Stranger than the dreams of Ptolemy

The Antipodean challenge to Western thinking

Although Europeans had believed in the symmetry of the two hemispheres for nearly two centuries, they silently forgot the idea. They tolerantly accepted that when God created the world he had not wanted it to be symmetrical.
Ernst van den Boogaart, ‘Mythical symmetry’


THE EXTENT TO which the seventeenth-­century Dutch ‘discovery’ of the great southern continent we now call Australia had a cataclysmic impact on European cosmology is open to conjecture. But it is certain that the historical failures by Europeans to ‘see’ or understand the realities of the Australian land, its people and its creatures – as evidenced throughout history – have continued right up to the present. Despite the inadequacies of European tropes, genres, classification systems and ways of thinking in coming to terms with the challenges of understanding this southern continent, northern hemisphere frameworks of thinking in the sciences and humanities still persist.

Many icons in the history of non-­Indigenous Australian painting reveal this conundrum. Sidney Nolan’s Pretty Polly Mine was painted following a trip he made from Melbourne to Queensland in 1947. The artwork Nolan painted included a series of lush, haunting coastal dunes from Fraser Island, and an inland series that reflects the heat and frightening featurelessness of the region near Mt Isa. A shallow, undulating line of dry, cracked ranges bite into an impassive blue sky. In the foreground, this casual formlessness is echoed in a scatter of desiccated tailing mounds. The more typical proportions of the European landscape painting genre are here reduced to two-­thirds bleached umber and ochres, one-­third sky. The mid-­ground features little more than a fugitive linear scattering of structures – and a man.

Incongruously, this bearded man wears a European suit as he balances on a little mullock heap, holding a scrap of what could be paper. Above him, suspended in the featureless sheet of sky, a small colourful bird cocks its head to survey the improbable intruder. The bird, a small parrot, here assumes the terrifying dimensions of a raptor, rendering the man and his ambitions and his already failed creations as insubstantial as a stain.

Across the painting’s surface, assumptions, disillusionments, delusions and wilful blindnesses flit like ghosts: the land that seemed to offer promises, then reneged. The country that taunted attempts at relationships with what was all too often described as unfathomable silence and emptiness. The flora and fauna that defied colonial categorisation or comprehension. The place that would not conform to the bespoke precision of Europe’s styles, its agriculture or its anthropologies. That instead offered creatures and contexts so strange. A continent that confounded.

The painting also bears witness to the perversity of clinging to well-­worn traditions: the morning sojourn amid the ruins of folly; the imprudence of a quaint Franciscan saintliness that offers unwanted sustenance to a disinterested indigenous species. This tiny vignette – set amid a seemingly limitless landscape – renders northern hemisphere evangelising obsolete. The simplicity of this painting belies the magnitude of the issues to which it alludes – among them, the futility of European desires to turn this country into something it’s not.


FROM THE BEGINNING, the actual experiences of this great continent disappointed, contradicted and confused Europe’s collective geographical imagination in terms of what it was – and what it wasn’t. What it wasn’t was important to Europeans to help define the parameters of their own northern hemisphere – and useful as a kind of fluctuating, amorphous mirror image through which Europe might demarcate its own edges.

This completely imaginary realm was dreamed into being from the time of Ptolemy of Alexandria (85–161 AD) and has lingered. His Geographia described a ‘Great Southern Land’, or Terra Australis, that counterbalanced the lands of the known northern hemisphere on an Earth that was flat – a tenacious schema that held currency until the sixteenth century and underpinned European cosmology. The proportions of this imaginary southern landmass were judged to be immense, its natural resources presumed to offer riches to be plundered. Its citizens – if they were considered – were thought to be doing little more than awaiting salvation through a God from the north.

To Pedro Fernández de Quirós, Portuguese-­born captain of a Spanish fleet that set off in search of Terra Australis in 1605, the possibility of delivering salvation to godless heathens was a more powerful pull than the promise of new veins of gold in the Pacific. De Quirós was convinced that Ptolemy’s imagined continent existed, and he knew that the honour and fame afforded to whoever discovered it would rival the glory of Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer whose ventures opened European colonisation of the Americas. The passion of de Quirós’s convictions is evident in the proclamation he made later from the shores of the Pacific:

Let the heavens, the earth, the waters with all their creatures and all those present witness that I, Captain Pedro Fernández de Quirós…in the name of Jesus Christ…hoist this emblem of the Holy Cross…on this day of Pentecost, 1606… I take possession of all this part of the South as far as the pole, in the name of Jesus…which from now on shall be called the Southern Land of the Holy Ghost [La Australia del Espiritu Santo]…and this always and forever…and to the end that to all natives, in all the said lands, the holy and sacred evangel may be preached zealously and openly.

