Timeline: Prior to 1700

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30,000 years ago

It is believed that, at the time known as the last great Ice Age, Australia was joined to New Guinea. Islands such as Java and Borneo were larger than today, sea passages between them narrower. This made it possible for the ancestors of the people now called Australian Aboriginals to reach Australia from lands to the north. It is not known from where the Aboriginals began their journey or when, but it is certain that people with some kind of water craft crossed the 100 – 160 kilometre stretches of water between the islands to the north, and reach the southern continent. These sea voyages are the earliest evidence of sea travel by man. As the ice flows of the Ice Age began to melt, the sea level rose, isolating Australia, and making the sea passages too wide for crossing by the simple forms of watercraft available at the time and isolated those who had previouslu made the journey.

10,000 years ago

As the meltdown of the last great Ice Age reached its conclusion, it is believed that Tasmania became separated from the mainland, thus isolating the Aboriginal peoples there. By this time, the Aborigines are believed to have reached all parts of the mainland.

5,000 years ago

With the Ice Age totally over, the Australian continent took on the shape that it has today.


March 8

A fleet of ships of the 1,622 vessel Navy of China’s Admiral Zheng He, built at the Dragon Bay shipyard near Nanjing, set sail from China on the 6th of seven maritime expeditions to make contact with other hitherto unknown countries of the world. Evidence, in the form of ancient maps, precise navigational knowledge, astronomy, surviving accounts of Chinese explorers and later European navigators as well as the traces the fleet left behind, suggests that two of Zheng He‘s Vice-Admirals may have reached and explored the Australian coastline – Hong Bao on the west coast, Zhou Man on the east – spending several months exploring and landing in a number of places.


Cristovao de Mendonca sailed from the Spice Islands, possibly east across the north of Australia, passed through Torres Strait, headed south down the east coast. A chart which appears to have been sourced from records of his voyage, shows the coastline he charted ending abruptly at Warrnambool, Victoria, so the Mahogany Ship may possibly be one of his ships which came to grief; the other ships probably turned back.


Gomes de Sequeira, son of the Viceroy of Goa, who had organised Mendonca’s expedition, sets of on an expedition to explore the land to the south of Java. 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 Beach corresponding with Arnhem Land and Petan with Groote Eylandt.



Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernandez De Quiros reached a fertile island that he named Australia del Espiritu Santo. He believed it to be Terra Australis, or the Great South Land, but it is in fact Vanuatu.



Dutch navigator Willem Janz aboard the Duyfken sailed the northern shores of Australia along the east coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Upon receiving a hostile reception from the natives, which resulted in the death of a crew members, Janz returned to Batavia (Jakarta).


The captain of Pedro Fernandez De Quiros‘ fleet, Luis Vaez de Torres, sailed through the strait between New Guinea and Australia that bears his name. He possibly saw the coast of Australia.


October 16

The fluyt de Jager and the pinnace Morgensterre were selected for a voyage of discovery to the South Land. Cornelis Dedel was placed in command of the expedition. Just as Dedel was preparing to leave Ambon, he encountered British vessels and the expedition was postponed.

October 26

Isaac Le Maire, an Amsterdam merchant, formed a company to finance an expedition for a new route via the Pacific Ocean to establish trade with Terra Australis. The two ships chosen for the initial voyage were the Hoorn, named after Le Maire’s home town, and the Eendracht (Concord) under Dirck Hartog. They sailed from Holland on 14th June 1615. During the voyage, Hartog came across a string of uninhabited islands beyond which was a vast mainland. He went ashore on one of them and high on the cliffs of Cape Inscription at Shark Bay, WA, recorded his visit on a flattened pewter platter which he nailed to a post before sailing away.


May 11

VOC ship Zeewolf, commanded by Haevick Claeszoon van Hillegom, had sailed from Holland on 2nd December, 1617. On 11th May 1618 a brief sighting of land was recorded at latitude 210 15′ S. From the description, it would appear that they were at North West Cape, WA, and had mistaken the cape for an island. No further contact was recorded and the vessel continued without incident on its way to Bantam.

July 31

VOC ship Mauritius, commanded by Lenaert Jacobszoon, had sailed from Holland early 1618. On 31st July, the Mauritius log records, "we discovered and island and went ashore, found human footsteps, on the west side the land extends NNE and SSW, it has a length of 15 miljen; northern extremity is in 220 S". The island on which they landed was also North West Cape, that had been visited by fellow Dutchmen some 11 weeks earlier. Before leaving the coast a river was sighted and named Willem’s River in honour of Willem Jansz, however, many early cartographers and contemporary historians claim that the name honours William I of Orange. The river appears to be the Ashburton


July 19

On the evening of 19th July 1719, Frederik Houtman, aboard the VOC ship Dordrecht, sighted what he called ‘The South Lands behind Java’, somewhere between present day Mandurah and Bunbury. He proceeded north until, on 29th July, he encountered a 16km stretch of islands and broken reefs. He marked his chart ‘Abri voll olos’, an internationally used Portuguese phrase literally translated as ‘keep your eyes open’. The name appeared on all subsequent charts as Houtman’s Abrolhos. At noon on 30th July, Houtman altered course eastward and sighted another stretch of land. He concluded that this was the ‘Land of Eendracht’. After 6th August no more land was sighted until reaching the coast of Java 13 days later.



