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Who got to Australia first?

The long study of non-Indigenous contact with Australia has seen much controversy in the question of exactly who was 'first' and when it happened. While nearby islanders have long traded with Australia's Indigenous peoples, most history books count the Dutchman Willem Janszoon as being the first documented contact in 1606, when he sailed along the western side of Cape York Peninsula. See the Australia on the Map website for more information and for events celebrating the 400th anniversary of the landing.

There could have been earlier landings by Europeans and others, but the subject is still being debated by historians. One claim for the 'first' is contained in a best-selling but controversial book titled 1421: the year Chinese discovered the world, by Gavin Menzies. Since it was featured on a television program in July 2006, the National Library of Australia has received some interesting queries from the public in relation to the claim. In the book, Menzies writes that Admiral Zheng He and his fleet circumnavigated the world in the fifteenth century and visited Australia long before any European explorers. Indeed, Menzies claims that the great European explorers such as Columbus, Magellan and Cook used maps that were based on those drawn by Zheng's crew in their own exploration of the world.

The seven voyages that Zheng He made during 1405-33 to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and East Africa have been studied for centuries; but Menzies claims that new evidence and reinterpretation of existing evidence has expanded the areas the fleet travelled to. Menzies' claims that his findings are rewriting history, have met with widespread criticism from western historians and other scholars. Since publishing his book, Menzies has made a few visits to China to present his theories in conferences; but the Chinese academia also have concerns about his theories, especially so since Menzies does not read Chinese.

Interestingly, the theory that the Chinese discovered Australia has been put forward before. A wellknown archaeologist, Professor Wei Juxian, published a book titled Zhongguo ren fa xian Aozhou [The Chinese discovery of Australia] in 1960. Re-interpreting ancient Chinese classics and mythological texts, he proposed that 'the Chinese people went back and forth to Australia from time to time from 592 B.C. to 1432 A.D.' (English abstract, Zhongguo ren fa xian Aozhou).

The National Library of Australia contains extensive material on the subject of Zheng He, Chinese history, and the exploration of Australia. The Map Collection has copies of maps that are used by Menzies as evidence of Chinese exploration of Australia and the rest of the world. Menzies revisits cartographic evidence that was previously presented by authors such as Kenneth McIntyre and Lawrence Fitzgerald, claiming the Portuguese explored Australia in the mid-sixteenth century. Asian Collections has a wealth of Chinese language resources on the voyages, including three contemporary accounts by members of Zheng He's crew, and a chart depicting the routes of Zheng's first six voyages, all originally published in the fifteenth century. As mentioned, Zheng's voyages have been the subject of study in China for many centuries, on topics ranging from the routes he took, the impact on trade between China and the world, to the navigation chart showing the advanced navigation skills of his crew. The year 2005 marked the 600th anniversary of Zheng's maiden voyage, when he visited countries that included Vietnam, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. There have been quite a number of books and conference proceedings published in China. Indeed, Zheng is officially depicted in China today as a national hero, bringing peace and friendship to neighbouring nations, the very image that China would like to project itself on the world stage.

A sample of relevant materials for the studies of the early exploration of Australia and Chinese exploration of the world is listed below. To obtain these materials from the National Library of Australia, just send a borrowing or copying request through the Document Supply Service or request copies through the Library's Copies Direct service.

Early Exploration of Australia and Menzies' Claims

Maps and Atlases

This is a selection of maps that are interpreted to show accurate mapping of the Australian coastline before the early Dutch exploration.

First map of Australia by Nicolas Vallard, 1547. (MAP RM 2393)

Maps and text of the Boke of Idrography by Jean Rotz, 1542. (MAP RA 3)

Ms. maps showing Australia by Jean Rotz and Pierre Desceliers, 1542-1550. (MAP RM 2057)

The world by Nicolas Desliens, 1566. (MAP RM 1898)

Facsimiles of old charts of Australia now in the British Museum, published by Trubner & Co., 1885. (MAP RA 181)

Section of Jean Rotz circular chart 1542 Asian Australian hemisphere. (MAP F 503)


This is a selection of books that describe some early discovery theories and the arguments against them.

1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies, 2002. (YY 910.951 M551)

Java la Grande: the Portuguese Discovery of Australia by Lawrence Fitzgerald, 1984. (MAPq 919.4041 F553)

The Secret Discovery of Australia by Kenneth McIntyre, 1982. (N 919.4041 M152)

The Portuguese Discovery of Australia: Fact or Fiction? By W.A.R. Richardson, 1989. (MAP 919.4041 R526)

Great Southern Land: the Maritime Exploration of Terra Australis by Michael Pearson, 2005. (Nq 919.404 P362)

The Discovery of Australia by George Collingridge, 1895. (Nq 994 COL)

Pyramids in the Pacific: the Unwritten History of Australia by Rex Gilroy, 2000. (Nq 001.940994 G498)

The Northern Approaches: Australia in Old Maps by Eric B. Whitehouse, 1994. (Nq 912.94 W593)

(To be published October 2006) Was Australia Charted Before 1606? The Jave la Grande Inscriptions by W.A.R. Richardson, 2006

Journal articles

Both these articles have references to other relevant articles.

'Gavin Menzies cartographic fiction' by W.A.R Richardson in The Globe, Number 56, 2004

'1421: The year China didn't discover terribly much' by Peter Barrett in The Skeptic, Vol 25 No 3, Spring 2005

Zheng He's Voyages and Early Chinese Exploration of the World


Contemporary accounts of Zheng He's voyages

Ying ya sheng lan [Survey of the ocean shores] by Ma Huan. Originally published 1417, reprinted 1969. (OC 2491 5026 1969)

Xing cha sheng lan [Survey of the starry raft] by Fei Xin. Originally published 1437, reprinted 1969. (OC 2491 5026 1969)

Xi yang fan guo zhi [Accounts of foreign countries] by Gong Zhen. Originally published 1434, reprinted 1961. (OC 2435 1010)

Other books on the topic

Ming dai Zheng He hang hai tu zhi yan jiu [Research on Zheng He's chart in Ming dynasty] by Xu Yuhu, 1976. (OC 8880 8226C)

Chuan cheng wen ming, zou xiang shi ji, he ping fa zhan [Proceedings of International Academic Forum in Memory of the 600th Anniversary of Zheng He's Expedition], 2005. (OC 2723 8211 f)

Zheng He yuan hang yu shi jie wen ming [Zheng He's voyages and world civilization: proceedings of a conference in Beijing University], 2005. (OC 2491 8232)

Zheng He xin zhuan [A new biography of Zheng He] by Li Shihou, 2005. (OC 2267 8226AB)

Peace missions on a grand scale: Admiral Zheng He's seven expeditions to the western oceans by Fang Zhongfu and Li Erhe, 2005. (YY 951.026 F211)

Zhongguo ren fa xian Aozhou [The Chinese discovery of Australia] by Wei Juxian, 1960. (OCN 3950 2217)

"1421" Voyages: Fact & Fantasy by P. J. Rivers, 2004. (YY 915.04 R622)

When China Ruled the Seas by Louise Levathes, 1994. (YY 951.026092 C518L)

Journal articles

'Shipping news: Zheng He's sexcentenary' in China Heritage Newsletter, No. 2 (June 2005).

The full text database China Academic Journals contains many articles from more than 4000 Chinese language journals on the topic of Zheng He and Menzies' book.

Damian Cole, Map Librarian, Reader Services Branch

Wan Wong, Librarian, Chinese Unit, Asian Collections
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Publication:National Library of Australia Gateways
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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