If de Quirós harboured any reservations about whether or not he may in reality have reached the land of his passions, he was hedging his bets. He calculated that La Australia del Espiritu Santo was somewhere between the place he had landed (which, in geographical fact, was Vanuatu) and the South Pole. He took no chances about whether he stood on the actual continent or not – he simply named everything south of that spot in the name of Jesus, the Pope and the Holy Spanish Empire.

When de Quirós returned to Spain, he argued keenly for royal funding to make a return trip. But the Spanish Crown had misgivings. The journey was perilous. It travelled across territories ‘where monsters be’. And it was costly; too costly for a nation on the edge of bankruptcy. In a tragic twist of fate, by the time the Spanish king finally agreed to fund another expedition, de Quirós had died in Panama in 1615, without returning to this part of the world.

Even so, a belief that he had indeed landed on Australian soil lingered into the twentieth century through the works of Roman Catholic historians, who argued that the descriptions by de Quirós of veins of marble and limestone deposits were drawn from his firsthand experience in North Queensland.


GREAT, COMPETITIVE SECRECIES surrounded the maps documenting journeys into any southern waters; the Dutch knew nothing of the Spanish activity in the Pacific in the early 1600s.

There is now some general agreement that the first European known to have actually landed in Australia in early 1606 was Willem Janszoon, the Dutch navigator who worked under the mercantile-propelled ambitions of the Dutch East India Company. Setting sail aboard the Duifken from the Netherlands and bound for the lucrative spice trade of the East Indies, Janszoon headed further south. He believed he was still exploring the southern regions of New Guinea and made landfall on the western shoreline of Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula, where he charted 320 kilometres of coastline. His shaky presumptions continued in a spirit of confusion and fraught ambition. In February 1606, Janszoon reached a point near present-­day Weipa – three months before de Quirós made his proclamation from Vanuatu.

A number of Janszoon’s men were killed during onshore sorties, and it can be speculated that a number of Aboriginal people were killed as well. The captain then made a hasty decision to sail back at a place he named Cape Keerweer, the Dutch name for ‘turn around’. Janszoon’s instructions had been to search for economic opportunities, and his journals bear evidence of his immense disappointment in what he perceived to be the failures of the land and its people in terms of European expectations:

Vast regions were for the greater part uncultivated, and certain parts inhabited by savage, cruel black barbarians who slew some of our sailors, so that no information was obtained touching the exact situation of the country and regarding the commodities obtainable and in demand there.

Oral histories passed down by the Wik-­Mungkan people of Queensland – some of which are collected in The Mapoon Story, edited by Janine Roberts (International Development Action, 1975) – tell another version of the story, one where the local population who offered food and sustenance to these visitors were subsequently treated with contempt.

After leaving Cape Keerweer, Janszoon made his way to Banda, in the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. There, his sea stories described an event where his sailors had been ‘killed by the heathens, who are man-­eaters: so they were forced to return, finding no good to be done there’.

Ten years later, another Dutch East India Company shipmaster, Dirk Hartog, landed on the most westerly island off the western shoreline of Western Australia. With breathtaking matter-­of-­factness, he named this landing place after himself – and the entire landmass that lay to its east – after his ship, the Eendracht. He condensed a brief account of his ‘discovery’ of Eendrachtsland – the land of unity – onto a pewter plate. This name found its way onto European maps of the region after his return to the northern hemisphere. In this way, the western half of the Australian continent was given the name New Holland by the Dutch. But interest in this territory was by now so low that no attempts were made to colonise it.

In the mid-­1600s, Anthony van Diemen, governor general of the local branch of the Dutch East India Company, commissioned another Dutch captain – Abel Janszoon Tasman, who was living in Batavia (present-­day Jakarta) – to investigate this mysterious southern continent’s potential to provide new trade opportunities. This lead to Tasman landing on the west coast of Tasmania in 1642, where he claimed this island for the Netherlands as Van Diemen’s Land. Tasman had been dispatched to ‘make timely discovery of the remaining unknown part of the terrestrial globe’ and to explore ‘both the unknown and known south land’. Yet the descriptions of the place and peoples he returned with so disappointed his employers that Dutch interest in the region lapsed again. By their reckoning, Tasman’s explorations were a failure in terms of establishing anticipated trading posts; as a consequence, he was never lauded as a great explorer in his own time.


