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Early European Exploration, British Expeditions and Claims
Marion Dufresne, William Dampier, Surville, British claims, Matthew Flinders
At first British involvement in Australia appeared likely to go the way of the Spanish and Dutch. William Dampier, a crewman on the buccaneer ship Cygnet that briefly touched the northwestern coast in 1688, reported dismally on the land and the indigenous inhabitants. In 1699 Dampier returned as captain of his own expedition, further exploring the western and northern coasts of Australia. He failed to reach the eastern coast, however, and British interest in the continent subsequently waned.
The 18th century in Western Europe ushered in the Age of Enlightenment, when philosophers and scientists stressed the value of global exploration. British explorers voyaged far and wide in search of new fauna and flora, a mission that chimed well with Britain’s growing power as a maritime empire.
In 1768 Captain James Cook departed Britain in command of the ship Endeavour on a three-year expedition to the Pacific. Cook’s main objective was scientific—to make telescopic observations of the transit of Venus from the island of Tahiti. But he later sailed westward, first to New Zealand, which he circumnavigated, then to the eastern coast of Australia. He landed at Botany Bay (near present-day Sydney), charted the coast from south to north, and claimed British possession of the eastern part of the continent, which he named New South Wales. The botanist Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied him on the voyage, later advocated the establishment of a permanent settlement at Botany Bay. Cook’s subsequent voyages (in 1772-1775 and 1776-1779) helped to cement British claims, although French explorers also surveyed the eastern coast, including Jean-Francois Marie de Surville in 1769 and Marion Dufresne in 1772.
Even with Britain’s sustained efforts, Australia’s coasts were not fully explored until the 19th century. Matthew Flinders was the first to circumnavigate the continent from 1801 to 1803. He charted most of the coastline, but it was mid-century before the continent’s major interior features were known.
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