Terra Australis

June 1, 2019

One of the great cultural phenomena of the Victorian era was the rise of scholarly societies, which attracted the outstanding scientific and artistic minds of the day. Among these was the Hakluyt Society, founded in London in 1846 and still in existence today, whose aim was to further the study of world exploration. It counted Charles Darwin among its early members. The society was named after the Elizabethan-era geographer Richard Hakluyt, whose magnum opus was The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation.

One of the society’s purposes was to publish historical accounts of voyages in the spirit of Hakluyt’s work. Among these was geographer Richard Henry Major‘s 1859 study, Early Voyages to Terra Australis, Now Called Australia. Major, who served as secretary of the Hakluyt Society, was the curator of the map collection at the British Museum.


Terra Australis is a book about the discovery of Australia, which I found very interesting. Many original documents, or their translations, are given. It was fascinating to read how many hardships those early explorers had to overcome. They must have been really good navigators, too, given how hard it was to find suitable and safe spots to anchor. In addition to their hard work on board, they also had to face the danger of shipwrecks, which happened all too frequently — but they often succeeded not only in surviving, but also in building another seaworthy vessel from the materials of the wreckage!

Another big challenge they faced was the search for drinkable water. This was always a problem, and the primary reason for seeking out a decent landing-place. If a spot was found where the ship could anchor without a great risk of running aground on shoals, some crew members went ashore and started digging for water. Often they found none on the small islands; when they were lucky, they found a spring or a pool, but the water from those pools was mostly brackish, and not good for drinking. However, they could use it to cook their oatmeal.

But the places where they found good water were often inhabited by aboriginals, or “savages,” as the explorers of the time called them. These people indeed lived very primitively, without houses or clothing most of the time. A certain island population  lived only on a few roots, as well as fish that they caught by placing some rocks around a small space near the sea that was dry at ebb tide but filled at flood tide. When the tide receded again, they gathered the fish that were left in the small space. Although they knew how to make fire, they didn’t use it for cooking. These fish and roots seemed to be their only diet. No wonder they were described as thin.

The aboriginals on many of these islands mostly fled when they saw that white people from the ships were coming ashore, but some were warlike, and threw wooden lances, wooden spears, or stones at the sailors. There were also tribes who were peaceful and who welcomed the visitors, although no verbal communication was possible. In one case, however, when leaving the island, the explorers said that they found that almost all of the natives became treacherous, trying to steal whatever they could, even though they had received many presents from the explorers already.

Another laborious task of these explorers was the mapping. Day and night, nearly every hour, they needed to check their compass and note the longitude and latitude they were on. They also checked the depth of the water constantly when land was in sight, and also noted of which substance the soil consisted, be it sand, rock, coral or anything else. In this way they mapped out not only the land, but also the coral reefs!

Of course, the explorers also described the fauna and flora of the lands they visited. Terra Australis quotes from Captain William Dampier‘s account of his 1699 voyage to Western Australia. There, he observed kangaroos and shinglebacks:

The land animals that we saw here were only a sort of raccoons, different from those of the West Indies, chiefly as to their legs; for these have very short fore legs, but go jumping upon them as the others do (and like them are very good meat); and a sort of guanos, of the same shape and size with other guanos, describ’d (vol. i, p. 57), but differing from them in three remarkable particulars: for these had a larger and uglier head, and had no tail, and at the rump, instead of the tail there, they had a stump of a tail, which appear’d like another head; but not really such, being without mouth or eyes: yet this creature seem’d by this means to have a head at each end, and, which may be reckon’d a fourth difference, the legs also seem’d all four of them to be fore-legs, being all alike in shape and length, and seeming by the joints and bending to be made as if they were to go indifferently either head or tail foremost. They were speckled black and yellow, like toads, and had scales or knobs on their backs like those of crocodiles, plated on to the skin, or stuck into it as part of the skin. They are very slow in motion, and when a man comes nigh them they will stand still and hiss, not endeavouring to get away. Their livers are also spotted black and yellow, and the body when opened hath a very unsavoury smell. I did never see such ugly creatures any where but here. The guanos I have observ’d to be very good meat, and I have often eaten of them with pleasure; but tho’ I have eaten of snakes, crocodiles, and allegators, and many creatures that look frightfully enough, and there are but few I should have been afraid to eat of if prest by hunger, yet I think my stomach would scarce have serv’d to venture upon these New Holland guanos, both the looks and the smell of them being so offensive.

In another interesting document, a Spanish cosmographer, Dr. Juan Luis Arias, tried to convince King Philip III of Spain to send an expedition to “the southern land.” His “memorial,” or petition, to the king, written in the early 17th Century, is remarkable. As is commonly known, Spain at that time was a very Roman Catholic nation. Arias’s memorial urges the king to finance an expedition to Australia, not only for the good of Spain and the glory of the king, but most importantly, to bring “our holy faith and Catholic religion” to “its numberless inhabitants, who are so long waiting for this divine and celestial benefit at the hand of Your Majesty.” When reading this memorial, I was rather astonished at how boldly Arias addressed the king. He quoted extensively from the Bible and said it was the duty of the king, as sovereign of a nation that belonged to the Church, to send people to bring the Gospel to the inhabitants of the new land, or else he would have to answer for his refusal before God. This he repeated several times. It seems rather daring for a subject to use such a threatening tone towards his sovereign, but Arias must have hoped it would be effective (it wasn’t — vast as its global empire was, Spain never did gain a foothold in Australia).

These are only some of the remarkable anecdotes in Terra Australis, and the book is definitely worth reading, because much more can be learned from it. It almost reads like an adventure novel. But it contains true stories, the adventures of real explorers and seamen, and all their perils and successes.

This post was contributed by Eevee, a Distributed Proofreaders volunteer.

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