European discovery of Australia

Key points

  • When European sailors began entering ‘Australian' waters in the early 1600s, they called it Terra Australis Incognita (unknown land of the South).
  • Between 1606 and 1770 more than 50 European ships made landfall on Australian soil, which was then inhabited solely by Indigenous people.
  • Navigator and astronomer Captain James Cook claimed the whole of the east coast of Australia for Great Britain on 22 August 1770, naming eastern Australia 'New South Wales'.
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Ship in Full Sail Passing Sydney Heads by Jospeh Fowles. Permission by the Australin National Library.Joseph Fowles, Ship in Full Sail Passing Sydney Head. Courtesy National Library of Australia's Picture Collections.

Who discovered Australia?

The most significant exploration of Australia in the 17th century was by the Dutch. It was around this time the Dutch East India Company was trading with islands that now make up Indonesia.

The first ship and crew to chart part of the Australian coast (the west coast of Cape York Peninsular in Queensland) and meet with Aboriginal people was the Duyfken, in 1606, captained by Dutchman Willem Janszoon.

In 1629, the Dutch ship the Batavia made history when it struck coral reefs on the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, 40 kilometres off the Western Australian coast. A failed bloodthirsty mutiny, orchestrated by some of the ship's crew, resulted in two of the youngest mutineers being sentenced to be marooned on the Australian mainland, effectively making them the first European residents of Australia.

Other explorers of the time included Dirk Hartog and Frederick de Houtman (Dutch), Louis Antoine de Bougainville (French) and William Dampier (English).

In 1642, Dutchman Abel Tasman discovered Van Dieman's Land, now named Tasmania, before returning on another voyage in 1644, when he passed the coast of Australia naming it Nova Hollandia (New Holland).

Navigator and astronomer Captain James Cook set out in 1768 on the HM Bark Endeavour bound for Tahiti. The official voyage was to observe the Transit of Venus from a location in the South Seas. Unofficially, the voyage was to seek out 'a Continent or Land of great extent'.  Under direction from King George III of England, Captain Cook was given instructions that "with the consent of the natives to take possession of convenient situations in the country". If he found it to be uninhabited (terra nullius), he was simply to "take possession for His Majesty by setting up proper marks and inscriptions as first discoverers and possessors".

In 1770, Captain Cook 'discovered' the south east coast of Australia, landing in Botany Bay. On 22 August 1770, he claimed the whole of the east coast of Australia at Possession Island, naming eastern Australia New South Wales.

"Notwithstanding[ing] I had in the Name of His Majesty taken possession of several places upon this coast, I now once more hoisted English Coulers and in the Name of His Majesty King George the Third took possession of the whole Eastern Coast ... by the name New South Wales, together with all the Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate upon the said coast, after which we fired three Volleys of small Arms which were Answerd by the like number from the Ship."

Despite Cook's actions, there were more than 250 tribes of Aboriginal people living on the land, each with their own language, customs, laws and territorial boundaries.



In search of a mysterious southern land, the British Admiralty chose Captain James Cook for his brilliant navigation and mapping skills.

Great Southern Continent is an excerpt from A Likely Lad, the first episode of the 4 x one-hour series Captain Cook – Obsession and Discovery, produced in 2007. From the National Film and Sound Archive.

Captain Cook meets and observes an Australian Indigenous tribe before controversially claiming NSW for Britain.

Captain Cook – Cook Claims New South Wales is an excerpt from Beyond Speculation, the third episode of the 4 x one-hour series Captain Cook – Obsession and Discovery, produced in 2007. National Film and Sound Archive.

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