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Rare 17th-century map of Australia adjusts history

The map of Australia by Dutch cartographer Joan Blaeu, dated 1659.
The map of Australia by Dutch cartographer Joan Blaeu, dated 1659.

A RARE map of Australia that survived for more than 350 years is reshaping what we understand about early European exploration of our continent.

The rare 17th-Century wall map was rediscovered in a private home in Italy where it is believed to have remained since the late 19th-Century.

According to Sotheby's, it is the very first map to call Australia "Nova Hollandia" and is "extremely rare".

"The map is possibly one of two known surviving copies in this state. Its rarity and academic significance adds to the value," Sotheby's spokesperson for Books and Manuscripts, Cecilie Gasseholm, told news.com.au.

The circa-1659 creation is set to go under the hammer for a whopping estimated price of between $A320,000-$400,000 under auction in London.

It is the first to put Tasmania on the map, quite literally, following the findings of Abel Janszoon Tasman during his explorations in 1642-1643 and 1644.

Tasman spotted the west coast of Tasmania on November 24, 1642, naming his discovery Van Diemen's Land, after Antonio van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies.

He stepped foot on its shores in Blackman Bay, a beachside suburb of Hobart, and proceeded to plant the Dutch flag in his newly discovered land.

He returned on a second voyage in 1644, mapping the north coast of Australia and "making observations". Tasman gave Australia the name New Holland, which remained popular until the mid-1850s. Just a few years later, Tasman's discoveries would be added to the map.

"This means that the discoveries by Tasman were recorded in this magnificent map less than 20 years later," Sotheby's spokesperson for Books and Manuscripts, Cecilie Gasseholm, told news.com.au.

Different versions of "New Holland", or what we now call Australia, popped up across maps in the 17th Century. This one appeared on a Coronelli globe, commissioned in 1681.

A close-up of the rare map found in Italy of early Australia.
A close-up of the rare map found in Italy of early Australia.

The map was chartered after the Dutch became attracted to new areas of trade and were looking for new routes across the world in the hope to expand their operations.

Dutch trading interests "already extended to the Moluccas in the east, to China and Japan in the north and to the Coromandel Coast and Surat in the west. The expansion to the south was immanent", Mr Shilder wrote in his book.

But despite basically discovering an entire country, the Dutch were disappointed by Tasman's explorations; to them he returned empty-handed, he hadn't found a useful shipping route and didn't fully explore this new land.

After this, for more than 100 years, until James Cook's explorations in 1770 and the subsequent landing of the First Fleet in 1788, Australia was largely untouched by Europeans.

Captain James Cook and his ship Endeavour landing on Australia's coast in 1770.

Captain James Cook is largely credited with discovering Australia, despite the fact most of the continent had already been discovered, except the south east coast.

Dutch explorer Abel Tasman.
Dutch explorer Abel Tasman.

According to Sotheby's, who are auctioning the maps, Joan Blaeu was the leading atlas and map publisher of his generation in Amsterdam at the time.

Blaeu had privileged access to the company's charts and archives, and so had access to the most up-to-date information.

Mr Fattorini said the map was  significant because it showed how close the Dutch came to mapping and colonising the entire continent.

It throws out the theory that British explorer James Cook discovered the country in 1770.

Cook is credited with the first recorded European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia but it was in fact the Dutch who had done the hard yards.

"Australia was first discovered by the Europeans in 1606, by Willem Janszoon. This means that the wall-map by Blaeu was made only 53 years later," Mr Fattorini said.

He said at the time, in the late 17th Century, the map would have been used as a decorative piece and such maps were often given as diplomatic gifts.

The map was found in a private residence in central Italy, minimising the movements of the map which may have played a part in its survival.

Wall maps often had a poor survival rate, Mr Fattorini said, as they were often readily discarded if damaged or geographically superseded.

"It is wonderful to find a pair of wall maps in their original unrestored condition, retaining the linen and rollers as decorated for an early, or possibly the first, owner,"  he said.

"Wall maps, by their very nature, are susceptible to damage; mounted on a linen backing, with wooden rods, suspended on a wall, they could be subjected to careless handling, sunlight, heat, damp and soot. They often have a very poor survival rate as, once damaged or geographically superseded, they were readily discarded.

"As a consequence, they are often found in a frail state."

The piece will go under auction at Sotheby's London on May 9.

If you know more, email: youngma@news.com.au

Topics:  australia history italy

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