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1570 map by Abraham Ortelius depicting "Terra Australis Nondum Cognita" as a large continent on the bottom of the map and also an Arctic continent
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1570 map by Abraham Ortelius depicting "Terra Australis Nondum Cognita" as a large continent on the bottom of the map and also an Arctic continent
Terra Australis (meaning "South Land") is one of the names given to a hypothetical continent which appeared on European maps between the 15th and 18th centuries. Although the landmass was drawn onto maps, Terra Australis was not based on any actual surveying of such a landmass but rather based on the hypothesis that continents in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the south.
In the early 1800s, British explorer Matthew Flinders had popularized the naming of Australia after Terra Australis, giving his rationale that there was "no probability" of finding any significant land mass anywhere more south than Australia. The continent that would come to be named Antarctica would be explored decades after Flinders' 1814 book on Australia, which he had titled A Voyage to Terra Australis, and after his naming switch had gained popularity.
Terra Australis was one of several names applied to the largest landmass of what is now known as the continent of Oceania, after its European discovery. Other names for the hypothetical landmass have included Terra Australis Ignota, Terra Australis Incognita ("The unknown land of the South") or Terra Australis Nondum Cognita ("The Southern Land Not Yet Known"). Other names for the continent include Magallanica or Magellanica ("the land of Magellan"), La Australia del Espíritu Santo (Spanish: "the southern land of the Holy Spirit"), and La grande isle de Java (French: "the great island of Java").
The notion of Terra Australis was introduced by Aristotle. His ideas were later expanded by Ptolemy (1st century AD), who believed that the Indian Ocean was enclosed on the south by land, and that the lands of the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the south. Marcus Tullius Cicero used the term cingulus australis ("southern zone") in referring to the Antipodes in Somnium Scipionis ("Dream of Scipio"). The land (terra in Latin) in this zone was the Terra Australis.
Legends of Terra Australis Incognita—an "unknown land of the South"—date back to Roman times and before, and were commonplace in medieval geography, although not based on any documented knowledge of the continent. Ptolemy's maps, which became well known in Europe during the Renaissance, did not actually depict such a continent, but they did show an Africa which had no southern oceanic boundary (and which therefore might extend all the way to the South Pole), and also raised the possibility that the Indian Ocean was entirely enclosed by land. Christian thinkers did not discount the idea that there might be land beyond the southern seas, but the issue of whether it could be inhabited was controversial.
The first depiction of Terra Australis on a globe was probably on Johannes Schöner's lost 1523 globe on which Oronce Fine is thought to have based his 1531 double cordiform (heart-shaped) map of the world. On this landmass he wrote "recently discovered but not yet completely explored". The body of water beyond the tip of South America is called the “Mare Magellanicum,” one of the first uses of navigator Ferdinand Magellan’s name in such a context.
Explorers of the Age of Discovery, from the late 15th century on, proved that Africa was almost entirely surrounded by sea, and that the Indian Ocean was accessible from both west and east. These discoveries reduced the area where the continent could be found; however, many cartographers held to Aristotle's opinion. Scientists, such as Gerardus Mercator (1569) and Alexander Dalrymple as late as 1767 argued for its existence, with such arguments as that there should be a large landmass in the south as a counterweight to the known landmasses in the Northern Hemisphere. As new lands were discovered, they were often assumed to be parts of the hypothetical continent.
The German cosmographer and mathematician, Johannes Schöner (1477–1547) constructed a terrestrial globe in 1515, based on the world map and globe made by Martin Waldseemüller and his colleagues at St. Dié in Lorraine in 1507. Where Schöner departs most conspicuously from Waldseemüller is in his globe’s depiction of an Antarctic continent, called by him Brasilie Regio. His continent is based, however tenuously, on the report of an actual voyage: that of the Portuguese merchants Nuno Manuel and Cristóvão de Haro to the River Plate, and related in the Newe Zeytung auss Presillg Landt (“New Tidings from the Land of Brazil”) published in Augsburg in 1514. The Zeytung described the Portuguese voyagers passing through a strait between the southernmost point of America, or Brazil, and a land to the south west, referred to as vndtere Presill (or Brasilia inferior).
