Rare documents reveal search for Australia

By Hsin-Yi Lo 20 August 2013
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Two 17th century records show how a determined Spanish explorer could have been the first European to find Australia.

TWO RECORDS UNVEILED BY the State Library of New South Wales reveal a Spanish mission to find Australia in the 17th century.

The two documents, known as memorials, were written by explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, who was appealing to the King of Spain for funding to search for the fabled southern continent. The artefacts round out the library’s collection, which already contained 11 other memorials submitted by de Queirós.

Dr Alex Byrne, chief executive of the State Library, says this is a very exciting moment for Australia. “We are the first institution in the world to have the full set of printed documents that describe [an attempt at finding] the great southern land,” Alex says.

Had the expedition been successful, Alex says, Australia may have been colonised by Spain 150 years before Cook’s arrival.

Spanish explorers try to find Australia

Dated between 1607 and 1614, the memorials detail de Queirós’s submissions to King Philip III of Spain requesting funding for an expedition to locate the great southern continent, a place that had been spoken of in local legend for more than 2000 years. 

The memorials were unveiled last week by the State Library of New South Wales. (Credit: State Library of NSW)

On previous expeditions, De Queirós had already come across many wonders in the Pacific region, including his “discovery” of Vanuatu in 1606.

The great southern continent was a place of mystery, says Alex. He describes a 16th-century map (pictured above) held by the State Library that depicts the continent surrounded by sea monsters and a “fanciful drawing of a kangaroo that looked more like a dragon”.

De Queirós however believed resolutely in the southern continent’s existence, says Alex, and justified his exploration by promising to collect valuable resources such as gold, silver, cinnamon and timber, and to spread Catholicism “before the Protestants got there”.

When the King ignored his appeal, de Queirós sold many of his personal belongings and clothes to raise enough money to continue his petition.

Australia could have been colonised by Spain

“He truly believed in what he was doing,” says Alex. Fatefully, just after the King agreed to fund his expedition in 1614, de Queirós died.

“If de Queirós didn’t die, he might well have discovered the east coast of Australia 150 years before Cook,” Alex told Australian Geographic. “We might be Spanish and eating paella.”

The two memorials, which cost $865,000, complete the library’s collection of 13 memorials from de Queirós during this period. The whereabouts of a 14th missing memorial remains a mystery.  

The memorials are on display in the State Library at Macquarie Street, Sydney, NSW until February 2014. More information can be found here.