Maritime Exploration: Jean Binot Paulmier de Gonneville

Le port de Lisbonne. Gravure de Theodore de Bry. 1595.

The earliest claim to the discovery of Australia by an European was not made by the Portuguese, Dutch, English or even Spanish, but by a Frenchman. His story is told in a judicial declaration published for the first time in 1663 by the bookseller Cramoisy, who had received it from a priest named Jean B. Paulmier, then Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. Pierre de Lizieux, and addressed to Pope Alexander VII. The document tells of a French sailor from Normandy named Jean Binot Paulmier, sieur de Gonneville, who claimed that, during a two year voyage of discovery with the intent of finding an ocean route from Europe to the East Indies, he had landed on the shores of the Southland early in 1504.

The document, published by French philosopher Charles Des Brosses in 1761, was translated and appeared for the first time in English in a work entitled "Terra Australis Cognita," by the Scotch geographer, Callender, who, like Des Brosses, was fully convinced that De Gonneville had landed somewhere on what is now known as the Australian Continent. This territory was named by Des Brosses as Australasia as far back as 1761, and was placed by him to the south of the Little Moluccas, where our maps now show the north-western portion of the Australian Continent. In his paper on "Early Voyages to Terra Australis," printed in 1861, British Admiral Burney, and the eminent English geographer, Mr. Major, told of De Gonneville's voyage but dismissed his claim and Des Brosses' location of the landfall, stating instead that the country De Gonneville's described was the island of Madagascar. This opinion has been generally entertained by navigators and historians ever since, though others have argued he landed in Brazil (Brazilians celebrated the 500th anniversary of his arrival on their shores in 2004 at Carnival), however there is much evidence to suggest that De Gonneville might well have reached Australia's shore.

De Gonneville left Honfleur in the month of June of the year 1503, in the ship L'Espoir, and after having rounded the Cape of Good Hope he was assailed by tempestuous weather and driven into calm latitudes. After a tedious spell of calm weather, want of water forced him to make for the first land he could sight. The flight of some birds coming from the south decided him to run a course to the southward, and after a few days' sail he landed on the coast of a large territory, at the mouth of a fine river, which he compares to the river Orne, at Caen. There he remained for six months repairing his vessel, and making exploratory excursions into the hinterland, establishing contact and maintaining good relations with the inhabitants during his stay. These included a tribe of light skinned people. De Gonneville stated the the inhabitants of the continent were happy, for they didn't have to work because of all the riches.

He left this great Austral Land, to which he gave the name of "Southern Indies," they being in his estimation, "not far from the true course to the East Indies," on 3 July,1504, taking with him two of the natives, one of whom was the son of the chief of the people among whom he had resided. On the return voyage no land was seen until the day after the Feast of St. Denis, i.e.,10 October, 1504; but on nearing the coast of France the ship was attacked off tile islands of Guernsey and jersey by an English privateer, who robbed the navigators of all they brought from the land they had visited, the most important loss being the journal of the expedition. On his arrival at Honfleur, De Gonneville immediately entered a plaint before the Admiralty Court of Normandy, and wrote a report of his voyage, which was signed by the principal officers of his vessel. This document became the "Judicial declaration made before the Admiralty Court of Normandy by Sieur de Gonneville, at the request of the King's procurator, respecting the voyage of the good ship L'Espoir, of the port of Honfleur, to the 'Southern Indies" published by Des Brosses in 1663.

It is also probable that what led to the conclusion that Madagascar was the point visited were some inaccuracies in translation of De Gonneville's diaries with regard to the kind of head-dress described as worn by the women, which would certainly appear to refer more to the inhabitants of the great African island than to the Australians. The mystery is a difficult one to clear up, but subsequent discoveries, and a closer scrutiny of the Norman captain's narrative indicate that De Gonneville's "Southern Indies" could well be the Australian Continent, and that he may well have landed at the mouth of one of the rivers on the north-western coast, namely the Glenelg or Prince Regent Rivers of North-west Australia. de Gonneville's description of the place of his sojourn fits the description of the area, which is quite different to any other part of Australia.

Prince Regent River Wandjina figures

Captain King and Lieutenant (later Sir) George Grey, explored the area in question the year 1838 and their description of the natives, their customs, tribal structure and way of life, is not dissimilar to that described by De Gonneville, Further, Grey discovered a series of caves in which were paintings of human figures unlike any currently being drawn by the local natives of that time. Some of these figures were of women in coloured robes, with head-dresses and beads, not unlike those common throughout contemporary Europe of the Virgin Mary surrounded by other women in an act of worship. These figures had what appeared to be Latin letters written above them. Grey's own description of another was that "Its head was encircled by bright red rays, something like the rays which one sees proceeding from the sun, when depicted on the sign board of a public house." Many bore a strikingly resembling the pictures of saints as represented on the Church windows of the time. He then found there the head of an European sculptured in the hard rock, evidently with instruments such as the natives do not possess.

Further descriptions by Grey indicate the art in these caves was a strange mixture of European and Malay art, the former exhibited in the remarkable aureolas which so commonly surround the heads of saints in the old images, in painted church windows of the middle ages, and the times of De Gonneville, and the latter in the kind of dress over the body, which appears to have represent the matted clothing of Malay peasants (Malay fishermen were known to have made regular fishing trips to the area).

In the tribal history of Aborigines living in the vicinity of Napier Broome Bay on the far North Eastern coast of Western Australia, is the story of how two Portuguese swivel guns (carronades), were taken after a battle with white-skinned invaders dressed in skins like those of turtles and crocodiles, a description of European armour. The tribal elders, using the number of past generations to calculate the passage of time, believe that the intruders were seen about l550 AD. This is strong evidence that if De Gonneville did land on Australian soil, by the description he gave of his landfall he could have landed nowhere else but at precisely that part of the country visited and similarly described by Grey, and that the paintings he discovered may well be the work of some of De Gonneville's companions.

Bigge Island rock art

Paulmier de Gonneville's was the first French voyage to the Indies but it was not followed up for almost a century. In 1604, King Henri IV authorised the establishment of France's first East Indies trading enterprise, Compagnie des Indes Orientales, which was given a 15-year monopoly of the Indies trade. It was formed by a Dieppe ship owner, Jean Ango, although the real spirit behind the company was a Fleming, Gerard de Roy. Things moved slowly, but by 1610 a small fleet had been bought, and prepared for sailing from St. Malo. Much of the investment and crewing was organised in Holland and Flanders, and this annoyed the Netherlands East India Co., which threatened to capture the French vessels, and hang any Flemings they found on board. Little more was heard of the company. Two further attempts were made to establish a further company, in 1615 and 1635, but although a few vessels were despatched in the 1640s, they amounted to very little. No shares or bonds have been seen.

The Compagnie des Indes Orientales (French East India Company) was formed in 1664 by Colbert, the renowned finance minister to Louis XIV. The capital was 15 million lires, in shares of 1000 lires. The King subscribed the first 3 million lires, against which losses in the first 10 years were to be charged. All shares were sold : many courtiers felt it was in their own interests to support the King's initiative. The company was granted a 50-year monopoly of French trade in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Straits of Magellan, with a concession in perpetuity for Madagascar and 'all other islands and lands it could conquer'. It was required to build churches and train priests in its territories. Madagascar was not a success, and was soon abandoned, but 'comptoirs' were established in various parts of India from 1668, and at first did good business. However, by 1671 business was poor, and the maritime wars from 1672 brought ruin to the Company. It lost its monopoly in 1682, but struggled on until 1719, when it was formally dissolved.


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