Rare Maps of Australia: Pre-discovery

Heinrich Bunting Rare World Map

Rare maps of Australia reveal secrets about the possible discovery of the continent well before the official ‘discovery’ by Europeans on the 26th of February 1606. This is the date that Captain Willem Janszoon in The Duyfken made landfall at the Pennefather River on the western shore of Cape York, Gulf of Carpenteria in Queensland, near what is now the town of Weipa. The Dutch interest in the area started in the late 1500’s. Demand by Europeans for exotic spices such as nutmeg, mace and cloves from the Spice Islands and with the possibility of great riches, drove the Dutch to expand and develop trade quickly.  Janszoon, as Captain of one of twelve ships was sent to search for other outlets of trade, particularly in “the great land of New Guinea and other East and Southlands” by Jan Willemsz Verschoor, in charge of the Dutch trade, based in in Bantam, on the west coast of Java. This landing was not recorded on any Dutch map until 1630 by renowned Dutch cartographer Jan Jansson in his rare map of Australia Indiae Orientalis Nova Descriptio.

Indiae Orientalis Nova Descriptio, Jan Jansson 1630

Further Dutch discoveries between 1606 and 1630 by Hartog, Vlamingh, Houtman and Carstensz and others helped to delineate the Northern, Western and Southern Australian coastlines so that by 1637  the rare map ‘Polus Antarcticus’ by Hendrik Hondius, published in Amsterdam, clearly shows a recognisable coastline of Australia.

Polus Antarcticus, Hendrik Hondius 1637

It is fascinating and strange that over 50 years prior to this Hondius map being published two other maps appear to show the same coastline or part of the same coastline.

‘Pars Orbis’ published in Antwerp in 1572 by Benedict Arius Montanus, a Spanish Orientalist. Montanus was asked by King Philip II to supervise a new polyglot bible. In it, he published a world map in twin hemispheres, showing the re-population of the earth by the sons of Noah.  Of particular interest is the land mass appearing in the ocean in roughly the position of Australia. This is interesting not only because the landmass have a similarity to the actual shape of Northern Australia but Montanus ignores the convention of a theoretical great southern landmass stretching across the southern quarter of contemporaneous world maps including the recently published ‘Typus Orbus Terrarum’ by the renowned Antwerp mapmaker Abraham Ortelius in 1571.

Pars Orbis, Benedict Arius Montanus 1572
Typus Orbus Terrarum, Abraham Ortelius 1571

However it is Heinrich Bunting’s world map that creates the greatest controversy. In 1581, Bunting, a German theologian and Lutheran priest published a book about the Holy Land. It was wide ranging discussing the prophets, Judges and Patriachs of the Old and New Testaments, Jesus and the Apostles, and the towns and Cities in the Bible and their distance from Jerusalem. In it he had a number of relatively accurate maps of the Holy Land, a World map in the shape of a clover leaf, Asia in the shape of Pegasus the mythical horse and Europe in the shape of a Queen. However it is his traditional world map that is controversial due to the apparent coastline of Western Australia in the bottom right of the map.

Die Eigentliche und Warhafftige Gestalt der Erden Und des Meers, Heinrich Bunting 1581

It is argued that because Bunting has not included Madagascar which was well discovered and even depicts the boot of Italy facing the wrong way that his representation of Australia is simply a ‘lucky squiggle’ and does not indicate that he knew more than the greatest map makers of his generation. 

However it can also be argued that Bunting, a well-educated man, who published numerous tracts and books knew exactly what he was doing. He clearly knew the correct shape for Italy and the other incongruities he represented and for unknown reasons decided to present them in this manner. Did he know more than anybody else? Probably not but the question still exists.  It was true that the Portuguese had been in Timor since 1515. They could not have failed to notice that the local fishing population would disappear for months on end when they came to Northern and North West Australia to harvest Trepang (Sea Cucumber.) This had been going on for generations. Furthermore, there can be little doubt the Portuguese who had travelled around the world in their Caravels would have followed the routes of the fisherman to explore this new continent only a few hundred miles to the south. However there are no definitive Portuguese maps to prove this theory and the uncanny resemblance to the Western Australian coastline is a mystery to this day.

Steven Marcuson’s historical fiction ‘The Bunting Quest’ published Melbourne 2016 takes this very mystery and in an exciting page-turner explores the different theories of pre-discovery, rare maps of Australia wrapped up in a murder mystery. The book has received numerous accolades including Cameron Woodhead of the Sydney Morning Herald who says ‘It’s written in the same vein as The Da Vinci Code, though it’s more deeply imagined, pacier and better written.’ Phillip Siggins of The Australian says ‘Marcuson is a proficient storyteller… This intriguing novel conveys a powerful message that racial prejudice and religious bigotry breed monsters.’

The Bunting Quest, Steven Marcuson 2016

Steven Marcuson

September 2019