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Discovery of Australia Who Discovered Australia First?

Willem Janszoon was first European to discover Australia

Willem Janszoon 1st European to discover Australia

Willem Janszoon was the first European to discover Australia on 26 February 1606. However, the Aboriginal people were the first to arrive in Australia about 50,000 years earlier. Therefore, the Aboriginals were the first humans to find Australia.

However, the concept of "discovery" is not as straightforward as it may seem when it comes to Australia. To truly grasp who can be credited with discovering the vast continent, we need to understand the world-view of ancient Europeans and the meaning behind the term "discovery." Only then can we accurately determine who discovered Australia and when.

What Does 'Discovery' Mean? Explanation of Terms

Magnifying Glass with Australia in center

Dictionaries define ‘discovery’ as the act of finding something new, or something "old" that was unknown. Europeans frequently used the term ‘discovery’ in the context of their Age of Exploration when they visited new places for the first time. Now the funny thing is, these Europeans had a habit of sailing about, claiming to have ‘discovered’ places. But, in actual fact, these places had been found thousands of years earlier by others, especially the native inhabitants already living there.

So the questions we should really ask are:
   1. Why was Australia important?
   2. Who were the first humans to arrive in Australia?
   3. Who were the first Non-natives to visit Australia?
   4. Who were the first Europeans to see Australia?
   5 . Who were the first Europeans to set foot (come ashore and walk around) in Australia?
   5. Who realised that the land they encountered was indeed the place we call Australia today.

These questions and lots of other interesting facts are explored below.

Why was Australia Important? Terra Australis Incognita

Ancient map of the world by ptolemy 150AC

Ptolemy's map of the world with Australia at the bottom

In about 150AD, a Greek mapmaker named Claudius Ptolemy believed that the world was a sphere—round like a tennis ball and had to be balanced, or it would topple over. So, he drew in an imaginary land on the bottom of his maps to balance the world he knew on top (see photo). Over time, this unknown land came to be referred to as Terra Australis Incognita meaning the Unknown Southern Land. For hundreds of years, Europeans were very curious about this land they had never seen. They expected to find vast quantities of gold and treasure there. Finally, in the 15th century, European explorers set across the seas in search of this huge unknown southern land.

Who Found Australia First? Aboriginals Arrived in Australia First

Aboriginals fishing

Photo: Aborigines fishing

The Aborigines found Australia first. But they had no idea where, in the world, they were. Nor had they been looking for the place. They merely happened to stumble upon the land we call Australia today. They probably arrived on the Australia continent about 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 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 that may have transported them clinging on to flotsam as it swept across the ocean.

So while Europeans were searching for the unknown southern land, the Aborigines had already found Australian and had been living there for over 50,000 years.


• Aboriginals - The First Australians



Asians — First Non-Native People to Visit Australia Date: 5,000 BC (approximately)

Ancient Asian sailing craft

Photo: Indonesian sailing craft

There is some evidence that fishermen and traders from Indonesia, India, and China may have visited northern Australia and traded with the local aborigines for thousands of years. This contact was sporadic and inconsequential. The Dingo, the wild dog of Australia, may have first arrived in Australia about 5,000 years ago during such a visit.

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.

Portuguese — First Europeans to See Australia Date: 1515 (approximately)

portugese caravel 1515 AC

Photo: Portuguese caravel


The Portuguese were the first great European explorers. Having found a way to Asia through the Cape of Good Hope, they travelled far and wide in search of spices that 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. But there is no definite proof that they did. Some Portuguese maps from this time seem to show parts of what appear to be the Australian coastline.

Whilst the Portuguese may have been the first European to see parts of the Australian coastline; they didn't realise that they were sailing past Terra Australis Incognita.

Dutch — First Europeans to "Discover" Australia Date: 26 February 1606

Dutch Sailing ship (replica) 1606

Photo: Dutch sailing ship Duyfken (replica)

Willem Janszoon - 1st European to "Discover" Australia

Willem Janszoon discovered Australia

Photo: Willem Janszoon

Willem Janszoon was the first European to discover Australia. On 26 February 1606, the Dutch sailing ship Duyfken, captained by Janszoon, arrived off the Pennefather River in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The crew found the land swampy and the people there hostile. They lost ten of their crew during various expeditions ashore. Janszoon named the place "Nieu Zeland" (New Zealand) and departed.

