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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Five underrated aspects of travelling in Australia



Yeah, Australia’s got the beaches, the reef, the Outback and the wine regions. But there’s plenty that people don’t tend to expect, as David Whitley explains.

The light

Australia has the reputation of being sunny, but it’s not just the warmth that counts – it’s the brightness. The vividness of the light in Australia is hard to explain to someone from Northern Europe who has never been. Skies are bright, ferocious blues, not tepidly toned down like they are on even the most glorious British summer’s day. And somehow, that feels more energy-giving. There’s a sense of alertness and perkiness this brightness lends to people. 

The history

Australia’s history is both very long (looking at sites such as Kakadu and Mungo National Park, it’s tens of thousands of years of continuous civilisation) and very short (from the European perspective). But it tends to be pretty riveting whenever you start digging into the stories. Even in the four centuries since the Europeans turned up, the tales of exploration, forging a new nation and adjusting to totally alien conditions tend to lend themselves to high adventure, farce and entertaining rogues. Three starters should be the stories of the Batavia, Burke and Wills and John Macarthur.

The bush

It tends to be the coasts and the outback that make Australia stand out, but there is something in between that may not be quite as immediately attention-grabbing, though utterly captivating once you start exploring it. Green Australia, the inland chunks that are full of eucalypt forests, scarcely-visited National Parks, rocky outcrops and mountains, has its own distinct character. Most country areas are full of checked shirts, leather boots and horse riders, but there’s often a crossover (especially in the south-west, inland from the Great Ocean Road and around the New South Wales – Queensland border) with a distinctly hippyish back-to-nature scene. 

The wildness

Kinda related to the bush, but something bigger than that, Australia does a remarkably good line in keeping things wild. In the UK, even National Parks will have farmers’ fields and grazing sheep. But in Oz, you’re never too far away from forest with only the most rudimentary of tracks through it, or vast swathes of land that have no road through. This applies even on the coast, where there can be the most remarkable beaches with no infrastructure next to them. They’re just left for the ocean to pound and dunes to grow at the back of.

The multiculturalism

It’s tempting to think of Australia as a very white Anglo place – and in parts (particularly country areas) it is. But spend time in the cities, and you’ll find that vision doesn’t hold true at all. Successive waves of immigrants – whether from Italy, Greece and the Balkans, or Turkey and the Middle East, or South East Asia, China and India – have all added to the internationalist feel of Australia’s cities. This is most obviously reflected in the food scene – the variety available is superb – but also in attitudes too. Urban Australia (largely) sees itself as of the world, not separate from it.



by David Whitley




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