A 500-year-old prayer book owned by a nun is being heralded as evidence that the Dutch were not the first Europeans to arrive in Australia.
The Dutch have historically been credited with landing the first European ship on Australian shores in 1606 but the Portuguese prayer book is dated between 1580 and 1620 and has a kangaroo-like creature sketched into it pages as well as an image of a bare-chested man with leaves in his hair which could possibly be an Indigenous Australian.
A New York gallery, Les Enluminures, has acquired the book, which is believed to have been owned by a nun from western Portugal named Caterina de Carvalho – the name inscribed in the manuscript – and has been valued at about US$15,000.
Laura Light, a researcher for Les Enluminures, said speculation about whether the manuscript “proved” if it was the Dutch or Portuguese who were the first Europeans to arrive on Australia’s shores was “a little too narrow”.
“Surely the fact that this drawing is found in such an unlikely context – a prayer book owned by a Portuguese nun at the end of the sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries – tells us something of interest about the level of contact between these two cultures,” she said in an email.
The Portuguese were notoriously secretive about which routes they had sailed so it has been difficult to ascertain when they first came to Australia, but there has been speculation for years that they beat the Dutch to it.
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