Australia's Secret History

Ross Coulthart

A blog by Ross Coulthart

“The evidence suggests that the first Europeans who lived on Australian soil were the Dutch. The first who lived here in any number were the Dutch.” – Historian, Professor Geoffrey Blainey

There are a lot of things I didn’t know about Australia which I’ve learned while making our story on Australia’s Secret History.

Most Australians know that James Cook was not the first explorer to discover Australia and that many of our country’s geographical features were in fact named by other European explorers – names like Tasman, Torres, Dirk Hartog and Van Diemen. But it has always been holy writ that Australia’s “first European settlers” were British.

Most history books teach school students that the first European colony in Australia was the so-called “First Fleet” - 1,487 soldiers and convicts who arrived at Botany Bay in NSW between the 18th and 20th of January 1788.

Right now, my head is spinning from weeks of talking to scientists, bushmen, aboriginal elders, and amateur historians, who have told us amazing stories of an alternative history of this country – even tales of hidden caves with Spanish or Portuguese artefacts.

It is clear that Australia was visited by numerous explorers long before Cook. But did any of their country folk stay? And why don’t we get told about this in schools?

As part of our research for this story we looked at school textbooks around the country. In the NSW syllabus and teacher "Units of Work" guides, pre-Cook history is minimal. The main textbook Retroactive 1, does acknowledge that Macassans and Torres Strait Islanders visited the Aust coastline for hundreds of years.

It also says, "there is also evidence that Portuguese sailors knew of the Australian continent. The evidence is in sixteenth-century maps that show a country called Java la Grande... the maps were drawn from Portuguese charts and represents a landmass indicating Australia.”

The NSW textbook also mentions how in 1606, on a ship named the Duyfken, Dutch sailors recorded the sighting of the Australian mainland.

Students are told that “The Dutch were not interested in establishing a colony on the large arid land, because they found nothing of particular value to trade or conquer." The end.

But what if everything we have been told about the First Fleet being British is actually misleading – perhaps, we should say, plain wrong?

Australia’s most eminent historian Geoffrey Blainey has told us in an interview for this program that he believes the history of Australian early settlement is too anglocentric.

He said: “The Dutch were great explorers. Cook was a great mapper and a wonderful navigator. A wonderful man. But what the Dutch discovered along the coast of Australia and NZ in terms of first there was better than anything Cook did in that era.”

So what is Professor Blainey talking about? What is it that we are not being told in school textbooks or popular histories of early European settlement?

What I didn’t know about until this story was the amazing story of at least four Dutch shipwrecks on Australian shores, between one and two centuries before James Cook even ventured through Australian waters, and the astonishing evidence that possibly as many as hundreds of European survivors from those wrecks – Dutch, German, French, Belgian, Poland – made it to shore.

What happened to them is a mystery that may now be about to be solved.

If the theory now being investigated by Dutch scientists is correct then many of those early European shipwreck survivors washed up on our shores survived by living with aborigines on Australia’s north-west coast.

They also intermarried with them and produced offspring who grew up as aboriginal children...but often with discernable Dutch or European features. Because of the sparse food and resources in that area, it is likely the large group of survivors broke up and spread out among different aboriginal tribes.

Using sophisticated new DNA testing, it is now possible to detect any specifically European DNA in present-day aborigines from that region, and to see roughly when that European DNA came into the family line, to within a few decades.

It should be possible within a few months to say whether hundreds of Europeans – not Brits – were the first European settlers as much as 1-200 years before the First Fleet. Some of the circumstantial evidence for this theory is already in, and it is fascinating.

When the early English explorers went through WA in the early 19th century, supposedly the first white faces to ever venture there, they were shocked to see evidence suggesting earlier European settlement of WA.

The following is from George Grey’s Expeditions in Western Australia in 1837, 1838, 1839, Volumes 1 and 2.

“There was an exception in the youngest, who appeared of an entirely different race: his skin was a copper colour, whilst the others were black; his head was not so large, and more rounded; the overhanging brow was lost; the shoulders more of a European turn, and the body and legs much better proportioned; in fact he might be considered a well-made man at our standard of figure.” George Grey, Expedition in Western Australia - Vol 1. (Gascoyne River)

“A remarkable circumstance is the presence amongst them of a race, to appearance, totally different, and almost white, who seem to exercise no small influence over the rest. I am forced to believe that the distrust evinced towards strangers arose from these persons, as in both instances, when we were attacked, the hostile party was led by one of these light-coloured men.” George Grey, Expedition in Western Australia - Vol 1, North-Western Coast of New Holland.

“.... travel round the valley; but before we could gain the head of it we had to cross two streams which ran into it on the eastern side. These however gave us but little trouble. On the tongue of land between them we found a native hut which differed from any before seen, in having a sloping roof.” George Grey, Expedition in Western Australia - Vol 1, North-Western Coast of New Holland.

