The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N./Chapter 30

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The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. by Ernest Scott
Chapter 30. The naming of Australia
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Chapter 30.

THE NAMING OF AUSTRALIA

The name Australia was given to the great southern continent by Flinders. When and why he gave it that name will now be shown.

In the first place a common error must be set right. It is sometimes said that the Spanish navigator, Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, named one of the islands of the New Hebrides group, in 1606, Australia del Espiritu Santo. This is not the case. The narrative of his voyage described "all this region of the south as far as the Pole which from this time shall be called Austrialia del Espiritu Santo," from "His Majesty's title of Austria." The word Austrialia is a punning name. Quiros' sovereign, Philip III, was a Habsburg; and Quiros, in compliment to him, devised the name Austrialia as combining the meaning "Austrian land," as well as "southern land."[1]

In 1756 the word "Australasia" was coined. Charles de Brosses, in his Histoire des Navigations aux Terres Australes, wanted a word to signify a new division of the globe. The maps marked off Europe, Asia, Africa and America, but the vast region to the south of Asia required a name likewise. De Brosses simply added "Austral" to "Asia," and printed "Australasia" upon his map.

The earliest use of the word Australia that I have been able to find, occurs in the index to the Dutch Generale Beschrijvinge van Indien (General Description of the Indies) published at Batavia in 1638. The work consists mainly of accounts of voyages by Dutch vessels to the East Indies. Among them is a history of the "Australische Navigatien" of Jacob le Maire and Willem Cornelisz Schouten, made in 1615 to 1617. They sailed through the Straits of Magellan, crossed the Pacific, touched at the Solomon Islands, and thence made their way round by the north of New Guinea to Java. The word Australia does not occur anywhere in the black-letter text of the narrative, and the word Australische in the phrase "Australische Navigatien," simply means southern. There are references in the book to "Terra Australis," but Le Maire and Schouten knew not Australia. Nor does the narrative make any allusion to the continent which we know by that name. The Terra Australis of these Dutch navigators was land of the southern hemisphere in general. But, curiously, the indexer of the Generale Beschrijvinge made four entries, in which he employed the word Australia. Thus, his entry "Australia Incognita Ondeckt" (Australia Incognita Discovered) referred to passages in Le Maire and Schouten's voyage relating to the southern lands they had seen. But it did not refer to the Australia of modern geography. It is very strange that the Dutch indexer in Batavia should have hit upon the word and employed it when he did not find it in the text of the book itself.

The use of Australia in an English book of 1693 is also extremely curious. In 1676 Gabriel de Foigny, under the assumed name of Jacques Sadeur, published at Vannes a quaint little duodecimo volume, purporting to give a description of an unknown southern land. He called his book La Terre Australe connue; c'est a dire, la description de ce pays inconnu jusqu'ici. It was a "voyage imaginaire," a pure piece of fancy. In 1693 it was translated into English, and published in London, by John Dunton, under the title A New Discovery of Terra Incognita, or the Southern World, by James Sadeur, a Frenchman, who being cast there by a shipwreck, lived 35 years in that country and gives a particular description of the manners, customs, religion, laws, studies and wars of those southern people, and of some animals peculiar to that place; with several other rarities. In the original French the word Australia does not occur. But in the English translation Foigny's phrase "continent de la Terre Australe," is rendered "Australia." Foigny's ingenious piece of fiction drew its "local colour" from the South American region, not from any supposed land in the neighbourhood of the Australian continent. The instance is all the more interesting from the possibility that the book may have given a hint to Swift in the writing of Gulliver's Travels.[2]

In 1770 and 1771 Alexander Dalrymple published An Historical Collection of Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean. In the preface to that work he used the word Australia as "comprehending the discoveries at a distance from America to the eastward."[3] He did not intend it to include the present Australia at all. De Brosses had used the three names Magellanica, Polynesia and Australasia, which Dalrymple accepted; but he thought there was room for a fourth for the area east of South America. The part of the Australian continent known when Dalrymple published his book—only the west and northern coasts—was included within the division which De Brosses called Australasia.

Here we have three instances of the use of the word Australia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but without reference to the continent which now bears that name.

In 1793, G. Shaw and J. E. Smith published in London a Zoology and Botany of New Holland. Here the word Australia was used in its modern sense, as applied to the southern continent. The authors wrote of "the vast island, or rather continent, of Australia, Australasia, or New Holland, which has so lately attracted the particular attention of European navigators and naturalists."

