Who Got to Australia First?

The long study of non-Indigenous contact with Australia has seen much controversy in the question of exactly who was ‘first’ and when it happened.

While nearby islanders have long traded with Australia’s Indigenous peoples, most history books count the Dutchman Willem Janszoon as being the first documented contact in 1606, when he sailed along the western side of Cape York Peninsula. See the Australia on the Map website for more information and for events celebrating the 400th anniversary of the landing.

There could have been earlier landings by Europeans and others, but the subject is still being debated by historians. One claim for the ‘first’ is contained in a best-selling but controversial book titled 1421: the year Chinese discovered the world, by Gavin Menzies.

Since it was featured on a television program in July 2006, the National Library of Australia has received some interesting queries from the public in relation to the claim. In the book, Menzies writes that Admiral Zheng He and his fleet circumnavigated the world in the fifteenth century and visited Australia long before any European explorers. Indeed, Menzies claims that the great European explorers such as Columbus, Magellan and Cook used maps that were based on those drawn by Zheng’s crew in their own exploration of the world.

The seven voyages that Zheng He made during 1405–33 to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and East Africa have been studied for centuries; but Menzies claims that new evidence and reinterpretation of existing evidence has expanded the areas the fleet travelled to. Menzies’ claims that his findings are rewriting history, have met with widespread criticism from western historians and other scholars. Since publishing his book, Menzies has made a few visits to China to present his theories in conferences; but the Chinese academia also have concerns about his theories, especially so since Menzies does not read Chinese.

Interestingly, the theory that the Chinese discovered Australia has been put forward before. A well-known archaeologist, Professor Wei Juxian, published a book titled Zhongguo ren fa xian Aozhou [The Chinese discovery of Australia] in 1960. Re-interpreting ancient Chinese classics and mythological texts, he proposed that ‘the Chinese people went back and forth to Australia from time to time from 592 B.C. to 1432 A.D.’ (English abstract, Zhongguo ren fa xian Aozhou).

The National Library of Australia contains extensive material on the subject of Zheng He, Chinese history, and the exploration of Australia. The Map Collection has copies of maps that are used by Menzies as evidence of Chinese exploration of Australia and the rest of the world. Menzies revisits cartographic evidence that was previously presented by authors such as Kenneth McIntyre and Lawrence Fitzgerald, claiming the Portuguese explored Australia in the mid-sixteenth century. Asian Collections has a wealth of Chinese language resources on the voyages, including three contemporary accounts by members of Zheng He’s crew, and a chart depicting the routes of Zheng’s first six voyages, all originally published in the fifteenth century. As mentioned, Zheng’s voyages have been the subject of study in China for many centuries, on topics ranging from the routes he took, the impact on trade between China and the world, to the navigation chart showing the advanced navigation skills of his crew. The year 2005 marked the 600th anniversary of Zheng’s maiden voyage, when he visited countries that included Vietnam, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. There have been quite a number of books and conference proceedings published in China. Indeed, Zheng is officially depicted in China today as a national hero, bringing peace and friendship to neighbouring nations, the very image that China would like to project itself on the world stage.

source : National Library of Australia

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