The Discovery of Australia: Naming Australia

Philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) wrote in "Timaeus" about the Atlantic Ocean and all lands beyond America; "In those days the Atlantic was navigable from an island situated to the west of the straits which you call the Pillars of Hercules; from it could be reached other islands and from the islands you might pass through the opposite continent which surrounds the true ocean." Plato alludes to the Pacific Islands beyond the American continent, and Asia/Europe/Africa beyond. Thus, the ancient Greeks appear to have been familiar with the Australian region.

Terra Antipodes

Maps of Plato's day show a land mass where Antartica is today. This mass of land was marked as Terra Antipodes, which means literally land (Terra) opposite (Anti) feet (Podes). This name doesn't make a lot of sense until we realise that our concept of north being "up" and south being "down" had its origins with the ancient Greeks who theorised that north was at the top of the world and that the earth rested on some sort of base in the south. For this reason, the land mass (terra) they believed existed on the opposite side (anti) of the world to where they were was the "pode" or feet of the earth.

Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius was a 5th century follower of the Neoplatonists, philosophers originating in Alexandria around the third century, who believed in blending Plato's ideas with theosophy. He wrote numerous books on a variety of subjects, from philosophy to geography. His book "In Somnium Scipionis, Lib. II, Saturnaliorum, Lib. VII" was re-published in Venice in 1560, his commentary on Cicero and Plato in it includes several chapters dealing with his own conception of the world and the universe. Macrobius' map of the world (right), which appears in it, is the first to be printed denoting ocean currents, identifies 'frigid' and 'temperate' zones and also includes a Southern land mass marked as "Antipodum". His idea of a spherical earth derives from the second-century theory of Crates of Mallus. This map of the world appeared in manuscripts and printed works for a period of 1200 years and was generally accepted as accurate during that period.

Terra Australis Incognita

During the middle ages, the concept of whether or not there was a land mass in the earth's southern area was all but forgotten and the idea was only revived in the Renaissance when scienific study experienced a revival in Europe. The new breed of thinkers built on the theories of the Romans and Greeks with the additional knowledge they gleaned, to come up with their own theories of how things were. Maps of the then-known world created in 15th century Europe were based on those of the ancients but modified to include recently discovered lands and oceans. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the Indian subcontinent and the lands of the Orient beyond it were all known to Europe, so it was assumed that the land mass spoken of by the Greeks and Romans must be to the south beyond the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and thus it appeared on map. This unknown south land was marked on maps with the Latin term Terra Australis Incognita, roughly translated as the Unknown (Incognita) Southern (Australis) Land (Terra). Like the maps of Plato's day, their 15th century equivalents show a land mass where Antartica is today, but it extended much farther north. As the American continents, both north and south, were discovered, explored and charted, these were added to the map. More often than not the south land was drawn upwards towards the tip of South America, the two land masses shown as being separated by a narrow strait. In the early 17th century, the top end of Australia was being discovered and charted and began appearing on contemporary maps. Some showed it correctly as a land mass unconnected to Terra Australis Incognita, other maps extended the coastline north from the Arctic Circle to incorporate the newly charted coasts to the south of New Guinea as part of Terra Australis Incognita.

New Holland

It is commonly believed today that Australia as we know it and Terra Australis Incognita as it was believed to be were always seen as being one and the same, but such is not the case. When the Dutch began encountering and charting the western and southern coasts, they did not connect them to the coasts of the South Land on their new charts, rather they drew them as sections of what they termed Hollandia Nova (Latin for New Holland), a separate though largely unknown island continent. D'Edel's Land (mid west coast) and Endracht's Land (WA's Gascoyne/Pilbara Region) appeared as sections of its western coast; de Witt's Land/Nuyts land (head of Gt Australian Bight) and Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) appeared as sections of its southern coast; Dieman's Land and Arnhem Land (Norther Territory) were to the west of Diemen's Bay (Gulf of Carpentaria ). It was Matthew Flinders, the first man to navigate the continent in 1803, and his French contemporaty Nicolas Baudin, who would fill in the gaps. The majority of Dutch maps of the 17th century show no reference to Terra Australis Incognita but use the name New Holland. Some were marked Carpenter's Land across the area to the south of the Gulf of Carpentaria. A few mapmakers, like Thevenot in 1663 (map below), obviously saw it wisdom to take an each-way bet and wrote Terre Australe on their charts over the land to the east of New Holland beyond the line of demarkation which defined Portuguese and Spanish territory according the Treaty in Tordesillas in 1494.

