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For plants in Australia pre-dating European settlement see Pre-settlement plant introduction

Early sightings of Australia

No doubt Australia was visited by many non-Aboriginal peoples before the creation of an official European record. However, we can only speculate about the possible sightings and visits that occurred after Aboriginal occupation about 65,000 years ago and before the great era of European maritime exploration that began in the 15th century.

Among the possibilities are visits by Chinese fleets and possible sightings and visits by Portuguese and Spanish traders and missionaries.

Ancient traders of South-east Asia and Indonesia were probably aware of the vast continent that lay to their south and there is both physical and biological evidence on Australia’s northern shores of visits from Macassan fishermen.

Among the tantalizing biological indications of ancient human presence there is also a small number of pre-European plant introductions.

Chinese & Muslim traders

The massive ocean-going junks of Chinese Admiral Zheng-He, which would have dwarfed the early vessels of the European Age of Discovery, are likely to have touched the Australian coast in the fifteenth century. But, in the absence of firm evidence, such sightings must remain speculation only.

The formal record is European and from this record we know that visitors came in several waves corresponding to periods of European maritime ascendancy: first the Spanish and Portuguese, then the Dutch, followed by the English and French. The first officially accepted sighting was by Dutchman Willem Janszoon in March 1606 in the Duyfken, pre-dating Cooks 1770 arrival by 164 years.China had been the dominant foreign trader in the Indonesian archipelago for hundreds of years. Long-distance ancient Chinese trading routes extended as far as the Arabian peninsula are recorded as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE).

Then, with the advent of Muslim trade, Islam had spread steadily through the Indonesian archipelago beginning possibly as early as the 7th century.

Admiral Zheng He

China was trading with Indonesia by the early fifteenth century if not before. The northern Australian coast was probably sighted or visited by intrepid Chinese seafarers like the Ming Muslim Mongolian eunuch Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho, 1371–1433),[1] a member of the Chinese imperial court who from 1405 to 1433 mounted seven expeditions from the Yangtze on a scale far exceeding that of any European Enlightenment voyage of exploration. His destinations included Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, East Africa, and the Horn of Africa with fleets of armed vessels. One squadron totalled 300 ships including water tankers and a contingent of 28,000 officials, sailors, doctors, marines and gunners.[2] His largest ships were 30 times the size of the vessel used by Columbus on his great voyage of discovery in 1492, the Chinese vessels having advanced rudders, watertight compartments, complex signaling devices, elaborate charts of the Indian Ocean and magnetic compasses.[3] Chinese sailors knew the coasts of India, Arabia and East Africa, returning a giraffe to China from Aden.

Timor, just a few hundred kilometers from the Australian north coast, was part of an early trade route linking China, India, and Indonesia. The main commodity was sandalwood but honey, beeswax wax and female slaves were also traded.[7] Trading was well known to China in the 15th century especially the white sandalwood imported from Timor since the 7th century CE and used in China for incense and carving.[4]

In 1432 China was world leader in the construction of ocean-going ships but the 1480 Ming Emperor forbade overseas exploration in an inward-looking policy that changed the potential face of history.[5][6]

Baron von Mueller
Voyages of Chinese Admiral Zheng He (1371–1433)
Seven voyages between 1405 and 1433 on a scale not possible in the west until the 18th century
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Continentalis. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Accessed – 23 Mar 2019

Portuguese traders & missionaries

Early disputes about the apportioning of non-European and non-Christian lands to European powers were between Spain and Portugal. To assist the resolution of territorial conflict between Spain and Portugal the Pope had, in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain entitled to the exploration and colonization of lands to the west of a specific anti-meridian and Portugal those to the east. This was followed in 1529 by the Treaty of Zaragoza to resolve which country could ‘rightfully’ claim the economically important Moluccas or Spice islands whose precise position was uncertain. This treaty defined the areas of Spanish and Portuguese influence in Asia, the former treaty inadvertently creating the WA border that still stands today.

Portuguese traders and Dominican missionaries had used the spice routes in the early sixteenth century, and as early as 1511 Portugal annexed the nearby Aru Islands and Timor.[8] The Magellan expedition (without its leader who had just been killed in the Philippines) had visited the East Indies, landing in Timor in 1522. In 1566 a fort was built on Solor Island about 100 km NW of Timor to protect Dominican Missionaries and about a century later a Portuguese fort was built on Timor and the Dutch, while competing with the Portuguese for the sandalwood trade, had also captured a Portuguese fort on Kupang in 1653.[9] Aboriginal slaves were taken from Melville and Bathurst Islands to Timor and possibly thence into the slave markets of Macao and Batavia, the practice possibly continuing until about 1800.[10]

Spanish explorers & merchants

Spanish explorers and merchants would also have passed close to Australian shores, notably Luis Torres who in 1606 sailed through the strait between New Guinea and Australia that now bears his name. Claims have been made for the 16th century charting of Australia by the Portuguese and Spanish and the incorporation of their work into French maps (known as the Dieppe maps), but again the evidence here is inconclusive. Perhaps it was whalers and sealers that first braved Australian waters. Their hunting grounds were often kept secret and may not have appeared in official records even though some may have been in advance of the later acclaimed explorers, surveyors and merchantmen.

Many of these matters lack conclusive written records or archaeological evidence and must, at present, be treated as speculation.[11] Certainly between 1519 when Portugal captured the valuable Malayan spice trading port of Malacca and the time of Cooks visit on his first voyage of discovery in 1769 it seems likely that the northern coast would have been affected from time to time by European and Indonesian traders.[12]

Macassan trepang fishermen

Archaeological evidence for tuna fishing in East Timor has been dated back 42,000 years so the possibility exists for Australian colonization from these parts.[13] However the first firm archaeological evidence exists for annual visits to the north by Indonesian fishermen sailing their square matting-sailed praus from Macassar (present-day Udjung Pandang) in southern Sulawesi (formerly Celebes) by harnessing the northwest monsoon winds on the way to the northern coast of Australia – returning laden with trepang, and perhaps some beeswax and tortoiseshell when the south-easterlies began to blow in April and May. It is not known precisely when these visits commenced but probably date back at least several hundred years as they harvested the trepang (Sea Cucumber, Sea Slug or Bêche-de-mer), a delicacy of the southern Pacific and Indian oceans noted for their culinary and medicinal uses and valued in Chinese and Indonesian markets where they are either dried or smoked and used mainly as an ingredient in soup. Sea cucumbers came in many colours and were gutted and boiled in large cauldrons on the beach where they were cured in bamboo smoking houses, the sites of these encampments often marked by the presence of alien Tamarind trees (see Introduced plants ).

Trading was especially active with the Yolngu people of northeast Arnhem Land. Macassans also bartered turtle shells and Northern Cypress Pine, used for boat repairs and construction,[14] also returning from northern Australia with Northern Sandalwood (Santalum lanceolatum) used for incense, root bark from the Cheesefruit Tree (Morinda citrifolia) which produced a red dye, and possibly Australian Nutmeg (Myristica insipida) as a spice, along with timber from the Northern Ironwood (Erythrophleum chlorostachys).[15]

Archaeological evidence from trepang-smoking campsites includes stone cooking hearths, pottery, coins and glass, the record beginning in about 1720 but untraceable connections might go much further back in time.

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