Mapping Australia – Part Two

Here is Part Two of this investigation into how the continent of Australia was mapped long before James Cook first stepped on the island and claimed it for the British crown.

If you haven’t already read it, I suggest you start with Part One – click here for that.

Pre Tasman Maps

As far back as the late 13th century Marco Polo, on returning from his explorations to the east, spoke of a great land south of the eastern islands. It is widely thought that sailors in the ‘far east’ – especially the Chinese – would have come across (at least) northern Australia.

Fast forward over two hundred years. In the mid 1500s there were several world maps drawn by French cartographers in Dieppe, France. These became known as the Dieppe Maps. One example – Dauphin or Harleian map from around 1547 – is shown below. This map (and other ‘Dieppe maps’) shows a landmass pointing north to meet Java and Indonesia. Australia perhaps?

Dauphin or Harleian world map, circa 1547

What the Harleian map really shows remains contested. There had long been beliefs or myths about a great southern continent (Terra Incognita) and this was represented on the very earliest of world maps. But there were no reliable reports or genuine charts for 16th-century cartographers to go off. In those days the mapmakers often went along with existing theories and old tales. They would have been reluctant to erase the mapping of their predecessors without good reason. Indeed mapmakers would not have wanted to depict a huge void where once was shown a huge landmass. There was also the hope that those mythical lands would eventually be discovered. The unknown southern landmass became known as Java Major or Java La Grande.

It appeared on another of the Dieppe Maps, one produced by french cartographer Jean Rotz, even earlier, in 1542. If you tilt your head to the right – and with a little imagination – the charting of Java La Grande does look a little like an outline of Australia.

Jean Rotz’s World Map – 1542

Again, however, people pointed out the lack of hard evidence and there were too many questions. The absence of New Guinea and the Gulf of Carpentaria for example. Also there is a huge breadth of sea that separates Australia from Java, whereas the Rotz map shows only a narrow channel between the two. Take a look at the map below and decide for yourself.

Rotz map overlaying modern day map of Australia and region

The Dieppe Maps aside however, Portuguese explorers are thought to have been responsible for the first sightings of Australian land by Europeans – as long ago as the late 1500s. It is believed that their findings were the reason part of the northern coast of Australia appears on a map by British cartographer Edward Wright in 1600. Below you can clearly see what must be part of northern Australia – albeit a tiny fragment – sticking out just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. It’s as if the map-maker thought; ‘there is definitely something there, we just don’t have much detail – yet!’

Portion of Edward Wright’s map in 1600 – perhaps showing part of north Australia?

Wider view of Wright’s world map. Thought to be the best map of its time:

The problem is that there is no hard evidence that the Portuguese mapped that small part of the new country. Did the Portuguese discover Australia (and even New Zealand) in the 1500s? and if so how much? It is quite likely that they did. In fact I would be surprised if they did not! But that is a whole other rabbit hole to go down. If you want to delve into that one then be my guest; but for now I had to concentrate on what we can prove with real facts and charts.

Enter the Dutch 

For real evidence we need to look into the next century – the 1600s – and give thanks to the Dutch. From that point onwards – at least until Cook’s time – it was the Dutch who had the biggest say in the mapping of the great southern continent. And for that part of this journey of discovery, stay tuned for Part Three…

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4 thoughts on “Mapping Australia – Part Two

  1. Hello,

    This is a very interesting article! My name’s Antonia and I’m a producer from The Project on Channel 10 – I’m looking into a story on people who have become parents in later life, and I’ve just read your ‘about me’ section.

    It seems there are a growing number of men as well as women who are deciding to have children later. It would be great to talk to you about your experience of parenthood at a mature age if you are happy to? If so, please let me know how best to contact you.

    Thanks 🙂

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