Awakening of Europe - M. B. Synge

The Great South Land

"We looked upon a world unknown."


At the beginning of the seventeenth century the vast ocean south of America, Africa, and Asia was unknown; there was a blank space on the old charts where Australia is now marked. As men in the days of Columbushad guessed at the great country on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, so now they suspected some large tract of land to lie south of the equator—the Great South Land they called it vaguely, or Australia, from a word Austral, meaning south.

Many a Spaniard had left the shores of Peru in search of it, but up to this time with little result. Now that the Dutch had entered on their career of discovery in the East, it was natural that they in their turn should search for that unknown land.

In 1606 a Dutch ship sailed along part of the coast of Australia, but whenever the men landed they were driven away by wild savages with clubs. They called the headland that marked the limit of their voyage Cape Keer Weer, or Turnagain, which name it bears to-day. So ship after ship sailed to the coast of Australia under the Dutch East India Company.

In 1642 an expedition was despatched from Batavia, the headquarters of the Company, under the command of Captain Tasman, on a voyage of discovery to the Great South Land. Let him tell his own story.

"On August 14, 1642, I sailed from Batavia with two vessels," he says in his log-book, "and on September 5 anchored at Maurice Island, which has a very fine harbour. The country is mountainous, but the mountains are covered with green trees. The tops of these mountains are so high that they are lost in the clouds. The finest ebony in the world grows here. It is a tall, straight tree covered with a green bark, very thick, under which the wood is as black as pitch and as close as ivory. I left this island on the 8th of October and continued my course to the south. The weather was foggy, with hard gales and a rolling sea from the south.

"On November 24 I discovered land, which I called Van Diemen's Land, after the Governor of Batavia, and on December 1 I anchored in a bay. I heard the sound of people on the shore, but I saw nobody. I perceived in the sand the mark of wild beasts' feet, resembling those of a tiger. We did nothing more here than set up a post, on which every one cut his name or his mark, and upon which I hoisted a flag.

"On December 5 I quitted Van Diemen's Land and steered east. On the 13th I discovered a high mountainous country. I coasted along the shore and anchored in a fine bay. We found here abundance of inhabitants: they had very hoarse voices and were very large-made people. They durst not approach the ship nearer than a stone's-throw, and we often observed them playing on a kind of trumpet. These people were of a colour between brown and yellow; their hair was long, combed up, and fixed at the top of their heads with a quill. On the 19th of December these savages began to grow a little bolder, insomuch that at last they ventured on board in order to trade with one of our vessels. Fearful lest they should surprise the ship, I sent a small boat with seven men to put the sailors on their guard. My seven men being without arms, were attacked by the savages, who killed three and forced the other four to swim for their lives: from which we called that place the Bay of Murderers.

"This country appeared to us rich, fertile, and well situated; but as the weather was very foul, and we had at this time a very strong west wind, we continued our route to the north.

"On January 4, 1643, we sailed to a cape (Cape Maria Van Diemen), where we found the sea rolling in from the north-east, whence we concluded we had at last found a passage, which gave us no small joy.

"There was in this strait an island, which we called the Three Kings. Here we would have refreshed ourselves, but as we approached it we perceived on the mountain some thirty persons, men of very large size and each with a club in his hand. They called to us in a rough strong voice, but we could not understand what they said. They walked at a very great rate and took prodigious large strides. On January 21 we drew near to the coast of two islands, which we named Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Upon the island of Rotterdam we found plenty of hogs, fowls, and other refreshments. The people were good-natured, parting readily with what they had, and did not seem to know the use of arms."

From here Tasman sailed among many small islands surrounded with shoals and rocks, known as the Friendly Islands, until he returned to Batavia by the northern coast of New Guinea.

Not only had he discovered New Zealand, but he had sailed right round the vast unknown island of Australia without knowing it.

Some years later, when William III. was King of England, a brave sea-captain named Dampier was sent to further examine the shores of that great south land then known as New Holland. He found the country inhospitable, the natives "the most unpleasant and worst-featured of any people" he had ever seen.

After this the shores of Australia seem to have been forgotten for nearly a hundred years, when Captain Cook made his famous discoveries and took possession of the country in the name of England.