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Views of the Australian Landscape - 2;
The English Explorers

Tony Cavanagh

The first English presence on the coast fared no better than the Dutch in that he saw possibly some of the most desolate country imaginable - the north west coast of Western Australia. In 1688, William Dampier landed at present-day Cygnet Bay and unenthusiastically reported that the land consisted of dry, sandy soil; no surface water; some thin grass and stunted trees; little animal or bird life. His description of the inhabitants - "the miserablest People in the World" - was to live long in European memory. Yet Dampier was to return in August 1699, first of all to Shark Bay (already visited twice before by the Dutch) and then along the western and north-western coasts past North West Cape, the archipelago which bears his name and finally leaving Australia at Roebuck Bay. Unflattering though his descriptions might have been, Dampier was to make money out of his published accounts of these voyages. He also made collections of plants and animals and indeed some 40 of his botanical specimens can still be seen in the Sherardian Herbarium at Oxford University.

Between the Dutch and Dampier's descriptions there was little attraction in New Holland as it was by then known. Even Cook's discovery of the east coast some 70 years after Dampier was more or less accidental. Cook in his instructions was requested to search for the (mythical) southern continent or, failing to find that, to explore New Zealand and then return home by either Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. New Holland was not mentioned. It was Cook himself who, in deciding to return via the East Indies, sailed westward from New Zealand and fell in with the Australian mainland near present-day Cape Everard. Here was a coastline vastly different from the west coast. In Cook's words - "the face of the country green and woody"; Joseph Banks noted "gentle sloping hills which had the appearance of the highest fertility". A few days later, Banks had second thoughts - "The country tho in general well enough clothed appeared in some places bare; it resembled in my imagination the back of a lean cow, covered in general with long hair but nevertheless where her scraggy hip bones have stuck further out than they might, accidental rubs and knocks have entirely bared them of their share of covering".

It was only when they landed at Botany Bay in late April that they had the opportunity to see the land at close quarters. The descriptions given by Cook and Banks differ in some quite important details. Whereas cook wrote "The country (inland from the coast) was diversified with woods, Lawns and marches; the woods are free from underwood of every kind and the trees are at such a distance from another that the whole Country, or at least a great part of it, might be cultivated without being obliged to cut down a single tree; we found the soil everywhere except on the Marshes to be a light white sand and produceth a quantity of good grass", Banks was less optimistic - "the soil wherever we saw it consisted of either swamps or light sandy soil on which grew very few species of trees - but every place was covered with vast quantities of grass".

Cook's view, embellished by his editor, was the one which prevailed in the published accounts of Cook's voyage. A few days later, after a trip to the head of the bay, Cook wrote again - "We found the face of the Country much the same as I have before described but the land much richer for instead of sand, I found in many places a deep black Soil which we thought capable of producing any kind of grain; at present it produces besides timber as fine meadows as ever were seen". Banks in contrast, after visiting the north-west side, was much more pessimistic - "We went a good way into the countrey which in this place is very sandy and resembles something of our Moors in England, as no trees grow upon but everything is covered with a thin brush of plants about as high as the knees", a reasonably accurate description of the Sydney heathlands.

Once again, it was Cook's version which was published and this was to cause much heartburn and dissatisfaction when the First Fleet arrived some 18 years later (especially the reference to "meadows"). From the ship, as the Endeavour sailed north, the land looked good in contrast with the barrenness of the west coast. "It is diversified with an agreable variety of hils ridges Vallies and large planes all clothed with wood" wrote Cook. Even Banks enthused "well wooded and looked beautiful as well as fertile". True, the country in Queensland around Bustard Head and Thirsty Bay was dry and sandy with no water but the east coast, in contrast with the west coast, offered at least the possibility of settlement.

To be concluded - Part 3 "The First Settlers"

Acknowledgments - "Terra Australis to Australia" (ed. by Glyndwr Williams and Alan Frost, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1988), a project for the Australian Bicentenary.

Tony Cavanagh has been growing Australian plants since the early 1970s. He is currently Off Campus Librarian at Deakin University, Geelong and has found that his training as a librarian has been extremely useful in researching the history of cultivation of Australian plants. This article is reprinted from the May 1994 issue of the Newsletter of the SGAP Garden Design Study Group.

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