“Travelling about a mile after we had crossed the river (Gascoyne) we came to seven native huts, built of large-sized logs, much higher and altogether of a very superior description to those made by the natives on the south-western coast …” George Grey, Expedition in Western Australia - Vol 1. North-Western Coast of New Holland.(Gascoyne River)

“Being unable to ford the river (Hutt) here we followed it in a south-east direction for two miles, and in this distance passed two native villages, or, as the men termed them, towns, the huts of which they were composed differed from those in the southern districts in being much larger, more strongly built, and very nicely plastered over the outside with clay and clods of turf, so that although now uninhabited they were evidently intended for fixed places of residence. This again showed a marked difference between the habits of the natives of this part of Australia and the south-western portions of the continent; for these superior huts, well marked roads, deeply sunk wells, and extensive warran grounds, all spoke of a large and comparatively-speaking resident population, …..” George Grey, Expedition in Western Australia - Vol 2. Hutt River area.

“.. and as we wound along the native path my wonder augmented; the path increased in breadth and in its beaten appearance, whilst along the side of it we found frequent wells, some of which were ten and twelve feet deep and were altogether executed in a superior manner.” George Grey, Expedition in Western Australia - Vol 2 - April 4. Gantheaume Bay.

“We now crossed the dry bed of a stream and from that emerged upon a tract of light fertile soil, quite overrun with warran* plants the root of which is a favourite article of food with the natives. This was the first time we had yet seen this plant on our journey, and now for three and a half consecutive miles we traversed a fertile piece of land literally perforated with the holes the natives had made to dig this root; indeed we could with difficulty walk across it on that account, whilst this tract extended east and west as far as we could see. It was now evident that we had entered the most thickly-populated district of Australia that I had yet observed, and moreover one which must have been inhabited for a long series of years, for more had here been done to secure a provision from the ground by hard manual labour than I could have believed it in the power of uncivilised man to accomplish. (Gantheaume Bay.) Historian Geoffrey Blainey believes there is enough of this circumstantial evidence already to make the following statements to us in his interview:
“At least a few hundred Dutch people, having been shipwrecked, spent a long time on the Australian coast. Some of them were abandoned here. They lived with aborigines and gave birth to children of mixed ancestry. I don’t think there could be much doubt about that....The evidence suggests that the first Europeans who lived on Australian soil were the Dutch. The first who lived in any number were the Dutch.”

And what does this eminent historian think of the claim that the Dutch and other Europeans should be acknowledged as the real First Fleet; should we be commemorating the wreck of the Zuytdorp in June 1712 as the real date of Australia’s First Fleet, instead of the British some 76 years later? He says: “You could say it’s the First Fleet that came to nothing, except for their small contribution to the aboriginal gene pool.”

But, he adds, it’s important that we acknowledge this event: “History is the sum total of human experience. We should know about it and learn from it. That’s why it matters.”

Back in 1994, the West Australian Parliament received a report into the various shipwrecks along the WA coastline. The ‘Report of the Select Committee on Ancient Shipwrecks’ made a stunning recommendation:

“This Select Committee believes that further efforts should be made to bring these theories to some finality. A major reason for this is that generations of Australian schoolchildren have been taught that Australia was settled by the British at Port Jackson in 1788.

Evidence put before the Committee and reading material made available to our members strongly suggests that, in fact, a significant European presence could have been in Western Australia at least 76 years earlier. If these theories are proved to be true, they would undoubtedly challenge conventional notions of early British settlement.”

The numerous recommendations made by the committee, for there to be a top-level inquiry into early European presence in Australia, have been ignored. But in Perth there is a strong-willed former Dutchman who believes the real history of European settlement of Australia has been suppressed.

Tom Vanderveldt runs the WA-based VOC Historical Society Inc – VOC being the Dutch acronym for the Dutch East India Company, as it was then known during the golden era in the 17th and 18th Centuries when Holland ran the world. Tom believes there has been a deliberate effort by some in Government to suppress this history.

“You believe someone in Government in WA conspired to cover up evidence of Dutch settlement of Australia?,” we put to him.

“Yes. They didn’t like to share WA with the Dutch. It was called New Holland. I think that the truth should be known,” he told us. Tom is a good bloke and, while he is serious in his belief that history has been suppressed, he also admits “it’s a bloody good laugh”. It is also a spit in the eye for the British, which he and about ten million or so Dutch folk delight in.

If you would like to know more about this “suppressed” Secret History, you can read a mountain of material at Tom’s website:

We also strongly recommend any other budding amateur historians who find this story as fascinating as we do to feast on the riches on the WA Maritime Museum website. It is a wonderful resource and their shipwreck museum, if you are ever in Perth, is well worth visiting:

If you want to read a fascinating book about the shipwrecks then Philip Playford’s “Carpet of Silver” is a rollicking good read. There is also an intriguing book written by Peter Trickett called “Beyond Capricorn”. It explores theories, and quite persuasive evidence to support them, suggesting that Portuguese adventurers secretly discovered and mapped Australia and New Zealand centuries before Cook.