Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Did Australia play any part in the Classical World?





I guess you're wondering where this post is going to go? How could Australia have played any part in Roman history - it wasn't discovered until 1770, right? Well...not really. The concept of a Terra Australis (the Southern Land) dates back to the mid-3rd-century BC and Aristotle. Fisherman from the Indonesian archipelago have been travelling to the northern coasts of the continent for at least a thousand years. During the 15th and 16th-centuries Portuguese and Dutch traders likewise explored and named much of northern Australia. And we shouldn't forget that the sea-borne ancestors of Australia's First peoples discovered the southern continent at least 60,000-years ago.

Yeah, yeah, I know, so what about the Romans? Well, the simple fact is those Portuguese and Dutch traders were following the same trade routes established by the Roman-era Tamil and Sri Lankan traders between India and China - in fact Australia has been on the southern edge of these trade routes for at least 2300-years, and perhaps much longer. So why would those Tamils and Sri Lankans come to Australia? The reasons hadn't changed when the Portuguese, Dutch and British came along - either by accident, or for money. By accident was pretty common - seafarers daring the tropical monsoon season could have ended up anywhere along the vast north Australian coast when the storms blew in. And then there's the money. Economic imperatives haven't changed since paleolithic Siberians began trading beads with Europe thirty thousand years ago. Just as the post-Renaissance traders came to northern Australia looking for money to be made, Roman-era traders could well have done the same.


Australia in 1583 - that's Cape York Penninsular on the right,
the Northern Territory and the Kimberlys are on the left.
The ancient Roman-era Spice Islands are to the north.

Okay, so why isn't there any evidence? Well, there's not a lot of evidence of the Portuguese and Dutch explorers from five-hundred years ago either. In fact most of their reports, maps and discoveries were jealously guarded by their governments and have already been lost to history. And the few expedition camps that might have been established were probably impossible to find a year or two later - let alone now. The simple fact is that Northern Australia was utterly uninviting to the 15th-century European explorers. There was little cultivatable land and little permanent freshwater. The First Australian's they met had little or nothing to trade. There was no mining - so there was no copper, gold or iron to buy. In other words there was no economic imperative to stay and establish trading communities.

The situation was identical when Roman-era traders were passing too - and with no surviving written evidence from that period, the only way a Roman-era contact might be proven is if some day someone finds some broken shards of pottery or a couple of coins on a beach somewhere along the seven thousand kilometres of the North Australian coastline - and as no one's looking that makes such a discovery a very distant possibility. But that shouldn't be taken as evidence that no one who knew what a Roman was didn't wash up on a beach - it's just that we're unlikely to ever know. What we need to understand, is that if the Portuguese or the Dutch tried to trade in Northern Australia, then they probably weren't the first. The colour of money - and how to make some for yourself - hasn't changed in the last 2500-years. A lack of physical evidence for something happening doesn't mean it couldn't have happened, so long as you can find an economic reason for someone trying. I think that economic reason did exist 2000-years ago, so I guess it's time to pull out the metal detector and put on the Aerogard.

Tomorrow I'm going to let you in on a story that might actually back up these claims...

Check out my latest book - Vagabond - about life in Roman Gaul