The company of the Dutch ship Duyfken (Lion) made land contact in March 1622, further south than had Houtman in July 1619. They described the land they found as low-lying, sandy dunes and called it Leeuwin Land. This is the most south-western prominence on the continent of Australia, Cape Leeuwin.


In the southern winter of 1622 a British ship, Trial ran aground and broke up. The exact location of the wreck is not known, but it has been suggested the wreck occurred in the Monte Bello Island group, about 10 degrees east of its reported position. In July of that year two small boats carrying survivors of the wreck made their way into Batavia. The sailors related the story of running hard aground during the night in the longitude of the western edge of Java and at 20 degrees 10 minutes south latitude. Subsequent maps charted rocks in that locale, but such rocks have never been found there.


February 23

Herman van Speult, the Governor of Amroyna, commissioned Jan Carstensz, with fellow explorer Van Colster, to sail two ships, the Arnham and Pera, with the aim of expanding on the reports from the Duyfken, again sailing the southern coast of New Guinea and the region of the west coast of Cape York (believed to be a continuance of New Guinea). In January 1623 these ships sailed from Amboyna to the coast of New Guinea. Carstensz proceeded to the region of Torres Strait then re-tracked to the west, then south along the west coast of Cape York (February), similar to the route the Duyfken travelled. Carstensz continued past Cape Keer-Weer, the turning point of the Duyfken, but at the Staaten River his concern of being trapped against a southern bay by a north breeze caused him to turn north again. Soon after turning at the Staaten River, the ships collided (22nd March) and the mutinous crew of the Arnhem left Carstensz. The Pera continued gathering what information it could along the coast. Carstensz returned to Amboyna (6th June). Following separation from the Pera, the Arnhem was blown west, making land on the east-facing shore of the opposite side. From there, she explored north and west across the top of the region that is called Arnhem Land after their vessel, before returning to home.


January 26

In 1627 parts of the south coast were discovered and mapped. The crew of the Gulden Zeepaert, under the command of Francois Thijssen, sighted the most southerly part of the continent, which was already known as New Holland, and sailed east as far as present day Ceduna. On board were 220 passengers to settle at Java and Pieter Nuyts, an esteemed councillor of India. Later it was Governor Anthonio van Diemen who sent Abel Tasman for some further investigations. The land charted by Thijssen was named Pieter Nuytsland, two of the islands discovered were named St Peter and St Francis on Australia Day (26th January) 1627.


In 1628 the ship Vyanen ran aground on the north-west coast in the latitude of about 21 degrees. To save herself the ship was lightened of casks of pepper and quantities of copper. After standing off the rocky coast, the Vyanen followed it for 320km, but there was nothing which caused the ship’s company to record promise. The region followed was called G.F. de Witts Land. De Witt reported it "a foul and barren shore, green fields. and very wild, barbarous inhabitants."


June 4

The VOC flagship Batavia (details), on her maiden voyage to the Dutch East Indies, stuck fast on a reef in the Abrolhos Islands. The ship was doomed but some survivors made it to a small rocky island. The ship’s commander, Francisco Pelseart, decided to take the ship’s longboat and make for Batavia, which he reached in early July. Three months later, he returned to rescue the survivors, only to find that a number of the crew had killed many of the survivors and planned to capture the rescue vessel. The mutineers were thwarted and the ringleaders were tried and hanged on the island. See also Batavia’s Graveyard.



An ambitious plan for exploration of the great lands was set forth and command given to Gerrit Pool in 1636 with the ships Klein Amsterdam and Wesel. Early in the expedition, Pool was killed and the expedition was abandoned, though not before they contacted the region west of the Arnhem discoveries in and around the region of currently named Melville Island.


November 24

On 14th August 1642, Abel Janszoon Tasman with the ships Zeehan and Heemskerch set out on the first of his two ‘South Land’ expeditions. The expedition left Batavia with two vessels, the Heemskerch with sixty men and the Zeehan with fifty men on board. They first called at Mauritius, where they stayed for a month long repair to both ships. The two ships reached the longitude of the islands of St Peter and St Francis on the South Australian coast, then travelled further south, sighting Van Diemen’s Land on 24th November 1642. They travelled the west and south coast of Tasmania. On 1st December a crew member posted a Dutch flag, claiming possession. Not finding good water, Tasman moved his ships on to search for it, traversing the east coast of Tasmania. When the shore fell away to the north-west (Bass Strait) and with weather coming in directly from the north, Tasman decided to quit this island and continue east, sailing on to the south island of New Zealand.



Abel Tasman’s second voyage to the South Land with three ships, the Zeemeeuw, Limmen and Bracq, took him to Australia’s northern shores where he sailed the same waters as the Arnhem and Pera in 1623. He had been sent by the Dutch Governor-General to determine whether a strait existed between New Guinea and the ‘Southland’ (Australia) as shown on Franco-Portuguese maps. Tasman failed to find Torres Strait, probably because he sailed too far offshore. The dissatisfaction with Tasman’s voyage is best reflected in that a further exploratory expedition was sent to the area with almost identical orders in 1756. Little is known of the results of this voyage.