The word was not therefore of Flinders' devising. But it may be taken to be certain that he was unacquainted with the previous employment of it by the Dutch indexer, by Foigny's English translator, or by Shaw and Smith. It is doubtful whether he had observed the previous use of it by Dalrymple. Undoubtedly he had read that author's book. He may have had the volumes in his cabin library. But he was so exact and scrupulous a man that we can say with confidence that, had he remembered the occurrence of the word in Dalrymple, he would have mentioned the fact. The point is not material, however, because, as already observed, Dalrymple did not apply "Australia" to this continent, but to a different region. The essential point is that "Australia was reinvented by Flinders."[4]

Flinders felt the need of a single word that would be a good name for the island which had been demonstrated by his own researches to be one great continent. It will be remembered that he had investigated the whole extent of the southern coasts, had penetrated to the extremities of the two great gulfs found there, had proved that they did not open into a passage cutting Terra Australis in two, and had thoroughly examined the Gulf of Carpentaria, finding no inlet southward there. The country was clearly one immense whole. But what was it to be called? Terra Australis, Southern Land, was too long, was cumbrous, was Latin. That would not be a convenient name for a country that was to play any part in the world. The Dutch had named the part which they found New Holland. But they knew nothing of the east. Cook called the part which he had discovered New South Wales. But Cook knew nothing of the west. Neither the Dutch nor Cook knew anything of the south, a large part of which Flinders himself had discovered.

We find him for the first time using the word "Australia" in a letter written to his brother Samuel on August 25th, 1804.[5] He was then living at Wilhelm's Plains: "I call the whole island Australia, or Terra Australis. New Holland is properly that portion of it from 135° of longitude westward; and eastward is New South Wales, according to the Governor's patent."

Flinders' first public use of the word was not in English, but in French. In the essay on the probable fate of Laperouse, written for the Société d'Émulation in Ile-de-France (1807), he again stated the need for a word in terms which I translate as follows: "The examination of the eastern part was commenced in 1770 by Captain Cook, and has since been completed by English navigators.[6] The first (i.e., the west) is New Holland properly so called, and the second bears the name of New South Wales. I have considered it convenient to unite the two parts under a common designation which will do justice to the discovery rights of Holland and England, and I have with that object in view had recourse to the name Austral-land or
Page 538 memorial (The Life of Matthew Flinders).jpg

MEMORIAL TO BASS AND FLINDERS AT THE
COMMONWEALTH NAVAL BASE, WESTERNPORT. VIC

Australia. But it remains to be seen whether the name will be adopted by European geographers."[7]

After 1804 Flinders repeatedly used the word Australia in his correspondence. Before that date he had invariably written of "New Holland." But in a letter to Banks (December 31st, 1804) he referred to "my general chart of Australia;"[8] in March, 1806, he wrote of "the north-west coast of Australia;"[9] in July, 1806, writing to the King he underlined the word in the phrase "my discoveries in Australia;"[10] in July, 1807, he spoke of "the north coast of Australia;"[11] in February, 1809, of "the south coast of Australia;"[12]and the same phrase was employed in January, 1810.[13] It is therefore apparent that before his return to England he had determined to use the name systematically and to make its employment general as far as he could. We do not find it occurring in any other correspondence of the period.

When he reached England in 1810 and commenced to work upon his book, he wished to use the name Australia, and brought the subject forward at a meeting at Sir Joseph Banks' house. But Banks was not favourable, and Arrowsmith, the chart-publisher, "did not like the change" because his firm had always used the name New Holland in their charts. A Major Rennell was present at one of the meetings, when Flinders thought he had converted Sir Joseph. But afterwards he found Banks disinclined to sanction the name, and wrote to Major Rennell asking whether he remembered the conversation. The Major replied (August 15th, 1812):[5] "I certainly think that it was as you say, that Australia was the proper name for the continent in question; and for the reason you mention. I suppose I must have been of that opinion at the time, for I certainly think so now. It wants a collective name."

