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Brian Hooker

New Zealand

 

Did Claudius Ptolemy know about Australia?

 

By

 

Brian Hooker

 


 

© This article was first published in French under the title "Ptolémée connaissait-il l'Australie?" in MappeMonde 59, September 2000, pp. 37-40. The copyright is held by the publisher of MappeMonde.  Republished here in English by courtesy of the Editor of Mappemonde. Brian Hooker 2006. The text that follows is copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of private study, research, criticism or review, no part may be reproduced without prior permission  from the publisher of Mappemonde.

 

[Foototes are included within the text and repeated at the end of the article.]

 

Abstract:  This paper expands on a theory that people in the Middle East knew of Australia in an earlier era and in the course of time the continent became crudely represented in printed maps. The paper discusses early commercial routes that linked Australia, Southeast-Asia countries, and lands bordering the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, through China and also across the Indian Ocean. The notion is explored that merchants had little interest in scientific information but some basic data reached the Mediterranean area with returning sailors and travellers.


 

Theory of the southern continent

It would take too long to rehearse the history of arguments surrounding the theory of the antipodal lands in the ancient world. There is broad agreement among scholars concerning some aspects and it has previously been generally accepted that belief in a southern continent did not originate from travellers reports, but from a theory formulated by the Greek philosopher Aristotle around 344 B.C.

 

Probably the Greeks inherited the idea that the earth was a sphere from the Babylonians but it was Aristotle who expanded on the Pythagorean concept by suggesting that the East could be reached by sailing west. The theory raised questions concerning the distribution and extent of land and water masses throughout the world, and as the sphericity idea developed, its proponents maintained that a necessity of physics required land masses to exist in the south and west, to act as counterweights for continents in the north and east.

 

Claudius Ptolemy

In the time of Claudius Ptolemy, the great Alexandrian astronomer and geographer, around A.D. 150, Alexandria he centre of a large proportion of the commerce of the day. In Book VIII of his Geographia, when discussing the conversion of distances into degrees and minutes of arc, Ptolemy explains that he interrogated travellers and consulted their itineraries. [fn.1. See Lloyd A. Brown, The story of Maps (New York: Dover Publications, 1979), pp. 58-80. Valuable material on Ptolemy’s work is also included in the following two publications: H. Yule (transl. and ed.) Cathay and the way Thither vol 1 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1915), 2nd ser., no. 38, supplementary notes; L. C. Wroth, The Early Cartography of the Pacific, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 38 (2), 1944.]

 

Lack of accurate data describing distant parts frustrated Ptolemy and of course the more remote the point of interest the more garbled the information was when it reached him. It is hardly surprising then that he refers to ‘unknown lands’ and in particular to a southern ‘unknown land’ in his summary of the habitable world.

 

The idea of a great southern continent received considerable stimulus from the publication of Ptolemy’s work, Geographia, when it was printed without maps, in Vicenza, in 1475.  The first edition with maps appeared in Bologna, in 1477. The Bologna edition and a number of subsequent editions include a map, which extends across 180o of longitude. [fn. 2 However, the map actually covers about 110o of the Earth, in terms of actual world scale. See the accompanying illustration of the Ulm map of 1482.]

 

The printed  maps which derive from a work by Agathodaemon who may have been a contemporary of Ptolemy, portray land running east from a point on the east-African coast, in about 15o S, to meet a southward extension of land from southeast Asia. This land, cut short at the bottom of the map a couple of degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn, is inscribed, ‘Terra Incognita.’

 

Since no manuscript older than the twelfth or thirteenth century has come down to modern times, there is no way of knowing the extent to which Ptolemy’s writings, or maps made from his directions, have been altered. However, there is little doubt that the main features including the unknown southern land in the world map are in effect the graphic expression of Ptolemy’s original text, especially of Books I and VIII. [fn. 3. See Wroth, Early Cartography p. 92, fn 1.]

 

A partial explanation for the extension of land from southeast Asia joining the southern land in Ptolemy’s map, might be the actuality that at one time many of the islands of the Malay Archipelago, and Australia, were virtually linked by land bridges, and legends of this were obviously stronger in Ptolemy’s time than they were when Antonio Galvão recorded this geographical truth in 1563. [fn. 4.  See C.R. Drinkwater Bethune (ed.) The Discoveries of the World, by Antonio Galvano (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1862), 1st ser. No. 30, pp. 27-28.] 

 

Whether the land bridges were flooded during the Holocene geological epoch through rising sea levels, tectonic movements, compaction of sediments, or a combination of all these factors together with intense volcanic activity is a problem as yet unsolved by geologists; but there is little doubt that volcanic eruptions played a large part in the changes.