This supposed “strait” was in fact the Rio de la Plata. By “vndtere Presill”, the Zeytung meant that part of Brazil in the lower latitudes, but Schöner mistook it to mean the land on the southern side of the “strait”, in higher latitudes, and so gave to it the opposite meaning. On this slender foundation he constructed his circum-Antarctic continent to which, for reasons that he does not explain, he gave an annular, or ring shape. In an accompanying explanatory treatise, Luculentissima quaedam terrae totius descriptio (“A Most Lucid Description of All Lands”), he explained: “The Portuguese, thus, sailed around this region, the Brasilie Regio, and discovered the passage very similar to that of our Europe (where we reside) and situated laterally between east and west. From one side the land on the other is visible; and the cape of this region about 60 miles away, much as if one were sailing eastward through the Straits of Gibraltar or Seville and Barbary or Morocco in Africa, as our Globe shows toward the Antarctic Pole. Further, the distance is only moderate from this Region of Brazil to Malacca, where St. Thomas was crowned with martyrdom.” .
On this scrap of information, united with the concept of the Antipodes inherited from Graeco-Roman antiquity, Schöner constructed his representation of the southern continent. His strait served as inspiration for Ferdinand Magellan's expedition to reach the Moluccas by a westward route. He took Magellan’s discovery of Tierra del Fuego in 1520 as further confirmation of its existence, and on his globes of 1523 and 1533 he described it as TERRA AVSTRALIS RECENTER INVENTA SED NONDUM PLENE COGNITA (“Terra Australis, recently discovered but not yet fully known”). It was taken up by his followers, the French cosmographer Oronce Fine in his world map of 1531, and the Flemish cartographers Gerardus Mercator in 1538 and Abraham Ortelius in 1570. Schöner’s concepts influenced the Dieppe school of mapmakers, notably in their representation of Jave la Grande.
Terra Australis was depicted on the mid-16th-century Dieppe maps, where its coastline appeared just south of the islands of the East Indies; it was often elaborately charted, with a wealth of fictitious detail. There was much interest in Terra Australis among Norman and Breton merchants at that time. In 1566 and 1570, Francisque and André d'Albaigne presented Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France, with projects for establishing relations with the Austral lands. Although the Admiral gave favourable consideration to these initiatives, they came to nought when Coligny was killed in 1572.
Gerardus Mercator believed in the existence of a large Southern continent on the basis of cosmographic reasoning, set out in the abstract of his Atlas or Cosmographic Studies in Five Books, as related by his biographer, Walter Ghim, who said that even though Mercator was not ignorant that the Austral continent still lay hidden and unknown, he believed it could be "demonstrated and proved by solid reasons and arguments to yield in its geometric proportions, size and weight, and importance to neither of the other two, nor possibly to be lesser or smaller, otherwise the constitution of the world could not hold together at its centre".
The Flemish geographer and cartographer, Cornelius Wytfliet, wrote concerning the Terra Australis in his 1597 book, Descriptionis Ptolemaicae Augmentum,:
The terra Australis is therefore the southernmost of all other lands, directly beneath the antarctic circle; extending beyond the tropic of Capricorn to the West, it ends almost at the equator itself, and separated by a narrow strait lies on the East opposite to New Guinea, only known so far by a few shores because after one voyage and another that route has been given up and unless sailors are forced and driven by stress of winds it is seldom visited. The terra Australis begins at two or three degrees below the equator and it is said by some to be of such magnitude that if at any time it is fully discovered they think it will be the fifth part of the world. Adjoining Guinea on the right are the numerous and vast Solomon Islands which lately became famous by the voyage of Alvarus Mendanius.
Juan Fernandez, sailing from Chile in 1576, claimed he had discovered the Southern Continent. The Polus Antarcticus map of 1641 by Henricus Hondius, bears the inscription: ”Insulas esse a Nova Guinea usque ad Fretum Magellanicum affirmat Hernandus Galego, qui ad eas explorandas missus fuit a Rege Hispaniae Anno 1576 (Hernando Gallego, who in the year 1576 was sent by the King of Spain to explore them, affirms that there are islands from New Guinea up to the Strait of Magellan)”.
Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, another Portuguese navigator sailing for the Spanish Crown, saw a large island south of New Guinea in 1606, which he named La Australia del Espiritu Santo. He represented this to the King of Spain as the Terra Australis incognita.
The cartographic depictions of the southern continent in the 16th and early 17th centuries, as might be expected for a concept based on such abundant conjecture and minimal data, varied wildly from map to map; in general, the continent shrank as potential locations were reinterpreted. At its largest, the continent included Tierra del Fuego, separated from South America by a small strait; New Guinea; and what would come to be called Australia. In Ortelius's atlas Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, published in 1570, Terra Australis extends north of the Tropic of Capricorn in the Pacific Ocean.
As long as it appeared on maps at all, the continent minimally included the unexplored lands around the South Pole, but generally much larger than the real Antarctica, spreading far north – especially in the Pacific Ocean. New Zealand, first seen by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642, was regarded by some as a part of the continent.
