Maritime Exploration of Australia:
The Spanish and Portuguese

For many years it has been claimed that Portuguese sailors may have charted the Australian coast in the 1520s. If they did, who were these navigators, why were they there and why are there no records of their voyages in existence to back up maps of that era that seem to indicate such is the case? The answers to these questions will never be known conclusively, but there exists enough evidence to suggest that the Portuguese may well have sailed Australia’s shores long before any other Europeans.

As the greater part of Australia was within Spanish territory during the 16th century, any voyage into it by the Portuguese would undoubtedly have had to have been an undercover operation and therefore would have been kept very secret. Being Portuguese, the journals of such voyages would have ended up in the Portuguese Navy’s repository in the Case De India, in Lisbon. Unfortunately, this building and its contents were destroyed in an earthquake which flattened part of Lisbon in 1755. All maps and journals of voyages stored here were destroyed, leaving many unanswered questions, such as that posed here.

On the matter of whose territory Australia was in, it is appropriate to digress here and look at how Australia became out of bounds to Portuguese sailors. During the 15th century, Spain and Portugal were both heavily committed to maritime exploration and were always squabbling over newly discovered territory. The pontiff of the day, Pope Alexander VI, decided that the easiest way to stop the squabbling was to draw a line right across the world, and give Portugal the lands on one side of the line and Spain the lands on the other. The Pope decreed that all lands discovered west of a meridian 100 leagues (one league is 3 miles or 4.8 km) west of the Cape Verde Islands should belong to Spain while new lands discovered east of that line would belong to Portugal. This papal bull also specified that all lands already under the control of a “Christian prince” would remain under that same control. This limiting line made Portugal angry.

King John II (the nephew of Prince Henry the Navigator) negotiated with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to move the line to the west. King John’s rationale to Ferdinand and Isabella was that the Pope’s line extends all around the globe, thus limiting Spanish influence in Asia. Agreement was reached in the Treaty in Tordesillas in 1494. Pope Julius II finally sanctioned the change in 1506. Portugal had the east side, and Spain the west. The other side of the world would be divided a few decades later by the Treaty of Saragossa or Treaty of Zaragoza, signed on 22nd April 1529, which specified the anti-meridian to the line of demarcation specified in the Treaty of Tordesillas (see globe showing demarkation). The new treaty decided that the line should lie 297.5 leagues (or 17 degrees) west of the Moluccas, through Santo Thome island. This island can no longer be identified, but maps of the day indicate the line of demarkation was 142 degrees west of Greenwich.

It was no coincidence that the spot on the Australian coastline where James Cook claimed territory for Britain in 1770 was 142 degrees west of Greenwich, right on the border between Portuguese and Spanish territory. Britain had not long defeated Spain in the Seven Year War in 1760 and Cook’s secret instructions from the British Admiralty appear to have been to claim that part of the Southland that fell in the Spanish sector for Britain, and leave the rest to the Dutch, who were aligned to Portugal, with whom Britain had no quarrel.

The Portuguese in the East indies
If Portuguese navigators did travel to Australia before the Dutch and English, the best way to try and identify them is to look in the records of the Portuguese colonies in the Far East. Not only are these the only surviving records of Portuguese activity in the Far East at the time in question, it is reasonable to assume that any survey of the Australian coast by the Portuguese would have originated from these bases rather than from Portugal, which was half a world way.

From the early 15th century, the nautical school of Henry the Navigator had been extending Portuguese knowledge of the coast of Africa. From the 1460s, the goal had become one of rounding that continent’s southern extremity and gaining direct access to the riches of India, mainly black pepper and other spices. Born in Sines, Portugal, Vasco De Gama was just shy of thirty years old as these long-term plans were coming to fruition. Bartolomeu Dias had returned from rounding the Cape of Good Hope and exploring as far as the Fish River in modern-day South Africa, while from India Pedro de Corvilha had explored south for some of the distance intervening between Dias’ explorations and the subcontinent. It remained only for the two segments to be joined into one voyage. This task was given to Estevao da Gama, Vasco’s father, but he died before he could begin. Vasco was then given the job on the strength of his work for the Portuguese crown along the Gold Coast of Africa. On 8th July 1497 four ships (the Sao Gabriel, the Sao Rafael, the Berrio, and a storage ship of unknown name) left Lisbon and the voyage began.

