Were The Chinese The First To Discover Australia?

George Rehder

By Rex Gilroy

Australasian Post, May 1, 1986


Chinese Discoverers

Aboriginal paintings depict Chinese junks…Ancient Chinese writings describing apparent Kangaroo’s. These facts are just part of the evidence suggesting “accepted” theories on the discovery of Australia could well be wide of the mark.

Were the Dutch explorers really the first discoverers of Australia? Or was it the Spanish or Portuguese; or far earlier mariners from Asia, the near or middle-east? As a field-researching historian, I have gathered far too much evidence to ever make me accept that old out of date hypothesis that “Captain Cook” discovered Australia.

Take, for example, the remains of an ancient shipwreck claimed to be a Phoenician trireme at least 2500 or more years old and which was located near King Sound, Western Australia, some years ago by the late Perth diver Allan Robinson.

Perhaps it might help explain the presence of apparent middle-east racial features among local Aboriginal tribes of the nearby Kimberleys region. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that traders and mineral-seekers from the middle eastern civilisations were sailing Australian waters up to 3000 years ago.

But what of the ancient Chinese who were trading in these same waters at least 2500 years ago? Evidence is accumulating to prove that they too played their part in the discovery of Australia.

The Javanese, with whom the Chinese traded, had an extensive knowledge of our waters, and could have been instrumental in directing Chinese explorers to our shores. Like the earlier civilisations of the near and middle-east, the Chinese certainly possessed often enormous wooden ships and navigation aids to enable them to undertake world wide voyages in antiquity. For example, some of their huge junks were capable of carrying over 1000 people each.

One type of huge junk measured at least 140 metres from bow to stern and more than 30 metres across the beam.

Between the fifth and eighth centuries the Chinese invented paddle-wheel operated vessels operated by slaves working treadmills inside the ships. By the 12th Century, they were building huge war ships with up to 23 paddle-wheels on each ship. A 15 metre rudder of one of these massive ships has in recent years been unearthed on the coast of China. It is now preserved in a Peking museum.

According to ancient writings, preserved in China, a Buddhist monk, Fu Shai in 458 A.D. may have landed in southern California after an 11,000 km voyage in one of these enormous ocean-going boats. Another Chinese explorer, Shu Shan Gee is credited with having visited the same coastline about 1000 years before Columbus “re-discovered” America.

However, unlike the later European explorers, the Chinese were less interested in establishing permanent colonies in far-flung places than in establishing temporary colonies solely for the purpose of trade, or for mining of precious minerals and stones they shipped home to China.

It was Franciscan missionaries who went to China in the 16th century who were the first Europeans to obtain evidence pointing to Chinese contacts with Australia. This evidence included copper scrolls written by the Chinese in the 6th Century A.D., including a crude map of Australia. These scrolls are still being translated. They tell of such things as voyages across the Pacific Ocean in the 10th and 11th centuries in gigantic fleets of junks-60 to 100 ships carrying up to 200 or more crewmen each.

It is obvious the Chinese possessed considerable knowledge of Australia, as evidenced by their ancient writings. For example, Confucius in his “Spring and Autumn Annals” {481 B.C.} records two solar eclipses having been observed by Chinese astronomers, possibly in Arnhem Land-one {by modern calculation}on April 17, 592 B.C.; and the other on August 11, 553 B.C.

Another record, “Atlas of Foreign Countries“, written between 265 and 316 A.D., describes the far north coast of the mysterious great south land as being inhabited by a race of one-metre tall pygmies-an obvious reference to the pygmy-sized Aboriginals identified by Australian anthropologist Norman B. Tindale in the mountains above Cairns, Queensland.

In 338 B.C., Shih Tzu wrote of the presence of apparent kangaroos kept in the Imperial Zoo in Peking, and further similar reports continued in several later dynasties. Emperor Chao about this time dispatched a fleet of junks with orders to return with marsupials from the southern land of “Chui Hiao“, and a Chinese book “The Classics of Shan Hai“, written some time before 338 B.C., describes our Aboriginals and thier use of the boomerang.

