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Maritime colonial expansion

Historically, European exploration had emerged out of the Mesopotamian core – the trade that developed between the civilizations along the Tigris, Euphrates and Nile river-valleys.

Gradually trade expanded into the wider arena of the Mediterranean with the Minoan, Mycenean, Phoenician and eventually Greek and Roman civilizations. In Roman times there had been limited contact with India across the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea and Alexandria. At the end of the 15th century Columbus had crossed the Atlantic and a new age of maritime exploration and trade had begun as the Portuguese and Spanish explored the Americas, then rounded the Cape to cross the Indian Ocean and thence to the Pacific in the first circumnavigation of the globe. For Europeans the Pacific was the last major maritime frontier.

The Pacific

European maritime exploration of the Pacific began in about 1500, preceding Australian settlement (1789) by nearly 300 years. This is longer than the post-settlement period. This maritime activity occurred during the European Age of Discovery and Exploration dominated by the Spanish and Portuguese (1488-1522) – their search for precious metals and desire to spread the Christian gospel to native peoples. This was followed by a Dutch golden age of commercial expansion (c.1600-1700) then British and French ascendancy (c.1750-1820) during the Age of Enlightenment dominated by a hopeful intellectual class keen for social and political change based on humanism, science, logic and reason.

The many advantages to be gained by expanding colonial empires, establishing new trade routes, and extending diplomatic and trade relations to new territories were abundantly clear. With the advent of printing and wider access to ancient texts intelligent readers could see that this had been a successful formula for the ancient Mediterranean empires, especially the Romans, whose legacy of culture, buildings and infrastructure could be seen across Europe.

The Pacific was Europe’s last major geographic frontier. With vast fortunes already made from the spice trade, speculation was rife concerning the presence of yet unknown treasures still to be found. Would there be economically important botanical treasures like the precious metals, maize, potato and tobacco that had been found by the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas?

Spain and Portugal were the European maritime powers in the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal acquiring trading territory in Timor, Indonesia and New Guinea places where they would also send missionaries. However their declining fortune saw the rise of a new world economic and sea power: it was the Dutch Golden Age (see … for more of the cultural and political background to this phase of history) territories were overrun and this region became known as the Dutch East Indies.[1] As trade between Europe and the Dutch East indies increased, there was increasing speculation about the commercial potential of the Terra Australis Incognita to the south.

The first exploration of this unknown land occurred in the context of the commercial interests of the Dutch East India Company which, for about 150 years, controlled trade in the region to the north of the future of Australia. After a circumnavigation of the continent by VOC employee Abel Tasman the new land was deemed of little commercial value and any thought of future activity there was abandoned. Dutch claims of possession were not followed up by settlement and subsequent visits were by the new European powers of the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain and France, driven not only by political and commercial interests but a new and fashionable interest among the social elite in science and learning. Over time Dutch interest waned. Abel Tasman’s reconnaissance of the region in the mid 17th century had concluded that the region offered few commercial, or indeed any other, prospects. With diminishing Dutch political and economic influence it was left to the ascendant Britain and France in the 18th century to exert European influence in the region with navigator James Cook finally dispelling the myth of a vast undiscovered southern land mass.

Cartography and reconnaissance

The task was one of exploration and cartography – to delimit the boundaries of this unknown southern land by the hazardous and painstaking process of coastal mapping while, at the same time, making observations on its resources, making contact with any inhabitants and assessing their willingness to trade.

Dutch resourcefulness through the period 1640 to 1760, and especially Abel Tasman’s voyages, defined the outline of the region. Terra Australis became New Holland (Hollandia Nova, a name given by Tasman in 1644 and retained for 180 years until ‘Australia’, proposed by Flinders, was officially sanctioned by Britain in 1824). Tasman also ‘discovered’ and named Staten Landt (New Zealand), Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), as well as Fiji and New Guinea. After his voyages the search for Terra Australis Incognita moved into higher latitudes below the southern coast of Staten Landt.


Though the Dutch made the first observations on the vegetation, possibly making the first plant collections in the new land it was, however, the later British and French who began the meticulous process of plant collection, classification, naming, and documentation.

TABLE – Dutch voyages making botanical observations. English, Spanish and French voyages of scientific exploration that made landfall in New Holland including dates and places of landing

* = gardener-botanist
† = botanical artist

Some early Australian voyages touching Australia with gardener-botanists among the crew

Age of Discovery

Spanish & Portuguese – 1488-1522

By the early 17th century Spanish and Portuguese seafarers had opened up much of the world to European experience, charting sea lanes to southern Africa, the Americas (New World), Asia, and Oceania: searching for a sea route to India Bartholomew Diaz had, in 1488, sailed eastward around the Cape of southern Africa to be followed by Vasco da Gama in 1497 who continued to India itself; determined to find a western route to the spice islands Christopher Columbus, from 1492-1504, made four journeys across the Atlantic preparing the way for European colonisation of the New World; then, from 1519–1522, Ferdinand Magellan (who died en route in ) commanded an expedition that sailed westward across the Atlantic, then round the foot of South America at Cape Horn and on into a new body of water that he named the Pacific Ocean, then forging on in the same direction to complete the first circumnavigation of the Earth and demonstrate beyond any doubt that the Earth was essentially a sphere.