EUROPEAN AMBITIONS FOR the discovery of new wealth in mineral riches and souls to save steadily contracted over the course of the seventeenth century. But other passions were slowly emerging, and a hunger for scientific knowledge propelled the next waves of exploration into Australia. With every passing navigator, the outline of this continent was being put together bit by bit. With each trace of verifiable coastline, the fantasy of that first ‘Great Southern Land’ – as a wondr’ous, unknowable, mysterious continent, an imaginary geography independent of geographical reality – slowly eroded.

But things were hotting up on the continent’s west. In 1688, William Dampier (the first Englishman to reach the western mainland coast of the continent) landed on Dirk Hartog Island with a leaky boat – so leaky that, on the homeward-­bound journey, it sank in the Atlantic. Like the Dutch before him, Dampier was disappointed by the unfamiliar landscape’s refusal to conform to the expectations of his European imaginary – and he dismissed the land and its people as being of little worth. But Dampier did have a personal interest in natural phenomena: he was a keen observer, in possession of a curious mind, and he was fascinated by the flora and fauna of this new place. Despite the fact that many of his journals were lost with his ship, Dampier managed to return to England to complete a treatise that later aroused the interest of the British Royal Society, the Royal Navy and the scientific community. This work fired up the curiosity of another eminent Englishman, botanist Joseph Banks, who many years later initiated more British exploration of the planet’s south.

In 1768, Yorkshireman James Cook was commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society and the British Admiralty to observe the transit of Venus across the sun from Tahiti. By this time, interest in the idea of any Great Southern Land had waned. The continent had continued to elude and avoid annexation by European thinking and navigation, and this shook Europe’s own worldview to the very core. Its ‘refusal’ to materialise in the way Europe imagined it might threw the neat notion of an equal, opposite, balanced and Christian cosmology – equal land in the northern and southern hemispheres – into chaos.

What kind of God would have planned a world that was not based on symmetry?

The same kind of God, it turned out, who would ordain the existence of an entire continent of plants and animals that defied established European frameworks for understanding the world.

But Cook’s voyage delivered a goldmine of an altogether different kind. When his ship, the HMS Endeavour, left dock in Plymouth, Cook had only been made aware of his brief to record data that would help to ascertain the distance of the Earth from the sun. It was only after that part of his mission was completed that he was permitted to open a sealed envelope revealing the second part of the Admiralty’s instructions: to find Ptolemy’s mysterious Terra Australis.

Cook arrived at the south-­east coastline of the place he knew from Dutch maps as New Holland in 1770, and sailed north to the place he named Stingray Bay – later changed to Botany Bay in honour of the wealth of plant studies, specimens and drawings made there by botanist Joseph Banks and Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander. The flora and fauna Cook’s expedition encountered were thought so remarkable that the fixedness of European categorisation and taxonomies could scarcely accommodate the full challenges of the new discoveries. On the strength of the strangeness of the plants and animals collected and documented, Banks’s reputation in the minds of the British public exceeded that of Cook. The public was keen to hear more of these wonders.

Yet New Holland was not the hypothetical Terra Australis: it had again failed to materialise – as Cook knew. He was sent on a second expedition to search for the massive continent. This time – using the famous Kendall K1 marine chronometer, so beautifully described in Australian writer Kenneth Slessor’s 1931 poem ‘Five visions of Captain Cook’ – Cook charted the oceans of the southern Pacific with such accuracy that copies of his charts were still in use well into the mid-­twentieth century. This voyage lasted three years and crossed the Antarctic Circle three times. It did not reveal the mythical landmass.

The extent of Cook’s voyages diminished – indeed, all but destroyed – the possibility that that long-­imagined southern land existed. But its name, Terra Australis, was appropriated for Britain’s collection of new colonies. In 1824, Governor Macquarie of New South Wales backed English navigator and cartographer Matthew Flinders’ preference for the name Australia, overruling the British Admiralty’s denial of Flinders’ earlier request to use this name on a chart in 1804.

That name stuck.


BY THE MID-­NINETEENTH century, the discoveries of Australian flora and fauna were disrupting the ideas and ideals of many of the northern hemisphere’s leading naturalists. In 1836, English naturalist and evolutionist Charles Darwin described the act of

…reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country as compared to the rest of the World. An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim: ‘Surely, two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object, however, has been the same & certainly the end in each case is complete.’

Details of the strange ‘otherness’ of the new land are evident in the ­earliest British colonial journals, such as those of Thomas Watling, a Scottish artist sent to New South Wales as punishment for his crimes of forgery. Writing in 1793 to his aunt in Dumfries, Watling describes a land where nature is ‘deceitful’, challenging every European code that might have shaped or equipped the artist’s capacity for observation and understanding:

…the whole appearance of nature must be striking in the extreme to the adventurer, and at first this will seem to him to be a country of enchantments. The generality of the birds and the beasts sleeping by day, and singing or catering in the night, is such an inversion in nature as is hitherto unknown.