Janszoon didn't realise he had discovered Australia. He thought the land was part of the island of New Guinea, which is further north.

Dirk Hartog - 2nd European to Land in Australia

In 1616 a Dutch sailing ship, Eendracht, on its way to Indonesia sailed off course and 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 in Holland) 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 and called this land New Holland, but they 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 Europeans in Australia.

Abel Tasman - 3rd European to land in Australia

Abel Tasman Portrait

Photo: Abel Tasman

In 1642, a Dutchman named Abel Tasman sighted an island he called Van Diemen's Land (later renamed Tasmania in honour of Abel Tasman). He didn't realise that this island was a part of Australia. He also went on to 'discover' the islands he named New Zealand (Able Tasman reused this earlier name), Tonga Islands, and Fiji.

None of these Dutch sailors realised that they had reached Terra Australis Incognita . But they have the distinction of being the first Europeans to set foot on the continent.

British — First to Establish that Australia was an Island Continent Date: 29 April 1770

British sailing ship

Photo: British East Indiaman ship

John Brooke - 1st Britisher to Land in Australia

On 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. They too didn't realise that they had landed on Terra Australis Incognita.

James Cook - 1st to Claim the East Coast of Australia for the British

In 1770 an expedition from England, lead by Lieutenant James Cook, sailed to the south Pacific on board the sailing ship Endeavour. Their official mission was 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 unusual plants there. Cook wasn't impressed with the place and noted in his journal ' so far as we know [it] doth not produce any one thing that can become an Article in trade to invite Europeans to fix a settlement upon it’. (Translation: As far as I can tell, there doesn't seem to be anything of worthwhile around here that would encourage Europeans to settle here).

Captain James Cook

Photo: Captain James Cook

He named this new land New Wales and then changed the name to New South Wales. 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.

Cook's greatest accomplishment was that he charted the east coast of Australia. Cook, himself, didn't believe he had found Terra Australis Incognita. He thought the land was New Holland, the same land the Dutch were referring to. To quote his own words in his journal Cook wrote: " ..and altho' I failed in discovering the so much talked of Southern Continent (which perhaps does not exist)..." So it is apparent that he didn't believe the place he was surveying was Terra Australis Incognita. Nevertheless, like many European explorers of the time, he laid claim to the land on behalf of the British. He wrote in his journal ' ...took possession of the whole Eastern Coast from … Latitude 38° South down to this place by the Name of New South Wales together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast...'

One of the crew members of this voyage was a man named Joseph Banks and on his recommendation the British returned, in 1788, to colonise this new land they claimed Cook had discovered, even though the land was already occupied by the Aborigines.

• The First Fleet - First European Settlers of Australia

Who Really Discovered Australia & When? First Human Arrival & First European 'Discovery'

The First People to Arrive in Australia

The Aboriginals were the first people to arrive in Australia. They did so around 50,000 years ago.

The First Asians to Arrive in Australia

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.

The First Europeans to See Australia

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.

The First Europeans to Land on Australia

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 Zealand). 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.

The First to Realise this was Australia

The British, led by James Cook, arrived at Botany Bay on the east coast of Australia on 29 April 1770. They were definitely not the first to discover Australia. However, the British went on to chart the entire coastline of Australia and were the first to realise that this land was indeed Terra Australis.

The Winner is! People and Dates When Australia was Discovered

First Prize – The Aboriginals - 50,000 BC. 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 Dutch (Willem Janszoon) - 26 February 1606 . Janszoon came ashore, named the place "Nieu Zeland", and 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. So he only gets credit for being the first European to set foot on the Australian continent.

Third Prize – The British (James Cook) - 29 April 1770. They claimed the east coast of Australia for themselves and went on to finally determine that this place was indeed Terra Australis. They also colonised and settled the whole continent, and eventually named it Australia.

• How Australia Got Its Name – Who Named Australia?

What is Colonialism & Imperialism? Exploitation and Displacement of Native Peoples

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".

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