How come Europeans discovered Australia?

Why didn’t the discoverers and colonizers of Australia come from Asia?

     I mean, it is right next door to them, not far away from some very busy trade routes between very advanced civilizations. It’s hard for me to comprehend that (since the last ice age and the Aborigines) no one in Asia thought of going south or even accidentally bumped into a landmass that size.

I don’t think any of the Asian cultures did much of any sea-faring exploration. On the other hadn, the great Polynesian expansion would seem to have included Australia, but it is genrally described as being the triangle of Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand and heading West to East. I am sure others will give more enlightnement.

Well, all exploration was on the known world. The fact that North America got in the way is incidental.

The Far East wanted to trade with the Middle East. Europe wanted to trade with the Middle East. They all wanted to trade with each other. Seafaring exploration was meant to ease trade by avoiding land routes.

So pretty much, no one really thought of going to where Australia is because there was no good reason.

I believe that some Indonesian cultures were well aware of northern Australia. However, the people were very primitive and had nothing much to trade. Also, that part of Australia is fairly forbidding in terms of environment and so wasn’t a promising area for colonization.

The main reason other Asian cultures didn’t go there is that nobody even semi-civilized was known to live there, so there was no point. Exploration just for the sake of exploration was rarely undertaken by anyone (there were a few exceptions) before the Age of Discovery by Europeans starting in the 1400s.

When Europeans stumbled upon Australia, there were already people living there. These people, who are now called the Aborigines, arrived there from Asia.

It’s a very grey area, and nobody knows for sure who the second lot of people (after the Aborigines) were to come here. It is believed from artifacts found in northern Australia that not only did the Indonesians come here, but so did the Chinese,and they even engaged in a certain amount of trade with the locals.

A big problem is that, from a European point of view, pretty much the entire North Western coastline is very uninviting. It’s desert, and no place for a potential colony. This discouraged many explorers (particularly the Portuguese) who turned back before they ever got as far as venturing around to the more fertile and forgiving south east. James Cook ended up doing this, but by the time he left England, Australia wasn’t much of a mystery at all. Cook’s main work was to fill in the gaps and provide accurate charts.

As an interesting aside, when the first English-speakers made contact with Aborigines living in australia’s north west, they discovered the local language had a smattering of Portuguese words in it - the word for “boat” being one.

I was reading about this a few years ago. The Aborigines in Arnhem Land did have a certain commodity that the Asians were interested in trading for, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was.

Essentially, what Colibri says is correct. To answer the OP succinctly: the Asians knew about Australia, but they just weren’t much interested and it probably never crossed their minds to do the Eddie Izzard flag bit. Australia also isn’t really on the way to anywhere else.

This site says that Macassan traders came from Indonesia to harvest sea cucumbers (trepang) from the coast. They had contact with the aborigines but did not actually trade with them.

I can’t see where that reference says they didn’t trade with the Aborigines. Can you point out where?

And if it does say that then it’s totally incorrect. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Macassans traded with the Aborigines of Northern Australia. The Macassans set up permanent trepang processing ‘plants’ in Northern Australia and returned year after year. The local people were employed to harvest the animals and to assist in processing.

There was constant trade between Aborigines and Macassans as well as other Indonesian groups. It was common for Aborigines to enlist as crew on the Macassan ships and to live in Indonesia. Many returned home after a few years of working but a great many never did and became part of the Indonesian population.

In addition to trade in trepang there was also apparently trade in dogs. There is a species of kangaroo mite that is found living on dogs in Malaysia and Indonesia. Considering that the species evolved on marsupials several hundred million years ago the only way it could have got there is if live dogs were being traded from Australia at least as far north as Malaysia.

The existence of Australia was no secret to the people of SE Asia. It was well known and the destination of dozens if not hundreds of annual trips. There appears to have been at least one attempt to establish a permanent colony on the continent.

From the Britannica: “By 1642, Dutch navigators had discovered discontinuous stretches of the western coast of Australia, but whether these coasts were continental and connected with the hypothetical southern continent of the Pacific remained unknown.”

Dutch sea captain Abel Tasman was given the job of exploring this area by the Governor of the Dutch West Indies, Van Dieman. During this voyage he discovered an island that he called Van Dieman’s Land, now Tasmania, and the two islands of New Zealand. In the process he had sailed from Batavia clear around Australia without ever seeing it and back to Batvia.

The article continues: “The council of the company (East India Company) sent him on a new expedition to the ‘South Land’ in 1644 with instructions to establish the relationships of New Guinea, the “great known South Land” (western Australia), Van Diemen’s Land, and the ‘unknown South Land.’ Tasman sailed from Batavia on February 29, steering southeast along the south coast of New Guinea, sailing southeast into Torres Strait (which he mistook for a shallow bay), coasting Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria, and then following the north coast and then the west coast of Australia to 22° S.”

