Who Really Discovered Australia?

Captain James Cook? Don’t make me laugh…

Would you believe me if I said that Captain James Cook didn’t discover Australia first? Would you also believe me if I said that he’s not the reason we celebrate Australia Day? And that he didn’t circumnavigate Australia?

It’s time to face the truth, Australia.

Who Really Discovered Australia First?

Aside from the fact that Australia was already inhabited by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the first person to discover Australia was Willem Janszoon.

Who? you may ask. And for good reason, too. I, myself, was never taught this, either. So I guess we’ve both learned something new recently!

Willem Janszoon was a Dutch explorer who first made landfall on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula in 1606. Following his brief landing, Janszoon decided to map out a third of the continent.

Then Dirk Hartog, another dutch explorer, came along and discovered the far western side of Australia in 1616.

Then there was Frederick de Houtman, another Dutch explorer, who discovered more coastline on the western side in 1619.

And then along came Abel Tasman, another Dutch explorer who, if you can tell by the name, was the first to discover Tasmania (it was originally called Van Diemen’s Land). His notable voyage took place between 1642–1644, where he also discovered New Zealand, Tonga and the Fiji Islands.

And then Willem de Vlamingh, another Dutch explorer, retraced Dirk Hartog’s route in 1696, simply to find the inscribed plate that was left there in 1616 and replace it with a new one. (The original plate can be seen in a museum in Amsterdam.)

It wasn’t until 1699 when the first British explorer witnessed the harsh coastline of Western Australia. His name was William Dampier, and he landed at Shark Bay. He must’ve got homesick quickly, as he was back out on the sea in no time, returning to England in 1700.

And finally, after several decades, Captain James Cook was tasked with a secret mission to find and conquer the great southern land “in the Name of the King of Great Britain.”

But he didn’t stay long, for he set sail once again eight days later.

Cook’s Eventful Secret Mission

Captain James Cook is, at least, the first European to navigate the eastern seaboard of Australia. He first landed in Botany Bay and claimed it as terra nullius.

But it wasn’t terra nullius, as he would soon realise, for two Aboriginal elders of the Dharawal Eora nation came out to greet him. Greet him with open arms? Of course not. He was the first white guy they’ve ever seen and here he was stepping foot on their land.

So, they challenged his right to be there, and their tactics in negotiating this were perhaps lost on Captain James Cook. And when the two Aboriginal men began to throw spears at Cook and his entourage, Cook promptly fired a warning shot, and then let off two more which wounded one of the men.

His tactics in dealing with first nations people would eventually lead to his death in Hawaii in 1779.

But What About Australia Day?

While Captain James Cook made his first landfall in April 1770, it wasn’t until August when he raised the flag and claimed the land as part of the British empire. That was on the aptly-named Possession Island in far north Queensland.

The man who is responsible for Australia Day was Arthur Phillip, and he arrived in Botany Bay on January 18, 1788 with an entourage of 1,000 people.

Unfortunately, he did not approve of Cook’s original landing spot of Botany Bay. The land was terrible for cultivation. So, after landing there on January 18, Phillip decided to move camp a few kilometres north to what is now called Sydney Harbour.

And just as they began setting up shop at Port Jackson in Sydney Cove, they quickly learned that two French frigates of the Lapérouse expedition were heading their way.

Because of this, the British flag was officially raised for the second time in Australia’s history. And thanks to this ceremonious event (and a harsh adaptation to their new home over the next few decades) the colony grew fond of the date.

But back then it wasn’t called Australia Day, and that’s because Australia was originally called New Holland. They preferred First Landing Day or Foundation Day, and it became a New South Wales thing, for that was the name of their new colony which would later become a state.

As other colonies set up camp across the land, they each created their own foundation days. And even after 1901, when all the states and territories officially formed, January 26 was still purely a New South Wales thing. It wasn’t until the mid-1930s when January 26 started to become an Australian thing.

And it wasn’t until 1994 when it became an official holiday.

So there we have it! Australia Day celebrates the founding of Sydney Harbour and the uneventful raising of the British flag to officiate New South Wales under British rule for the second time, and for no other reason but because the French were coming.

As a final note, the first person to fully circumnavigate Australia was Matthew Flinders. He did so between 1802–1803.

Now, how about that date change, huh? 😉 😎

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