The Dutch Golden Age – c.1600-1700

For Australia-to-be the Age of Discovery and Exploration had established trading posts in the East Indies to its north. But political fortunes in Europe were changing as Dutch science, trade and art were the most admired in Europe. In the Pacific Holland was determined to wrest control of the spice trade from the Portuguese. Though in the early Spanish and Portuguese phases dominated by the lure of spices and precious metals and the opportunity to gain souls for Christianity, had always contained the element of adventurous curiosity. Dutch interests, through the Dutch East India Company in Batavia (Jakarta), were strongly commercially centred but their forays by Tasman and others did include accounts of the people, animals and plants.

Age of Enlightenment

English & French

Even so, it was only with the arrival of the Enlightenment (c.1675-1800) and the scientific, (and especially plant) obsession of the British and French that the systematic collection, description and analysis of specimens began in earnest. It was a new motive for exploration supplementing the old religious, commercial and political motives of the past . Although Dampier’s accounts included astute observations of New Holland biota it was undoubtedly Cook and Banks who captured the imagination of public and scientists alike and stimulating the French to mount similar expeditions. Above all it was Banks’s ability to coordinate a vast international network of scientists, politicians and royalty that provided some unity of purpose to this enterprise. He was known and respected by not only the English scientists (from members of the Royal Society to his familiarity and patronage of the gardener-botanists that travelled on the expeditions, but internationally by French, German and Russian royalty, French scientists including Empress Josephine and Labillardière). In England even parliament and the King George III would defer to his authority. He was the unspoken fatherly coordinator of a global scientific Renaissance that for over 100 years centred on maritime exploration.

Scientific exploration

Developments included the advent of a much broader community of scientists as members of new scientific societies like the Royal Society in London, contributors to new scientific journals, a rush of books, encyclopaedias and compendia of lists and knowledge, an increased scientific rigour. As a period of European collection around the world government naturalists began accumulating specimens in public museums like the British Museum rather than working under patronage to fill the curiosity cabinets of wealthy dilettantes.

Though it was the glitter of treasure and fortunes and the first-published travelogues associated with spices that drew out the adventurers, but under Banks’s time at Kew more down-to-earth economic concerns were to take over, especially the harnessing of economic botany for empire. From the colonies came cocoa, sugar, quinine, coffee, tea, cotton, timber, and ornamental plants many processed into other products – cocoa for chocolate, timber for ships and so on: tropical crops plants like the breadfruit were exchanged across hemispheres east and west, Caribbean to East Indies … and elsewhere. To these colonies went the food plants of Europe, the familiar cereals, root crops, fruits, herbs and domesticated animals that they were used to in Britain from the Neolithic, supplemented mostly by the Roman food plants brought to Britain during its occupation, spices , Plant-based products were still of as the

It was a time when science flourished as never before, the old natural history splintering into a plethora of new disciplines and sub-disciplines. Starting with the expeditions themselves there was the cartography, hydrography, hydrology, meteorology, and astronomy along with improvements in navigation techniques and shipbuilding. Animals and plants shipped back to Europe in their thousands needed description and classification not only with botany, and zoology, but ichthyology, conchology and many more ‘ologies – all contributing to the sense of ‘improvement’ and ‘progress’ that characterized the Enlightenment.

By the middle of the 19th century all of the world’s major land masses, and most of the minor ones, had been discovered by Europeans and their coastlines charted.[7] This marked the end of this phase of science as the “Challenger” expedition of 1872–1876 began exploring the deep seas beyond a depth of 20 or 30 meters. In spite of the growing community of scientists, for nearly 200 years science had been the preserve of wealthy amateurs, educated middle classes and clerics.[5] At the start of the 18th century most voyages were mostly privately organized and financed but by the second half of the century these scientific expeditions, like Cook’s three Pacific voyages under the auspices of the British Admiralty, were instigated by government.[6] In the late 19th century, when this phase of science was drawing to a close, it became possible to earn a living as a professional scientist although photography was beginning to replace the illustrators. The exploratory sailing ship had gradually evolved into the modern research vessels.

Commentary & sustainability

In what is possibly the culmination of this most exciting period of scientific discovery as the world’s biota and minerals poured into Europe we have the most powerful biological idea the world has seen – Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution whose evidential base grew out of cogitations and observations made during his five year voyage on HMS Beagle. It is a great pity that Banks did not live to witness the publication of Darwin’s biological insight as an extended argument for evolution in the ‘Origin of Species . . .’ (1859). This remarkable book produced an explanation for the origin of the vast diversity of organic nature revealed to European eyes during the scientific voyages of exploration that started in earnest with Cook and Banks in 1769 and concluded with his own voyage in the Beagle in 1836. In many ways ‘Origin of Species . . .’ was the Enlightenment ideal of humanism, logic, science, and progress coming to fruition before science entered a new phase as patronage was reduced and science was pursued more by trained scientists and government institutions than wealthy dilettantes and scientific knowledge passed from its European homeland into the territories that it had opened up.

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