Alexander Dalrymple, the Examiner of Sea Journals for the English East India Company, whilst translating some Spanish documents captured in the Philippines in 1752, found de Torres's testimony. This discovery led Dalrymple to publish the Historical Collection of the Several Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean in 1770-1771. Dalrymple presented a beguiling tableau of the Terra Australis, or Southern Continent:
The number of inhabitants in the Southern Continent is probably more than 50 millions, considering the extent, from the eastern part discovered by Juan Fernandez, to the western coast seen by Tasman, is about 100 deg. of longitude, which in the latitude of 40 deg. amounts to 4596 geographic, or 5323 stature miles. This is a greater extent than the whole civilized part of Asia, from Turkey to the eastern extremity of China. There is at present no trade from Europe thither, though the scraps from this table would be sufficient to maintain the power, dominion, and sovereignty of Britain, by employing all its manufacturers and ships. Whoever considers the Peruvian empire, where arts and industry flourished under one of the wisest systems of government, which was founded by a stranger, must have very sanguine expectations of the southern continent, from whence it is more than probable Mango Capac, the first Inca, was derived, and must be convinced that the country, from whence Mango Capac introduced the comforts of civilized life, cannot fail of amply rewarding the fortunate people who shall bestow letters instead of quippos (quipus), and iron in place of more awkward substitutes.
Dalrymple's claim of the existence of an unknown continent aroused widespread interest and prompted the British government in 1769 to order James Cook in HM Bark Endeavour to seek out the Southern Continent to the South and West of Tahiti, discovered in June 1767 by Samuel Wallis in HMS Dolphin and named by him King George Island. The London press reported in June 1768 that two ships would be sent to the newly discovered island and from there to "attempt the Discovery of the Southern Continent". A subsequent press report stated: "We are informed, that the Island which Captain Wallis has discovered in the South-Sea, and named George's Land, is about fifteen hundred Leagues to the Westward and to Leeward of the Coast of Peru, and about five-and-thirty Leagues in circumference; that its principal and almost sole national Advantage is, its Situation for exploring the Terra Incognita of the Southern Hemisphere. The Endeavour, a North-Country Cat, is purchased by the Government, and commanded by a Lieutenant of the Navy; she is is fitting out at Deptford for the South-Sea, thought to be intended for the newly-discovered Island". The aims of the expedition were revealed in days following: "To-morrow morning Mr. Banks, Dr. Solano [sic], with Mr. Green, the Astronomer, will set out for Deal, to embark on board the Endeavour, Capt. Cook, for the South Seas, under the direction of the Royal Society, to observe the Transit of Venus next summer, and to make discoveries to the South and West of Cape Horn". The London Gazetteer was more explicit when it reported on 18 August 1768: “The gentlemen, who are to sail in a few days for George’s Land, the new discovered island in the Pacific ocean, with an intention to observe the Transit of Venus, are likewise, we are credibly informed, to attempt some new discoveries in that vast unknown tract, above the latitude 40”.The results of this first voyage of James Cook in respect of the quest for the Southern Continent were summed up by Cook himself. He wrote in his Journal on 31 March 1770 that the Endeavour's voyage "must be allowed to have set aside the most, if not all, the Arguments and proofs that have been advanced by different Authors to prove that there must be a Southern Continent; I mean to the Northward of 40 degrees South, for what may lie to the Southward of that Latitude I know not".
The second voyage of James Cook aboard HMS Resolution explored the South Pacific for the landmass between 1772-1775 whilst also testing the Larcum Kendall's K1 chronometer as a method for measuring longitude.
Over the centuries the idea of Terra Australis gradually lost its hold. In 1615, Jacob le Maire and Willem Schouten's rounding of Cape Horn proved that Tierra del Fuego was a relatively small island, while in 1642 Abel Tasman's first pacific voyage proved that Australia was not part of the mythical southern continent. Much later, James Cook sailed around most of New Zealand in 1770, showing that even it could not be part of a large continent. On his second voyage he circumnavigated the globe at a very high southern latitude, at some places even crossing the south polar circle, showing that any possible southern continent must lie well within the cold polar areas. There could be no extension into regions with a temperate climate, as had been thought before. In 1814, Matthew Flinders published the book A Voyage to Terra Australis. Flinders had concluded that the Terra Australis as hypothesized by Aristotle and Ptolemy did not exist, so he wanted the name applied to what he saw as the next best thing: "Australia". He wrote:
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.
...with the accompanying note at the bottom of the page:
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.
His conclusion would soon be revealed as a mistake, but by that time the name had stuck.