The earliest inkling of Terra Australis emerged more as a philosophical construct than a geographical one. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle asserted that all of creation was in balance maintained an essential symmetry. Hence, the land masses of the Northern Hemisphere, called Arktos referencing the Greek term for the constellation Ursa Major, must inevitably be balanced by a southern continent, Anti-Arktos. Later the Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy included the Terra Australis in his own work though he did specifically note that it was inaccessible due to an interstitial “torrid zone” occupied by “monstrosities”.By the late Roman times and in the Middle Ages, the concept of Terra Australis evolved into both a religious and scientific construct. From a religious perspective it was associated with the Biblical lands of Ophir and Tarshish, from whence Solomon acquired the gold with which he built the Temple. From a scientific perspective, the influential 5th century Roman philosopher Ambrosius Macrobius includes what is possibly the first representation of the southern continent in his work In Somnium Scipionis Expositio. Macrobius divided the world into various “zones” and embraced Aristotelian and Ptolemaic theories that the mass of Asia and Europe had to be counter-balanced by a similar mass in the Southern Hemisphere. Terra Australis next appears in the journals of Marco Polo – which were widely read throughout 14th and 15th century Europe. Polo describes two islands some 700 miles southwest of Java which themselves lead to a rich mainland abundant in gold, brezil wood, elephants, birds and dogs. European scholars immediately associated the islands and lands mentioned by Polo with the Biblical land of Ophir and Tarshish. While it is difficult to say what specific lands Polo was actually referring to (some argue Madagascar, others Australia, and still others that Polo’s geographical descriptions were fabricated), many 15th and 16th century navigators, including Columbus and Magellan, were inspired by his text.
When Magellan began his voyage, the goal was not to circumnavigate the world, but rather to discover a southwestern route to India and the Moluccas. Nonetheless, one must image that the gold of Tarshish, Ophir, and the associated southern continent must have been on his mind. When Magellan navigated the Straits of Magellan between Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia he fully believed that he had discovered the northernmost headlands of Terra Australis. Many early maps subsequently labeled this land, and the southern continent attached to it Magellanica. Frances Drake’s 1577 circumnavigation of the globe a few years later proved conclusively that Tierra del Fuego was not in fact attached to a southern continent, but the search of this land would go on.
The next major exploration in the region was accomplished by the Spaniard Alvaro de Mendana. Mendana set sail from Callao, Peru in 1567 with the intention of discovering both the rich lands of the southern continent and the Biblical islands of gold, Ophir and Tarshish. Nearly a year later Mendana chanced upon a significant Polynesian Island group. These islands were subsequently identified with Ophir and Tarshish and named after King Solomon. Perplexingly, when Mendana attempted to return to the Solomon Islands, in 1595, this time with Pedro de Quiros as his pilot, he was unable to find the islands he once discovered. Mendana contracted malaria and died shortly thereafter leaving the fleet in the hands of his wife, Isabel Barreto who, becoming the world’s first female admiral, eventually returned it to Peru.Perhaps the most significant proponent of the southern continent theory was the late 16th and early 17th century Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quir, or as he is more commonly known Quiros. Quiros was a religious zealot and passionate advocate of the southern continent theory. After serving as a pilot on Mendana’s second expedition, Quiros petitioned the Spanish crown for his own commission to explore and convert the inhabitants of the Solomon Islands. He set out in 1567 and, though he roughly followed Mendana’s path, was unable to locate the Solomon Islands. He did however land on Vanuatu’s Sanma Island which, believing himself to have discovered the Southern Continent, he named Australis de Espiritu Santo. Not long afterward Quiros returned to Europe where he published his voyages, proclaiming to the world that he had, indeed, discovered Terra Australis. Unfortunately, Quiros died shortly after returning to Peru and was never able to return to the Pacific Islands. Nonetheless, Quiros’ claims and fame had a significant impact on the mapping of the region. Numerous early maps depict the “Terra de Quiros,” “Quir Land,” or “Terre de Quir” with indefinite southern and western borders thus suggesting that it could indeed be part of the Terra Australis mainland. Later many early maps depicting the tentative borders of Australia refer to it as “St. Espiritu” or some variation, again alluding to Quiros’ discovery of Vanuatu. Some, well in to the 20th century, claimed that Quiros had discovered Australia, but this was merely a confusion of the term “Australis” originally applied to Vanuatu. In nearly 200 subsequent years, no other European would encounter Samna. As for the southern continent, or Terra Australis, others would continue to search for it well into the 18th century. The French explorer, Lozier Bouvet was heavily influenced by the work of Quiros. When he spotted the remote Antarctic island, which he named Cap de la Circoncision and which is now named Bouvet Island in 1739, he believed that he had at last rediscovered Terra Australis Espirtu Santo and the southern continent. Numerous maps published Europe following Bouvet’s voyage support this claim.
It fell to Cook’s voyages at the end of the 18th century to finally disprove the notion of a great southern continent. Cook was also first to correctly identify Quiros’ land of Terra Australis Espirtu Santo as Vanuatu’s Sanma Island. Nearly 60 years following Cook findings in the area, the first confirmed sightings of the Antarctic mainland were accomplished in 1819 and 1829 by William Smith and James Bransfield, respectively. Of course, though they both occupy the same geographic space, Antarctica and Terra Australis are in fact two very different places.
Camino, M. M., Producing the Pacific: Maps and Narratives of Spanish Exploration (1567-1606), New York, 2005.
Suarez, T., Early Mapping of the Pacific, 2004.