The Chinese appear to have been wary when having to navigate through Torres Strait. Many ancient Chinese expeditions through the Strait came to grief due to the dreaded Torres Strait Islanders who, until early in the 1900’s, were head-hunting cannibals. In fact, the islanders regarded Chinese as being just about No1 for flavour, as they found them nowhere as salty as white men.

Ancient relics are further proof of Chinese visits to our shores. In 1948 fragments of Ming period {14th Century} blue and white porcelain were dug up on Winchelsea Island, north west of Groote Eylandt; and a large copper urn of this age was unearthed in Arnhem Land some years ago. Aboriginal cave paintings of the Arnhem Land and the Kimberleys region include depictions of Chinese junks dating back hundreds of years.

The remains of an ancient vessel, found off the coast of Perth some years ago by the late skin diver Allan Robinson, is said to have revealed relics suggesting the wreck to be that of a 12 th Century Chinese Junk. At another site on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria near the base of Cape York, Queensland, a number of Chinese porcelain tea cups dating 2000 years were dug up several years ago.

In 1961 a 2000-year old vase bearing a crude map of the Australian east coast was discovered in Hong Kong. Another map, dating back 2000 years and drawn on porcelin, exists in Taiwan. it shows the southern coastline of New Guinea, the east coast of Australia as far south as the Melbourne area, and the crude outline of Tasmania. Another Porcelain map has since been found in China.

Dating to 1477, it not only describes much of the American west coast, but some Pacific Islands, including New Zealand, Australia and New Guinea, and the islands of south-east Asia and the coast of China.

In the late 1940’s a discovery proving ancient Chinese voyages into the west Pacific region was made by a team of anthropologists while researching in the Yasawa Islands to the west of Fiji. The men found an ancient copper mine cut into a hillside. Littering surrounding rocks they found numerous centuries-old letterings. Natives on the island were later found to possess Asian racial features. They say the island was visited by a race of “yellow men” long before the coming of the Europeans.

Thirty-five years ago a jade Buddha was unearthed near Cooktown in far north-Queensland, deep below ancient soil deposits. And at Darwin in 1879 workmen dug up a statue of Shou Lao, the Chinese god of longevity, from deep down beneath the roots of an ancient banyan tree.

Dating from the Ming period, it has been linked with an expedition believed to have been made to our shores by Admiral Cheng Ho on the orders of his emperor. The fleet consisted of 62 nine-masted ships, 140 metres in length, and it was accompanied by 28,000 men.

Cheng Ho {1385-1440} also possessed the magnetic compass on this voyage. Invented by the Chinese in 1090, it was not “discovered” in western Europe for another 100 years. Cheng Ho sailed from Shanghai in 1405 with orders to visit the islands of south-east Asia on diplomatic and trade matters.

He was also instructed to establish a colony in the vicinity of present-day Darwin while astronomers accompanying the expedition carried out observations of the southern skies. He was also asked to make offerings here to to the Celestial Spouse, a Taoist goddess who watched over mariners at sea.

During Cheng Ho’s stay near Darwin some of his men are said to have explored deep inland, and part of his fleet is claimed to have carried out the circumnavigation of Australia before returning to China. About 1980 a young woman unearthed a carved stone head from a sand hill while walking on a beach north of Milton on the New South Wales south coast. The head, now resting in my Kedumba Nature Museum, Katoomba {NSW}, is of a Chinese goddess, possibly the “Celestial Spouse” herself.

Could the carving have been left behind by Chinese mariners centuries ago, perhaps as an offering to the goddess for a safe voyage home? Could they have been members of Cheng Ho’s fleet? The Answer is lost in the mists of time. One thing is certain. If, as we have been taught in our school history books that Australia was only discovered by European mariners in the 126th century…what were kangaroos doing in the Imperial Zoo in Peking in 338 B.C?

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