By 16th December, they had passed the Fish River and continued on into waters unknown to Europeans. With Christmas pending they gave the coast they were passing the name Natal, which it retains to this day. By January 1498 they had reached modern-day Mozambique, Arab-controlled territory on the East African coast that was part of the Indian Ocean’s network of trade. Having got that far, da Gama was able to employ a pilot at Malindi, who brought the expedition the rest of the way to Calicut on the southwest coast of India on 20th May 1498 (see engraving). Sometimes violent negotiations with the local ruler (the samudrin raja, usually anglicized as Zamorin) ensued in the teeth of resistance from Arab merchants. Eventually da Gama was able to gain an ambiguous letter of concession for trading rights, but had to sail off without warning after the Zamorin insisted on his leaving behind all his goods as collateral. Da Gama kept his goods, but left behind a few Portuguese with orders to start a trading post.

Upon his return to Portugal in September 1499, da Gama was richly rewarded as the man who had brought to fruition a plan that had taken eighty years. He was given the title “Admiral of the Indian Ocean”, and on 12th February, 1502 he sailed again with a fleet of twenty warships to enforce Portuguese interests. Pedro Alvares Cabral had been sent out two years earlier (on which voyage he incidentally discovered Brazil) and found that those at the trading post had been murdered, encountered further resistance and bombarded Calicut.

Portugal and her envious European neighbours quickly realised the significance of de Gama’s voyage. His fleet, laden with spices from India and ivory from Mozambique whose value was 60 times the cost of his voyage, came to anchor at Lisbon in 1499 after travelling 39,000 km. Immediately King Manuel assumed the title ‘The Lord of the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India’ and set about establishing Portugal’s domination of Far East trade. Within a decade of Gama’s landing, Affonso Albuquerque (right) had seized Goa from the Bijapur sultan. From Goa he supervised Malabar, to control the pilgrim traffic to Mecca as well as the general trade to Egypt, Iraq and Persia, and quickly built Portugal’s Asiatic empire. Though Indian territories ultimately constituted only a small part of it, for nearly a century the Portuguese had a considerable presence in almost all the port towns of India, until the Dutch, the French and the English arrived.

Portugal’s dominance of the East during the 16th Century was assured when Albuquerque seized Malacca on the east coast of the Malay peninsular in 1511. It had been used for centuries by the Chinese and Muslim traders as the gateway to both China and the East Indies. During his term in India, Albuquerque met the last of the great overlander travellers and soldiers of fortune, Italians Lodovico de Varthema and Duarte Barbosa, who told him that the spices Marco Polo spoke of actually came from a group of Islands to the East of Java called the Moluccas, which Albuquerque later called the Spice Islands. Albuquerque immediately dispatched a squadron under the command of d’Abreu who left his deputy, Francisco Serano, to secure the Portuguese position on Ternate.

Ferdinand Magellan
Serano was a close friend of Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese who was part of Albuquerque’s original squadron to the Far East. Magellan wrote to Serano saying he was convinced that sailing west across the Atlantic would be a shorter journey to the Far East than via the Cape of Good Hope. Magellan was driven to prove this so, but knew that such a journey would take him through Spanish territory, so he made the monumental decision of formally changing his allegiance to Spain in 1517. Magellan was able to raise funds from Spain’s Charles V for a fleet of five ships and set sail on his voyage of discovery in 1519. After much hardship and loss of life, he navigated the southern tip of South America and eventually arrived in the Marianas and on to the Philippines and Cebu. There, in 1521, Magellan involved himself in the Battle of Mactan, a local dispute, and was killed along with forty of his men. Two vessels escaped, and under the command of Sebastian Elcano, they sailed south-west to Timor through the Banda Sea, then home to Spain to become the first voyagers to circumnavigate the world.

