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Weighing two sources of information that a Portuguese ship might have entered the Clarence River in the early sixteenth century.


The possibility that Australia was discovered by Europeans in the early sixteenth century stems from the depiction of a continental land mass south of Java on many world maps and atlases made at Dieppe in the mid sixteenth century. In his book Beyond Capricorn (2007), Peter Trickett argued for the discovery of Australia by Portuguese, and invoked a traditional Aboriginal story as evidence that a Portuguese ship might have sailed up the Clarence River on the northeast coast of New South Wales. The purpose of the present article is to examine the credibility and reasonableness of two sources from which he derived this possibility.

Trickett was one of the speakers at the Dieppe Maps' Seminar, held by the National Library of Australia on 10 November 2013. He told the audience of his belief that the Portuguese Cristovao de Mendoza led a fleet of four ships that departed from Cochin in India in 1521 and, on two successive expeditions, discovered Australia's west and east coasts. During question-time a member of the audience asked him: 'Is there any record or any knowledge of any landings?' He replied that there is no specific record of any landings but that there is actually an Aboriginal record of men dressed in "clothing of stone" on a boat that went up the Clarence River. He added, 'Of course that would be armour and the Portuguese would have been wearing armour,' (Trickett 2013). The logic of the answer is as follows: Men wearing clothing of stone went up the river; the clothing of stone must be armour; the source is a traditional Aboriginal story therefore is must be very old (i.e. pre-date the coming of the British); the Portuguese are known to have worn armour (unlike the nineteenth century British) therefore the men were Portuguese.


Trickett had already voiced in his book the possibility that an Aboriginal tradition preserves a memory of a Portuguese excursion up the Clarence River long before Captain Cook's day. He made this claim in the context of his attempt to identify a river named Rio grant (big river) in the Vallard atlas (1547) with the Clarence River, the largest river on the northeast coast of New South Wales. He estimated 1 that the length of river shown in the atlas to be about 100 km and stated that small boats can be taken up the Clarence about the same distance. Then he wrote:

Most intriguing of all, there exists a mysterious oral tradition attributed to Aboriginal people of this region which could well refer to such an event. The tradition tells of a 'great canoe with sails' which voyaged up the river from the coast many centuries ago. This exotic vessel must have predated the arrival of the British, because the Aboriginal account speaks of its white-skinned crew being clad in "garments of stone"...

A second version of the Clarence River tradition describes the men in the "sailing canoe" carrying what would seem to be iron weapons and recounts that they had come "from the centre of the world".

Ron Heron, an Aboriginal elder living in the Clarence Valley, says the second oral tradition was passed on to his father by an old friend, the late Alex Vesper. He adds that Vesper was not believed, and even ridiculed, because he insisted that the strangers' boat had sails and that they carried iron weapons. If we assume the legends to have a basis in fact, though, they would clearly point to one of the first encounters between Europeans and Aboriginal people on the east coast of Australia. (Trickett 2007, 137-8).

The sources of the tradition are given in end-note 5 relating to the chapter:

Rex Gilroy refers to the first of these stories in his monograph "Carving out a New History", Australasian Post, 19 December 1985. (1) The other source, Ron Heron, recounted the oral tradition in a telephone interview with the author [Trickett], October 2003. (Trickett 2007, 360).


The first source mentioned in Trickett's end-note is an article by Rex Gilroy. Its full title is 'Carving out a new history: ancient engravings found near Botany Bay suggest that Spanish explorers reached the famous inlet two centuries before Capt. Cook.' The title suggests that it is all about Botany Bay but it includes sundry snippets of information that the author held up as further evidence that Australia received Spanish visitors long before the advent of the British. Here is Gilroy's paragraph on the Clarence River story:

Aboriginal tales of apparent Spanish visitors still exist in the Grafton-Clarence River (NSW) district. 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?). (Gilroy 1985, 26)

Trickett did little more than paraphrase Gilroy's text and one wonders why he even referred to it. The information is un-sourced and there is no cause to think that Gilroy is an authority on Aboriginal traditions. Gilroy has described himself as, 'an open-minded field naturalist and historical researcher archaeologist with a lifetime's interest in all "unexplained phenomenon" (sic), and his reminiscences of his childhood on the Georges River near Sydney are an indicator of his lack of credibility in this matter: 'Little did I know that in the years ahead I would discover plenty of evidence that this river had been visited not just by Arabs, but Spaniards, Phoenicians and other ancient explorers.' (Gilroy 2006).


