The Portuguese Discovery of Australia, 1522

Snowy Haiblen, Dickson College, 2007

Great debate abounds concerning the possibility of a European discovery of Australia prior to 1606. After Marco Polo mentioned a land far to the south of China in the thirteenth century, sightings of a southern continent have been attributed to Cristavo de Mendonca, Pedro Ferdandez de Quiros and Luis Vaez de Torres. All of Portuguese or Spanish origin, these men sailed to the region in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, prior to Willem Jansz, the Dutchman who charted the west coast of Cape York Peninsula in 1606. With all the Portuguese and Spanish activity in the region at the time, a landing on the Australian continent is at least a plausible possibility.

Europeans had been convinced of the existence of a Great Southern Land for more than two thousand years. At first it was dreamed of in much the same way contemporary people hope for extra-terrestrial life, but, after the first thoughts of the world being spherical, maps were drawn to include unknown southern landmasses, if only to fit the map aesthetically than to hold true to any physical fact. The first European writings concerning the possible existence of the continent were that of the Venetian merchant Marco Polo, towards the close of the thirteenth century. He noted that

...beyond these two Islands almost two hundreth miles, standeth the countrey . . great and rich . . There is found greate plentye of gold . .Into this Ilande there commeth very fewe strangers, for that it standeth out of the way.

Having not ventured further south than the southern boarder of modern China in his travels, one cannot be certain Polo had heard of the southern continent’s existence.

The possible existence of a Great South Land was not seriously considered until the Renaissance. In this intellectual climate so much wealth and knowledge blossomed that the search for answers became almost inevitable. Both the Portuguese and the Spanish had already explored and charted much of the western coast of Africa, and were eager to discover a sea route to India and the Spice Islands for trade. In 1484 Bartholomew Diaz became the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope hence entering the Indian Ocean. For fear of what lay ahead however, his ship then turned back, making little headway into unknown territory (Ziegler 1970). Vasco da Gama followed in his footsteps eight years later and made it to India (Taylor 1990), opening up huge possibilities for trade in the Indian Ocean, and taking the first tentative steps towards the discovery of Terra Australis.

The riches of the Spice Islands were simply waiting to be exploited, and both Portugal and their Spanish rivals were aware of this fact. To prevent the pending disquiet between the two nations, Pope Alexander VI drew a line down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, ruling that all exploration to its west be carried out by the Spanish and all that to its east by the Portuguese. With this newfound control of the Indian Ocean, Portuguese hopes of discovering Polo’s fabled land of gold greatly increased.

By 1519, when Ferdinand Magellan set off from Spain on what became the first successful circumnavigation of the world the Portuguese, according to Trickett (2007), already had settlements in the Spice Islands, though he provides no reference. It is universally agreed that Magellan’s route through this area took his ships north of both Java and New Guinea, to carry on across the Pacific without ever sighting the Great South Land.

There is, however, heated debate concerning Portuguese activity in the vicinity at this time. With the knowledge that Magellan was in the region, the Portuguese set out to intercept him (McIntyre 1977). Cristavao de Mandonca sailed east, but never did find Magellan. What came of Mandonca’s fleet at this point is the cause of the great controversy.

Many historians, most notably Trickett in his work on the matter published in 2007, are convinced that after abandoning the search for Magellan, or at least in the ensuing years, Mandonca sailed down the eastern coast of Australia, mapping as far west as South Australia’s Spencer Gulf. His mission was executed with a most careful secrecy, as per instruction from Portugal’s king Manuel I, to prevent the Spanish from acquiring any knowledge of the golden land. Such assertions are largely based on maps from the Vallard Atlas, a work completed in Dieppe, France, no later than 1547. It is most probable, according to Taylor (1990), that these maps were stolen from Lisbon. Places shown on them bear Portuguese names. Mendonca’s maps are greatly detailed, and after making (possibly incorrect) adjustments for the accuracy of sixteenth century navigational and cartographical equipment, the maps show a very exact resemblance to even the finer details of the eastern Australian coastline.

