Jump to Navigation

Did the Portuguese Discover Australia?

Print this article   Email this article

Two hundred years before Captain Cook, Dieppe map makers placed the Portuguese flag on a large land-mass called Java-la-Grande approximately where Australia appears on today's atlas. Helen Wallis sifts through the cartographic evidence to examine the intriguing question.

Jave La Grande's east coast: from Nicholas Vallard's atlas, 1547. This is part of an 1856 copy of one of the Dieppe Maps. Copy held by the National Library of AustraliaIn the sixteenth century a sixth continent featured on maps of the world, alongside Europe, Africa, Asia and the newly discovered Americas. In its most typical form this was the great southern continent, 'Terra Australis Incognita', which many cartographers believed must exist to balance the large landmasses of the northern hemisphere. Classical and medieval notions of an antipodean continent encouraged the theory. Reports of discoveries by Ferdinand Magellan and others seemed, mistakenly, to confirm the continent's existence. It was the achievement of Captain Cook in the course of his three voyages from 1768-79 to remove the main expanses of the land from the map, leaving the possibility of an antarctic continent for further investigation. New Holland, the 'southland' discovered by the Dutch, was revealed as the true southern continent. The name 'Australia', first proposed by Matthew Flinders in 1804 as more appropriate than New Holland, commemorates the evolution of the legendary Terra Australis into the island continent of the southern hemisphere.

There is, however, an alternative history of the European discovery of Australia to be uncovered from map evidence. Certain maps, charts and atlases dating from about 1540-70 show, approximately in the position of Australia, a landmass complete with flora and fauna and named Java-la-Grande. These works were made by the Dieppe school of chartmakers or their associates. The French never claimed to have been to Java-la-Grande. The many coastal place names are mainly Portuguese, and several charts by Nicolas Desliens made in the 1560s attach Portuguese flags to the land, to denote a Portuguese discovery.

A problem in interpreting this evidence arises from the fact that con- temporary Portuguese charts do not show Java-la-Grande. It has been suggested that the Portuguese government's 'policy of secrecy' may have required suppression of the discovery, and that records of it were destroyed later in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. How the Dieppe hydrographers obtained intelligence of Java-la-Grande has been explained by the presence of emigre Portuguese in Dieppe. In fact, clues to the solution of the mystery appear in the maps themselves. They provide a remarkable record of the Portuguese trading empire, and also document in detail the exploits of the Dieppe navigators. Recent researches indicate that Jean Parmentier's expedition to Sumatra was the means by which the discovery of Java-la-Grande became known.

Dieppe in the sixteenth century was the great maritime centre of France. The historian Charles de la Rongiere wrote, 'Si vous cherchez en France une idee directrice en fait de politque maritime, n'allez pas a la cour de Francois I mais a Dieppe.' (If you seek in France the directing force of maritime politics, do not go to the Court of Francis I but to Dieppe.) Jean Ango, the leading Dieppe armateur (ship outfitter), sent his captains across the oceans in search of profit and trade, in outright challenge to Portuguese claims of monopoly and control. The most daring of Ango's enterprises was the expedition of Jean Parmentier across the Indian Ocean to Sumatra in 1529-30. There Jean and his brother Raoul died, and the pilot ('astronome'), Pierre Crignon, brought the ships home to Dieppe by way of the Cape of Good Hope.

The results of this voyage are depicted in Jean Rotz's Boke of Idrography (1542), the earliest of the major Dieppe works now known and the first to show Java-la-Grande. Rotz, an hydrographer of Dieppe, presented the Boke to Henry VIII on transferring to the King's service in England in 1542. In his dedicatory letter to Henry, written in French, Rotz explains that he has converted a large chart of the world into the form of a book containing 'all hydrography or marine science'. The regional charts display vignettes comprising scenes drawn ad vivum on oceanic voyages, for Rotz was concerned to show not only towns, coasts, rocks and shoals, but also the lives of the peoples:

the style and manner of houses, clothes and skin-colour, as well as arms and other features of the inhabitants of all those coasts which are least known to us. All this I have set down as exactly and truly as possible, drawing as much from my own experiences as from certain experience of my friends and fellow navigators.