 

Galvão explains that histories in his time affirmed that Sumatra joined with the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra and islands southeast including Java, Bali, and Sumbawa were all joined together.

 

That Ptolemy’s map and text is seriously confused in the southeast Asia region does not mean that his knowledge of China was without foundation. His references to China and place-names in the area prove that a line or lines of communication existed from China to the Middle East.

In the eastern region in Ptolemy’s map one name, which has created an enormous amount of interest among scholars over the years, is ‘Cattigara.’ Curiously misplaced in the map, Ptolemy mentions in his text that ‘Cattigara’ is the port of the ‘Sinai.’ (China) Also, he refers to a narrative recorded by Marinus of Tyre of a voyage by a mariner named Alexander who reached ‘Cattigara’after he crossed the Bay of Bengal, passed through the Strait of Malacca and turned northward. [fn. 5. See, Yule, Cathay, p. 193.]

 

Hanoi, a port at the apex of the Red River delta in the Gulf of Tonkin and at an earlier time part of China, and Canton, have both been suggested as being the ancient port of ‘Cattigara.' [fn.6. Ibid. p. 193 fn 2, and Wroth, Early Cartography, p. 99, fn 13.] These ports, at the western rim of the South China Sea have been alive with maritime activity for thousands of years.

 

Ancient mariners across the Eastern Hemisphere

In this section, some facts are reviewed concerning ancient sea and land links between the Middle East-African region and lands bordering the eastern side of the Indian Ocean and southeast Asia.

 

Considerable maritime activity had developed in parts of southeast Asia long before the birth of Christ. João de Barros, the sixteenth-century Portuguese historian, and other writers allude to the fact that Timor and the Moluccas (the Spice Islands) were known to the Chinese for some centuries before the arrival of the Portuguese in the Eastern Archipelago. [fn. 7. See M.L Dames, The Book of Duarte Barbosa v. 2 (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1921), 2nd ser. no. 49, p. 195, fn 3, and p. 203, fn 1.]

 

Galvão mentions merchandise originating in islands north of Australia in early times, and reaching Basra (in present-day Iraq), via the Gulf of Oman. [fn. 8. See Drinkwater Bethune, Discoveries, p. 29, pp. 54-55.]

      

An early writer with personal knowledge of lines of communication eastward from around the northern end of the Red Sea, to lands bordering the Bay of Bengal, was the unknown author of The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. [fn.9. G.W.B. Huntingford (transl. and ed.), The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea By an Unknown Author (London: Hakluyt Society, 1980, 2nd ser. no. 151.] This book compiled by a Greek or a Greek-speaking Egyptian, about one hundred years previous to the time of Ptolemy, not only gives sailing directions but also provides trade information for many eastern places. The author explains that Chinese silk and merchandise from India and beyond flowed westward on a considerable scale. Dates in The Periplus and legends in Ptolemy’s map, confirm that the area of the Ganges Delta was generally the eastern limit of voyaging that originated in or near the Red Sea. And the author mentions the existence of a trade route overland from the mouth of the Ganges River into China. At the  same  time,  two  overland  routes   extended from China west, one north, and the other south of the Caspian Sea. [fn.10. See R.A. Skelton, Explorers Maps, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958), p. 3.]

 

In his book The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire, J. Innes Miller discusses not only the ancient sea and land links referred to above but also a southern route, called the ‘Cinnamon Route. [fn. 11. J. Innes Miller, The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire 29 B.C. to A.D. 641 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969).] This sea route ran directly from Java to Madagascar, and thence via Tanga or its vicinity on the east-African coast, in about 5o south latitude, to the Nile Valley and the Somali   ports. [fn. 12. Ibid. pp.

171-72.]

 

Visits to Australia by seafarers from northern islands; the supposed Chinese discovery of Australia

 

The notion that over the course of hundreds or even thousands of years, people living in lands north of Australia knew that a large southern continent existed is an old concept; indeed, a number of eminent scholars have commented on the possibility. Lawrence C. Wroth, in his book, The early cartography of the Pacific, provides the following summary of the idea:

 

The persistence in belief in a land mass in the area of the maps occupied by Beach may be accounted for in a measure by the circumstances that actually a great land mass did lie in that area, and that this circumstance must have been known for centuries to the Chinese and Malaysian traders and mariners. [fn. 13.  Wroth, Early Cartography pp. 197-98, fn 7.]

 

In the early part of the nineteenth century, the English navigator, Mathew Flinders explored in Australian waters, and recorded details of visits by Celebes trepangers to northern areas, particularly the Gulf of Carpentaria and the north-eastern part of Arnhem Land. [fn.14.  Mathew Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis 2 vols (London: G. & W. Nicol, 1814), p. 172, p. 213, pp. 228-33, p. 257.]

