Darwin boy’s find could rewrite history

By AAP with AG STAFF 10 January 2012
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A 500-year-old Portuguese gun has been found on an NT beach, and may suggest Europeans arrived earlier than thought.

A DARWIN BOY may help re-write Australia’s history after unearthing what he believes is a 500-year-old Portuguese swivel gun on a Northern Territory beach.

Portugal occupied Timor from 1515 until 1975, although it is hotly debated whether Portuguese explorers made it to Australia, about 700km away.

Christopher Doukas made the discovery at Dundee Beach, about two hours’ drive from Darwin. He found the gun when tides dipped to exceptional lows in January 2010, and he could walk out a long way from shore.

The boy, now aged 13, saw the item poking out of mud, dug it out with his father and took it back to his home.

Striking resemblance

“As soon as we got it back into Darwin my dad got an angle grinder and nicked a little bit of it. We saw it was bronze, so we knew it was old,” Christopher says.

Research on the internet showed the item – about the size of a rifle – bore a striking resemblance to Portuguese swivel guns, used as anti-personnel weapons on ships in the 16th Century.

In July last year Christopher’s mother, Barbara, alerted staff at the Museum and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory in Darwin to the find, and sent in photos that she was told seemed to indicate it was the genuine article. But it has only been in the past few weeks, after speaking to her local MP, that she has been asked to bring it in for further examination.

A museum spokesperson told Australian Geographic that they were aware of the discovery, but haven’t had a chance yet to directly inspect it. They said they are waiting for it to be brought in or sold to them so they can thoroughly examine what they described as an “exciting” find.

Christopher says a similar item had sold in Britain for £8,000 (about $12,000), and he would be interested in selling the gun to a museum.

Rewriting Australian history 

But does this mean the Portuguese made it to Australia much earlier than thought? Early maps from France in the 1500s appear to show part of Northern Australia, which some have cited as evidence Portuguese explorers arrived during that period, although that interpretation is controversial.

Local historian Peter Forrest says he is sceptical Portuguese explorers reached Northern Australia in the 1500s, but if the find is a genuine swivel gun from that period it would be grist for the mill for people that believed the theory.

It still needs to be demonstrated that the location of the find had some connection with Portuguese contact and the item hadn’t simply washed up or been left there by antique dealers in the 1800s. Peter says there was no independent evidence of any Portuguese contact with that part of Australia during the 1500s and quite a lot of evidence that there was no such contact.

“I think it is jumping to a very premature conclusion to link that object with a Portuguese presence in the Top End of the Territory of any great antiquity,” he says. “Even if it happened, so what? What were the consequences?”

The earliest authenticated European contact with Australia was in 1606 by the Dutch vessel Duyfken.