A series of pictures on Rotz's charts illustrate episodes of the Parmentier voyage, including Sumatran scenes, which are placed for convenience on the adjoining mainland of Asia. On the same chart of south-east Asia, Rotz has delineated the northern part of Java-la-Grande, with the name 'Coste dangereuse' on its eastern shore and other names on the western. Rotz's world map reveals the full extent of the continent, named 'The Londe of Java'.

Rotz's Boke ranks as first-class evidence of the discoveries of his day. As an hydrographer he showed only known coasts, as he explained in his letter to Henry. He may have been on the voyage to Sumatra, for he writes in his Treatise on the magnetic compass (Traicte des differences du compas aymante), (circa 1540) that he was at sea on January 15th, 1529, and his calculations give a position which places him in the Pacific. He certainly sailed to Guinea and Brazil in 1539. The authenticity of his drawings may be judged from the Tupinamba village in Brazil, the Hottentots in Southern Africa, and the Sumatran scenes, all of which are remarkably correct ethnographical depictions.

The Boke shows that by 1540, when Rotz was compiling his charts, Java- la-Grande had its place on the map as an accepted discovery. The author- ship of the large chart which Rotz was copying is not known, but it may well have been the work of Crignon, who, after the death of Jean Parmentier, was the leading cosmographer of Dieppe. His manuscript journal of Parmentier's voyage provides evidence that the Dieppe hydrographers learned about Java-la-Grande at Sumatra, 1529-30. He tells of a meeting with an inhabitant named Mocodon of the town of Oranchaie, who reported that two ships with men of rank, white men in the service of a great king, had come to trade there. When further questioned, Mocodon said that he had seen 'night in the sky'. This was evidently an eclipse of the sun, and would date the visit November 12th, 1528. Parmentier's men showed great interest in sailing on to 'Java', despite their commander's death, indicating that they had some special news of the region. A vote was taken, and by a majority of three or four the company elected to return to France.

Crignon's journal is incomplete and reveals little else about the land of Java. His charts must have been among the many available in Dieppe, which were later to be destroyed when the English fleet blew up the town in 1694. Another manuscript by Crignon is la Perle de Cosmographie, 1534, which should have provided more information on Java but disappeared some time after 1712, when the French geographer, Guillaume de l'Isle, had it in his hands. There is evidence, however, to suggest that Crignon's Perle was the source of several works which do survive from the pen of two other authors. One is the versified cosmography of Jean Mallard, now known in two manuscripts, the others are the Cosmographie and Voyages avantureux of 'Jean Fonteneau called Alfonse de Saintonge'.

Jean Mallard was 'escriptvain' (scribe) and court poet to Francis I of France, for whom he wrote his Premier livre de la Description de tous les portz de mer de l'univers, circa 1536. In this he announced that he was making a circular map of the world. On taking up an appointment in the court of Henry VIII he presented to the king in about 1540 a similar cosmography, in which he included the map. On this he marks south of Melacque (Malacca) a large promontory roughly in the shape of Java-la- Grande, which he names 'La Catigare' and attaches to the southern continent. Thus Ptolemy's most south-easterly town of Asia, Cattigara, was transposed to what appear to be newly discovered southern lands. Mallard's map takes pride of place for what is probably the earliest depiction of Java-la-Grande, although it was not in the main tradition of Dieppe hydrography.

