Steve Hutcheon – Early Discoveries

Steve Hutcheon – 17th Century Spanish discoveries in Northern Queensland

Keywords: 17th Century secret Spanish voyages; gold; Viajes secretos españoles del siglo XVII; oro

Member Steve Hutcheon has an eclectic interest in the records of Queensland’s early explorers and naturalists. For example, over a couple of years he pored through volumes of the Transactions of the Queensland Philosophical Society, our predecessor journal, from the 1870s in a search for records of meteorite discoveries. His curiosity was most recently piqued upon learning of a letter by one J.E. Richter in The Sydney Morning Herald of 22 June 1872, page 7d: , entitled “THE SPANISH EXPEDITION TO THE NORTH OF AUSTRALIA, referring to Spanish exploration of northern Australia between 1640 and 1650.

Steve writes: “Few people know about this letter. My aim is to find someone fluent in Spanish who can do online searching for the unknown Spanish document Richter quotes. The language barrier is too great when we do not have any of the Spanish text, nor an exact translation. It appears that Richter wrote from memory years later, so we cannot trust any phrases.

“I think its important to stress that being secret voyages there are likely to be few records but some evidence has been found that supports the account of the secret Spanish voyages.

Attached is a scan of a map, first published in 1703, showing the whole coastline of Cape York Peninsula. In my opinion the coast is instantly recognisable. The map is titled: “Insularum Indicaru & Terræ Australis necdum satis derectæ : Repræsentatio Geographica”. Fol. B.B Fig.II, which I call 1703 BB2 for short.

It first appeared in the book Geographia Artificialis by Heinrich Scherer (1628-1704) printed in Munich in 1703, between pages 154 and 155. Fol. B.B. is mentioned twice on page 155 and towards the bottom left on page 161.

“The book was printed again in 1703 as Part V of Atlas Novus exhibiens orbem terraqueum, and this was again printed posthumously in 1737.  The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek have kindly confirmed this. Be warned, there is a lot of incorrect and misleading information about Heinrich (Henrico) Scherer’s publications. Many of the ~180 maps in the atlas depict parts of Australia, but they vary greatly. Some show the north-west coast mapped by Tasman in 1644, but most use older data, and only one is like the 1703 BB2 map. The atlas is not a collection of up-to-date maps, but appears to include maps he produced throughout his life. I do not know when the 1703 BB2 map was engraved, obviously well after Scherer was born in 1628; perhaps an expert might have some idea. Scherer was a Professor of Mathematics and for many years was an Official Tutor to the Royal Princes of Mantua and Bavaria. It is important to give the 1703 map as a example so that the Richter letter will be taken seriously and not just dismissed out of hand.

Scherer’s longitude zero was the volcano on La Palma 17.87º west of Greenwich. The depicted Queensland coast is displaced to the east and elongated east-west in accord with the navigation methods of the 17th century. I have corrected the displacement and elongation and plotted the result on Google Earth. Please see the attached screen grab.

The latitude of the resulting plot matches the Queensland coast well, allowing for the use of an astrolabe aboard a ship at sea. In my opinion it is likely that Scherer obtained a copy of an old secret Spanish map. Perhaps the map came via royal connections. Its possible that the third voyage in Richter’s letter was the one that made the original map.”

There is anecdotal evidence that some of the Indigenous inhabitants of northern Cape York Peninsula hold oral history of visits by Spaniards looking for gold. Later, in the latter 1800s, there was a lot of mineral -related activity on the eastern coast of Cape York Peninsula.

Steve would be delighted to hear from anyone who might have some knowledge of these voyages or Spanish history, particularly somebody within Spain’s scholarly community. The primary initial quest is to locate the Spanish document that Richter cites. Steve would be very pleased to hear from anyone familiar with the Spanish archives or a native speaker who would be able to conduct Internet research in Spanish on his behalf.