Apart from the fact that he had defected to Spain and planned to sail to the Indies via the west, the details of the voyage were unknown to the Portuguese who saw Magellan as a traitor to his country and not, like Columbus before him, a “soldier of fortune” who did not feel bound to any one nation in his quest to advance the science of geography and the cause of discovery. Magellan’s voyage struck fear into the hearts of the Portuguese. They immediately set in motion a plan to send warships to the Cape of Good Hope and the coast of Brazil to intercept Magellan, not knowing he was long past Brazil and was in fact about to arrive in the Phillipines.

When they heard news that Magellan had been sighted in the Pacific, the Portuguese had visions of him having sailed around the southern tip of South America and heading west to the great south land, which at that time was believed to lay somewhere not far to the west of South America. They theorised that Magellan would then go looking for the gold spoken of by Marco Polo, and establish a base there. From this base, Spain could mount an attack on the Portuguese trading posts in the Far East, drive them out with their superior naval power and gain control of the whole of the Far East.

De Mendonca Searches For Magellan
The Viceroy of Goa, Diego Lopes de Sequeira, was hastily ordered to organise an expedition to travel into the uncharted water beyond the Spice Islands in search of Java Le Grande. The official instructions were to “search for gold” but this would have been a smokescreen as the Portuguese officials would not have mounted an exploratory expedition at this time into Spanish territory ahead of resolving the more pressing matter of Magellan’s defection and his imminent arrival in the area. Clearly, the mission would have been to intercept Magellan before he was able to establish himself there or to establish a Portuguese presence on the south land to counter any similar move the Spanish might make.

Cristovas de Mendonca, a senior officer in the Portuguese Navy who was stationed in Goa, was given the task of captaining the fleet of three caravels which de Sequeira had quickly prepared. Some time in 1521, Mendonca proceeded to Pedir in Sumatra, and then east to Malacca before heading off into the great unknown. What happened to Mendonca after leaving Malacca is shrouded in mystery. All the official records say is that only one of Mendonca’s three vessels returned to Pedir some 18 months after its departure. What happened to the other two ships is not known. De Mendonca’s name does not appear again until 1525, when he is reported to have been in Portugal. During the next few years, he is known to have made a number of trips to Dieppe, France, presumably to sell his charts to the cartographers there. It can only be assumed that one such cartographer bought his charts and from it created the Dauphin map.

The extent of the eastern section of coastline on the Dieppe maps suggests that the Portuguese navigator travelled the whole of the western seaboard from Cape York to Bass Strait and beyond, naming many of the bays that James Cook named 248 years later. On this map, an island called Iihas de Magna is where Lord Howe Island is, an indentation called ‘Bay Neufre’ is where Broken Bay is, ‘Cap de Fremos’ corresponds with Cape Howe appears and where Port Phillip Bay is, the map shows a sizable bay called ‘Bay Gouffre’. The place where Cook’s Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef is marked on the Dieppe maps as ‘Coste Dangereuse’, and shows a reef or shoals some distance off shore up and down the coast which follows the line of the Great Barrier Reef. Cooktown Harbour is shown as ‘Baye Perdue’. But the most interestingly named coastal feature on the Dauphin maps, and one which raises the biggest question mark about whether or not Cook was the first European to navigate the east coast of Australia, is in the vicinity of modern day Sydney. A coastal indent is marked as ‘Baye de Herbes’ – or translated into English, ‘Bay of Botany’ – on the Dieppe maps. The corresponding bay was marked “Botany Bay” by Cook on his chart.

There are still plenty of historians who point out that the evidence of a visit to the east coast of Australia by Mendonca is only circumstantial, and the existence of the Dauphin map does not prove the argument either way. Criminologists say that there is always some evidence left at the scene of a crime, no matter how small or insignificant and to find it, all you need to know is what to look for and where to find it. This evidence may well be circumstantial, but when all is said and done, it is still evidence. When attempting to fill the gaps in history, and in particular the piece of history in question, one must adopt the same principal and seek out evidence, because, like a crime, if it happened, and if you look hard enough in the right places and for the right things, chances are you’ll find it sooner of later.

