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Brian Hooker

New Zealand



© 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.




The mythical southern continent in early maps

and globes



  Brian Hooker


The purpose of this article is to list and examine a selection of sixteenth and seventeenth century maps and globes, which depict the mythical southern continent Terra Australis (Southern land).[1] A brief enquiry is also made into the relationship between Terra Australis and Australia.

The idea of a large southern continent dates back to the time of Pythagoras and relates to the theory of the sphericity of the earth. As a corollary to that hypothesis, it was reasoned by the Greeks that to maintain the equilibrium of the sphere, it was a necessity of physics that there exist landmasses in the south and west to act as counterweights to lands in the north and east. One of the most remarkable theories ever advanced, it persisted through western civilization and part of the eastern world for over two thousand years. The discovery, during the fifteenth century that North and South America existed, was believed to accord with the east-west part of the idea.

The southern continent theory received considerable stimulus from the publication of the geographical work, written in the second century A.D. by the Greek astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria. Ptolemy's Geographia was first printed without maps at Vicenza in 1475 and the first edition with maps at Bologna in 1477. Included in the Bologna edition and a number of subsequent editions, is a map, which extends across 180
o of longitude. This map shows a fictitious land running east from a point on the east-African coast, in about 15oS to meet a fictitious 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.

The earliest extant map with the printed name Terra Australis beside southern land is Giovanni Vespuccils 1524 world map; possibly earlier dated maps were printed from the same copper plate. At one time it was believed that Johan Schöner a noted Nuremberg globe maker produced a 1523 globe portraying the southern continent with the name Terra Australis but the only known example of gores is now thought to have been printed about 1534 by an anonymous globe maker. Orance Fine's double heart-shaped world map dated 1531. and his 1534 cordiform map are two of the earliest printed maps to show the southern continent named Terra Australis.

Orance Finé's double heart-shaped world map dated 1531 and his 1534 cordiform map are two of the earliest printed maps to show the southern continent named Terra Australis. Survivors from Ferdinand Magellan's expedition returned to Seville in 1522  after the Victoria became the first vessel to circumnavigate the globe. 


Fine's world maps show Tierra del Fuego, south of the Strait of Magellan as part of the mythical southern continent. It was believed that Magellan had sighted the northern shore of the southern continent and publication of Fine's maps strengthened the southern continent theory. Fine's world maps show Tierra del Fuego, south of the Strait of Magellan. as part of the mythical southern continent. It was believed that Magellan had sighted the northern shore of the southern continent and publication of Fine's maps strengthened the southern continent theory.


Gerard Mercator's earliest world map, published at Louvain in 1538 is largely copied from Fine's work. Mercator's southern continent is somewhat smaller but substantially the same shape. Fine's mythical rivers and mountains are omitted. Mercator expanded the myth of Terra Australis when he issued his first terrestrial globe in 1541. This globe shows south of Java a north-pointing extension from a vast southern continent, with the names 'Beach provincia auri feral' (Beach the gold-yielding province) and 'Maletur regnum' (Kingdom of the Malays).[2] In legends printed on the globe. Mercator explains that finding numerous errors in Ptolemy's geography of the Old World, he undertook to correct the errors from the accounts of M. Paulo Veniti (Marco Polo) and Ludovico Rom Patric˙ (Ludovvico di Varthima). Mercator's name "Beach" dervies from "Locac"  (eastern side of the Malay Peninsula) by copyists .[3] Mercator's name 'Beach' derives from 'Locac, (eastern side of the Malay Peninsula) by copyists, corruptions: 'Locacl - 'Loach' - 'Loeach' - 'Boeach' - 'Beach'. The name 'Locacl appearg,,, in attin-waldscem"U"llerts 1507 world map as 'Loach' and in the 'Boeach.' 'Maletur' was Marco Polo's Balse. 1532 edition of Polo as 'Malaiur' or Kingdom of the Malays. Through errors in manuscript and printed versions of Polo's accounts. Mercator's names became misplaced.'


Mercator's large world chart published at Louvain in 1569, was one of the most influential charts of the sixteenth century. In legends printed in this chart, Mercator enlarges on his southern continent theory. As well as discussing the travels of Marco Polo and Varthema. Mercator mentions the adventures of Sir John Mandeville.  In this chart, the names given on the north-pointing extension from the southern continent include 'Beach'. 'Maletur' and 'Lucabl; this last name derives from "Locael,"in the same way as 'Beach'. as explained in the previous paragraph. In the well-known world map Typus Orbis Terrarum found in Abraham Ortelius' Theatrum Orbis Terrarum published at Antwerp, in 1570. the southern continent extends entirely around the world, occupying an area greater than that of North and South America combined. Ortelius copied Mercator's north-pointing extension with the names 'Beach', 'Lucach' and 'Maletur' and included a legend concerning Polo and Varthema. In Ortelius, 1587 map Americae Sive Novi Orbis ... the southern continent crosses the South Pacific. from the bottom tip of South America, to stretch northward almost to the equator, with New Guinea as its northernmost extension.


