plain
1840 Paweł Edmund Strzelecki[41] Ascended and named Mount Kosciuszko, New South Wales
1840 Patrick Leslie Condamine River, New South Wales
1840–1842 Clement Hodgkinson[42] North-eastern New South Wales, from Port Macquarie to Moreton Bay
1844 Charles Sturt North-western New South Wales and north-eastern South Australia; discovered the Simpson Desert
1847 Anthony O'Grady Lefroy and Alfred Durlacher Gingin, Western Australia
1854 Austin expedition of 1854Robert Austin, Kenneth Brown Geraldton, Mount Magnet, Murchison River
1858–1860 John McDouall Stuart[43] North-western South Australia; discovered water sources used as staging points for later expeditions; found and named Finke River, MacDonnell Ranges, Tennant Creek
1860 Burke and Wills expedition including Robert O'Hara Burke, William John Wills Melbourne to Gulf of Carpentaria (traversing Australia south to north); determined non-existence of inland sea
1897 Frank Hann[44] Pilbara region of Western Australia; named Lake Disappointment

Other 19th Century Explorers

Other explorers by land (in alphabetical order):

Stuart was the first to cross the country from south to north successfully.
Map of John Forrest's expeditions

20th Century Explorers

By the turn of the 20th century, most of the major geographical features of Australia had been discovered by European explorers. However, there are some 20th century people who are considered explorers. They include:

Indigenous Australians participating in European Exploration

A number of Indigenous Australians participated in the European exploration of Australia. They include:

Naturalists and other scientists

There are a number of naturalists and other scientists closely associated with European exploration of Australia. They include:

Uncategorised explorers


  1. ^ George Collingridge (1895) The Discovery of Australia. P.240. Golden Press Facsimile Edition 1983. ISBN 0 85558 956 6
  2. ^ Ernest Scott (1928) A Short History of Australia. P.17. Oxford University Press
  3. ^ Heeres, J. E. (1899). The Part Borne by the Dutch in the Discovery of Australia 1606–1765, London: Royal Dutch Geographical Society, section III.B
  4. ^ Brett Hilder (1980) The Voyage of Torres. P.87–101. University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Queensland. ISBN 0 7022 1275 x
  5. ^ K.G. McIntyre (1977) The Secret Discovery of Australia; Portuguese discoveries 200 years before Captain Cook. Souvenir Press, Medindie, South Australia. ISBN 0285 62303 6
  6. ^ For a survey of most writers and their interpretations, see the Dieppe Maps entry.
  7. ^ Phillip E. Playford (2005) "Hartog, Dirk (1580–1621)"[1] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  8. ^ J. W. Forsyth (1967) "Tasman, Abel Janszoon (1603?–1659)" [2] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  9. ^ J.P.Sigmond and L.H.Zuiderbaan (1976) Dutch Discoveries of Australia. Rigby Australia. ISBN 0 7270 08005
  10. ^ Thomas Suarez (2004) Early Mapping of the Pacific. Chapter 5. Periplus Editions, Hong Kong.ISBN 0 7946 0092 1
  11. ^ J. van Lohuizen (1966) "Houtman, Frederik de (1571?–1627)" [3] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  12. ^ J.P.Sigmond and L.H.Zuiderbaan (1976), P.43–50
  13. ^ J.P.Sigmond and L.H.Zuiderbaan (1976), P.52
  14. ^ J. van Lohuizen (1967) "Vlamingh, Willem de (fl. 1697)" [4] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  15. ^ J.P.Sigmond and L.H.Zuiderbaan (1976) P.54–69.
  16. ^ For a full record of the log and journals of the entire voyage, see Ray Parkin, (1997) H.M. Bark Endeavour. Reprinted 2003. The Miegunyah Press, Carlton, Australia. ISBN 0522 850936
  17. ^ C.M.H. Clark (1963) A Short History of Australia. P.20–21. Signet Classics, A Mentor Book.
  18. ^ Edward Duyker (2005) "Marion Dufresne, Marc-Joseph (1724–1772)." [5] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  19. ^ See extract from La Perouse's journal published in 1799 as; "A Voyage Around the world," p. 179–180 in Frank Crowley (1980), Colonial Australia. A Documentary History of Australia 1, 1788–1840. P.3–4, Thomas Nelson, Melbourne. ISBN 0 17005406 3
  20. ^ Leslie R. Marchant, (1966). "Bruny D'Entrecasteaux, Joseph-Antoine Raymond (1739–1793)." [6] Australian Dictionary of Biography.
  21. ^ Matthew Flinders (1814), A Voyage to Terra Australis; Undertaken for the purpose of completing the discovery of that vast country. G. and W. Nichol, London. Project Gutenberg [7]
  22. ^ Dan Sprod (2005) "Furneaux, Tobias (1735–1781)" [8] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  23. ^ K. M. Bowden (1966) "Bass, George (1771–1803)" [9]Australian Dictionary of Biography
  24. ^ Leslie Marchant, J. H. Reynold.(1966) "Baudin, Nicolas Thomas (1754–1803)" [10] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  25. ^ Vivienne Parsons (1967) "Murray, John (1775?–1807?)" [11] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  26. ^ P.Serle (1967) "King, Phillip Parker (1791–1856)" [12] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  27. ^ Gregory Blaxland:"A Journal of a Tour of Discovery across the Blue Mountains, New South Wales in the Year 1813," in George Mackaness (Ed.)(1965) Fourteen Journeys Over the Blue Mountains of New South Wales 1813–1841, Horwitz Publications, The Grahame Book Company, Sydney, Australia.
  28. ^ See full article Hume and Hovell expedition and numerous summaries such as; Jan Bassett (1986) The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Australian History. P.136. Oxford University Press, Melbourne ISBN 0 19 554422 6
  29. ^ Hamilton Hume and William Hovell (1831) Journey of Discovery to Port Phillip District at Project Gutenberg [13]
  30. ^ H.J. Gibbney (1967) "Sturt, Charles (1795–1869)" Australian Dictionary of Biography [14]
  31. ^ D.W.A. Baker (1967) "Sir Thomas Livingstone (1792–1855)" [15] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  32. ^ Alan Moorehead (1963) Cooper's Creek. MacMillan, Melbourne and Sydney. ISBN 0 333 22909 6
  33. ^ E.W. Dunlop (1967) "Oxley, John Joseph William Molesworth (1784?–1828)" [16] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  34. ^ Year Book Australia 1931 – Canberra Past and Present
  35. ^ Vivienne Parsons (1967)"Wild, Joseph (1773?–1847)" [17] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  36. ^ NSW Government Collections, Joseph Wild
  37. ^ M.J.Currie, Journal of an excursion to the south of Lake George 1823
  38. ^ The Discovery of Monaro
  39. ^ Reference to the Serpentine in Murray River (Western Australia)
  40. ^ Geoffrey Dutton (1966) "Eyre, Edward John (1815–1901)" [18] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  41. ^ Helen Heney (1967) "Strzelecki, Sir Paul Edmund de [Count Strzelecki] (1797–1873)" [19], Dictionary of Australian Biography
  42. ^ K.A. Patterson (1972) "Hodgkinson, Clement (1818–1893)" [20] Dictionary of Australian Biography
  43. ^ Deirdre Morris (1976) "Stuart, John McDouall (1815–1866)" [21] Dictionary of Australian Biography
  44. ^ G.C.Bolton (1972) "Hann, Frank Hugh (1846–1921)" [22] Dictionary of Australian Biography
  45. ^ G.C.Bolton (1981) "Forrest, Alexander (1849–1901)" [23] Dictionary of Australian Biography
  46. ^ F.K.Crowley (1981) "Forrest, Sir John [Baron Forrest] (1847–1918)" [24] Dictionary of Australian Biography
  47. ^ Louis Green (1972) "Giles, Ernest (1835–1897)" [25] Dictionary of Australian Biography
  48. ^ P.Serle. (1961) "Grey, Sir George (1812–1898)" [26] Dictionary of Australian Biography
  49. ^ Edgar Beale (1967) "Kennedy, Edmund Besley Court (1818–1848)" [27] Dictionary of Australian Biography
  50. ^ E.W. Dunlop (1967) "Lawson, William (1774–1850)" [28] Dictionary of Australian Biography
  51. ^ Renee Erdos (1967) "Leichhardt, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig (1813–1848)" [29] Dictionary of Australian Biography
  52. ^ Tim Flannery (Ed) (1996) Watkin Tench, 1788; Comprising a narrative of the expedition to Botany Bay and a complete account of the settlement at Port Jackson. Text Publishing, Melbourne. ISBN 1 875847 27 8
  53. ^ Denison Deasey (1976) "Warburton, Peter Egerton (1813–1889)" [30] Dictionary of Australian Biography
  54. ^ C. J. Horne (1993) "Colson, Edmund Albert (1881–1950)" [31] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  55. ^ David Carment, (1986) "Mackay, Donald George (1870–1958) [32] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  56. ^ L. W. Parkin (1986) "Madigan, Cecil Thomas (1889–1947)" [33] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  57. ^ ABC TV, George Negus Tonight. Broadcast 21/06/2004
  58. ^ Edgar Beale (1967) "Jackey Jackey ( –1854)" [34] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  59. ^ L.A. Gilbert (1967) "Solander, Daniel (1733–1782)" [35] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  60. ^ T.M.Perry (1967) "Cunningham, Allan (1791–1839)" [36] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  61. ^ Deirdre Morris (1974) "Mueller, Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von [Baron von Mueller] (1825–1896)" [37] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  62. ^ G.P.Whitley (1974) "Lhotsky, John (1795?–1866?)" [38] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  63. ^ G. P. Whitley, Martha Rutledge(1974) "Krefft, Johann Ludwig Gerard (Louis) (1830–1881)"[39] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  64. ^ Julie Marcus (2002) "Pink, Olive Muriel (1884–1975)" [40] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  65. ^ Treasures of the Museum Victoria
  66. ^ A.H. Chisholm (1969) "Calvert, James Snowden (1825–1884)" [41] Australian Dictionary of Biography
  67. ^ See numerous books by Michael Terry, dating from (1925) Across Unknown Australia, Herbert Jenkins, London, to (1974) War of the Warramullas. Rigby Limited, Australia. ISBN 0 85179 790 3

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