An ancient manuscript dating from the 16th century has been revealed depicting an image of an animal that looks unmistakably like a small red kangaroo or a wallaby. The Portugese processional document now has the power to fundamentally alter all previous understanding of who first discovered Australia, and when.
Dated from between 1580 and 1620, the kangaroo like creature is drawn nibbling at plant leaves within the letter D in the text. Hitherto, the first recorded landing of any European on Australian soil was 1606 when the Dutchman Willem Janszoon made landfall on the continent. His ship Duyfken has always been considered the first European vessel to ever make it as far as Australian shores.
A rare book dealer in Portugal has had possession of the item, but it has recently been sold to the Les Enluminures Gallery in New York, for $15,000. Its value was as a liturgical text, containing both music and words for a procession. It is signed with the name Caterina de Carvalho, who is assumed to have been a nun, in the western Caldas da Rainha area of Portugal. Now the tiny kangaroo symbol is making the text even more fascinating and worthy of scrutiny.
Researchers in New York have inferred that the picture of the kangaroo or wallaby proves that the artist had either been to Australia or had heard detailed descriptions from travelers who had already been there. This could mean that the Portugese had been in Australia and discovered the new world a long time before, certainly long enough for tales to make their way back. Other images on the manuscript include two near-naked men in crowns of leaves which could possibly depict native Australian Aboriginal people.
Laura Light from the Les Enluminures Gallery explains that the Portugese were notoriously secretive about their voyaging, because they wanted to preserve the knowledge of their trade routes. This may explain why they never broadcast the discovery of Australia.
This certainly fits with the theory of Beyond Capricorn author, Peter Trickett, who has argued for years that the Portugese mapped the Australian coast at least a hundred years before the Dutch claimed the first landing. Mr Trickett now thinks that someone on that initial Portugese exhibition may have had this particular manuscript in their possession.
Not all historians are jumping to the conclusion that this rewrites history, though. The National Library of Australia has commented, via Dr Martin Woods, that there are any number of deer like animals in Asia which have the ability to stand up on their hind legs to forage and eat, that could be represented in the drawing. Others conclude it must post-date Janszoon’s arrival. A Portugese voyage to Papua in 1526 is another candidate for the sighting.
John Gascoigne of the Australian Academy of the Humanities notes that coming up with proof that the Portugese were the original Europeans to arrive would always be near impossible owing to their fabled secrecy, and including the fact that so many records were destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
Dr Woods said that the fact that it is a long-eared and big-footed animal “doesn’t really add much.”
Light wonders what the nun must have thought of these exotic creatures as she “gazed at them from within the confines of her convent’s walls.” Whether that nun was penning the cipher to a complete new understanding of the history of Australia remains to be determined, and perhaps never will be.
By Kate Henderson