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Coin Indicates Cook Not First to Discover Australia

Captain James Cook(1728-1779). Nathaniel Dance. BHC2628

Did Columbus really discover America? A single Norse coin suggests otherwise. Did Captain James Cook discover Australia? Well, an African coin may also suggest otherwise–actually, several coins.

It is certain Cook reached Botany Bay in what is today Sydney in 1770. He claimed the continent for Great Britain, declaring the continent “terra nullius.” The first Englishman known to have physically landed on the Australian mainland was former pirate William Dampier (1651-1715). Since that time, accolades have been heaped on Cook for his discovery.

The evidence is slim, but it is looking more and more like Australia was visited by any number of people following the time the aboriginal natives settled there between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago and when Cook first arrived during the late 18th century. The aboriginal settlers likely originated from the Malay Archipelago.

French navigator Binot Paulmier de Gonneville claimed to have landed “east of the Cape of Good Hope” in 1504, having been blown off course. It is well documented that the Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon reached the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland in 1606. Another Dutch explorer, Dirk Hartog visited the same area a few years later. Torres Strait, situated between Papua New Guinea and Australia is named for Spanish navigator Luiz Vaez de Torres, who was there in the same year as Janszoon.

Despite this traffic jam of explorers, none of them understood they had found the semi-mythical Terra Australis Incognita, depicted on contemporary world maps as the logical counterweight to the landmasses in the northern hemisphere.

During World War Two the Japanese bombed but did not invade the Australian city of Darwin on the northern coast. Due to the war Australian soldier, Maurie Isenberg was assigned to operate a radar station on the Wessel Islands, an uninhabited cluster of islands situated in a strategic position. When he wasn’t working Isenberg occupied his time by fishing. We don’t know how successful his fishing expeditions may have been, but in 1944 he encountered what Isenberg described as “a handful” of coins on the beach on Marchinbar Island.

Isenberg didn’t study the coins, but he kept them. It wasn’t until 1979 Isenberg decided to take them to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney for identification. The five coins examined by the museum proved to be from the Sultanate of Kilwa, more than 10,000 kilometers away in what is now Tanzania on the eastern coast of Africa. The coins were minted between about 900 and the 1300s, these being the first coins struck in sub-Saharan Africa. Archaeologists said Isenberg’s find was only the second find outside Africa, the other being in Oman.

Today the ruins of Kilwa are a World Heritage site on an island off Tanzania, but between the 13th and 16th centuries, Kilwa was a flourishing port trading gold, silver, Persian ceramics, Chinese porcelain and more, with India. Archaeologists have speculated there may have been early maritime trading routes that linked East Africa, Arabia, India, and the Spice Islands even 1000 years ago.

More recently, archaeologist Mike Hermes found another coin on the beach on Elcho Island during a field trip to the Wessel Islands. Hermes’ find is badly corroded, making identification challenging but not impossible.

Hermes said of the find, “We’ve weighed and measured it, and it’s pretty much a dead ringer for a Kilwa coin. And if it is, well, that could change everything.”

Hermes is a member of the Past Masters, a group of archaeologists, anthropologists, geochronologists, historians, and numismatists who have made seven trips to the coast in the past six years.

Past Masters historian Mike Owen said, “We’re looking for the earliest visitation to the coast.  This has never been explored. Our history is so Sydney-centric, the identity of the nation is built around that. And Sydney is a hell of a long way away from east Arnhem Land.”

The coin found by Hermes was located about 100 nautical miles from where it is understood Isenberg found the other five. Owen has suggested there may have been contact between indigenous Australians and traders from Kilwa 700 years ago. Kilwas is known to have traded with China. It is possible traders were driven off course by a storm or by pirates. It is also possible the Portuguese, who looted Kilwa in 1505, could have brought the coins to the Wessel Islands.

Hermes said, “The Portuguese were in Timor in 1514, 1515 – to think they didn’t go three more days east with the monsoon wind is ludicrous.”

The Hermes specimen has been examined recently using a CT scanner. Unfortunately, the coin was too worn for the scanner to ensure the coin is from Kilwa, although two surviving edge ring shapes appear to be identical to other known Kilwa coins. At the time this article was being written the coin’s mineralogy and composition were being examined, but this study may not be completed for several months.   

Coins of Kilwa were primarily copper fals, although gold coins are known. The fals have a diameter between 20 and 25 millimeters, with a weight ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 grams. The Arabic legend ‘Yathiq bi-“ or “trusts in” appears on the obverse, followed by a reverse epithet that proclaims Allah but rhymes with the name of the ruling sultan. u

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