Trickett's so-called 'second version' or 'second oral tradition' is the one that Ron Heron related that he had heard from his father who heard it from Alexander Vesper. (2) Trickett introduced Heron as 'an Aboriginal elder living in the Clarence Valley,' but neglected to say that he is also a professional archaeologist. The want of a citation of Vesper's story suggests that Trickett did not track down either its publication history or information about its author. Vesper's story had, in fact, been published many times, the first time more than forty years before Trickett's book.

Vesper told the story in about 1960 to Roland Robinson, the Irish-born Australian poet who became a determined recorder of Aboriginal oral traditions. (3) Having obtained a government grant Robinson set out on a quest to find and record the ancient Aboriginal lore of New South Wales. Robinson met Alex Vesper at Woodenbong Aboriginal Reserve in northeastern New South Wales and later described him as 'having the greatest knowledge of Aboriginal traditions and lore which I have encountered.' (Robinson 1976, 272)

The story was first published under the title 'The three brothers' in the Winter 1963-4 edition of The Literary Review, the quarterly journal of literature published by Fairleigh Dickinson University at Teaneck in New Jersey, USA (Vesper 1963). The theme of this issue of the journal is Australian literature which was, at that time, little known to Americans. The body of literature published in the issue included three other Aboriginal stories that Robinson had recorded.

   The story was published again in Robinson's collection of
   Aboriginal stories entitled The man who sold his dreaming in 1965,
   which book was re-issued by a different publisher in 1977. Robinson
   also included it--some of it paraphrased, most of it quoted-- in
   the second part of his autobiography, The shift of sands, published
   in 1976. The same story, some text being omitted from the beginning
   and the end, was repeated in Jennifer Isaacs' (ed.) Australian
   dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal history, first published in
   1980 and re-issued by another publisher in 2005. Currently the
   story, taken from the first edition of Isaacs (1980), is reproduced
   on the Clarence River History website (n.d.), which is maintained
   with the support of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and
   Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).

Vesper's story has three parts. The first part is a statement of its provenance and authenticity.

   This story is not a Butheram. A Butheram is a story that is given
   out by a being that lives in the mountains. This story has been
   handed down by the Aborigines through their generations. This story
   cannot be altered. I am sixty-seven years of age. I heard this
   story from my grandfather who was a full-blood of the Ngarartbul
   tribe near Murwillumbah. On my grandmother's side the tribe was
   Gullibul, from Casino and Woodenbong. I heard this story also from
   many old Aborigines who came from other tribes.

The second part tells of the Aboriginal settlement of Australia, the 'first finding of this unknown land, Australia' by three brothers Mamoon, Yar Birrain and Birrung 'who came from the central part of the world'. In brief, they came in 'a sailing ship' to Yamba Head at the mouth of the Clarence River with their families, their three wives and their mother. They unloaded all their possessions, including a steel axe, before a storm blew the ship away. The brothers set to work building three bark canoes in order to return to their home across the sea while their mother searched for food. When they were ready to go their mother could not be found. They presumed that she was dead and they left without her. However, a storm drove them back ashore at Evans Head. They stayed, found their mother, and became the ancestors of the Aboriginal nations. By way of explanation he said, 'When they landed here there was no one because God had wiped out the whole of the earth in a great flood.'

The third part tells of the white settlement of Australia: how the Aborigines made friends with Captain Cook who returned to England and reported that 'he had found a great land in the south. And this is how the white man came here and settled.'


Robinson wrote in his autobiography, 'For years I regarded this account with a certain wonder and curiosity.' (1976, 279) He did not explain himself, but he did write in the preface to The man who sold his dreaming that,

In places, they [Aboriginal storytellers] have mixed in with these surviving examples of tribal culture some ideas they have acquired from whites. This, however, is only natural. All cultures acquire elements from others with which they come in contact. (Robinson 1965, 8)

No doubt he would have counted among the acquired ideas in this story the Biblical flood and the historical information of Captain Cook and of England. What interpretation Robinson might have put on the mention of the sailing ship and the steel axe is not known. These two items are not mentioned in the two other tales of the three brothers that were recorded on the northeast coast of New South Wales.

