The Portuguese discovery of Australia

This morning’s Fairfax Papers ( The Age, The SMH and so on) had quite a nice piece about a marginal drawing of a kangaroo in a pre 1600 Portuguese liturgical manuscript.

The dating to before 1600 is significant, previously the first recorded European landing on Australia was by Janszoon in 1606 on a VoC expedition.

However it’s not that surprising, the Portugese and later the Spaniards were all over the Indonesian and Phillipine archipeleagos in the 1500’s on the back of the spice trade and their interactions with the Japanese who were also beginning a short lived expansion into the area.

Just as odd as the tale of Shakespeare being performed off the coast of Sierra Leone in 1607 is the tale of Christopher and Cosmas, two Japanese sailors on a Spanish galleon captured by Thomas Cavendish off the coast of Baja California in 1587, and who seem to have spent time in England – the evidence is circumstantial, but they are mentioned on the roster on Cavendish’s ship when it left Plymouth on a later expedition suggesting that they must at least have reached Plymouth.

However, back to the main piece. We can be fairly certain that the Macassan trepang trade with the Yolngu in Arnhem land predates the arrival of Europeans in the area. The recent discovery of European glass beads in pre-1788 deposits suggesting that the Macassans were acquiring them from European traders and passing them on.

It would be quite possible that the Portuguese had heard of the trepang trade and had gone to investigate.

It could also be the case that the drawing of the kangaroo dates from Jorge de Menezes expedition than landed on Weigo Island in Papua in 1526. As Weigo is on the Australasian side of the Wallace line its possible that he might have seen tree kangaroos despite never venturing to Australia. And of course, it wasn’t just de Menezes. Inigo Ortiz de Retes explored (and named) the northern coast of New Guinea in 1545. Either voyage could easily have brought news and drawings of strange unknown animals

Interestingly, in recordings of the oral history of the aboriginal inhabitants of the Wessel island there’s apparently as story of ‘Men wearing mirrors’ landing on the islands.

And, I suppose, that could just be an oral history recollection of the appearance of mid sixteenth century Portugese sailors and soldiers landing on the islands as part of one of the Portugese voyages of exploration in the area …

Written with StackEdit.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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3 Responses to The Portuguese discovery of Australia

  1. Pingback: And now we have a cockatoo … | stuff 'n other stuff

  2. Pingback: A C16 Portuguese Cannon in Darwin? | stuff 'n other stuff

  3. Pingback: Black Samurai | stuff 'n other stuff

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