Those who explored and charted Australia's east coast appear not to have believed that their discoveries were part of Terra Australis Incognita, which they perceived to be a separate land much futher south. It is a commonly held belief today that Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernandez De Quiros discovered Australia in 1605 - he left Portugal in search of the South Land in 1603 - and named it Terra Austris del Espiritu Santo, that is, the South Land of the Holy Spirit. De Quiros neither came to Australia nor named it. The place he came to was Vanuatu, and not Australia, as evidenced by the fact that from the time of Quiros's discovery of it to the time the name Vanuatu was adopted, it was known as The Islands of Espiritu Santo.

In his statement of possession, De Quiros said; "I take possession of all this part of the South as far as the pole in the name of St Francis and in the name of all his Order and members of it. I take possession of all this part of the South as far as the pole in the name of John of God and all the professed members of his Order." If you look at a map of the world you will see that, in relation to Vanuatu, Australia is not in "this part of the South" nor is Australia located within the area claimed by De Quiros, ie. between Vanuatu and the South Pole, which is where De Quiros believed Terra Australis Incognita to be. The islands of Vanuatu are some 500 km to the north of the eastern tip of Australia and as Australia is not to the south of Vanuatu, t is a stretch of the truth to say that De Quiros discovered Australia and named it The South Land of the Holy Spirit. He never ever set foot on Australian soil, nor did he come near it, as upon leaving Vanuatu he travelled east away from Australia via the North Pacific route to California and Acapulco. Not only that, he left to go in search of the South Land, something he would not have said or done if he believed he had found it, was standing on it and had already named it thus.

That De Quiros did not believe he had discovered the South Land is further accentuated by his reasons for giving his discoveries the name he did. De Quiros did not call it the South Land or Terras Australis, the traditional name used to describe the unknown southern continent. Instead he called it Terras Austrialia Del Espiritu Santo, the land of Austrialia of the Holy Spirit. He did not call it Australis but Austrialia, in honour of the paton of the expedition, King Philip III of Spain, a prince of the House of Austria whose name he mentioned and credited in his full proclamation of possession. His discovery was made on 14 May 1606, which on the Christian calendar is the Day of Pentecost, the day in which the promised Holy Spirit visited Jesus's followers after his resurrection and assention into Heaven. For this reason he added "Del Espiritu Santo" to the name and not because he believed he was guided there by the Holy Spirit as is widely believed in some circles.

New Wales/New South Wales

British navigator James Cook, the man credited with having first discovered and charted the east coast of Australia, did not believe in the existence of Terra Australis Incognita, at least not in the southern latitudes. After leaving Tahiti on his first voyage of discovery into the Pacific, his log noted no ocean currents indicative of a nearby land mass and recorded he had no reason to believe a great land mass existed in the region. On 18th April 1770, Cook wrote a well-argued journal entry about the existence of Terra Australis: "I do not believe such a thing exists, unless in a high latitude". The following day he sighted mainland Australia and followed its coastline all the way to Cape York, its most northerly extremity. Some say his discovery proved his theory about the existence of Terra Australis Incognita incorrect; others say he already knew of the existence of Australia from charts he carried with him and believed it to be separate from Terra Australis Incognita, which is why he did not refer to it as Terra Australis Incognita in his journal but rather he referred to it (correctly) with the name by which it was then known - New Holland.

Cook gave the lands he had charted a new name; New Wales (he later amended it to New South Wales). When he claimed his discoveries for the British Crown, his claim extended west to 129 degrees Meridian, which is not only the longitude of the Western Australian border but also the exact line of demarkation which defined Portuguese and Spanish territory according the Treaty in Tordesillas in 1494. He claimed territory up to that line and no further. It is presumed that, to Cook, Dutch territory on the western side of New Holland would have extended east to that line of demarkation since the Dutch were aligned with the Portuguese. Britain had no quarms about walking in and taking over territory in Spain's half of the world, as evidenced by the Nootka Sound Incident of 1790 which brought the matter of international territory ownership to a head and resulted in the rules being changed forever, but Britain had no argument with the Portuguese or Dutch and respected their territorial rights and claims.

