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Terra Australis (Latin, "land of the south") was a hypothetical continent appearing on European maps from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Other names for the continent include Terra Australis Incognita (the unknown land of the South), Magallanica or Magellanica (the land of Magellan), La Australia del Espiritu Santo (the southern land of the Holy Spirit), and La grande isle de Java (the great island of Javamarker).


Terre Australle, 1583.
The notion of Terra Australis was introduced by Aristotle. His ideas were later expanded by Ptolemy (1st century AD), who believed that the Indian Oceanmarker was enclosed on the south by land, and that the lands of the Northern Hemispheremarker should be balanced by land in the southmarker. 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 Oceanmarker was entirely enclosed by land.Christian thinkers did not totally discount the idea that there might be land beyond the southern seas, but from St Augustine's time onwards they denied that they could be inhabited. The impossibility of crossing the ever more torrid space meant that descendants of Adam could not have travelled there, and in addition, since the Gospel was supposed to be made available to all of mankind, and could not have been brought there, no humans could dwell in those parts (although there were counter-myths going back to ancient time about the 'Antipodes', meaning people who lived opposite to us).

Mapping the Southern Continent

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, for example Gerardus Mercator (1569) and Alexander Dalrymple even so late as 1767 argued for its existence, with such arguments as that there should be a large landmass in the southmarker 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.

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 during the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre.
Terra Australis occupies a large part of the southern hemisphere.

Juan Fernandez, sailing from Chile in 1576, claimed he had discovered the Southern Continent. Luis Váez de Torres, a Spanish or Portuguese navigator working for the Spanish Crown, proved the existence of a passage south of New Guinea, now known as Torres Straitmarker. 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 Spainmarker as the Terra Australis incognita. Isaac and Jacob Le Maire established the Australische Compagnie (Australian Company) in 1615 to trade with Terra Australis, which they called "Australia". British Admiralty Hydrographer Alexander Dalrymple, 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, whose 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. The expedition eventually led in 1770 to the British discovery and charting of the Eastern coastline of Australia.

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 Fuegomarker, separated from South America by a small strait; New Guineamarker; 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 Polemarker, but generally much larger than the real Antarcticamarker, spreading far north – especially in the Pacific Oceanmarker. New Zealandmarker, first seen by the Dutchmarker explorer Abel Tasman in 1642, was regarded by some as a part of the continent.

Dispelling the myth

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 Fuegomarker was a relatively small island, while in 1642 Abel Tasman's circumnavigation of New Holland 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.


Antarcticamarker was finally sighted in the hypothetical area of Terra Australis on January 27, 1820 by Russian Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, the first confirmed sighting.

See also


  1. John Noble Wilford: The Mapmakers, the Story of the Great Pioneers in Cartography from Antiquity to Space Age, p. 139, Vintage Books, Random House 1982, ISBN 0-394-75303-8
  2. E.T. Hamy, "Francisque et André d'Albaigne: cosmographes lucquois au service de la France"; "Nouveau documents sur les frères d'Albaigne et sur le projet de voyage et de découvertes présenté à la cour de France"; and "Documents relatifs à un projet d’expéditions lointaines présentés à la cour de France en 1570", in Bulletin de Géographie Historique et Descriptive, Paris, 1894, pp. 405–433; 1899, pp. 101–110; and 1903, pp. 266–273.
  3. José Toribio Medina, El Piloto Juan Fernandez, Santiago de Chile, 1918, reprinted by Gabriela Mistral, 1974, pp. 136, 246.
  4. Spieghel der Australische Navigatie; cited by A. Lodewyckx, "The Name of Australia: Its Origin and Early Use", The Victorian Historical Magazine, Vol. XIII, No. 3, June 1929, pp. 100–191.
  5. Andrew Cook, Introduction to An account of the discoveries made in the South Pacifick Ocean / by Alexander Dalrymple ; first printed in 1767, reissued with a foreword by Kevin Fewster and an essay by Andrew Cook, Potts Point (NSW), Hordern House Rare Books for the Australian National Maritime Museum, 1996, pp. 38–9.

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