How Australia might have been colonised by the Portuguese

by Kevin Murray

© all rights reserved

This story begins with historical fact, which eventually leads to speculation. At this stage, it is a draft history of a land that Australia might have become if it had been colonised by the Portugese. While offering an amusing mental diversion, it also aims to provide an opening for some of the possibilities of settlement in the southern continent-possibilities that help put the English settlement in a broader context.

The following is a story of how Australia might have been colonised by the Portuguese. The presence of historical fact amongst this fiction is indicated by •thus•.

•Christovoa da Mendonca journeys south of Timor•, hoping to find the fabled land of India Meridional (southern Indies). •Chinese sailors had reported the existence of an ‘Isle of Gold’ south of Java, that stretched as far as Antarctica.• In 1522, Mendonca sights the coastline of what appears to be a large island, but after several weeks exploration he deduces the existence of a huge continent. For good luck, he abandons half a dozen degradados (exiled convicts) on the mainland to fend for themselves. Two die soon after, three establish a camp, and one wonders off never to be heard of again. Back in Lisbon, Mendonca’s discovery is kept secret. The fabled wealth of the island must be protected from Spanish interests.

A second expedition recovers two remaining convicts, who return with reports of the strange beasts who inhabit the land. Scholars note a correspondence between their stories and the legend of Prester John. In the 11th-13th centuries, it was believed that a descendent of the Magi that adored baby Jesus had established a stronghold of Christendom in the East. Much early travel, including Marco Polo’s expedition, has been designed to link forces with this eastern power and thus defeat the infidel.

The most detailed account of Prester John’s kingdom comes from the travel writer Maundeville, who reports on life in the antipodes. According to Maundeville, the kingdom is bordered by a ‘Gravelly Sea’, which corresponds to the salt lakes of the interior. The ‘wild men’ reported to be in Prester John’s vicinity resemble the strange uncivilised natives the convicts had met. Revived fervour for a Christian mission in the east joins hunger for gold to encourage further development of India Meridional. In 1531 a military outpost, Mistorak, is established on the north coast of the continent.

On his journey to China, Francis Xavier visits this new continent. In 1545, Xavier proclaims the land •’nullius diocesis‘ (without prior religious title)• and establishes the first of many Jesuit missions in Mistorak. Their first attempts to convert the natives end in dismal failure. There seems little shared understanding on which Christian faith might take hold. Eventually, Jesuits coax nominal conversion with the lure of presents, such as knives and alcohol. Poor diet and homesickness reduces their number greatly.

•By the early seventeenth century, Portuguese power in the region is devastated by raiding Dutch fleets. In 1615 the Dutch navy seize the strategic position of Malacca and the Portuguese escape to smaller islands in south-east Asia• and India Meridional. Francisco de Veiera from Macassar leads a group of colonists to the north-east coast. Refugees bring with them spices such as tamarind pods, which they use to flavour kangaroo dishes.

•In 1640 Portugal gains long-awaited independence from Spain.• With evidence of other nations exploring this part of the world, Portugal overtly declares possession of the continent they call ‘Lusitania’ (•after the Lusitani tribe who resisted Roman forces in the Iberian Peninsula•). This claim is subsequently recognised by England in its •1661 treaty with Portugal•.

•By the end of the seventeenth-century, the Portuguese find gold in Brazil.• When surface gold begins to runs out in South America, prospectors turn to Lusitania, with its legendary wealth. First attempts are disappointing, but reveal an expanse of territory that seems to offer boundless possibilities. Bands of prospectors set out, always with a padre in attendance to round up lost souls. Strange fancies encourage them further. The lost convict left by Mendonca acquires mythical status, with reports of his descendants in Luso-Aboriginal tribes roaming the desert.

In one incident, a band of prospectors finds themselves lost in the desert without food or water. As the last man lies dying, an Aboriginal boy approaches. This boy understands Portuguese and assists Jorges Vicente to his tribe, where he is nursed back to health. When he is better, the elders take him aside and show him •a crystal which takes the natural form of a cross•. Speaking a garbled Portuguese, they tell him about the mountain nearby where it had been found, and how the cross is a sacred symbol of the ‘fishermen’ (Christians). When taken to the site, Jorges finds lumps of silver lying on the ground. When Jorges returns with a contingent of excited fanatics and prospectors, they can find no sign of the tribe, but they immediately build a makeshift church in which to house the crystal.

•At the beginning of the eighteenth-century, the Portuguese empire suffers an additional blow with Omani victories in the east coast of Africa.• Additional weight is placed on the inviolable colony of Lusitania, the one as yet uncontested Portuguese claim on the Indian Ocean. Settlement in Mistorak flourishes as trepang and pearls provide a flourishing export commodity. Colonists develop a taste for turtle and crocodile. There are occasional incursions by Dutch and Indonesian vessels, but these are forcefully repelled. In general, a lawlessness prevails and slaves are imported from India as sexual concubines.

