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West Papua History: The Discovery of New Guinea

West Papua History

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[Collingridge’s impression of the “bird” of New Guinea]

The Discovery of New Guinea

Illustrations, facsimile maps and text taken from George Collingridge’s
The First Discovery of Australia and New Guinea,
William Brooks and Company, Sydney, 1906.

June 23, 2004 – last update


“WHAT was the relative position of European nations in the arena of maritime discovery at the beginning of the sixteenth century?

Portugal was then mistress of the sea.

Portuguese Ships

Spain, too, indulging in an awakening yawn, was clutching with her outstretched hands at the shadowy treasure-islands of an unfinished dream.

England had not yet launched her navy; Holland had not built hers.

Portugal had already buried a king – the great grandson of Edward III of England – whose enterprise had won for him the name of Henry the Navigator.

Slowly and sadly – slowly always, sadly often – his vessels had crept down the west coast of Africa; little by little one captain had overstepped the distance traversed by his predecessor, untul at last in 1497 a successful voyager actually rounded the Cape.

Then Portugal, clear of the long wall that had fenced her in on one side for so many thousands of miles, trod the vast expanse of waters to the east, and soon began to plant her flag in various ports in the Indian Ocean…

Desliens’ Map – 1566

Pushing on further east in search of the Spice Islands, she found Sumatra, Borneo, the Celebes, Java, Timor, Ceram, the Aru Islands and Gilolo; she had reached the famous and much coveted Moluccas, or Spice Islands, and set to work building forts and establishing trading stations in the same way as England is doing nowadays in South Africa and elsewhere. [FN: In a chart of the East Indian Archipelago, drawn probably during the first Portuguese voyages to the Spice Islands (1511-1513), the island of Gilolo is called Papoia. Many of the islands situated on the west and north-west coast of New Guinea became known to the Portuguese at an early date, and were named collectively OS PAPUAS. The name was subsequently given to the western parts of New Guinea. Menezes, a Portuguese navigator, is said to have been driven by a storm to some of these islands, where he remained awaiting the monsoonal change.]

Meanwhile the Spaniards, after discovery of America by Columbus, were pursuing their navigations and explorations westward with the same object in view, and it soon dawned upon them that a vast ocean separated them from the islands discovered by the Portuguese.


Magellan was then set out in search of a westerly passage; he reached the regions where the Portuguese had established themselves, and disputes arose as to the limits of the Portuguese and Spanish boundaries.

Pope Alexander VI had generously bestowed one-half of the undiscovered world upon the Spanish, and the other half upon the Portuguese, charging each nation with the conversion of the heathen within its prospective domains.

Merely as a fact this is interesting enough, but viewed in the light of subsequent events it assumes a specific importance.

The actual size of the earth was not known at the time and this division of Pope Alexander’s, measured from the other side of the world, resulted in an overlapping and duplicate charting of the Portuguese and Spanish boundaries in the logitudes of the Spice Islands [see the Ribero Map], an overlapping due, no doubt, principally to the desire of each contending party to include the Spice Islands within its own hemisphere… [pp.13-16]

The Spice Islands, from Ribero’s Official Map of the World – 1529

… prior to the year 1529, when this map was made [Ribero map], the Spaniards had sailed along 250 leagues of the northern shores of an island… [pg.16] The Spaniards found traces of gold all along this part of the country, and Saavendra [Captain of the Santiago] named the island Isla del Oro, the Island of Gold; but his description of the natives, whom he found to be black, with short criped hair or wool, similar to those of the coast of Guinea in Africa, gave rise, no doubt, to the alteration of the name, for at a later date the island became known as Nova Guinea, or New Guinea… [pg.24].


In the year 1545 the San Juan was dispatched… commanded by Inigo Ortiz de Retez… they sailed from Tidor in the Moluccas, in the beginning of the year and made extensive discoveries on the north coast of Os Papuas, or Papua… [pg.41].

Spanish Ships

Had the Portuguese and Spanish known the map of New Guinea as we know it nowadays they would, no doubt, have described it as a Guinea fowl, Bird of Paradise or some such creature, as delineated above, in the same way as they described Java and other islands in these seas. [FN: Celebes was likened to a spider, Ceram to a caterpillar, etc., etc.]

[Collingridge’s impression of the “bird” of New Guinea]

The map of Nova Guinea… shows, however, that their ideas were like all original ideas concerning shapes of countries – imperfect.

Nova Guinea – The First Map of New Guinea – 1600

Nevertheless, some of the principal features of the Portuguese and Spanish discoveries in Papuas and New Guinea, up to the year 1545, are clearly discernable. [FN: The original Portuguese and Spanish documents that were used in the compilation of this map have been lost or have not yet come to light. Our copy dates from the year 1600.]

It will now be noticed that Gilolo is now placed in its correct position, twenty degrees to the west of where it was placed before in Ribero’s map.

It is now in the Portuguese sphere where it should be.

The Portuguese discoveries in New Guinea occupy what might be described as the fowl’s head and neck. They come under the name of OS PAPUAS, and the islands where Menezes is said to have sojourned – hic hibernavit Georg de Menezes – in the year 1526.

The three nameless large islands, between Os Papuas and Nova Guinea represent, no doubt, the Misory Islands and Jobi of modern charts.

The Aru Islands are also charted, and the Tenimber or Timor Laut group is indicated (although it bears no name) as having been the sojourn of Martin Alfonso de Melo [FN: Martin alfonso de melo, on the chart.], a Portuguese navigator, whose name has not been otherwise recorded, as far as I know, in the history of maritime discovery in these parts” [pg.42-43].

Scene in New Guinea

Note: There are a number of controversies surrounding the European discovery of Australia and New Guinea. While skilful in its blend of art and history, Collingridge’s book is only at best a thumbnail sketch of these events. For other perspectives on this history, readers are advised to consider more recent texts as well as others from the period that are already online such as A Short History of Australia by Ernst Scott (available through the Nalanda Library at the National Institute of Technology Calicut, Kerala State, India).

The most complete history of early exploration and discovery in New Guinea (to 1902) remains:

Wichmann, Arthur 1909-1912 Entdeckungsgeschichte von Neu Guinea, Nova Guinea I and Nova Guinea II,
Leiden: E.J. Brill (387pp. and 1026 pp. respectively, both volumes in German).

For further information about George Collingridge, visit the George Collingridge Society ( If you are interested in doing research work on this fascinating Australian, see his biography and collection of unpublished manuscripts held by the National Library of Australia (

Thank you for reading West Papua History.

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