Coin dated 1597 may show that Cook was beaten to Australia

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2007, 12:00am

An archaeologist claims to have found a 16th century European coin in an Australian swamp, raising new questions about whether Britain's Captain James Cook was beaten to the east coast of the continent by the Spanish or Portuguese.

The silver coin, which is inscribed with the date 1597, was found by a group led by amateur archaeologist Greg Jefferys.

A colleague was digging in the sand with a machete when he found the badly corroded coin last month.

It was buried about 5cm in the ground in the middle of Eighteen Mile Swamp on North Stradbroke Island, Queensland.

If authenticated it will lend weight to the theory that Spanish or Portuguese navigators discovered Australia's east coast centuries before Captain Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770.

Spanish ships explored the Pacific extensively from the early 1500s in search of gold, spices and the fabled Great Southern Land.

They discovered the Solomon Islands in 1568 and islands in present-day Vanuatu in 1606.

In the same year, the Spanish navigator Luis Baez de Torres sailed through the strait now bearing his name, between Australia and Papua New Guinea. However, he never made Australian landfall despite sighting its northernmost point.

Mr Jefferys hopes the coin may lead him to the wreck of a 16th or 17th century ship rumoured to be lying beneath the swamp - the so-called 'Stradbroke Galleon'.

The timber skeleton of such a vessel was reportedly noted by a Queensland colonial secretary in the 1890s, and spotted by an Australian air force pilot as he flew over the island during the second world war.

Legend has it that Aborigines living on the island between the wars found gold coins buried in the sand, and a map of the island published by oil company Shell in the 1920s is marked 'wreck of Spanish galleon'.

Mr Jefferys said the coin was unearthed close to where other historical artefacts, including a lead weight, a brass button and a Spanish-style dagger, have been found.

'The coin is critical because it's the only object which we can definitely date,' he said last week.

The claims have been treated with scepticism by experts.

Ian Jempson, of the Queensland Maritime Museum, said: 'It would overturn long-established theories about the discovery of eastern Australia by Captain Cook. But just because you find a coin on a beach, it doesn't necessarily prove that someone was on that beach at that date.'

Andrew Viduka, a shipwreck expert from the Museum of Tropical Queensland, said the coin 'could have been put there by anyone at any time. There's no archaeological context to it'.

Five years ago Mr Jefferys claimed to have found a pair of 16th century cannons. They turned out to be support struts from a 19th-century ship.