Mallard's First Book does not extend to Asia, and he probably never wrote the second and third books which he promised Francis I if the king approved the first. Mallard's text, however, is very similar to that of Alfonse's Voyages avantureux, 1559, the manuscript of which was written circa 1536. On the evidence that both followed a common source (Crignon), it seems reasonable to treat Alfonse's Cosmographie of 1544 as one of the same group of derivative works. The Cosmographie is world- wide in compass and includes a de- tailed description of 'la grande Java', with an eye-witness report. 'I have been in a place there where my day lasted three months'. Alfonse's claims as a traveller in those seas are suspect, but his Cosmographie is important in providing one of the few textual sources recording the discovery. With Mallard's map and, above all, Rotz's Boke, it provides a link with the missing works of Crignon.

After 1540, when Crignon died, Pierre Desceliers, priest at Arques, became the leading Dieppe cosmographer. That he was described by historians as the 'father' of the Dieppe school of hydrography, is explained probably by the fact that he was an officially recognised teacher and examiner of pilots. His charts are distinctive in being more French than Portuguese in style and nomenclature. The first, of 1546, is the earliest dated map to show Java-la-Grande in detail with a full array of place-names, such as 'Coste perileuse', 'Baye perdue', 'Coste des herbiages', and (in 46'S) C. fremose' (the beautiful cape). As a cosmographer Desceliers filled in blanks, unlike Rotz, thus joining Java-la-Grande to the southern continent, inscribed as 'Terre australe non du tout descouverte'.

Whereas the interior detail of Java- la-Grande is generalised, as on Rotz's chart, Desceliers's world map of 1550 is notable for its wealth of iconographic detail. Huts and animals (mainly elephants and monkeys) are Sumatran; scenes of idolatry and cannibalism derive from Marco Polo; legends describe other regions of the east, Java, Pego (Pegu), Melasqua (Malacca), Samatra (Sumatra), Angari (the Andaman Islands), and Seilan (Ceylon).

Two works roughly contemporaneous with Desceliers's first chart belong more clearly to the Luso-French tradition. The anonymous Harleian map (sometimes also known as the Dauphin map) is dated about 1547 from the fact that the arms of the Dauphin have been altered to the royal arms of Henry II. The interior of Java-la-Grande includes Sumatran huts, camel-like animals and deer. In contrast to Desceliers's chart of 1546 the land does not connect with the southern continent but runs off the map at 63'S.

The atlas Nicholas Vallard de Dieppe, 1547, has been identified as the work of a Portuguese. The most striking feature in its portrayal of Java-la- Grande is the ethnographical detail, all of which is clearly Sumatran. Village scenes, houses on stilts, and a rajah's procession closely correspond to the vignettes of Rotz's charts, but show some inaccuracies typical of the work of a copyist. The atlas provides evidence that when Rotz left Dieppe, probably first for Paris in 1540, then for England in 1542, his source materials remained in Dieppe and were used by later map makers.

In the 1560s Java-la Grande is featured in two different styles. A leading exponent of Dieppe hydrography of the day was Nicolas Desliens. His larger wall chart which bears an altered date of 1541, should be ascribed to about 1561. His smaller charts are dated 1566 and 1567. All three are mainly non-pictorial but important for the Portuguese flags on Java-la-Grande. In contrast Guillaume Le Testu, pilot of Le Havre, in his Cosmographie universelle of 1555 (i.e. 1556) presents an exuberance of detail, with a curious collection of animals and birds, some possibly Australian. A similar work, derived from Le Testu or a common source, is the Livre de la Marine of the Pilote Past--t (the name is rubbed) and is dated 1587. This also shows a variety of creatures including what may be a black swan.

The great works of Dieppe hydrography were manuscript presentation pieces for royal and noble persons. They were dispersed throughout Europe years before 1694, when the archival materials at Dieppe were destroyed. Few printed maps or later manuscript maps show any trace of Java-la-Grande, which thus disappeared from view after three or four decades as the sixth continent.

