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It is hard to imagine that a mere 200 years ago, Australia was still basically a blank spot on the map, mostly unexplored and uncolonized by Europeans.  But the below map, created in 1814 by Scottish cartographer John Thomson, shows this quite clearly.  The outline of Australia, which had finally been circumnavigated just ten years before by Matthew Flinders, encloses a vastly empty territory labeled New Holland in the West and New South Wales in the East.  Australia would not become the official name for the continent until 1824.

A Map of “New Holland and Asiatic Isles” by John Thomson in 1814. (via Wikipedia)

Dutch and English explorers had surveyed different sections of the Australian coast starting in the 17th century.  At first, some believed that Australia was a peninsula connected to Asia, because they had only seen the Western coast.  In 1770, though, the Englishman James Cook became the first European to reach the Eastern shore.  Following this, Matthew Flinders circumnavigated the continent and confirmed it to be an island.

The map above is interesting in that it does not just show Australia’s geographical features and place names, but it includes labels describing which explorers found which areas.  It also offers helpful descriptions such as “the land here is very arid” and “high trees, natives seen.”  It’s almost like a guidebook for future explorers.

The English would gradually make settlements along the coasts, mostly in the South-Eastern quarter, as well as in the North.  But throughout the early-mid 19th century, the interior of the continent would remain largely mysterious (though not to the Aboriginal Australians who resided there).  Various expeditions were led across the continent over the years, but the oppressive desert heat and lack of prior knowledge of the area made travel difficult.  One such expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria, led by Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Willis in 1860, was an infamous disaster.

The eye of the curious reader may also pass over the neighboring islands of the South Pacific and see many unfamiliar names.   It seems like the English, Dutch, and French explorers found a “new” everything down here: New Zealand, New Caledonia, New Hebrides, New Georgia, New Ireland, New Britain, etc.  Some of these have been changed; New Hebrides, named after a group of islands off the Northwest coast of Scotland, became independent and adopted the name Vanuatu.  But New Caledonia, a long, narrow island north of New Zealand, is still a special collectivity of France (though it may change its name if it chooses independence in a referendum coming up in 2014).

South of Australia is the island we commonly call Tasmania, home of the Tasmanian devil character of Disney cartoon fame.  But on this map, it’s called “Van Diemen’s Land”.  It was named this after the governor of the Dutch East Indies who sent Abel Tasman to explore the area.  In 1856, the name was changed to Tasmania to finally honor the man who actually went there, rather than the governor who sent him.  Another reason for the change was the fact that residents of the island were known as Vandemonians, which sounds a lot like demon, reminding people of the fact that the island used to be a penal colony.  Yet another example of marketing considerations going into the naming of a spot on the map.

Happy mapping!

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