History: European Contact

European Contact

Hispanic Exploration

The first Europeans on the scene were Spaniards and Portuguese. The former were interested in gold and silver, new territories and colonies, and conversion of the heathen, while the latter were concerned with finding passages from Europe to the Moluccas, fabled Spice Islands of the East. Vasco Núñez de Balboa became the first to set eyes on this great ocean when he crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513 to discover the Mar del Sur, or South Seas (as opposed to the Mar del Norte, or North Seas, the Caribbean). On November 28, 1520, Ferdinand Magellan's three ships entered the Pacific around the bottom of South America. Pointing the vessels northwest, their next landfall was Guam, two months later. Though Magellan himself was killed in the Philippines, his surviving crew made it back to Spain in September 1522. The first circumnavigation in history had taken three years!

In 1568, Álvaro de Mendaña sailed from Peru to the Solomon Islands in search of gold. On his second trip to the Solomons in 1595 Mendaña discovered the southern Marquesas Islands. The voyage of Mendaña's pilot, Pedro Fernandez de Quirós, from Espiritu Santo in what is now Vanuatu to Mexico in 1606, against contrary winds in rotten ships with a starving, dying company, must rank as one of the greatest feats of Pacific journeying. The 16th-century Spaniards defined the bounds of the Pacific and added whole clusters of islands to geographic knowledge.

Terra Australis Incognita

The systematic European exploration of the Pacific was actually a search for terra australis incognita, a great southern continent believed to balance the continents of the north. There were many daring voyages during this period. The 17th century was the age of the Dutch explorations in search of new markets and trade routes. The first Dutch ships followed the routes pioneered by the Spanish and made few discoveries of significance. However, Anthony van Diemen, the Dutch governor-general of Batavia (present-day Jakarta) and a man of vision and great purpose, provided the backing for Abel Tasman's noteworthy voyage of 1642, which entered the Pacific from the west, rather than the east.

Tasman was instructed to find "the remaining unknown part of the terrestrial globe"—your basic Herculean task. Because of his meticulous and painstaking daily journals, Tasman is known as the historian of Pacific explorers. His observations proved invaluable to geographers, and he added Tasmania, New Zealand, Tonga, and parts of Fiji to Western knowledge. Tasman was the first to sail right around Australia. Jacob Roggeveen's voyage in 1722 also failed to discover the unknown continent, but he narrowed down the area of conjecture considerably.

The exploratory success of the 18th-century English was due to this 17th-century scientific labor. Although using 17th-century equipment, William Dampier explored with an 18th-century attitude. In 1745, the British Parliament passed an act promising £20,000 to the first British subject who could, in a British ship, discover and sail through a strait between Hudson's Bay and the South Seas. Thus many explorers were spurred to investigate the region. This route would have proven infinitely shorter than the one around Cape Horn, where the weather was often foul and the ships in perpetual danger; on Samuel Wallis's voyage of 1766-1767, his two ships took four months to round the chaotic Straits of Magellan. Captain John Byron (grandfather of the poet) ignored his orders to find a passage between the South Seas and Hudson's Bay and instead sought the Solomons, discovered initially by Mendaña. His circumnavigation took only two years. The great ocean was becoming an explorer's lake.


European Contact Countdown





Balboa, Spanish

Pacific Ocean


Magellan, Spanish

Mariana Islands, Philippines


Meneses, Portuguese

Irian Jaya


Saavedra, Spanish

Marshall Islands


Villalobos, Spanish

Caroline Islands


Ortiz de Retes, Spanish

New Guinea


Mendaña, Spanish

Tuvalu, Solomon Islands


Mendaña, Spanish

Marquesas Islands


Quirós, Spanish

Tuamotu Islands, Vanuatu


Torres, Spanish



Schouten/Le Maire, Dutch



Tasman, Dutch

Tasmania, New Zealand


Tasman, Dutch

Tonga, Fiji


Roggeveen, Dutch

Easter Island, Samoa


Byron, English

Tokelau Islands


Wallis, English

Tahiti, Wallis


Carteret, English



Cook, English

Leeward Islands, Australs


Cook, English

Cook Islands


Cook, English

Niue, New Caledonia, Norfolk


Cook, English

Christmas Island


Cook, English

Hawaiian Islands


Mourelle, Spanish



Vancouver, English

Chatham Islands, Rapa


Fearn, English