The first use of the word Australia in English was a 1693 translation of Les Aventures de Jacques Sadeur dans la Découverte et le Voyage de la Terre Australe, a 1692 French novel by Gabriel de Foigny under the pen name Jacques Sadeur. Alexander Dalrymple then used it in An Historical Collection of Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean (1771), to refer to the entire South Pacific region. In 1793, George Shaw and Sir James Smith published Zoology and Botany of New Holland, in which they wrote of "the vast island, or rather continent, of Australia, Australasia or New Holland", the oldest written recognition that Australia and New Holland were one and the same, though this fact was yet to be proved.

Matthew Flinders was the first to circumnavigate the continent and chart its previously unknown coasts. Flinders named his journal A voyage to Terra Australis, but his chart accompanying the book was entitled General Chart of Terra Australis or Australia. In so doing he recognised that, as he had determined that New South Wales and New Holland were one land, there should now be a general name for the whole continent. As extensive exploration of the South Pacific had not uncovered a Great South Land and that such a land appeared not to exist, the title Terra Australis or a version of it might well be appropriate for the land mass that he had just circumnavigated.

An extract from the introduction to Matthew Flinders' journal A voyage to Terra Australis: Flinders discusses the naming of Australia, and his wish to use the term "Australia".

"Accordingly, the following voyage was undertaken by command of His Majesty, in the year 1801 ; in a ship of 334 tons, which received the appropriate name of the Investigator; and, besides the great objects of clearing up the doubt respecting the unity of these southern regions, and of opening therein fresh sources to commerce, and new ports to seamen, it was intended, that the voyage should contribute to the advancement of natural knowledge in various branches; and that some parts of the neighbouring seas should be visited., wherein geography and navigation had still much to desire.

"The vast regions to which this voyage was principally directed, comprehend, in the western part, the early discoveries of the Dutch, under the name of New Holland; and in the east, the coasts explored by British navigators, and named New South Wales. It has not, however, been unusual to apply the first appellation to both regions; but to continue this would be almost as great an injustice to the British nation, whose seamen have had so large a share in the discovery, as it would be to the Dutch, were New South Wales to be so extended. This appears to have been felt by a neighbouring, and even rival, nation; whose writers commonly speak of these countries under the general term of Terres Australes. In fact, the original name, used by the Dutch themselves until some time after Tasman's second voyage, in 1644, was Terra Australis, or Great South Land; and when it was displaced by New Holland, the new term was applied only to the parts lying westward of a meridian line. passing through Arnhem's Land on the north, and near the isles of St. Francis and St. Peter, on the south: all to the eastward, including the shores of the Gulph of Carpentaria, still remained as Terra Australis. This appears from a chart published by Thevenot, in 1663; which, he says,." was originally taken from that done in inlaid work. upon the pavement of the new Stadt-House at Amsterdam."* The same thing is to be inferred from the notes of BurgomasterWitsen, in 1705; of which there will be occasion to speak in the sequel.

"It is necessary, however, to geographical precision, that so soon as New Holland and New South Wales were known to form one land, there should be a general name applicable to the whole; and this essential point having been ascertained in the present voyage, with a degree of certainty sufficient to authorise the measure, I have, with the concurrence of opinions entitled to deference, ventured upon the re-adoption of the original Terra Australis; and of this term I shall hereafter make use, when speaking of New Holland and New South Wales, in a collective sense; and when using it in the most extensive signification, the adjacent isles, including that of Van Diemen. must be understood to be comprehended.

"There is no probability., that any other detached body of land, of nearly equal extent, will ever be found in a more southern latitude; the name Terra Australis will, therefore, remain descriptive of the geographical importance of this country, and of its situation on the globe: it has antiquity to recommend it; and, having no reference to either of the two claiming nations. appears to be less objectionable than any other which could have been selected.

"Had I permitted myself any innovation upon the original term, it would have been to convert it into Australia; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth."

Flinders suggested use of the name Terra Australis or Australia. Flinders' patron Sir Joseph Banks preferred 'Terra Australis' though this was not to be. In 1817 the Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, received a copy of Flinders' book, and started to use 'Australia' in his official correspondence. Later explorer Phillip Parker King also used 'Australia' on his maps of the northern and western coasts, and by the end of the 1820s 'Australia' was in common use. Although the name New Holland continued alongside it for some time, by 1861 William Westgarth noted that `the old term New Holland may now be regarded as supplanted by that happier and fitter one of Australia'.