 

That the trade in trepang was ancient is confirmed by myths and legends of Australian Aborigines living in Arnhem land, although the Aborigines are emphatic in their statements that Makasan sailors from Celebes were preceded by another people they termed ‘Baijini. [fn. 15. See P.M. Worsely, "Early Asian contacts with Australia." in Past and Present, no. 8 (1955): 1-2; Also see W.L. Warner, ‘Malay Influence on the Aboriginal Culture of Northeastern Arnhem Land,’ in Oceania, 20 (1932), pp. 476-79.]

 

The dried trepang (a sea-slug often known as bêche-de-mer) was taken to islands north of Australia, sold to Chinese merchants, and then carried by Chinese vessels to Canton where it was used as a delicacy in soups.

 

The home base for the fleet of praus used in collecting the trepang, was the south-western limb of Celebes in or near the port of Makasar, which had been an important commercial centre from very early times. In their sailing vessels which used great pandanus-fibre sails, Celebes sailors were blown down across the Banda Sea and through the Indonesian islands on the northwest monsoonal wind and brought back again with the southeast trade winds. As well as acquiring trepang, Celebes traders exchanged goods with Australian Aborigines. As late as the start of the Second World War the trade in trepang for Canton flourished in northern Australia. [fn. 16.  Ibid.]   

   

The ‘Baijini’ people referred to by Aborigines were probably the Bugis, known in earlier times as the dominant 

sea-faring race of the central and south-western part of Celebes, In a map drawn by the Portuguese cartographer Emanuel Godinho de Erédia, around the beginning of the seventeenth century, the region of the Bugis is shown in the central part of Celebes, and the Makasans, a

closely-related people, in the southern part. [fn.17.  See Armando Cortesão, The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires, 2 vols (London: Hakluyt Society, 1944), 2nd ser. no’s 89, 90., p. 226, fn 1.]

 

The first known reference to Bugis is contained in native annals of the State of Malacca where Bugis and Makasans are represented as harassing the trade of Malacca by their piracies around the year 1374. [fn. 18.  See John Crawfurd, A Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands and Adjacent Countries (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1856), p. 75.]

  

The first European description of the Bugis or Makasans was provided by Tomé Pires, the Portuguese ambassador, in his early sixteenth-century work Suma-Orient. [fn.19.  Cortesão, Suma Oriental, p. 89, and p. 90.] Fair-skinned and well-built, both Bugis and Makasans were know from earliest historical times as experienced sailors and  traders.  [fn. 20. Bugis and Makasans were unrelated to neighbouring people descended from the true aborigines of Celebes.]

  

Alexander Dalrymple the noted eighteenth-century English geographer and hydrographer visited Makasar in 1761, and noted in his "Memoirs of Celebes" that the Bugis traded at places as far afield as the Malyan peninsula to the west, and Australia and New Guinea to the east. [fn.21. See Howard T. Fry, Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808) and the Expansion of British Trade (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1970), Imperial Studies, no. 29, p. 42.]

     

Writing in 1961, J.G. Nelson suggested that Makasan voyages to Australia were probable throughout the thousands of years of human settlement in the western Pacific, provided the necessary watercraft were available. [fn. 22. See J.G. Nelson, ‘Pre-European trade between Australia, Indonesia, and the Asiatic mainland,’ Canadian Geographer (1967): 18-22.]

 

Since dugout type watercraft said to be thousands of years old have recently been found in Borneo, it is certain that extensive maritime activity occurred in seas north of Australia from the time present coastlines more or less stabilized several thousand years ago. [fn. 23.] Dugout-type watercraft discovered in caves in Borneo are said to be thousands of years old; see Nelson, ‘Pre-European trade’ p. 22, fn 19, citing Life Magazine, Jan. 11 1960, for a brief description and photograph of a find.]      

 

Despite claims made from time to time about early visits to Australia by mariners from China, there is a lack of firm evidence. Wei Chu-Hsien’s book The Chinese Discovery of Australia, suggests that proof of a Chinese visit was the discovery in 1879 of a Chinese stone statue near Darwin.

[fn.24. Wei Chu-Hsien, The Chinese Discovery of Australia (HongKong, 1960).]

 

However, this statue most likely arrived with Celebes voyagers from islands north or northwest of Australia. Other writers have theorized about early Chinese voyages to Australia but their arguments are weak. [fn.25.  See ‘A Chinese discovery in Australia?’ in, T. Inglis Moore (ed.) Australian Writers (Melbourne, 1953), 75-86; also see P.M. Worsley, in, ‘Early Asia contacts with Australia’ in, T. Inglis Moore (ed.), Past and Present, no. 8, 1955, 75-86.]