Watling’s sense of being ‘at sea’, without the co-­ordinates he needed to understand the new world in which he found himself, is evident in this description: ‘He can scarcely meet with any fixed points from whence to draw his analogies.’ If the European project of taxonomy sought to arrange and name the world’s plants and animals, it depended on comparisons and contrasts to create this single catalogue. Australia’s flora and fauna provided few easy points of reference or similarity.

Yet despite the avowed objectivity of this kind of scientific documentation, illustrations betray the cultural predispositions of the European artist–scientists who were at work trying to make sense of what they saw on this continent. These differences are acutely evident in the drawings of animals made during expeditions led by the British navigator Matthew Flinders and the French captain Nicolas Baudin, whose ships the HMS Investigator and Le Géographe famously moored together at Encounter Bay in 1802. Representatives of the two richest and most powerful nations in the world, the men were at first confused about whether their countries were at war or peace. However, the ethics of exploration won the day, and the two captains met to discuss and share information.

A comparison of the natural history drawings produced by artists on each of these journeys provides evidence of the influential cultural predispositions of each nation. A watercolour of two wombats produced by one of Investigator’s artists, Ferdinand Bauer, depicts two doughty, self-­contained little beasts whose purposeful single-­mindedness is suggested in the functional practicality of their forefeet digging claws and the determination reflected in their small, gleaming bright eyes. By comparison, the mien of the animals in Le Wombat, by French artist Charles-­Alexandre Lesueur, has morphed from stout practicality into an anthropomorphised rendition of an elegant and amorous male who hovers protectively next to his female companion and their impossible family of four joeys.

Nor has the era of cultural predispositions ended. Until recently, ornithologists from the northern hemisphere doubted that the intelligent, aggressive and voluble bird species of the southern hemisphere had not only lived at the planet’s ornithological ground zero, but had also provided the world with its songbirds and parrots, the most intelligent of all bird groups. Now, DNA testing has settled this point. As Tim Low argued in Where Song Began (Penguin, 2014), ‘these birds stand out in so many different ways – in ecology, behaviour, evolution and biogeography…we can learn more about Australia from its birds than its mammals.’ This radical new departure in scientists’ recognition of the impact of Australia’s fauna on the rest of the world reveals how dramatic Australia’s challenges to northern hemisphere misapprehensions might be.


THE COLONISING NATIONS and mentalities of Europe have only ‘seen’ Australia – and everything that it is and that it isn’t – through the mirror of their own assumptions. Central to this has been the idea that the flow of information following the European ‘discovery’ of Australia operated in one direction: north to south.

But new research – like the evolutionary history of Australia’s songbirds – reveals examples that contradict this north–south flow. In this way, the potential of both the Australian imaginary and its past, current and future realities are much more wonderful and bountiful than anything imagined since the time of Ptolemy. If ever the world needed a new way of seeing, it’s now, and the fulcrum for this rethinking has the potential to turn away, for the last time, from the presumptions and assumptions that have been superimposed on this landscape since the northern hemisphere invented the idea of a Great Southern Land centuries ago.

That quizzical parrot that squints down on the European-­besuited intruder from the top left corner of Nolan’s Pretty Polly Mine could well be interpreted as a portent for a new worldview on the brink of emerging. The bird looks back at the viewer with a knowing, glittering eye; an anthropomorphised apparition that seems to wink at the presence of so much more in this vast landscape. Nolan did not directly paint the inhabitants of this tract of country, but his nascent understanding of their lives in this landscape, as he states in his diary entries of the time, was to inform his future work in powerful ways.

Australia’s First Nations’ peoples have looked askance at European attempts to explain away this country in its own terms for a very long time. Their knowledge of this land and everything within it – the flora, the fauna, the layers of the past that flit and hover, their ongoing understanding of the land and how to manage it  – still begs serious response. European presumptions can be resisted, confounded and challenged by other ways of seeing, of being, of interacting with this world that acknowledge the full complexity of custodianship and connectedness.

In many ways, the challenges of this Great Southern Land to European thinking may have only just begun.



 Kenneth Slessor ‘Five visions of Captain Cook’ 

 Tim Low, Where Song Began (Penguin, 1994) 

 Ernst van den Boogaart, 1998, Terra Australis- the Furthest Shore (William Eisler and Bernard Smith, p 49). 

Mapoon, Janine Roberts (ed.), International Development Association, 1975;database=;collection=;brand=default; 

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