It would be unlikely that Cristovao de Mendonca could have spent 18 months sailing up and down the east coast of Australia looking for Magellan without leaving behind some evidence of his visit, particularly if, as the none return of two of his ships indicates, they suffered losses in the process. Being so long a voyage of exploration, his crew would have had to have gone ashore, and in doing so, would have left behind something – a clay pipe, a musket ball, a coin, a button – that can be dated to their time and their nationality.

Over the years, there have been many claims of things being found that point to a visit or visits by someone of European origin to the east coast of Australia long before that of Cook. Many are based on heresay. Such claims can only be accepted as evidence once a wreck has been found and accurately identified as a Portuguese vessel from that period. Skin-divers claimed years ago to have retrieved a number of 16th century Spanish coins and other relics from the remains of an old wooden shipwreck off Tweed Heads, NSW. This may well be so, however Spanish coins were the commonly used currency of early colonial Sydney and all ships in those days were made of timber, so that proves nothing.

There is evidence that Europeans may have made contact with Fraser Island Aborigines more than 500 years ago. Lead, identified as having come from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain), was found in an old buried shore line near Hook Point on Fraser Island, amongst pumice released in about 1500. Two clay pipes discovered in middens near Indian Head were of the type used by 17th century Dutch navigators for trading. These suggest some contact between Dutch sailors and Aborigines in this period, although there is no direct evidence that the contact occurred on Fraser Island as the pipes could have been traded.

Two wooden pegs made from timber that was dated in 1993 as being cut between 1450 and 1500 are claimed to have come from a shipwreck at Suffolk Park about 5km south of Byron Bay. The wreck was uncovered by sand mining in 1965 and is now said to be buried under 4m to 10m of sand. Locals claim that in the 1950s the remains of three masts protruding 3m from the sand at an angle of 45 degrees. Sand mining operations later bulldozed the masts away. Earlier residents are said to have recalled seeing portions of the hull protruding above the sand. In 1965 workmen unearthed a long wooden rudder. Sand miners involved in the discovery of the rudder said at the time the ship it came from was was 4.2 metres in length, while others said it was 12.2 metres. To some experts, the size of the rudder suggests the boat would have been 51 and 75 metres long. Local Aboriginal legends tell of a massacre of sailors in revenge for rapes in the area where the rudder was found. Again, an intriguing story that has yet to be substantiated.

Aboriginal tales of apparent Spanish/Portuguese visitors still exist in the Grafton-Clarence River district of NSW. For Generations they have believed that a huge canoe with sails ventured up the river from the coast bearing many white skinned ‘culture-heroes’ in garments of stone (armour?). In 1847 a bunch of ancient rusty keys were found at Limeburners Point, Corio Bay near Geelong (Vic) by a workman digging a hole for shells to make lime. The keys were found at a depth of 4.5 metres and 12 metres from the shoreline. Governor La Trobe had the keys examined by historians who identified them as being of medieval design. Many locals associate them with de Mendonca, but again the evidence is only curcumstantial.

Ruins at Bittangabbie Bay near Boydtown, NSW

Ruins near Boydtown, NSW
South of Boydtown on the NSW south coast, sheltered amid dense scrub in a small inlet on Bitangabbie Bay are the remains of what appears to be a stone fort. It consists of a stone platform some 30 metres square, surrounded by heaps of rock which once formed a perimeter wall to the complex. In the middle are the remains of a building made of stone, roughly tooled, and mortared with seashell mortar. The badly weathered date 15?4 is engraved into a stone forming part of the wall. The remains of an old Spanish breastplate are said to have been dug up nearby many years ago but its whereabout is today unknown.