Trickett's attention seems to have been held by the elements of the tradition related by Heron that seem to be incongruous with Aboriginal culture, namely the 'sailing canoe' and 'iron weapons', and that the men on the ship had come 'from the centre of the world.' His term 'sailing canoe' is a rather different object from Vesper's 'a sailing ship', and his 'iron weapons' is different in quantity and purpose from Vesper's 'a steel axe.' On the other hand the phrase 'from the centre of the world' is almost the same as Vesper's 'from the central part of the world', but Trickett seems to have been unaware that Vesper's story tells that both the Aboriginal people and the white men that followed Captain Cook came from that same place. Does it mean that Vesper thought that Aborigines came from Europe like the British? It is hard to see why he might have thought so. Perhaps he meant only that all mankind has a common origin.

Trickett wants to believe that early sixteenth century Portuguese mariners are the inspiration for these additions to the tradition but there is nothing specifically Portuguese (or even Spanish) in the incongruous elements of Vesper's story. It is much more reasonable to look for their explanation in the general use of sailing ships by white explorers and traders along this coast from the early nineteenth century, in the eagerness with which Aborigines replaced their stone-edged implements with European axes and adzes, and in their eventual embracing of Christianity.

It seems reasonable to assume that Gilroy's article in the Australasian Post contains gross distortions of, or unwarranted additions to, an Aboriginal story. The first element that he mentioned, 'a huge "canoe" with sails,' might be a dressing up of Vesper's actual words 'a sailing ship', but the second and third elements--'white skinned "culture-heroes"' and '"garments of stone"'--cannot be traced to Vesper's story or to any authentic traditional Aboriginal story of the Clarence River.


Peter Trickett based his speculation of a possible early sixteenth century Portuguese excursion up the Clarence River on two sources: a paragraph written by Rex Gilroy, a notable believer in and interpreter of mysteries; and an interview with Ron Heron, an Aboriginal elder and archaeologist. Gilroy's text cannot be construed as a source, not only because he seems to have no credibility in the matter, but also because the information that it relates is un-sourced. The interview with Ron Heron has a much different character. Heron is an authoritative source and it is evident that he warned Trickett that the very elements of the tradition that Trickett's speculation would later rely on are highly controversial. Nevertheless, Trickett set the warning aside. It is most unlikely that these controversial elements of Vesper's story arose from an early sixteenth century Portuguese excursion up the Clarence River. They were probably, as Robinson suggested, acquired by contact with British settlers. The search for a solution to the mystery of Java la Grande on the Dieppe maps is best served by attending only to credible and reasonable evidence.


CLARENCE RIVER HISTORY [website] (n.d.), 'Arrival stories', [Retrieved 14 Jan. 2014].

GILROY, REX (1985). 'Carving out a new history: ancient engravings found near Botany Bay suggest that Spanish explorers reached the famous inlet two centuries before Capt. Cook,' Australasian Post, 19 Dec. 1985, 26-7.

GILROY, REX & HEATHER, ([C] 2006), Mysterious Australia [website], [Retrieved 19 Jan. 2014].

ISAACS, JENNIFER (ed.) (2005). Australian dreaming: 40,000 years of Aboriginal history, New Holland Publishers, Sydney (First published by Lansdowne Press, 1980).

ROBINSON, ROLAND (1965). The man who sold his dreaming, Currawong Publishing: Sydney (Re-issued by Rigby, 1977).

--, (1976). The shift of sands: an autobiography 1952-1962. Macmillan: Melbourne.

TRICKETT, PETER (2007). Beyond Capricorn: how Portuguese mariners secretly discovered and mapped Australia and New Zealand 250 years before Captain Cook, East Street Publications: Adelaide.

--, (2013). Untitled address in Session three, 'The Dieppe Maps seminar', part of the Mapping Our World-- Discovery Day, hosted by the National Library of Australia, 10 November 2013. Online at [Retrieved 20/1/2014].

VESPER, ALEXANDER (1963). 'The three brothers', The Literary Review (Winter 1963/64), 7(2):172-175.


(1) The Australasian Post was well-known for its titillating front cover photographs, its tales of the weird and wonderful, and for its giant cross-word puzzle.

(2) Alexander Vesper, d.1976, buried Casino, NSW (The Northern Star, 1 July 1976, 13).

(3) Robinson (1912-1992) has been described as 'One of Australia's leading nature poets and talented collector of Aboriginal stories.' Author record, Roland Edward Robinson, AustLit website ( [Retrieved 16 Jan. 2014]

Andrew Eliason (1)

(1) Andrew Eliason is an independent researcher based in Canberra. Contact:
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Author:Eliason, Andrew
Publication:The Globe
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Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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