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Pennefather River

The Pennefather River in Queensland, Australia, is located on western Cape York Peninsula in Lat.: 12°13' S, Long.: 141°44' E. The river is about 11 km long and up to about 2km wide.

The river is one of the most significant historical sites in Australia as it is probably the place where, in 1606, the Dutch yacht Duyfken, commanded by Willem Janszoon, after a voyage from the Dutch East Indies, made the first authenticated landing on Australian soil by a European.

The European names formerly applied to the Pennefather River are confusing. Unfortunately the Duyfken journals have not been seen since the early seventeenth century so that information about the voyage and places visited must be obtained from observations by later Dutch explorers such as Jan Carstenzoon who was in the area in 1623. Carstenszoon gave the name Coen River to a river at latitude 13º 7' South. However, geologist Robert L. Jack examined the naming of the river in his 1921 history of Cape York Peninsula and came to the conclusion that Carstenzoon's Coen River was in fact Norman Creek which flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria about four kilometres south of False Pera Head at 13º 4' South. Later research by Günter Schilder, however, suggests that it was the river now known as the Archer that empties into the Gulf just south of Aurukun.

Carstenzoon sailed past a large river which he named the Revier de Carpentier, probably Port Musgrave with the Wenlock River. Geoffrey Ingleton notes in a table in his account of Matthew Flinders visit to the area that Carstenzoon's 'Revier de Carpentier' was the Pennefather River, yet he contradicts this later in a note to the effect that the Carpentier River was later renamed the Batavia.

Abel Janszoon Tasman sailed along the western Cape York Peninsula coastline in 1644 and charted the Coen River as the Prince River and Matthew Flinders visited the Pennefather River on 7 November 1802 and assumed from the Dutch chart which he was using that the river was the Coen and henceforth the hydrographic chart of the area showed that name.

In 1880 Captain Charles Edward de Fonblanque Pennefather in command of the Queensland Government Schooner (QGS) Pearl, sailed from Thursday Island to examine the coast and rivers on the eastern side of the Gulf of Carpentaria. He took a whaleboat into the Coen River at latitude 12º 13' South and then sailed southwards to the Archer River then again back to the Batavia River. It became apparent that there were two Coen rivers in the Western Cape region: the Coen named by Flinders and the South Coen which rose in the eastern ranges and drained into the Archer River. In 1894 the Coen River was re-named the Pennefather to avoid confusion with the South Coen River and the South Coen was re-named the Coen River.

However, he British Admiralty Chart for the Gulf of Carpentaria retained the name Coen until the 1960s, possibly because the Admiralty Hydrographic Office was not advised of the change by the Queensland government. Eventually a number of placenames on western Cape York Peninsula which varied between those shown on Admiralty charts and other maps were renamed for the sake of uniformity and the name Pennefather River appeared in the Australia Pilot in 1967.

One of the most famous cartographical depictions of the Gulf of Carpentaria, showing placenames bestowed by the Janszoon, Carstenzoon and Tasman expeditions, is the so-called Bonaparte map held by the Mitchell Library of the State Library of New South Wales. Visitors to the Mitchell walk across a marble mosaic copy of the map installed at the entrance.

(Refer to: Placenames Australia, Newsletter of the Australian National Placenames Survey, September 2005)

Updated 4 February 2006