So apparently the Dutch had sighted Australia as a result of their exploration of their holdings in the East Indies and SW Pacific in general.

From the link, in the section after the 3rd ''back to top" notation:

Perhaps they mean to indicate that the aborigines didn’t harvest the trepang independently of the Macassans on their own initiative.

Hmm. Not sure what to make of that. In one sentence it says there was “no direct exchange of goods” and in the next it says that the Macassans “brought lots of things [Aborigines] could make use of”. The two statements seem contradictory. Unless they are implying that the Macassans gave out presents of “things [Aborigines] could make use of” and made a point of never getting anything in return. Which would seem unlikely just due to human nature, never mind that we have direct evidence that this wasn’t the case.

In reality “Yolngu received from Macassar large quantities of knives, axes, nails, fish hooks, fishing lines, bottle glass, cloth, steel scraps, alcohol, swards and muskets. In return, Yolngu traded turtle shells, which they harvested in the dry season. Pearls, including those seeded by Yolngu, went to Macassar and, according to Trudgen, probably reached Europe. Yolngu and Macassans together harvested trepang from the shallow waters of the Yolngu coastal estates and then dried and processed it for shipping back to Macassar. Certainly, trepang from this trade reached China. Later, Yolngu began to trade in crocodile skins.” (

That’s probably true, but there seems little doubt that they harvested turtles independently, and took great care not to damage the shell so it could be traded with the Macassans. They almost certainly didn’t harvest the shell of their own initiative, but that’s because there was no market for it. If that’s the standard of “no direct exchange of goods” it seems to be a very laboured one.

Because they were bound to sooner or later. But I don’t think that’s what you mean. If what you mean is why were Europeans the first discoverers of Australia, the answer is that they weren’t.

They did. Later discoverers and colonizers of Australia came from Europe.

The more interesting question is why you perceive Australia to have been discovered by Europeans. The answer to which is “because you were taught history by Europeans”.

Well, you see- you have to define “discover”. It really isn’t just "find for the first time’. It’s “find, report back, and get others to listen & record it”.

I wouldn’t be suprised if the Big Chinese fleet happened to spot parts of Australia. But if so, their records were destroyed and no one did anything about it. Same with scattered traders.

For example- who discovered America? Well, certainly the Vikings got here before Columbus. (And, yes, the peoples that would become the native Americans came over the bering land bridge 1000’s of years before that). And they recorded it. But- few knew they had. So- the Vikings get a footnote, and Columbus gets the prize. Not really fair, but.

Now, it is possible that welsh or portugese fishermen discovered the Grand banks 9and thus America) But- if so, they kept it a secret. I wouldn’t be suprised if an odd Phoenician or even Chinese junk got lost and found America- but never got back. So- no prize for them.

I’d say in the case of the Macassan traders- they get a footnote, along with the Dutch. Neither had any idea that they had found a new continent, and likely the Macassans didn’t really care.

So- that’s a final criteria- you have to care, the discovery has to mean something.

By this criterion Colombus never discvovered the Americas either then. he thought he’d found the east Indies, not a new continent. And the discovery meant nothing to him, just the new route.

For that matter the first Dutch discoverers of Australia didn’t know it was a new continent either.

By this criteria I’m not even sure when the Americas were dicovered. When was it conclusively known that they were a new and separate continent? And does anyone else in the world consider that to be the date of discovery?

Well, you see- yes, Columbus thought (especially at first) he had found a new way to the east Indies- but his trips, and his reports, and the fact that the Discoveries were publicized- that made others come over, who found that America was a continent, etc. Others diectly and immediately- and also by dribs and drabs- followed up.

Yes, I know, i said that.

This is why some still think it was Americo Vespucci- who may have reached South America in 1497.

And he knew that it was a separate contient did he? Because if not he didn’t dicover it either.
It seems that by that standard the first person to ‘dicover’ any landmass has to be the first person to complete a circumnavigation. A strange sort of definition of dicovery. I think I’ll stick to the dictionary definition.

Vespucci was supposedly the first to propose that the land mass was a separate continent (some of the letters in which he made this claim may be forgeries), which is why Martin Waldseemuller named it after him. Balboa’s “discovery” of the “South Sea” in 1513 pretty much established it.

From Merriam Webster:

Bolding mine.

The primary meaning given is “to make known,” not to “see for the first time.” By the dictionary definition, then, Columbus may be given credit for the discovery of the New World, even if he was mistaken about its significance, and the Dutch can be given credit for the discovery of Australia, even if they did not know it was a continent. Although other people had certainly seen these areas previously, they did not make them widely known.