When I first laid eyes on Beyond Capricorn: How Portuguese adventurers secretly discovered and mapped Australia 250 years before Captain Cook at Hyde Park Barracks last year it immediately became high on my to read list.
It turns out Gosford library has a copy so I borrowed it and proceeded to devour every page with excitement.
First a little pre-history.
In popular history it is well accepted that British navigator Captain James Cook was the first European to discover Australia. He set foot on the East coast in 1770 and proclaimed it New South Wales.
[Note: Having read Captain Cook: Obsession and betrayal in the New World by Vanessa Collingridge I immediately appreciated the theme of Trickett’s work, which was first proposed by George Collingridge in the late nineteenth century. But that’s the topic of another book review]
We now know, thanks to corroborating archaeological and documented records, there was a rich pre-Cook age of European discovery of Australia from 1606 to 1770.
Spanish navigators de Queiros (Portuguese origin) and Torres (Torres Straight bears his name) either sighted and/or set foot on the Australian mainland towards what is now North Queensland and English and Dutch explorers like Dampier, Janzsoon and de Vlamingh did the same on the western and northern coasts.
There was also French discovery beginning at the time of the first British settlement by La Perouse and his two ships. Unfortunately, the Astrolabe and Boussole never made it back to France.
The pre-Cook discovery of Australia is a fascinating topic. Only by investigating it do we come to appreciate the impetus for further discovery and eventually colonisation.
Of course, it is only fitting that Terra Australis Incognita did indeed exist as it was first postulated by ancient European and later Renaissance philosophers a large southern land mass was necessary to “balance” the seemingly top-heavy Earth.
Beyond Capricorn attempts to complete the story.
Trickett, a science journalist, pieces together a collection of hard evidence, anecdotal folklore and shrewd speculation to arrive at the conclusion that is was in fact sixteenth century Portuguese mariners who where the first Europeans to discover Australia’s East and West coasts.
With the size and capability of the Portuguese empire at the time it’s certainly not an unreasonable possibility. Modern reporting tells us of the former Portuguese colonies in the East of Sri Lanka, East Timor and Macau, but little is said of how such colonies could have existed under the dominion the apparently diminutive West European nation, often overshadowed by its larger neighbour Spain.
During the age of discovery, however, the Portuguese empire was anything but diminutive. Trickett begins by reporting the scope of Portuguese naval capability and examples of journeys made across the Indian ocean.
The book then centres the discovery of the illusive “Island of Gold” around two explorers – Diogo Pacheco and Christopher Mendosa.
Trickett corroborates the known voyages of these two men with whatever evidence there is from Australia to establish a case for this little-known chapter in Southern Hemisphere history.
If Trickett is correct, during his adventure to the Kimberley, Pacheco was the first white man to set foot on Australian soil as early as 1520. Yes, less than 30 years after Columbus set foot in America. He never made it back though, losing a battle with the local Aboriginal tribes.
Then, between 1520 and 1530, Mendosa sailed his way down Australia’s East coast and then later the West coast charting most of the inlets along the way.
To arrive at such conclusions Trickett relies heavily on the Dieppe Vallard maps. The maps were originally sketched on Portolans (animal hides), supposedly intercepted by the French from the Portuguese at sea and then redrawn in colour back in Europe.
Other evidence includes cannons, pots and even a sinker found off the Queensland coast.
Am I convinced? Hmmm… maybe.
At the end of the book you just wish there was more evidence on Trickett’s side. There’s plenty of piecemeal “evidence” and speculation – including seemingly far-fetched explanations that some Australian Aboriginal place names are of Portuguese origin – but there’s no definitive hard evidence that closes the loop and categorically proves Trickett’s theories.
Beyond Capricorn is certainly interesting reading and Trickett is sincere in his intentions, however, we may never know for sure if pre-Cook European discovery of Australia pre-dates the seventeeth century.