Who discovered Australia?

As a 10-year-old in 1953, I migrated with my family to South Australia, and settled in to one of the fast-growing outer suburbs of Adelaide that were being rapidly built at that time to accommodate the post-war influx of migrants.

I enrolled for the new term at the Marion Park Junior School. At least 20% of my class were recent arrivals from Europe like me. Our teacher, a Mr. Ford[1], was anxious to find out the level of knowledge possessed by the new faces in his class and called us one by one to the front to answer questions. Actually, he was anxious to expose our level of ignorance for the titillation of the rest of the class. He was that kind of guy.

Kids whose first language was not English were exposed as being hopeless at English grammar and spelling. Kids who had spent a large part of their lives in a Displaced Person’s Camp in Europe were exposed as not having mastered their multiplication tables. A Greek boy called Costas did not know the name of the Australian Prime Minister. A boy from London got a special laugh when it transpired that he had never heard of Donald Bradman[2] and thought “footy” was the game that Arsenal played.

I am ashamed to say that I dutifully laughed along with the rest of the class. Anything to be part of the group.

When my turn came to be quizzed, I went to the front feeling fairly confidant. My grammar and spelling were passable, I thought. I had long mastered my multiplication tables (although I had a few problems with the 12x : still do, for that matter). I even knew that Tom Playford was the Premier of the State and Robert Menzies the Prime Minister of Australia.

“Well Roger, you’re from Scotland, eh?”,

Mr. Ford began in an ingratiatory tone as he eyed me up and down, seeking to find my weaknesses.

“Let’s see what you know about the history of this country. Can you tell me who discovered Australia, Roger?”

As it happened, my father was a specialist history teacher, and ever since I had learned to read, his library of history books had been a big source for my reading. Although I did not understand all the big words, there were always plenty of pictures of Kings and Queens, knights in armour, explorers and sailing ships, maps and plans of battles. So I knew a little bit about Australian history, enough at least to recognise this as a trick question. So I dug deep into my limited stock of knowledge and carefully replied…

“Well, um, Sir, um, er… was it the Dutch in the 17th Century?”

A gleam appeared in Mr. Ford’s eye. A gotcha moment. He pounced:

“The Dutch?… THE DUTCH!… Wherever did you get that idea from?… It was THE ENGLISH!… Haven’t you ever heard of Captain Cook, BOY?… Return to your seat and pay attention, and you might LEARN something”

I was mortified, but, looking back with the passage of years, I now know three things with absolute clarity:

Mr. Ford knew I was right

He thought I was a smartass

No matter what I had said he would have found fault

But the class laughed sycophantly, and I probably deserved that.

I returned red-faced to my seat.

I wonder what Mr. Ford would have said had I replied that it was Aboriginal people more than sixty Millenia ago?

But an answer like that would never have occurred to anyone in 1953


Captain Dirk Hartog of the Dutch East India Company, one of the first Europeans to set foot on Australian soil, nails up an inscribed pewter plate to record the event on 26th October 1616. His ship, The Eendracht, waits offshore. Hartog did not know he was on the edge of a vast unknown continent, but then neither did Captain Cook when he landed  on the East coast, 3500 km away and more the 150 years later. The Dirk Hartog Plate is now housed in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

[1] Not his real name.

[2] Sir Donald Bradman was an Australian cricketer from the 1930s and 40s. “The Don” lived in Adelaide in 1953 with near-godlike status.

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