Trickett (2007) provides considerable evidence to support such a Portuguese discovery. He mentions many possibly Portuguese items that have been found along Australia’s eastern coast, such as fishing net sinkers of Portuguese origin and encrusted earthenware pots similar to those of the Spanish Armada. Trickett claims that some of the latter have been dated to 1500, though provides no reference. Also of interest is the elusive Mahogany Ship, said to have sunk somewhere off the coast near Eden in southern NSW. Trickett alludes to this as plausible evidence of a Portuguese presence at the time. Other sources back up his claim, most notably McIntrye (1977). Pieces of Mahogany wood, thought also of Portuguese origin, have been found in the area and dated to the era.

It is curious that this possible discovery of the continent is not mentioned in Manning Clark’s A history of Australia (1962). The earliest source present on the topic is that of Gordon McIntyre in 1977. All sources after this year mention the idea, though none prior. Taylor (1990) believes Mandonca’s coastline is “recognisable as Australia” though he adds that “nor has the argument produced much evidence either way.” Trickett (2007), although agreeing with much of McIntyre’s (1977) claim, believes his writing “contained some serious errors”. The overwhelming surprise however, is that no sources completely refute the idea of Mandonca discovering Australia.

The next European to travel to the region was Mendana, a Spaniard who left the western coast of Peru in 1567. All sources agree concerning the ventures of Mendana. Believed to have reached islands later to be known as the Solomons, Mandana’s crew became frightened of what lay ahead and chose not to continue their search for Terra Australis. They returned to Peru, earning Mendana, according to Clark (1962), the “honour and distinction of being the first of those who might have discovered Australia.” His second voyage, of 1595, met a similar ending.
Pedro Ferdandez de Quiros, of Portugal, had travelled with Mendana on his 1595 voyage and was eager to return to the southern seas, not for the fame and fortunes of Polo’s fabled gold but to save the supposed heathen millions from a fate worse than death. According to Clark (1962), Quiros was “one of the flowers of the Catholic reformation . . . part of a movement of religious idealism and missionary fervour that strengthened the Catholic Church after the diasters of Luther and Calvin.” From a young age, Quiros had been inspired by the missionaries. By the time he departed Peru’s west coast on December 21, 1605, employed by the Spanish, he truly “believed that he had been singled out by God as the vessel through whom the inhabitants of ‘terra australis’ would be received into the Catholic Church.” (Clark, 1962). His ship adorned with Catholic paraphernalia, which included an alleged piece of the true cross presented to him by the Pope, Quiros sailed to the New Hebrides. With almost no food or water left, however, and, as with Mandana, frightened of what lay ahead, Quiros, it is agreed by all modern sources, turned back for the Americas, reaching Mexico on November 23, 1606. Clark notes, however, that the idea of Quiros reaching Australia was supported in many Catholic circles even into the twentieth century. One of Clark’s sources, The History of the Catholic Church in Australasia, by Cardinal Moran (1895; Roman Catholic Cardinal of Sydney between 1895 and 1907) supports this viewpoint. Moran ensured that children in Australia’s Catholic schools learned that the country was discovered by Quiros.

Only two of Quiros’s three ships returned to the Americas. The third, the San Pedrico, captained by another Portuguese, Luis Vaez de Torres, continued to sail west with hopes of reaching the Spice Islands. All sources agree on this. However, there are some discrepancies concerning the finer points of the journey. Taylor (1990) asserts “there is no record of him ever having seen the Australian mainland” and thinks that, upon hitting the Great Barrier Reef, Torres turned north, sailing west at the first possible moment and thus discovering the strait that carries his name. Rients (1969) claims there is a possibility Torres saw mainland Australia, a position supported by Ziegler (1970) and Clark (1962), who refers to Torres’s journal before saying “what he noticed was an archipelago of islands without number.” Clark suggests that one of these islands may have been the tip of Cape York Peninsula. Trickett (2007) takes a very different approach, suggesting that, as Torres was Portuguese (though he sailed for the Spanish), he may have had inside knowledge of Mendonca’s alleged voyages. Trickett proposes that Torres already knew of the strait before reaching it, as Torres never laid claim to its discovery. This opinion is supported by the world map of Cornelius Wytfliet (1597) which shows a gap between New Guinea and the Great South Land nine years prior to Torres’ being there.