Two days after the receipt of Major Rennell's letter Flinders wrote to Banks, reminding him that he was the first person consulted about the name Australia, and that he had understood that it was generally approved. Bligh had not objected to it. When part of the manuscript of the Voyage was submitted to Mr. Robert Peel, Under-Secretary for the Colonies (afterwards Sir Robert Peel and Prime Minister of England), and to Lord Liverpool, the principal Secretary of State, there had been some discussion respecting the inclusion of the Gulf of Carpentaria as part of New South Wales, and it was accordingly erased. But no objection was raised to the name Australia. Flinders fought hard for his word, but did not succeed completely. Captain Burney suggested that Terra Australis was a name "more familiar to the public." Banks on August 19th withdrew his objection to "the propriety of calling New Holland and New South Wales by the collective name of Terra Australis," and accordingly as A Voyage to Terra Australis his book ultimately went forth. The work being published under the aegis of the Admiralty, he had to conform to the opinion of those who were less sensible of the need for an innovation than he was, and it was only in a modest footnote that he used the name he preferred. The passage in the book wherein he discussed the question may be quoted, together with his footnote:

"The vast regions to which this voyage was principally directed comprehend, in the western part, the early discoveries of the Dutch, under the name of New Holland; and in the east the coasts explored by British navigators, and named New South Wales. It has not, however, been unusual to apply the first appellation to both regions; but to continue this would be almost as great an injustice to the British nation, whose seamen have had so large a share in the discovery as it would be to the Dutch were New South Wales to be so extended. This appears to have been felt by a neighbouring, and even rival, nation; whose writers commonly speak of these countries under the general term of Terres Australes. In fact, the original name, used by the Dutch themselves until some time after Tasman's second voyage in 1644, was Terra Australis, or 'Great South Land;' and, when it was displaced by 'New Holland,' the new term was applied only to the parts lying westward of a meridian line passing through Arnhem's Land on the north, and near the isles of St. Francis and St. Peter on the south; all to the eastward, including the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, still remained as Terra Australis. This appears from a chart published by Thevenot in 1663; which, he says 'was originally taken from that done in inlaid work upon the pavement of the new Stadt-House at Amsterdam.' The same thing is to be inferred from the notes of Burgomaster Witsen in 1705 of which there will be occasion to speak in the sequel.

"It is necessary, however, to geographical precision, that so soon as New Holland and New South Wales were known to form one land, there should be a general name applicable to the whole; and this essential point having been ascertained in the present voyage, with a degree of certainty sufficient to authorise the measure, I have, with the concurrence of opinions entitled to deference, ventured upon the adoption of the original Terra Australis; and of this term I shall hereafter make use when speaking of New Holland and New South Wales in a collective sense; and when using it in the most extensive signification, the adjacent isles, including that of Van Diemen, must be understood to be comprehended.

"There is no probability that any other detached body of land, of nearly equal extent, will ever be found in a more southern latitude; the name Terra Australis will, therefore, remain descriptive of the geographical importance of this country, and its situation on the globe, it has antiquity to recommend it; and, having no reference to either of the two claiming nations, appears to be less objectionable than any other which could have been selected."

Then comes the footnote in which the name Australia is suggested:

"Had I permitted myself any innovation upon the original term, it would have been to convert it into Australia; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth."

The name came into general use after the publication of Flinders' book, though it was not always adopted in official documents. Governor Macquarie, of New South Wales, in a despatch in April, 1817, expressed the hope that the name would be authoritatively sanctioned.[14] As already noted, the officials of 1849 drew a distinction between New Holland, the mainland, and Australia, which included the island of Tasmania; and so Sir Charles Fitzroy, Governor of New South Wales, was styled "Governor-General of Australia," in a commission dated 1851. The proudest of all places wherein this name is used is in the forefront of the majestic instrument cited as 63 and 64 Vict., cap. 12—"An Act to constitute the Commonwealth of Australia."

  1. See Markham, Voyages of Quiros, Hakluyt Society Vol. I., p. xxx.
  2. See the Cambridge History of English Literature IX., 106; where, however, the English translation is erroneously cited as Journey of Jacques Sadour to Australia.
  3. P. xv. of the 1780 edition of Dalrymple.
  4. Morris, Dictionary of Austral English, p. 10.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Flinders' Papers.
  6. By himself; but in this paper he modestly said nothing of his own researches.
  7. "Il reste a savoir si ce nom sera adopte par des geographes europeens." The paper was printed in the Annales des Voyages by Malte-Brun (Paris, 1810). Flinders kept a copy, and his manuscript is now in the Melbourne Public Library. It is an exquisite piece of calligraphy, perhaps the most beautifully written of all his manuscripts.
  8. Historical Records V., 531.
  9. Ibid VI., 50.
  10. Ibid VI., 107.
  11. Ibid VI., 274.
  12. Ibid VII., 52.
  13. Ibid VII., 275.
  14. See M. Phillips, A Colonial Autocracy, (London, 1909) p. 2 note.