Jan Janszoon Zeeuw in the VOC ship Leeuwerik charted the west coast, weather conditions permitting, on his way north to Batavia.


April 28

The VOC ship Vergulde Draeck (also known as Gilt Dragon), under the command of Pieter Albertsz, set sail for Batavia on 4th October 1655. Aboard was a crew of 193 men, eight chests of silver coin worth 78,600 guilders and a cargo of trade goods worth 106,400 guilders. Vergulde Draeck left the Cape of Good Hope, however, without the ability to establish longitude and distance with any accuracy, the vessel struck a reef off the Western Australian coast north of Yanchep, near Ledge Point. The vessel began to break up immediately. Two of the ship’s boats were launched but only 75 of the crew were able to make it to shore, along with a few of the provisions and stores. Seven of the crew were immediately dispatched to seek assistance in Batavia, while Albertsz and the rest of the crew remained behind. All are believed to have perished.


The yacht Goede Hoop and the fluyt Witte Valke were sent from Batavia to look for survivors of the Vergulde Draeck after the arrival there of seven crew in a boat from the wrecksite in June 1656. Violent storms encountered made locating the wreck and any rescue of survivors impossible. Several other expeditions were mounted in the following year, but all failed to turn up any of the missing crew, although some wreckage was noted in the region of Fremantle.


January 8

The flute Vinck sailed from the Cape to Batavia with orders to call at New Holland and search for survivors of the Vergulde Draeck. Once again there was no success, primarily due to bad weather and rough seas.



The Waeckende Boei and Emeloort, under the command of Samuel Volkerson and Aucke Pieterszoon Jonck respectively, were sent to search for survivors of the Vergulde Draeck. In March 1658, Abraham Leeman van Santwits, first officer and navigator of the Waeckende Boei and 13 sailors had been ordered by their captain to head to the shore in the vicinity of Wanneroo Beach (25th February) where they found what they believed was wreckage from the Vergulde Draeck but no sign of survivors. Leeman and his crew were caught in a storm (22nd March) and found themselves unable to land or return to the Waeckende Boei. When they discovered that they had been abandoned, Leeman refused to accept the impossibility of his situation. After killing a number of seals and doing his best to collect adequate provisions, Leeman and his party of 13 men set sail for Batavia (8th April) in an overloaded open boat. He and three sailors survived the epic journey, arriving there on 23rd September.


Captain Peereboom of the VOC ship Elburgh explored the region north of Cape Leeuwin to around Geographe Bay. A landing party found some Aborigines, who fled on their arrival, leaving their huts and tools.



Jan van der Wall explored and charted the north-west coast of New Holland in the VOC ship Vliegende Swaan from present-day Dampier to the Exmouth Gulf.


The first recorded British sailor to encounter the mainland of Australia was William Dampier. He visited the west coast with his ship Cygnet in 1688, remaining for three months at King Sound for ship repairs. The Cygnet was actually under the command of Captain Read but it was Dampier who, upon his return to England, published "A New Voyage Round the World" and thus was incorrectly credited as leading the expedition which anchored in Cygnet Bay and sailed around King Sound. Eleven years after his first voyage to New Holland Dampier was back in the Roebuck. He studied the land around Shark Bay, which he named, then sailed north to Dampier Archipelago and on towards Timor and beyond. He reported that he was not impressed with New Holland.


December 24

An expedition of three Dutch ships (Geelvinck, Nijptangh and Westtje) under the command of Commander Willem de Vlamingh and Captains Gerrit Collaert and Cornelis de Vlamingh was dispatched to look for the missing VOC trading vessel Ridderschap van Holland and explore New Holland. They reached its coast on 24th December 1696 somewhere in the vicinity of present day Bunbury. They arrived at Rottnest Island five days later, making it their base for surveys of the area over the next few weeks. They called it Rat’s Nest (Rottnest) Island because of the rat-like marsupials named quokkas found they there. Two expeditions were made to the mainland, the first landing at Cottesloe Beach and the second up the Swan River as far as present day Guildford. Leaving the area, they travelled north, following the coast, mapping it as they went. On 30 January 1697, de Vlamingh sighted another island which he thought to be Dirk Hartog’s Island. There Vlamingh found a plate left by Hartog in 1616. He removed it, replacing the plate with one of his own recording both visits. De Vlamingh spent nine days exploring the surroundings and making accurate charts before heading for Batavia. As a result of Vlamingh’s expedition, the Dutch had finally charted the whole coast from Cape Leeuwin to Exmouth Gulf.



William Dampier returned to collect scientific specimens at Shark Bay and in the Dampier Archipelago, Western Australia, for five weeks in August 1699 in Command of the Roebuck before captaining the British Admiralty’s first South Seas voyage. Dampier then commanded an unsuccessful privateering expedition (1703-7) in the course of which Alexander Selkirk was voluntarily marooned. Though Dampier was an excellent hydrographer and navigator, he proved an incompetent commander, guilty of drunkenness and overbearing conduct.

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