What may be called the rediscovery of Java-la-Grande dates from the later years of the eighteenth century, when the Harleian map came to light. It should have passed to the British Museum in 1753 in the collections of Robert and Edward Harley, first and second Earls of Oxford, but was taken off by one of the family servants. Dr Daniel Solander of the British Museum, the botanist on Cook's first voyage, lent the map to the hydrographer Alexander Dalrymple, who immediately saw its significance, not least in its challenge to Captain Cook's priority of discovery of the east coast of Australia. Dalrymple described the map in his Memoir concerning the Chagos and adjacent Islands, 1786. He wrote:

The very curious MS here mentioned is painted on Parchment, with the Dauphin's Arms, it contains much lost knowledge; Kergulen's Land seems plainly denoted; The East Coast of New Holland, as we name it, is expressed with some curious circumstances of correspondence to Captain Cook's MS.
what he names
'Bay of Inlets' is in the MS called 'Baye Perdue '
'Bay of lsles' R. de beaucoup disles
Where the Endeavour struck Coste dangereuse
So that we may say with Solomon 'There is nothing new under the Sun'.

He made an engraving of the Far Eastern section of the map in 1787 for issue in a volume of his charts. It ranks as the earliest printed map of Java-la-Grande.

Thus Dalrymple, Cook's great rival, opened the debate on Java-la-Grade and first identified the land with Australia. Sir Joseph Banks, Bart., in 1790 presented the Harleian map to the British Museum, where it joined Rotz's Boke, acquired in 1757 with the royal manuscripts. The geographical writer John Pinkerton discussed the works in his Modern Geography, concluding that the Spaniards and the Portuguese had discovered the northern part of New Holland more than a century before 'the pretended Dutch discoveries', while patriotically affirming, 'But neither interfere with the discovery of the S.E. part by our immortal Cook'. James (later Admiral) Burney made similar studies and determined that 'the Northern and Western coasts of New Holland ... were the Great Java of the sixteenth century'. Flinders in his Voyage to Terra Australis (1814) expressed the same view.

Learned circles in Paris were equally interested, having noted the French connection, In 1803 Charles Etienne Coquebert de Montbret reported to the Societe Philomatique two French works, one of them the Vallard atlas, and concluded that French men might have accompanied the Portuguese on their voyage to the ‘terre de Jave’. Later on the Vallard atlas was purchased by the collector Sir Thomas Phillips, Bart., who reproduced it in chromo-lithographic facsimile and published it in 1856 as ‘the first map of Australia.’

E. F. Jomard of the Bibliotheque National had meanwhile issued in his Monuments de la Geographie (1842-62) a coloured facsimile of Desceliers’s chart of 1546, described anonymously as the ‘Mappemonde peinte sur parchemain par ordre de Henri II’. The name and date were revealed on inspection at the British Museum in 1877. The Dieppe school of hydrography was now recognised as the source of this major group of world maps and atlases.

The debate about the origin of Java-la-Grande has continued with each generation. Richard Henry Major, First Keeper of Maps in the British Museum (1867-80), asserted the case for a Portuguese discovery of Australia, then altered his stance in preference for the French. G. Arnold Wood in The Discovery of Ausfralia (1922) described the iconographic features of the land as 'brilliant geographical romances', in ignorance of their Sumatran origin. Recent years have seen an outburst of interest. Some experts view the land as a composite of already discovered lands, such as western Java and Sumatra (Andrew Sharp) or Java's south coast combined with Vietnam (W.A.R. Richardson). On the other side of the argument there is a formidable array of names and a remarkable variety of interpretations. Cape Fremose, for example, has been identified with places as far afield as Tasmania and the North Island of New Zealand.

The answer to the enigma may be regarded as non-proven, but with the balance of evidence in favour of a Portuguese discovery of Australia. That Rotz, with his supreme skills as an hydrographer and his experience as a navigator, set the land down on a continental scale, not far from the true position of Australia, is impressive testimony. The discovery itself, on this evidence, was made in a remote corner of a great empire. Its projection into history was the achievement of the poet cosmographers and hydrographers of Dieppe.

About Us | Contact Us | Advertising | Subscriptions | Newsletter | RSS Feeds | Ebooks | Podcast
Copyright 2012 History Today Ltd. All rights reserved.