The ruins are at the site of an abandoned 19th century sealers camp, but it is unlikely that the stone fort was created by 19th century sealers. These seafarers often made temporary camps, but they consisted of small shelters rather than anything of this size. Besides, a large team of men employed over a period of time would have been required to put this complex together. Sealers had neither the time, need or manpower to create something this elaborate. The theory that the complex may have been part of Benjamin Boyd’s Twofold Bay development project nearby have been disproved, as the building materials and methods are not the same as those employed by Boyd, and besides, the ruins were reported long before Boyd arrived in the area in 1842. The size and shape of the complex is in keeping with similar structures built in the New Hebrides by Portuguese travellers of that time for the purpose of giving temporary shelter, or as a base while staying in an area for an extended period of time.

The theory that this was Mendonca’s camp during the winter months is feasible, as he probably would have built a camp on shore at that time, particularly if he was laying in wait for the arrival of Magellan. Sailing south from Pedir, Mendonca would have hit the coast of Australia within the space of a week. Having found the south land so quickly, the logical thing to do next would have been to find a sheltered bay somewhere close to where Magellan was expected to make his first landfall, build a home base hidden behind dense scrub so it can’t be seen from the ocean, and then lay low until Magellan appeared. What better location could Mendonca have chosen than Bitangabbie Bay (above right) which fits the criteria perfectly? Again, it all sounds feasible, but the idea that the stone structure at Bitangabbie Bay was built by early colonial settlers or whalers who were known to have opertated on these shores before colonial settlement, cannot be discounted.

The North Stradbroke Island “Spanish Galleon”
That the remains of a “Spanish galleon” lay in the 18 Mile Swamp 3 km to the west of the coast of Queensland’s North Stradbroke Island was first reported in the 1860s by Queensland Member of Parliment E.J. Stevens who had a cattle lease on the island. Brisbane historian Isobel Hannah wrote in a 1921 article for the Courier Mail that the ship’s remains had been closely inspected by Mathew Heeb, a shipwright and timber getter, who clearly described the shipwreck to her as being of a “ship with high poop and forecastle”. Hannah also quoted the Aboriginal widow of the Moreton Bay pilot and light keeper Mrs Andrew Graham who says her husband knew of the wreck and that he found an anchor near it in the 1870’s …”which was much corroded and had a wooden stock.” Whilst referred to as a galleon, the description given by eye witnesses is more like a caravel or carrak. If so, it is likely that it was sunk in the 16th or 17th century.

The mainstream academic theory at the vtime of the first report was that the wreck is of a colonial cattle barge, however Hannah, who saw the wreck in the early 1890s, stated that its position in the Swamp made it impossible for it to be a cattle barge. Further there is no historic evidence at all that indicates that cattle were ever shipped across the swamp in a barge. Likewise the recollection of Aboriginal John Campbell, recorded by noted local historian, Thomas Welsby, in the 1890s that Aboriginal oral histories recall that two white men, one named Juan, had long ago walked into the Aboriginal camp near Flinder’s Beach from their shipwreck on the ocean side of North Stradbroke Island. Campbell further stated that the wreck was still visble in the 1890s and had been positively identified as being made of European oak.

A number of artefacts have been found in recent years that were reported to have been taken from the shipwreck. These include a sailor’s knife, a brass walking stick handle, a lead weight, a 16th or 17th century sword blade or Spanish design and a ship’s bell. Queensland local Greg Jefferys, who has a degree in Archaeology from the University of Queensland, has been searching for the shipwreck since 1989, and led an expedition in 2007 after finding a silver coin dated 1597 (right). The coin was independently identified by a coin expert at Oxford University’s Maritime Archeology Institute as a British threepence. “The denomination is presumably threepence and the date is apparently 1593. The other side bears the ‘Virgin Queen’s’ left-facing portrait, name and titles,” said the identification report.

