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Radio Australia PACIFIC BEAT July 26, 2002

A new book tells the stories of the early European navigators of the Pacific.

The first explorers of the Pacific were island peoples, who navigated vast distances using sun, waves and wind to guide their canoes.

But even a brief visit to the South Pacific reveals many reminders of the European navigators who visited the region -- names such as Bougainville, Carteret, Wallis, Cook and Flinders feature prominently on most maps.

But who were the people behind the names, and how did they shape Europe's understanding of the region?

Sydney-based author Robert Tiley has compiled a book -- ‘Australian Navigators’ -- about early European navigators who visited the Pacific and the coasts of Australia.

PACIFIC BEAT’S James Panichi asked Robert Tiley to explain how the navigators changed Europe's understanding of the region.

TILEY: Cook was crucial in terms of setting up a school of navigators that allowed the British to delineate coastlines and therefore settle areas far quicker than any other nationality.

However, he couldn’t have gotten there without the efforts of those before him: Wallis, Byron, a very little known lieutenant called Carteret, who discovered Pitcairn Island.

The French, although somewhat behind the time vis a vis Cook, couldn’t have gotten to where they did without the efforts of Bougainville and particularly Baudin.

PANICHI: Bougainville was one of the first Europeans to pass through Tahiti, Solomon Islands, all the way almost to Australia. Why did he stop? Why did he never reach the coast of Australia?

TILEY: I think Bougainville would have to be regarded as the most audacious of the navigators at that stage. He was looking for new lands to settle. Obviously he realized what a wonderful place Tahiti was, but he was chasing the great South Land that all people believed existed somewhere south of Tahiti.

He was audacious because even though his men were starting to suffer from scurvy and other problems and they were running out of food and water, he was probably the first European to approach the east coast of Australia before Cook.

PANICHI: Many people thought ‘the great South Land’ existed but they weren’t looking for Australia, they were looking somewhere south of Tahiti. Why was that?

TILEY: It was a fairly basic belief that in order for the earth to spin on its axis, there needed to be a land mass down there to allow it to spin without interrupting its orbit.

Obviously the belief assumed that the earth was a complete sphere, which it wasn’t. It took a while for people to realize that.

So there was an assumption that there had to be a landmass south of Tahiti. It had been known for a long time that New Holland was not that landmass, because Tasman in 1642 had sailed between the landmass of New Holland and the west coast of New Zealand.

It was assumed that that west coast of New Zealand was in fact the west coast of a larger continent or series of islands that linked up with the southern end of America.

The early navigators were seeking to find that continent for various reasons. Ironically it was really the winds, more than anything else, that tended to ensure that they could never even get to that part of the globe to see if it was there.

PANICHI: These early navigators also brought back to Europe the first information about the people of the South Pacific. In France at the time, Rousseau’s views of idyllic societies had become very influential. I’d imagine people in Europe were keen to see Australia and the Pacific as the last frontier in social terms. Is that something that you deal with in your book?

TILEY: It’s actually fascinating because it’s really that interest that started probably with Bougainville and Tahiti. Bougainville was a great promoter of himself and his voyage.

At that stage, pre-revolution France had a huge interest in science and the arts.

Bougainville found that he was able to promote that interest in Tahiti to a much greater degree than Wallis had. Wallis was the Englishman who’d actually discovered Tahiti and came back before Bougainville ever managed to achieve anything like that.

For additional reports from Radio Australia/Pacific Beat, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia/Pacific Beat.

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