Gateway to the Classics: Our Empire Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Empire Story by  H. E. Marshall

"There Is Nothing New under the Sun"

Wise people tell us that the land of Australia is perhaps the oldest in the world. At a time when the wide ocean swept over the continent of Europe, when our little island still lay far beneath the rippling waves, the land of Australia stood above the lone waters.

Yet to us Australia is a new discovered country. Long ages ago indeed travellers and learned men told tales of a Great South Land which lay somewhere in the Southern Seas. But no eye had seen that fabled country, no ship had touched that unknown shore It was a country dim and mysterious as fairyland. On ancient maps we find it marked with rough uncertain lines, "The Southeme Unknowne Lande," but how it came to be so marked, how the stories about it first came to be told, and believed, we shall very likely never know.

It is hard to tell too, who, among white men, first set foot on this great island. If one of the brave sailors of those far-off times did by chance touch upon its shore, he found little there to make him stay, or encourage him to return. For in those days what men chiefly sought was trade. And in Australia there was no place for trade. It was a great, wide, silent land where there were no towns, or even houses. It was peopled only by a few black savages, who wore no clothes, who had no wants, and who cared for nothing but to eat and drink.

But in the seventeenth century, when Holland was mistress of the seas, and the Dutch planted their flag on every shore, they found their way to the Great South Land.

It was a Dutchman who discovered Tasmania. He called it Van Dieman's Land in honour of the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. But the name was afterwards changed to Tasmania, by which name we know it now. The great Gulf of Carpentaria is named after another Dutchman, and all round the northern, western and southern shores, here and there may be found names to remind us of those old Dutch adventurers. But the name New Holland which the Dutch gave to the whole land has long since been forgotten.

The Dutch did little more than discover the coast. They founded no colonies, they built no towns, and so their hold on the land was hardly real. They marked New Holland upon their maps, but they knew little about it. No man knew what a vast land New Holland was, or how far stretching were the rolling plains of which they had had only a glimpse.

Soon Holland as a great sea power gave way to another which was to become still greater. Van Tromp the Dutchman was beaten by Blake the Englishman.And after that the Dutch seem to have lost all interest in the Great South Land.

Then in 1699 a British sailor called Dampier set out on a voyage of discovery to the Southern seas. He was more than half a pirate and had led a life of wild adventure. But he was a daring seaman, and had already been to New Holland more than once. And so King William iii. chose him to lead an expedition of discovery.

One February day Dampier sailed out from England, and six months later anchored in a bay on the west coast of New Holland, which he called Shark's Bay, because his men killed and ate many sharks there. It is still called Shark's Bay.

For some time Dampier cruised along the shores taking note of all that he saw, of the land, the birds, and beasts. Among the birds, Dampier saw gaily coloured parrots and cockatoos, and black swans. Among the beasts, the chief was a curious-looking animal with a long tail and long hind legs upon which it leaped and hopped about. The natives called it Kanguro.

He saw a few natives. They were tall, thin, and black, with blinking eyes and frizzled hair. They had no weapons except wooden spears, they wore no clothes, and their houses, which he only saw in the distance, looked to him like haycocks. But some had no houses at all. "They lay in the open air without covering, the earth being their bed and heaven their canopy. They had no possessions of any kind. Not soe much as a catt or a dog." With such people there was no hope of trade, and in those days no one thought of taking possession of a land unless there was some trade to be done.

Having cruised about for some time and finding no fresh water, Dampier feared to stay longer, lest his men should fall ill in that desert land. So he steered away to the East Indies and from thence sailed homeward.

Many years passed. Now and again a ship touched upon the shores of New Holland but no one took much interest in it. It was a barren, useless land most men thought, a stony desert for the greater part, good enough for the few wild black fellows who lived there, but never a home for white men. Besides this, the British, who were now the great sea power, were busy fighting in India and America, and had little time and few ships to spare for peaceful exploration.

But in the long reign of George iii. , when after much fighting Britain was at length at peace with all the world, men once more turned their thoughts to peaceful things. Then in 1768 Captain James Cook was sent upon an exploring expedition.

James Cook had had a very exciting life, but there is no room to tell about it here. As a small boy he was sent to serve in a draper's shop, but at the age of fourteen he ran away to sea, and from then till now when he was forty, his life had been full of excitement and adventure.

In this voyage, Captain Cook sailed all along the eastern coast of Australia, a thing which no white man had ever done. He landed in many places, naming capes, bays, and points, as he passed. One great bay he named Botany Bay, because of the many plants and flowers to be found there. And here he set up the Union Jack, cut the name of his ship and the date of his landing on the trees near, and claimed the land for King George.

Cook and his men had many adventures. At one time they were nearly wrecked. The ship struck upon a rock and stuck fast. The water began to come in so quickly, that although the men worked hard at the pumps, it seemed as if the ship would sink. But luckily the sea was smooth, and there was little wind, and after much hard work they were able to steer into a safe harbour. Here they ran the ship ashore, and found a hole in the bottom big enough to have sunk it. But by good fortune a piece of coral rock had stuck in the hole, and this had saved them.

Having mended the ship as best they could they once more set sail, and at last readied what is now known as Torres Strait, having explored the whole eastern coast of Australia.

At Torres Strait Cook landed. Once more he set up the British flag and claimed the whole eastern coast with all its bays, harbours, rivers, and islands, for King George. And to this great tract he gave the name of New South Wales. There in that far-off land, their little ship, a mere speck between blue sky and bluer sea, this handful of Britons claimed new realms for their king. And to attest their claim, volley upon volley of musketry rolled out, awakening the deep silence of that unknown shore. There was none to answer or deny the challenge, and when the noise of cannon died upon the quiet air there was only the sigh of trees, the ripple of waves, and the scream of wild birds to break the stillness.

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