When Willem Janszoon Blaeu engraved the copper plate for his 1606 world map on Mercator's projection he modelled his southern continent on Mercator's famous 1569 chart. As in Mercator's chart Blaeu's Tierra del Fuego, is shown joined to the southern continent. Blaeu re-engraved part of the copper plate some time after 1616 and printed fresh maps. Revised prints showing Le Maire Strait delineate a southern coastline for Tierra del Fuego. Blaeu's large 1619 world map depicts the southern continent without major changes from his updated 1606 world map except that the name 'Beach' is omitted from the north-pointing extension. In 1645 or 1646, Joan Blaeu, who had succeeded his father as head of the  firm re-engraved large portions of the 1619 copper plate. A rare print from the revised copper plate shows parts of the southern continent replaced by sections of Australia and New Zealand.


Amongst other important world maps which show the mythical southern continent may be mentioned those of porcacchi, 1572. R. Mercator. 1587. Hondius, c. 1590. Myritius. 1590. Gerardus de Jode, 1589, Cornelius de Jode, 1593. Plancius 1592 and 1594, Blaeu 1605 and Quadus. 1608. Early globes which depict the southern continent include examples by van Langren 1593, Schissler 1597, Blaeu 1599, Hondius, 1613 and Colom c.1640. Many of the maps and globes listed in this paragraph depict the north-pointing extension from the southern continent with the names 'Beach' and 'Maletur.' Terra Australis and Australia. Some writers claim there is aly maps and Australia.


Confusion between Terra Australia and Australia commenced at an early date, Some maps show the name Terra Australis printed inside the coastal outline of Australia. William Faden's 1807 map of the Indian ocean includes Mercator's misplaced names 'Beach'. 'Lucah* and 'Mialeturg tddpdrbastdet@ Australian continental coastline. But any argument supporting the idea that Australia is represented by southern continent coastlines in early maps would need to link to evidence that Europeans obtained information about a southern land from native informants rather than by direct knowledge as the first part of Australia was not discovered by Europeans until 1606.


A number of late sixteenth century maps and globes including some of the examples mentioned above show a strait south of New Guinea.  But there is no evidence that cartographers at this time had knowledge of Torres Strait. A note in Faden's 1807 Indian ocean map mentions: "Passage in 1501." This reference relates vaguely to the "Dieppe" family of maps which some scholars assert depict Australia but these maps have been satisfactorily explained. A legend in Mercator's 1569 world chart which portrays New Guinea as an island translates (in part):  "... if it really be an isle or a part of the southern continent." The same or a similar legend is included in a number of other maps and globes which depict  a southern coast to New Guinea. Cornellus Wytliet's two maps Chica sive Patagonia et Australis Terra  and Vtrivsqve Hemisphereii Delineatio  which show a strait  are included in Wytfliet's Descriptionis Ptolemaicae Augmentum published at Louvain in 1597. in accompanying text (p.101) Wytfliet provides an explanation concerning the separation of New Guinea and Terra Australis but his statement which Is no more than vague description.


confirms that he possessed no new information. An interesting decorative map portraying land south of a strait. is included in Cornelius de Jodels Atlas Speculum Orbis Terra published at Antwerp, in 1593. This map Nova Guineae Forma ... sometimes referred to as the first map of Australia, shows a mountainous southern land with sketches of a lion, a serpent and a hunter with bow and arrow, facing a dragon. A legend in Latin within the borders of New Guinea notes in part (translated) 9 000 whether it rnew Guinea] joins on to the southern continent or is an island is unknown' The map shows the strait in 20O - 23O S. But de Jode had no more knowledge of Torres Strait or Australia than Mercator, Ortelius or any other sixteenth century cartographer. This map cannot be considered as depicting any part of Australia.


The shrinking myth


By the beginning of the second half of the seventeenth century only remnants remained in fresh and updated maps, of the once extensive southern continent. Most map makers by this time had totally abandoned the idea. But Abel Janszoon Tasman's discovery in 1642-43 of part of New Zealand was declared by some geographers to confirm the idea that a vast continent stretched across the South Pacific and that Tasman's discovery was the west coast of the southland. Few Dutch map makers favoured the idea of a hypothetical east coast for New Zealand but French map publishers publicized this theory in the second half of the seventeenth century and the early part of the eighteenth century. World maps by du Val, 1660 and 1674. Sanson. 1669 and Jollain. 1670 are examples. The notion was also copied by some Italian map publishers.


The myth of the southern continent lingered on until James Cook circumnavigated New Zealand in 1769-70 and subsequently voyaged through southern waters east of New Zealand proving that no land mass existed. □


Footnotes and references for further reading

1 A useful bibliography of works on the mythical southern continent is included in Günter Schilder, Australia Unveiled, Amsterdam, 1976, p. 23, fn 1.


2 A most satisfactory explanation of Mercator's names can be found in, J.C. Beaglehole (ed.) The Journals of Captain James Cook vol. 1 - The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771, London. (2nd ed.) 1968 pp. xxviii - xxix.

3 A general outline of the travels of Polo, Varthema and Mandeville is given in, Boies Penrose Travel and discovery-in the Renaissance 1420-1620 (Atheneum edition) New York, N.Y., 1975.

4 A very detailed and logical explanation is given in, Andrew Sharp The Discovery of Australia, London, 1963. pp. 21-31.

Note. Many of the maps mentioned in the article are reproduced in, Rodney  Shirley The Mapping of the World, London. 1963. Numerous other examples showing the southern continent are also reproduced in Shirley's book.