The Captain Cook myth


David Whitley pays a visit to Fremantle in Western Australia, and learns that there’s an awful lot we’re not taught about Aussie history

You come to learn about shipwrecks, and leave having myths dispelled. That’s basically what happens at the WA Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle. Anyone going in thinking Captain Cook discovered Australia is in for a surprise. For a start, Cook was a lieutenant when he arrived in 1770, and the name ‘Australia’ only became common currency decades later. And that’s before we even get on to the fact that the Aboriginal people had been living on the great southern land for tens of thousands of years.

But Cook wasn’t the first European to visit Australia either. Or the first Englishman. And the WA Shipwrecks Museum tells the story of these earlier, less well known and often considerably less successful voyages of discovery.

It all starts with the Dutch East India Company (or VOC), which attempted to control the spice trade from what is now Indonesia. As part of this, they scouted around the patch, and in 1606, the crew of the Duyfken landed in New Guinea under the command of Willem Jansz. One sailor was killed in a skirmish with locals, and given the lack of water on board, Jansz turned the ship round and headed back to base.

The thing is, he hadn’t landed in New Guinea at all. He’d landed on Queensland’s Cape York peninsula. Jansz and his crew had discovered Australia without realising it.

It took another ten years for the first properly documented landing, and this can be put down to an innovation by Hendrik Brouwer. In 1610, he decided to take a new route from Cape Town to Batavia (now Jakarta). Instead of following the old Portuguese route that went back above the equator and passed south of Sri Lanka, he used the Roaring Forties trade winds, sailing directly east before turning north for Batavia.

The problem was where to make the turn, with measurements of speed, distances and location being somewhat patchy in the early 17th century. And in 1616, Dirk Hartog turned too late, stumbling across what is now Dirk Hartog Island and leaving a plate nailed to a post there.



Others who turned too late were not as fortunate. There are four Dutch shipwrecks along the WA coast – the Zeewijk, the Zuytdorp, the Vergulde Draeck and, most notorious of all, the Batavia. Much of the mapping of Australia’s west and northern coasts came about due to the VOC not wanting to lose any more ships. They figured they’d better have better maps, although everyone was seemingly thoroughly unimpressed by the continent they were skirting.

And then we come to the Brits. The first was John Brookes, who got his navigation all wrong and smashed into the Tryal Rocks off the coast of the Pilbara in 1622. His accounts of the whole mess indulged in a lot of arse-covering, so no-one correctly placed these rocks on a map until centuries later.

Most interesting of all, though, is William Dampier. Basically a pirate, Dampier became the first European to collect Australian plant species – they can be found at Cambridge University – and he charted much of the coast. He was about to break through the Torres Strait and may have reached the East Coast 70 years before Cook, but he had to turn back because the wood on his ship was rotting.

It’s rare to come out of a museum wanting to buy dozens of books, but this is the case here. It’s a fascinating stretch of history that few of us know anything about. And, were the Dutch even vaguely interested in setting up stall, the story of Australia could be very different.


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