Cyril Broome, who had worked as an RAAF pilot during World War II searching the ocean for Japanese submarines and as a pilot trainer teaching new recruits how to fly, had seen the outline of the wreck on a flight over Moreton Bay and had marked the location on a military map. The air above the 18 Mile Swamp was set aside for pilot training. Captain Broome’s son Ivan found the old map (see map) and contacted Mr Jeffreys with the story. Mr Jeffreys followed the map and found the coin in the vicinity of where the wreck was marked on it. Mr Jefferys believes the wreck was most likely a 16th-century Portuguese caraval and the coin was being carried by an English sailor or navigator. “These coins were out of circulation by 1680 so there is no way it could have been in someone’s pocket after 1770. The Portuguese were in East Timor from the 1500s, which is only a few weeks sail away. English navigators were considered the best in the world and were highly desired by the Portuguese and Dutch in the Pacific. There is a wreck in that swamp and it is only a matter of time before it is found.”

The Powerhouse Museum recently used an electron microscope to analyse some coins found on the Wessel Islands that were between 800 and 1,000 years old. The coins, from the Tanzanian port city of Kilwa, were discovered to have surface material that meant they’d been in the presence of high nitrate for centuries. The coins had probably been kept in the hull of a ship next to gunpowder.

The Mahogany Ship near Warrnambool
Perhaps the most convincing piece of circumstantial evidence found thus far has been the ‘Mahogany Ship’, which, from the many eye witness reports on record, fits the description of a Portuguese caravel of the type de Mendonca would have sailed. First discovered in 1836 by three sealers Gibbs, Smith & Wilson some 300 metres inland, this relatively intact ship located on an isolated beach near Warrnambool, Victoria, was visited by and known to a whole community of people during the latter half of the 19th century before it was covered over by shifting sands after a storm, never to be seen again. A detailed description of it, given by a local woman in 1848, indicates that, instead of the familiar planks, it had wooden panels. This is how caravels were constructed.

In 1992 the State Government of Victoria offered a reward of AUD$250,000 to anyone who could locate the fabled vessel but the offer was withdrawn in 1993 without money having been paid. Searching the sand dunes west of Warrnambool in the hope of finding the wreck, two men, Des Williams and Jim Henry, found some timber in June 1999 near Rutledges Cutting. Using an auger, they brought up a tiny plug of timber from a depth of 3.1 metres. The timber later identified as white oak, one of the timbers the Portuguese used to build their caravels. A local heritage officer Peter Ronald tempered the excitement by suggesting it might relate to cargo lost from The Falls of Halladale, wrecked at nearby Peterborough in 1908. Further extensive searches of the area were conducted in late 1999 and in 2004, using heavy drills that penetrated to a depth of 10 metres. The probes yielded only small, unidentified wooden fragments. Wood found in the area in 2005 has recently been dated to 3000 years old, probably of European origin and from the olive tree family.

Today, visitors frequently take to the Mahogany Ship Walking Track, which follows the coast between Warrnambool and Port Fairy and passes possible sites where the Mahogany Ship may rest. The area of greatest interest to contemporary researchers is Armstrong Bay east of Gorman’s Road (formerly Lane) and west of Levy’s Point near Dennington. The Mahogany Ship, in common with the Loch Ness Monster, has become a local industry and the legend is likely to be promoted and to endure, whatever the actual facts of the case.

If Mendonca did lose a vessel here, 19th century eyewitness reports indicate that, rather than it being wrecked, it was probably blown ashore by one of the violent storms so typical of the area, storms here are so violent and unpredictable that this coastline has been known for years as The Shipwreck Coast. The coastline on the Dauphin map stops abruptly at the spot where Warrnambool is today, which would explain why Mendonca would have called it a day, turned around and gone home, as the map indicates he did, if he did lose a vessel on this coastline.

And what of the second ship in Mendonca’s flotilla that never made it home? In 1877 a shipwreck was uncovered in a violent storm at Raupuke Beach, near Raglan, on the west coast of New Zealand. Though its exact location is not known due to its continual covering and uncovering by sand, eye witness descriptions of the shape and size of the wrecked vessel bear a striking resemblance to those of Warrnambool’s mahogany ship. Supporting the claim of the wreck being Portuguese is the existence of a Tamil Bell in the Dominion Museum in Wellington which was found and handed in by Maoris from the Raglan area in 1836. This bronze bell contains inscriptions identified as Tamil script for the southern Indian region of Goa, the place from which Mendonca embarked on his journey. Further evidence of an early Portuguese visit to New Zealand is supported by the finding of a medieval helmet dredged out of the harbour at Petone, a Wellington suburb. The helmet, since identified as 16th century Portuguese, and a cannon ball found nearby, are also on display in the Dominion Museum.

