The little-known Cape Leeuwin
05.12.15

Cape Leeuwin is the most south-westerly point of the Australian continent and is the least well-known of the three capes that traditionally mark a circumnavigation. It was not until the 16th century that a Portuguese mariner discovered these hostile coasts inhabited by Aborigines and kangaroos, surrounded by an immense desert. 

In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world into two parts; whatever was west of the Cape Verde archipelago went to Spain, and the new lands to the east went to Portugal. Merchants set out to discover new worlds, and most of all, new riches. The route Bartolomeu Dias had opened via the Cape of Good Hope was extended as far as India by Vasco da Gama, who sailed down the coast of Africa via the Mozambique Channel, making landfall on the coast of Malabar on May 18th, 1498. Although the Admiral of India was not able to stay in Calicut for very long, due to the animosity of the Mauritanian traders, Pedro Álvares Cabral managed to set up a trading post in Cochin in 1500. The maritime spice route between Asia and Europe was established to hold out against Arab and Venetian merchants. 

An unknown continent

At the start of the 16th century, navigators were inspired to push even further east to the Maluku Islands. In search of Magellan, the Portuguese explorer Cristóvão de Mendonça discovered the region of Victoria (south-east Australia) in 1522, but the mariners were not that inspired by this Terra Australis. When Holland freed itself of Iberian wardship, there was no holding back the Batavians, who sailed beyond the Cape of Good Hope in search of spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, pepper), running the risk of having to face the Portuguese fleet. The Battle of Bantam, in 1601, where five Dutch boats beat thirty Portuguese ships, marked the birth of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The Dutch merchants were able to raise armies, declare war and sign treaties. 

 

In 1606, the Duyfken was fitted out in Texel and set out on reconnaissance from the Maluku Islands towards New Guinea. She reached the Torres Strait and the crew disembarked at Cape York, on the northern coast of Australia. Cape Leeuwin owes its name to one of the ships fitted out in the Netherlands on April 20th, 1621, bound for Batavia (Jakarta). The Leeuwin (“Lion” in Dutch) recognised the point in March 1622 by chance, having made a mistake in reckoning the course! In the 17th century, in the absence of a chronometer, there was no way of calculating longitude with enough precision to work out the difference between local and reference time.

From James Cook…

In 1770, James Cook took possession of Australia on his first voyage around the world. Bruni d’Entrecasteaux (1737-1793), sent by King Louis XVI in search of La Pérouse (which had set out three years earlier to discover the Pacific), set sail from Brest in September 1791 with the frigates L’Espérance and La Recherche to explore the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. On January 17th, 1792, the rear-admiral reached the Cape of Good Hope, discovering and naming Amsterdam Island in March, then southern Australia, where he named the Recherche Archipelago, Port Esperance, D’Entrecasteaux Channel, Bruny Island Point and Gicquel Island, among others. 

…to Nicolas Baudin

But it was Nicolas Baudin who mapped the western coastline of Australia on his expedition from Le Havre aboard Le Naturaliste and Le Géographe. On May 30th, 1801, the navigator from France’s western region of Charente sailed along what he described as “an uninteresting coast with nowhere to moor… and with no apparent trace of fresh water. However, fires indicate the presence of natives”. He went on to name many an island, cape, archipelago, bay, point and gulf with the names of his officers, from Joseph Bonaparte Gulf to the north, to the Kermadec Islands to the south. 

In the Bonaparte Archipelago, some remarkable landmarks bear the names of illustrious men of the time, along with characters from literature or of military fame. Suffren, Jussieu, Colbert, Montesquieu, Fénelon, Laplace, Monge, Bernoulli, Buffon, Lamarck, Lavoisier, La Fontaine, Corneille, Molière, Voltaire, Borda, Descartes, Racine… remain to this day the names of capes, peaks, promontories and isthmuses (or peninsulas) right along the western coast of Australia. 

Out of sight

Located 34° 22’ South and 115° 08’ East, Cape Leeuwin is marked by a lighthouse seven kilometres from the nearest town, Augusta. The southern coast of Australia is between Albany to the west and Adelaide to the east is 1,500 km of sparsely populated, semi-desert bush, so there is no shipping along this inhospitable coastline, which offers little shelter. The area has a bad reputation due to the southern low pressure systems that reach Cape Leeuwin before rushing into the formidable Bass Strait between the Australian mainland and Tasmania.

This contrasts with Good Hope, a few kilometres from Cape Town, or with Cape Horn, with its numerous Patagonian channels. No-one is attracted to the Australian cape by sea, since with the exception of Perth, 150 miles further north, it offers no shelter. Boats chasing the Jules Verne Trophy or competing in the Vendée Globe therefore sail several hundred miles south. Even cargo vessels avoid this infamous and uncomfortable cape as much as possible! Geographers have clearly defined the Indian Ocean as being bounded on the west by Cape Agulhas (South Africa), at 20° East, 60° South, and on the east by the south-eastern tip of Tasmania (Australia), at 146° 49’ East. Cape Leeuwin is in fact little more than a simple reference point 12,000 miles away from Ushant.