 

Conclusion

The evidence reviewed in this paper confirms that multiple trade links existed in ancient times from the region of southeast Asia and China to the Mediterranean area. And there is proof that voyagers from islands in Indonesia visited northern parts of Australia from very early times.

The area bordering the South China Sea at or near Canton or Hanoi served as the northern junction for the various trade routes which extended west and south. If basic geographical information and reports of Australia reached Alexandria, and were known over many years previous to A.D. 150, Ptolemy’s fresh interrogation of travellers confirmed the existence of the southern continent. Ptolemy was a firm believer in the sphericity of the earth and his view that the southern land existed no doubt reinforced contemporary theories concerning southern land needed to ‘balance’ lands in the north.

 


 

References and footnotes (Repeated from above.)

 

1. See Lloyd A. Brown, The story of Maps (New York: Dover Publications, 1979), pp. 58-80. Valuable material on Ptolemy’s work is also included in the following two publications: H. Yule (transl. and ed.) Cathay and the way Thither vol 1 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1915), 2nd ser., no. 38, supplementary notes; L. C. Wroth, The Early Cartography of the Pacific, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 38 (2), 1944.

 

2. However, the map actually covers about 110o of the Earth, in terms of actual world scale.

 

3. See Wroth, Early Cartography p. 92, fn 1.

 

4.  See C.R. Drinkwater Bethune (ed.) The Discoveries of the World, by Antonio Galvano (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1862), 1st ser. No. 30, pp. 27-28. Whether the land bridges were flooded during the Holocene geological epoch through rising sea levels, tectonic movements, compaction of sediments, or a combination of all these factors together with intense volcanic activity is a problem as yet unsolved by geologists; but there is little doubt that volcanic eruptions played a large part in the changes.

 

5.  See, Yule, Cathay, p. 193.

 

6. Ibid. p. 193 fn 2, and Wroth, Early Cartography, p. 99, fn 13.

 

7. See M.L Dames, The Book of Duarte Barbosa v. 2 (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1921), 2nd ser. no. 49, p. 195, fn 3, and p. 203, fn 1.

 

8. See Drinkwater Bethune, Discoveries, p. 29, pp. 54-55.

 

9.  G.W.B. Huntingford (transl. and ed.), The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea By an Unknown Author (London: Hakluyt Society, 1980, 2nd ser. no. 151.

 

10.   See R.A. Skelton, Explorers Maps, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958), p. 3.

 

11. J. Innes Miller, The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire 29 B.C. to A.D. 641 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1969).

 

12.  Ibid. pp. pp. 171-72.

 

13.  Wroth, Early Cartography pp. 197-98, fn 7.

 

14.  Mathew Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis 2 vols (London: G. & W. Nicol, 1814), p. 172, p. 213, pp. 228-33, p. 257.

 

15. See P.M. Worsely, "Early Asian contacts with Australia." in Past and Present, no. 8 (1955): 1-2; Also see W.L. Warner, ‘Malay Influence on the Aboriginal Culture of Northeastern Arnhem Land,’ in Oceania, 20 (1932), pp. 476-79.

 

16.  Ibid.

 

17.  See Armando Cortesão, The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires, 2 vols (London: Hakluyt Society, 1944), 2nd ser. no’s 89, 90., p. 226, fn 1.

 

18.  See John Crawfurd, A Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands and Adjacent Countries (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1856), p. 75.

 

19.  Cortesão, Suma Oriental, p. 89, and p. 90.

 

20.  Bugis and Makasans were unrelated to neighbouring people descended from the true aborigines of Celebes.

 

21. See Howard T. Fry, Alexander Dalrymple (1737-1808) and the Expansion of British Trade (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1970), Imperial Studies, no. 29, p. 42.

 

22. See J.G. Nelson, ‘Pre-European trade between Australia, Indonesia, and the Asiatic mainland,’ Canadian Geographer (1967): 18-22

 

23.  Dugout-type watercraft discovered in caves in Borneo are said to be thousands of years old; see Nelson, ‘Pre-European trade’ p. 22, fn 19, citing Life Magazine, Jan. 11 1960, for a brief description and photograph of a find.

 

24. Wei Chu-Hsien, The Chinese Discovery of Australia (HongKong, 1960).

 

25.  See ‘A Chinese discovery in Australia?’ in, T. Inglis Moore (ed.) Australian Writers (Melbourne, 1953), 75-86; also see P.M. Worsley, in, ‘Early Asia contacts with Australia’ in, T. Inglis Moore (ed.), Past and Present, no. 8, 1955, 75-86. 


Note: regarding the spelling of Makasans and Bugis: There appears to be about a dozen different spellings for each. I have taken the spelling from the most recent literature. BH □