By the second half of the eighteenth-century, however, Lusitania undergoes a radical change. Its impetus occurs in •1759, when Jesuits are expelled from Portugal and Brazil.• There is sufficient distance from Lisbon for Lusitania to provide sanctuary for exiled Jesuits, who re-establish their missions with much greater determination. They immediately enforce a strict moral code in Mistorak. Aboriginal tribes welcome relief from the belligerent style of settlement and provide a new generation of converts to Jesus. Jesuit missions are established throughout the continent. In the north, the Jesuits run lucrative cattle stations using Aboriginal labour. In 1782, the first Aboriginal priest is ordained.

Meanwhile, prospectors have finally hit upon the rich goldfields of the south. Though Jesuits follow new centres of activity, the delirium of gold fever proves difficult to contain.

During this period, •the English Prime Minister Pitt decides to sent convicts to• West Africa and •Brazil becomes a kingdom in its own right.• The Jesuit office of Father General is granted executive powers in control of Lusitania, which is now proclaimed a divine kingdom as prophesied under Prester John. A religious inspired navy attacks Muslim ports in East Indies, attempting to win over the Chinese diaspora in revolt against their hosts. This only inspires Islamic fundamentalism in the area, and a Jihad is proclaimed on Lusitania. Supported by Lusitania, the Fretilin resistance to Arabic culture continues throughout the modern era.

The Portuguese empire now is scattered across the globe. •In 1886, ‘Rose-coloured empire’ is recognised by France and Germany.• A ‘League of Roses’ is established with its headquarters in Lisbon. This commonwealth embraces Brazil, Lusitania, middle Africa, Colombo, East Timor and Macau. The motto is ‘The sun rises in the East’. Endemic conflicts between the ‘League of Roses’ and their Islamic neighbours distract from competition from the other colonial powers. The English convict settlement in West Africa founders on a disastrous drought, though it manages to hold onto its colonies in North America.

The advent of revolutionary movements in Western Europe puts the mother country at odds with its more conservative offspring. The ‘League of Roses’ disintegrates on the eve of the First World War. During the 1930s, the Jesuit rulers of Lusitania become indistinguishable from military leaders. Medals from battles on the Banda Sea adorn their black cassocks. Jesuits are drawn into the Second World War when the Japanese navy attacks Macau. Though often outmanoeuvred by an agile Japanese navy, the Lusitanians win many battles by brute force. The Japanese eventually invade the mainland, but their vehicles run out of petrol deep in the interior and are brutally cut down by Jesuit cowboys.

The Theo-Military dictatorship falters during the student riots of 1969. Among the students is a Jesuit novitiate who claims to be descendent of the lost convict abandoned by Mendonca. This Father Ricardo accuses the Jesuit establishment of self-interest. With great conviction, he promotes an international platform for the defence against imperialists around the world. The incumbent Father General is assassinated and guerilla supporters of Ricardo storm the main offices to instate their leader.

Once in power, Father Ricardo establishes a ‘Crown of Thorns’ composed mainly of isolated small nations. Eventually even Portugal joins and is accorded ceremonial status. As well as nations previously gathered as ‘League of Roses’, the ‘Espinho’ (Thorn) adds Greenland, Guinea, Taiwan, Okinawa, Hokkaido, Albania and Ireland. During the growth of the Indonesian empire, Espinho provides diplomatic muscle to protect rights of Catholics and Buddhists in south-east Asia.

Finally, in 2001, the aging Cardinal Ricardo is elected as the first Aboriginal Pope, heralding a renewal of the Roman Catholic church in its mission to defend the poor and helpless.

However, during the height of its religious patriotism, the Lusitanian economy collapses and is forced to beg assistance from the IMF.

How Australia might have been colonised by the Portuguese was constructed with the assistance of a workshop held at Broken Hill, NSW. Special thanks to Campbell Macknight and James Bradley. For more details, see the “Turn the Soil” web site:

Responses to the story are most welcome and will be incorporated into the final version.

An Update

Turn the Soil has been touring Australia since April 1997. It has graced not only metropolitan, but also regional venues. One of the most touching testimonies to the exhibition has been the response in country towns like Gladstone, Queensland.

We forget that, even in the bush, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party is still a minority view. Visitors to an exhibition about the role chance played in the English settlement of Australia seemed keen to embrace an event that celebrated the experience of Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds. The mayor of Gladstone opened the show by speculating on what the town would be like if it were Greek, and octopus hung out to dry on balconies. The opportunities to involve a community in these sub-plots are painfully few. The 1970s icon of ethnicity, Al Grasby, opened the show in Canberra admitting that this exhibition was his only opportunity to mark the 25th anniversary of Multiculturalism.

In Sydney, Turn the Soil opened on August 1, 1998 with a view (just) of the Opera House, that mark of Scandinavian design that has been stamped on Australian iconography. The city itself is probably too big to invite the participation of smaller groups, as is possible in regional galleries. To that end, the online history of How Australia might have been colonised by the Portuguese is available for all to participate in.

Broken Hill and what the Portuguese might have made of Australia was the last alternative history constructed as part of the Turn the Soiltour of Australia. Kevin Murray and the team gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Campbell Macknight and James Bradley in the construction of this story. Further responses are welcome and material related to this scenario is available at

Kevin Murray is a freelance writer, curator and narrative psychologist.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]