The forgotten cape

Coucher soleil Tanguy de Lamotte
© Tanguy de Lamotte / Initiatives-Coeur

In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world into two: Spain took control of everything to the west of the Cape Verde Islands, while Portugal got the new lands to the east… The merchants set out to discover new worlds and particularly new riches.  The route opened by Bartholomew Diaz via the Cape of Good Hope was extended to the Indies by Vasco de Gama on his first voyage, when he sailed along the African coast up towards Mozambique, and he landed on the Malabar coast on 18th May 1498. While the Admiral of India was unable to stay for long in Calicut because of the Moorish traders, Pedro Álavres Cabral managed to set up a trading post in Cochin in 1500: the spice route between Asia and Europe wasa  way of competing against Arab and Venetian merchants.

An undiscovered continent

In the 16th Century, seafarers extended the route eastwards towards the Maluku Islands… The Portuguese seafarer, Cristóvão de Mendonça looking for Magellan, discovered the Victoria region (SE Australia) in 1522, but Terra Australis did not really inspire navigators… When Holland got its freedom from Spain, the Dutch had no hesitation in going beyond the Cape of Good Hope to look for spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, pepper…), in spite of the risk of meeting up with the Portuguese fleet. The Battle of Bantam in 1601, when five Dutch vessels overcame thirty Portuguese galleons marked the birth of the Dutch East India Company: Merchants were able to form armies, declare war and sign treaties…

In 1606, the Duyfken, a ship from Texel, thus set sail to recognise the Moluccas in New Guinea, reached the Straits of Torres and the crew went ashore at Cape York: This was the first time Europeans had stepped ashore in Northern Australia.  On the west coast, while Willem Janszoon caught sight of these new lands in 1606, it was Dick Hartog, who was the first European to step ashore on the north-west on 26th October 1616: he marked his passage with a brass plate fixed to a post.

After that, the Dutch Company made it compulsory for their merchant ships sailing to Java, to sail down to Australia after stopping off at the Cape of Good Hope, before heading northwards at the longitude of the Straits of Sundra.  Cape Leeuwin owes its name therefore to one of the boats setting out from Texel on 20th April 1621 on her way to Batavia (Djakarta): they gave a name to the point in March 1622 discovered by chance after a miscalculated route. In the seventeenth Century, there was no precise method for calculating longitude with no chronometer able to establish the difference between local time and reference time…

From James Cook…

It was not easy in the 17th Century to report your position and on 4th June 1629, the Batavia ran aground on the Houtman Abrolhos, a group of coral islands off the west coast of what was still known as New Holland. Three hundred shipwrecked sailors had to watch madness grab hold of Jeronimus Cornelisz, a representative of the owner, who imposed his law for five months until the Sardam arrived to save 70 crewmen.  In 1770, James Cook took possession of Australia during his first round the world voyage, then Bruni d’Entrecasteaux (1737-1793), sent by King Louis XVI to look for La Pérouse (who had set out three years before to go on a voyage of discovery around the Pacific), set sail from Brest in September 1791 with the frigates L’Espérance and La Recherche to explore the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. The rear-admiral reached the Cape of Good Hope on 17th January 1792, in March named Amsterdam Island, then in South Australia the Recherche Islands, Recherche Bay, Hope Harbour, the D'Entrecasteaux Straits, Bruni Island, Riche Point, and Gicquel Point…

…to Nicolas Baudin

It was Nicolas Baudouin, who was to draw up precise maps of the western coastline of the continent during his expedition from Le Havre with Le Naturaliste and Le Géographe. On 30th May 1801, the Frenchman passed “a dull coast without any havens… (and) no apparent source of fresh water.  However, fires indicate the presence of natives…” He was to name a lot of islands, capes, bays, points and gulfs with the names of his officers: Joseph Bonaparte in the north, down to Kermadec Island in the south.  In the Bonaparte islands, the names of famous people from that era and literary figures were used for the remarkable coastline. Suffren, Jussieu, Colbert, Montesquieu, Fénelon, Laplace, Monge, Bernoulli, Buffon, Lamarck, Lavoisier, La Fontaine, Corneille, Molièære, Voltaire, Borda, Descartes, Racine…are still there today as the names of the capes, peaks, headlands, peninsulas on this Western coast of Australia.

Out of sight

Down at 34° 22’ S and 115° 08’ E, Cape Leeuwin is marked by a lighthouse seven miles from the nearest town, Augusta. The Southern coast of Australia is relatively lightly populated between Albany in the West, a natural harbour discovered by the Dutchman, Peter Nuyts in 1627, and Adelaide founded in 1836 by Colonel William Light, with a bush of practically 1000 miles in length. Shipping therefore avoids this inhospitable coast where there are few places to shelter from the Southern lows sweeping over Cape Leeuwin before entering the famous Bass Strait, between Australia and Tasmania.

On the contrary to the Cape of Good Hope a few miles from Cape Town or Cape Horn with its Patagonian channels, the Australian cape does not attract people by sea and with the exception of Perth offers no real shelter nearby and that is 150 miles to its north… The boats competing for the Jules Verne round the world record and the Vendée Globe pass a few hundred miles south of this cape and even commercial shipping stays well offshore. In terms of geography, the Indian Ocean is defined by the area between Cape Agulhas (South Africa), longitude 20° E, the 60th parallel south and the SE tip of Tasmania, longitude 146° 49’ E. Cape Leeuwin is only symbolic therefore, a reference point 12,000 miles from Les Sables d’Olonne…

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