Little information is available concerning the Dutch, though it appears their first voyage to the region took place in 1596 (Ricklefs, 1991). The purpose of their ventures to the region appears to have been primarily to capitalise on trade in the Spice Islands. The Dutch East India Company was established in 1602, effectively replacing the Portuguese and Spanish as the main European presence in the region (Kunz, (1971). In 1606, Willem Jansz, captain of the Duyfken, was sent to explore the southern shores of New Guinea. He missed Torres Strait, entering the Gulf of Carpentaria where “he sailed down the west coast of Cape York Peninsula to become, unwittingly, the first white man ever to chart an Australian coastline.” (Kunz, 1971). Most sources mention this journey in passing. It is widely agreed to have been the first sighting of the continent supported by conclusive evidence, in the form of Jansz’s maps. All are unanimous, however, that the Duyfken did sight and chart the coastline. Ziegler (1970) concluded that Jansz’s voyage was “the first authenticated contact with Australia.”

Whether Australia was discovered by Europeans prior to 1606 remains an unsolved problem for historians. Nonetheless there is ever-increasing evidence to support the alleged voyages of Cristavo de Mendonca. Pedro Ferdandez de Quiros fell from the debate almost a century ago and it is unlikely historians will ever attribute the discovery to Luis Vaez de Torres. One must acknowledge a discovery possible if not probable, however, as with the Portuguese and Spanish activity in the region at the time it would have been difficult not to happen upon a continent so large.


Clark, Manning 1962, A history of Australia - Volume 1, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria.

Taylor, Peter 1990, The Atlas of Australian History, Child & Associates Publishing Pty. Ltd., Frenchs Forest, NSW.

Trickett, Peter 2007, Beyond Capricorn – How Portuguese Adventurers Secretly Discovered and Mapped Australia and New Zealand 250 Years Before Captain Cook, Griffin Press, Adelaide, South Australia.

Ziegler, Oswald C. 1970, Australia 1779 – 1970, Halstead Press Pty. Ltd., Sydney NSW.

Rienits, Rex and Rienits, Thea 1969, A pictorial History of Australia, Hamlym Publishing Group Ltd., Middlesex, England.

Kunz, Egon and Kunz, Elsie 1971, A Continent Takes Shape, William Collins Ltd, Australia.

Ricklefs, M.C. 1991, A History of Modern Indonesia Since c.1300, MacMillan, London.

Crone, G.R. and Kendall, A. 1970, The Voyages of Discovery, Wayland Publishers Ltd., London.

Debenham, Frank 1960, Discovery and Exploration, Paul Hamlyn, London.

Newby, Eric 1975, The World Atlas of Exploration, Mitchell Beazley Publishers Ltd., Frome, England.

Wynd, Ian and Wood, Joyce 1964, A Map History of Australia, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

McIntyre, Gordon Kenneth 1977, The Secret Discovery of Australia – Portuguese Ventures 200 Years Before Cook, Souvenir Press Australia Pty. Ltd., Medindie, South Australia.

Budgen-Price, Avril 1988, Great Explorers, Mitchell Beazley Publishers, Brookvale, NSW.

Primary Sources:

- Maps from the Vallard Atlas, completed no later than 1547 in Dieppe, France.
- The World Map of Cornelius Wtfliet, 1597.
- Letter by Luis Vaez de Torres to His Majesty, Manilla, 12 July 1607.
- The porcelain plates containing Mendonca’s original maps, c. 1520-25.
- The journal of Marco Polo, thirteenth century Venetian merchant.
- The charts of Willem Jansz, 1606.