CHAPTER I. THE DAWN OF DISCOVERY
Early maps of the southern regions - Speculations as to Antipodes - Discovery of sea-route to the East Indies - Discovery of the Pacific - The Portuguese and Spaniards - Discovery of the Solomon Islands - Quiros at the New Hebrides - Torres Strait.
There was a period when maps of the world were published whereon the part occupied by the continent of Australia was a blank space. On other maps, dating from about the same time, land masses were represented which we now know to have been imaginary. Let us look at four examples.
The first is a map drawn by Robert Thorne in the reign of Henry VIII (1527). He said in an apology for his work that 'it may seem rude,' and so it was; but it serves the purpose of proving that Thorne and the Spanish geographers from whom he derived his information knew nothing about a continent near Australia. Sixty years later a map published at Paris showed a portion of New Guinea, but still the place occupied by Australia was left as open ocean. A Dutch map published at Amsterdam in 1594 did indeed indicate a large stretch of southern land, and called it Terra Australis, but it bore no resemblance to the real continent either in shape or situation. In 1595 a map by Hondius, a Dutchman living in London, was published to illustrate the voyage of Francis Drake round the globe. It represented New Guinea as an island, approximately in its right position, though the shape of it was defective. To the south of it, and divided from it by a strait, appeared a large mass of land named Terra Australis. The outline is not much like that of the continent of Australia, but it was apparently copied from an earlier Dutch map by Ortelius (1587), upon which were printed words in Latin stating that whether New Guinea was an island or part of an austral continent was uncertain. Many other early maps could be instanced, but these four will suffice to exhibit the defective state of knowledge concerning this region at the end of the sixteenth century.
By that time the belief had grown that there probably was a large area of land in the southern hemisphere. Much earlier, in the Middle Ages, some had seriously questioned whether there could possibly be antipodes. Learned and ingenious men argued about it, for and against, at considerable length; for it was much easier to write large folios in Latin about the form of the earth than to go forth in ships and find out. One famous cosmographer, Cosmas Indicopleustes, scoffed at the very idea of there being countries inhabited by people who walked about with their feet opposite to those of Europeans and their bodies (as he imagined) hanging downwards, like flies on a ceiling. How, he asked, could rain 'be said to "fall" or "descend," as in the Psalms and Gospels, in those regions where it could only be said to come up?' Consequently he declared ideas about antipodes to be nothing better than 'old wives' fables.'
Another class of speculators maintained that there necessarily must be antipodes, because the globe had to be equally poised on both sides of its own centre. As there was a large mass of land, consisting of Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and North America, on the one side of the Equator, they argued that there had to be a balance of earth at the opposite extremity.
To understand how speculation was set at rest and Australia came to be discovered, it is necessary to bear in mind a few facts connected with the expansion of European energy in maritime exploration, trade, and colonization.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a great and wonderful series of events opened new sea-routes and fresh lands to the enterprise of mankind. There was keen competition to secure the profits arising from trade with the East - from the silk and cotton fabrics of China and India, the spices, gold, jewels and metal work, the rice and sugar, and many other things which European peoples were glad to purchase and oriental lands could supply. This trade had in earlier years come partly overland, along caravan routes to the Levant, partly by water to the Red Sea, and then through Egypt to Alexandria. The goods were collected by Venetians, Genoese, and other merchants, chiefly Italians, in vessels plying in the Mediterranean, and sold to European buyers. But the Portuguese discovered that by sailing round Africa they could bring commodities from the East cheaper and safer than by the old routes. They had made many voyages down the west coast of Africa during the fifteenth century, until at last, in 1486, Bartholomew Diaz steered his ships round the Cape of Good Hope, and in 1497 Vasco da Gama beat that record by conducting two vessels all the way to India and back to Lisbon.
That was one important step towards the discovery of Australia - the finding of the way to the East from Europe by sea.
It was for the purpose of discovering a still shorter route to the east that Christopher Columbus, a Genoese in the service of Spain, proposed to sail west. He argued that if the world were round, a ship sailing west, straight towards the sunset, must come upon the shores of further Asia. His reasoning was right, but there was one immense factor which it was impossible for him to anticipate. He could not know that the path to the East by the westward passage was blocked by the continent of America. Columbus, indeed, never did realize that fact to the day of his death. He never knew that he had found a new world. He always believed that he had discovered what we may call the back door of Asia.