Naming Australia

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For centuries the landmass thought to exist in the southern hemisphere was named 'terra australis incognita', the 'unknown southern land.' 'Australis' is the Latin term for 'southern.' In 1627 the Dutch ship Gulden Zeepaard had sailed along the southern coast reaching present day Fowler's Bay. In deference to the Dutch discoveries made in the seventeenth century along the western and northern coastline, the western section of the continent was referred to as 'New Holland.' The south coast of Van Diemen's Land was charted by Abel Tasman in 1642.

The eastern section of the continent was named 'New South Wales' by James Cook. The southern coast, and the actual extent of the continent remained 'unknown' until Flinders' voyage - some thought that there might be a strait separating New South Wales from the western section.

Matthew Flinders was the first to circumnavigate the continent, and chart the 'unknown coast.' By 1803 the complete outline of the Great Southern Land was mapped, but Flinders' detention at Mauritius delayed the publication of his journal and atlas until their eventual appearance in 1814. Flinders used 'Terra Australis' on his charts. He recognised that now that he had determined that New South Wales and New Holland were one land, there should be a general name for the whole continent.

In the introduction to A voyage to Terra Australis, Flinders wrote:

'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 as an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.'

[ Vol. I, p. iii, facsim. ed., 1966]

Flinders' chart accompanying the book was entitled General Chart of Terra Australis or Australia. However, Flinders' patron Sir Joseph Banks preferred 'Terra Australis'. In 1817 Governor Macquarie of New South Wales received a copy of Flinders' book, and started to use 'Australia' in his official correspondence. Later explorer Phillip Parker King also used 'Australia' on his maps of the northern and western coasts, and by the end of the 1820s 'Australia' was commonly used as the continent's name.

Collection items




Flinders, Matthew. A voyage to Terra Australis. [vol. 1] - pages ii-iii : 'Introduction.'

Extract from the introduction to Matthew Flinders' journal A voyage to Terra Australis: Flinders discusses the naming of Australia, and his wish to use the term "Australia".

Weekend Australian, 26-27 January 2002 - page 19.

Sizgoric, Viki. 'The first circumnavigation'.


Weekend Australian, 26-27 January 2002 - page 19.

Brunton, Paul. 'The man who put Australia on the map'.

Internet site

Seascape navigator: Matthew Flinders put Australia on the map

Further sources

Flinders, Matthew. A voyage to Terra Australis. Adelaide: Libraries Board of South Australia, 1966. Australiana facsimile editions; no. 37. Reprint of 1814 ed.

Flinders, Matthew. Terra Australis: Matthew Flinders' great adventures in the circumnavigation of Australia / edited and introduced by Tim Flannery. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2000.

Weekend Australian 9-10 September 2000, p. 4. Frost, Alan. 'A voyage round Flinders.'

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