I was writing elsewhere about that royal pirate, Sir Francis Drake, when I read that one of his journeys was a commission from Queen Elizabeth I to find Terra Australis Incognita.
Latin for Unknown South Land, Terra Australis Incognita (often shortened to Terra Incognita or Terra Australis) was a hypothetical continent first posited in antiquity.
It appeared on maps between the 15th and 18th centuries although no one had ever seen such a land. Its existence was based on the idea that continental land in the Northern Hemisphere should be balanced by land in the Southern Hemisphere. Balancing land was a theory that appeared in print as early as the fifth century on maps by Macrobius. He used the term Australis on his maps. The word australis is Latin for austral, which simply means “southern.”
Terra Australis Incognita became a legendary place – an “unknown land of the South” going back to even before Roman times. It appears in medieval geography.
What intrigues me about this place is not only the idea of exploration (something that fascinated me in elementary school history and geography lessons) but that it was based on no documented knowledge of such a place. The “terra incognita” of the twenty-first century is somewhere distant from Earth.
Sending Drake to find it, Queen Elizabeth was giving some credence to the imagined place. It is like the search for Atlantis, another place that came from something Plato wrote, not as a real place, but as an example for his own time. Though fictional, the legend led explorers to search for it into the twentieth century – perhaps still today.
In the eighteenth century, what we call Australia was not thought of as that or as of being Terra Australis. Captain Cook and his contemporaries knew about a fifth continent which they called New Holland. It was considered to be separate from yet another imagined sixth continent that had not been discovered at that time but would eventually be today’s Antarctica.
British explorer Matthew Flinders popularized the naming of Australia after Terra Australis. His 1814 book on the continent, A Voyage to Terra Australis, maintained that there was “no probability” of finding any significant land mass anywhere more south than Australia. It was in the nineteenth century that colonial authorities officially applied the name Australia to New Holland and the Dutch name faded from usage.
The south polar continent had no name for decades after its discovery until Antarctica was coined in the 1890s. Antarctica comes from the Greek antarktikos, “opposite to the Arctic” and “arctic” comes from the Greek word arktikos, which means “of the bear” and is a reference to the northern constellation we call Ursa Minor. The “Little Bear” is a constellation traditionally important for navigation, particularly by mariners, because Polaris, the brightest star in the constellation, is the northern polar star.