Introduction

As this book only covers the European discoveries of Australia, I would like to acknowledge the indigenous Australians who occupied our vast continent from as long as 50,000 to 60,000 years ago.
They were primitive hunter-gatherers, who moved over long distances, probably only within their own tribal areas, in search of food, water and herbal medicines. This meant that their association with the land was more of a spiritual one, rather than the European concept of possession which implied that your land was where you built a shelter to live in and place a fence around its perimeter.
In the Mabo case in 1992, the High Court of Australia delivered a judgement that recognised the Native Title Rights of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the continent, and overturned the earlier belief of Terra Nullius. It was believed that the land belonged to no-one when the Europeans had arrived in 1788. The Mabo case was based on the Murray Islanders who certainly had remained there for many thousands of years and were, as the High Court found, closely associated with the land on their islands. These Islanders even fenced their land from their neighbours, and passed the ownership down from father to son.

However, applying this principle to the Australian mainland still causes controversy in some circles.
The early explorers had great difficulty in communicating with the Aborigines because of extreme cultural and language difficulties — about 250 languages were spoken by the 700 tribes. Even gifts of nails, beads, cloth and other trinkets given by the explorers as acts of friendship, were completely misunderstood and often left on the ground when the natives ran away. For these reasons even those early explorers who were keen to befriend the locals had little or no success, as we shall read later.
There is also a theory that two large Chinese fleets visited parts of the coast of Australia in the period from 1421 to 1423. Several signs have allegedly been found that they may have landed, such as parts of their wrecked ships. The Chinese were searching for treasure such as gold, silver and other minerals, and appeared to have no interest in discovering new territories for settlement. Of the 107 treasure ships that left China over this period, only a handful had returned home by 1423. Many of the primitive square-riggers had been wrecked by the strong winds and tides and the rough seas.
It is also known that from the very early days, Indonesian fisherman from the Macassar area, at the southern end of Celebes (now Makassar in Sulawesi, Indonesia), planned their visit to the northern Australian coast in December each year. At this Dutch port of Macassar their small fleet of wooden vessels called ‘proas’, with a high square stern and low blunt bow, usually weighing thirty to fifty tons, were filled up with rice and water. They had bamboo cabins and large matting sails, which carried them along before the favourable monsoons at that time of the year.
The Macassan fleet then visited bays in Arnhem Land and the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia. At low tide the fishermen waded with spears into the water, or fished from long canoes to catch the long sea- slugs known as trepang or bêche-de-mer. The slugs were then boiled in cauldrons on the shore, dried in the sun and cured in flimsy smoke houses made of bamboo matting and palm leaves.
When the south-east monsoons came, the cargoes of trepang were carried back to Celebes and traded with the Chinese or Dutchmen, usually in return for manufactured goods. Most of the trepang went to the Chinese who used them to flavour soup for the wealthy! However, there are no charts or written records to confirm the dates and details of these early visits.