Monday, June 14, 2010

European Exploration and Early Settlement (1606–1850)

The European “discovery” of Australia and the entire South Pacific region was part of the much larger process of European exploration and colonization throughout the world that began with Bartolomeu Diaz’s Portuguese expedition to the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa in the 1480s and continues today in French New Caledonia and elsewhere. The earliest explorers were the Portuguese and Spanish, who were driven by the twin motivations of “God and gold” to seek new routes to the East and to expand the boundaries of the known world.

Despite the importance of Spain and Portugal in the Age of Exploration, there is only circumstantial evidence that explorers from those countries sailed as far south as Australia during this period. The one exception to this is Portuguese sailor Luis Váez de Torres, who sailed from Peru under the Spanish flag with Pedro Fernández de Quiros, European discoverer of the Solomon Islands. On their 1606 expedition Torres’s ship became separated from the others and wound up sailing through the strait between Australia and New Guinea only a short time after Janszoon’s historic landing on Cape York (Kenny 1995). There is little doubt that Torres saw the mainland, but he seems to have mistaken it for yet another island and failed to go ashore or report to the Spanish the existence of the legendary southern continent. Nonetheless, his charts did later end up in the library of Captain James Cook, who persisted in his long and difficult journey through the Great Barrier Reef in the hope that the information was accurate and that he could sail to the west between Australia and New Guinea. Today the strait explored by Torres bears his name in honor of his early achievement.