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Views of the Australian Landscape - 1;
The Dutch Explorers

Tony Cavanagh

Today we accept the Australian landscape for what it is - sometimes harsh and uncompromising, sometimes beautiful, shaped in many areas by the aboriginal practice of firing the land so that the plants have developed to live in harmony with fire. Yet to the first European observers, conditioned as they were to the "green and pleasant" lands of Europe, Australia was indeed an alien country. The west, northern and southern coasts they visited were mostly arid and barren; even the eastern coastline, clothed in great forests, was regarded as "dreary", "monotonous" and "depressing" by many explorers and early settlers. Some of these people left descriptions or impressions of the landscape and I have included a selection of their comments below. Although recent writers like Proudfoot and Powell have considered the development of the understanding of the Australian landscape from a more philosophical and imaginative point of view, the views I present represent empirical observations of practical mariners and trained scientists. As such, they may be of interest to those interested in garden design in giving an historical context to our treatment of the Australian landscape today.

Although most Australians learned at school about James Cook and the discovery of the east coast of Australia, the part played by others, possibly the Portuguese and notably the Dutch, in discovering and exploring the Australian coast has been sadly neglected. Yet according to Gunter Schilderís researches, between 1605 and 1756 the Dutch visited our shores on at least 17 occasions. Even more intriguing is the fact that by 1645-6 when Jan Blaeu drew his famous maps, more than 60% of the Australian coastline had been mapped as a result of their explorations. Considering that this was a composite of observations over 40 years, it is remarkably close to the known outline of Australia. What did these early explorers think of Australia? How did they describe the landscape?

Landfalls on the Australian coast were made as a result of planned expeditions on behalf of the Dutch East India Company or due to navigational miscalculations. Little was published as a result of the former; only fragmentary reports and letters exist from the latter but they all paint a grim picture - in 1616 "a red muddy coast"; in 1622 the land north and south of present-day Cape Leeuwin was described as "(low) land with dunes and above trees and bush"; in 1623 we have the first detailed description of any part of the Australian coast (the west coast of Cape York Peninsula) when Jan Carstensz wrote - "The land between 13 degrees S and 17 degrees S (ie between present-day Pera Head and the Staaten River) is an arid and poor tract of land without any fruit tree or anything useful to man; it is low and monotonous without mountain or hill, wooded in some places with bush and little oily trees; there is little fresh water and what there is can only be collected from pits specially dug --". Even the two voyages of Tasman in 1644 and 1646 during which he discovered much of the south coast of Tasmania and also explored New Zealand produced nothing favourable - "found nothing profitable, only poor naked people walking along the beaches; without rice or many fruits--".

So bad was Tasmanís report, that it took another 50 years before the Dutch ventured here again in the well-equipped Van Vlamingh expedition of 1696-7. With three ships, he made landfall on Rottnest island where the crew were fascinated by the marsupial quokkas and the woods (trees) "the most beautiful in the world, the entire island was filled with the smell of it" - possibly eucalypts. In mid-January 1697 they explored the Swan River and collected the first known specimens of Australian plants, Acacia truncata and Synaphea spinulosa. After a chequered botanical history (they were originally thought to be ferns from Java), they were correctly diagnosed by Australian botanists and now occupy pride of place as our first botanical "exports".

To be continued - Part 2 "The English Explorers"

Acknowledgements - Much of the information and quotations come from the excellent book "Terra Australis to Australia" (ed. by Glyndwr Williams and Alan Frost, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1988), a project for the Australian Bicentenary. All chapters are of very great interest and provide a superb introduction to many facets of the coming of Europeans to the southern hemisphere.

Tony Cavanagh has been growing Australian plants since the early 1970s. He is currently Off Campus Librarian at Deakin University, Geelong and has found that his training as a librarian has been extremely useful in researching the history of cultivation of Australian plants. This article is reprinted from the February 1994 issue of the Newsletter of the SGAP Garden Design Study Group.

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