The possibility that Mendonca touched the coast of New Zealand on his way home and lost another vessel there seems highly likely. Thus would have ended a most momentous and sadly forgotten voyage, made a quarter of a millenium before Cook sailed the same waters, possibly with the aid the charts Mendonca drew, visiting the bays and beaches upon which Australia’s two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, would one day be built.

De Sequeira’s Voyage to the North Coast
The only other recorded voyage by the Portuguese to the land mass shown on the Dieppe maps as Java le Grande was made by Gomes de Sequeira, son of the Viceroy of Goa, who had organised Mendonca’s expedition. Though the Magellan incident had blown over, Portugal was still unsure of Spain’s intentions in the Far East and put in place an ambitious plan to buy the trading rights to the Spanish sector of the Far East from Spain. This, along with a few marriages between Portuguese and Spanish royalty, was to result in the signing of the Treaty of Saragossa in 1529, which saw the Line of Demarcation from the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) moved from 127 degrees east of Greenwich to 142 degrees east, and resulted in the inclusion of the whole of the Far East (and that part of Australia to the east of Cape York Peninsula) within the Portuguese sector.

So as to get a better idea as to what they were bargaining over, the Portuguese gave de Sequeira instructions to explore the land to the south of Java in 1525. It can be safely assumed that by that time they held possession Mendonca’s chart of the east coast of the south land, but little was known of the west, so de Sequeira would probably have been told to head west upon reaching India Meridional. As with Mendonca’s voyage, no records exist as to any aspect of the journey, however circumstantial evidence points to the eastern section of coastline drawn on the Dieppe maps as coming from Mendonca’s charts of his voyage, and the western section of coastline as coming from de Sequeira’s charts of his voyage. The Dieppe maps suggest that de Sequeira travelled the coast of Western Australia between Groote Eylandt and Exmouth Gulf, with that section of coast marked as “Beach” corresponding with Arnhem Land and Petan with Groote Eylandt.

Two discoveries by post-1788 explorers of the north west corner of Australia provide possible evidence of de Sequeira’s visit. In 1838, George Grey came across caves in the Kimberley region of Western Australia which depict a series of Aboriginal paintings of figures called Wandjinas. These figures are strikingly similar to the medieval portrayal of saints or other religious figures, complete with haloes, rolled collars, draped garments, trailing sleeves, armbands and medallions. The local Aborigines identified the Wandjinas as gods who came from far distant lands many years previous.

The second discovery was made by Capt. C Cumberlidge, commander of HMS Encounter in 1916. On a routine wartime patrol, HMS Encounter entered Napier Broome Bay and made a landing on a then unnamed island now known as Carronade Island. His party found two bronze cannon placed two metres apart, projecting perpendicular in the sand as if placed there as a marker or guide. The cannon were stamped with the Portuguese Crown and the Rosa da Santa – the wild rose that Gil Eannes had brought back with him from Cape Bojador, which became a symbol of Portuguese discoveries during its Golden Age of exploration.

The cannon were cast in Seville, Spain, and their date of manufacture has been determined as late 15th/early 16th century. If they are de Sequira’s, the relevance of the cannon becomes obvious with the realisation that Napier Broome Bay is right on the 127th meridian, which is the Meridian of Ternate in the Malaccas. Ternate is the most easterly Portuguese settlement in The Indies before entering Spanish territory as set by the Treaty of Tordesillas. Were the cannons placed here to mark the most easterly point of occupied Portuguese territory and the point from which de Sequeira would commence his survey, given that the purpose of that survey was to explore all land to its east, territory which Portugal was about to begin bargaining for?

De Queiros Disovers Terra Australis – Or Did He?


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