When I moved to Australia from Canada as a child, I was struck by the shape of my new home. In Canada I had to draw maps of my native land in exacting detail. This skill atrophied at my Sydney primary school when I was handed a plastic stencil of Australia, stamped with the helpful suggestion: “NOTE: TASMANIA TO BE DRAWN FREE HAND.” I loved that this continent was so whole and perfect I could hold it in my hand, the outline of Australia so self-contained it easily became its own template, icon and logo. What I didn’t know was that it took centuries of discovery and cartographic effort to resolve this shape.
The Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia exhibition at Canberra’s National Library of Australia (until 10 March) shows how Europeans discovered and charted our coastline, which had for centuries been imagined as the Unknown South Land, Terra Australis Incognita. The exhibition’s co-curator Nat Williams spent years negotiating to bring such rare maps, globes and other artefacts to Australia. Many pieces are so fragile that they are not on display in their home countries. Remarkably, there has not been a major exhibition on the mapping of Australia since Terra Australis: The furthest shore, mounted in Sydney for the Bicentennial in 1988.
Mapping Our World includes treasures never before seen in Australia, including the exhibition’s centrepiece, Fra Mauro’s Map of the World 1448–1453. So detailed and exquisite is this enormous map of Europe, Africa and Asia – its swirling seas painted in crushed lapis lazuli, lavished with gold and dense with inscriptions – that it is at once atlas, encyclopaedia, map and national treasure.
It can also be bewildering. In the gallery, I watch as some people move on quickly, irritated by its incomprehensibility. Others bend sideways, twisting their heads while insisting to all around that the south-oriented map is actually upside down. The modern style of maps oriented to the north is in fact a mariners’ convention originating from north-pointing compasses. The Fra Mauro map could be drawing on Islamic tradition, which had south at the top to privilege Mecca’s position. Christian maps often put east at the top because it was the direction of Jerusalem.
The most important medieval map in existence, the Fra Mauro does not show Terra Australis, even as fantasy. It does, however, serve to illustrate a striking insight from Peter Barber, the head of maps at the British Library. In a lecture accompanying the exhibition, Barber stated that a map does not simply locate us in the world but also shows the edges of knowledge, the “world you don’t know”. In the Fra Mauro this world is the southern ocean, labelled Qui comenza el mar scuro, “here begins the dark sea”. Hidden in this dark sea lies Terra Australis Incognita.
When the geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria published his text and atlas Geographia circa 150 AD, he proposed a hypothetical southern continent, which became known as Terra Australis nondum cognita, or “the South Land not yet known”. This land mass, he asserted, must exist to balance the continents of the northern hemisphere. Ptolemy’s map joined the known east coast of Africa with East Asia, landlocking the Indian Ocean.
As Nat Williams notes in the exhibition catalogue:
When most people think of maps, they may have in mind … an ordered sense of place – or an authoritative view of the world in which they live. In reality, as soon as a map is drawn or printed it quickly becomes out of date as circumstances, politics or geography change.
A map, in other words, is a snapshot of time as much as space. Its very outdatedness may later become one of its most valuable qualities.
The history of Australia’s mapping shows that Europeans were driven to look for this land by an idea, a fantasy, which slowly took shape until the reality of Australia finally displaced the imagined continent. The navigator Matthew Flinders’ 1814 map, dubbed “Australia’s birth certificate”, is the final piece in the exhibition. For Flinders, Terra Australis as theorised by Ptolemy and others never existed. New Holland was not and never had been Terra Australis but it would have to do.
All maps distort reality, and it is precisely this abstraction that makes them useful.
Wandering from room to room of Mapping Our World, I find the outline of Australia slowly emerges from the “dark sea” like a photograph developed in an old-fashioned chemical bath. Fantasies of an unknown south land that takes up a third of the globe transform into recognisable stretches of Australian coast, solidifying over centuries of mapping by the Dutch, Portuguese, French and English. These maps are labelled with a variety of names, from the minimalist “Beach” to the more impressive “Java la Grande” to the enduring “Nova Hollandia”, which was first used in 1644 by the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman. The east coast, in particular, remains elusive until James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific, between 1768 and 1771. In successive maps that are really a series of guesses, the coast’s conjectured outline melts and re-forms like one of Salvador Dalí’s liquid clocks, engulfing Papua New Guinea or New Zealand or trailing away into blank sea.
Australia is an elegant name, and I am grateful to Matthew Flinders and Governor Macquarie that we’re not stuck with New Holland. Perhaps the most charming of the early names, though, is Psitacorum regio, as seen on the 1564 New World Map by the Antwerp mapmaker Abraham Ortelius. Psitacorum regio, “Land of parrots”, was bestowed by Portuguese mariners who had been struck by the size and varied colours of the region’s birdlife. They believed the coast they saw was that of a continent because, according to a translated account of their voyage, “they sailed along it for 2000 miles without reaching the end of it”. This map also hints at the real engine driving the great ventures of discovery and mapping, by listing exotic goods and their sources for trade to Europe.
In his lecture, however, Barber disputed the idea of a straightforward progression from fantasy to reality in the evolution of mapping. He pointed out that a map can never fully represent the territory, nor would it be of any practical use if it did. A satellite photo, for instance, is not very useful for navigation. Even a Google map, Barber argued, bends reality to serve different purposes, citing one that marks cafes but not post offices. All maps distort reality, and it is precisely this abstraction that makes them useful.
So the history of cartography is not a smooth trajectory from ignorance to knowledge but rather a series of snapshots that capture different ways of understanding the world. Real journeys inspire fantastical tales that in turn lead to further exploration. English buccaneer William Dampier’s 1697 journal of his trip along the Western Australian coast, A New Voyage Round the World, partly inspired Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satire Gulliver’s Travels. The original coordinates of Lilliput, Swift’s parody of England, place it smack in the middle of New Holland.
Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe was supposedly drawn from true stories of castaways. The book motivated a 15-year-old Matthew Flinders to join the Royal Navy, against the advice of his friends. (Alexander Selkirk, one of the real-life castaways thought to have inspired Defoe, was, coincidentally, rescued by William Dampier.)
Deep into the fourth room of the exhibition, the first Captain Cook chart of the east coast of Australia hits the eye like a beam of light after the decorativeness of preceding maps. Cook’s cartography is sober science, free of ornamentation. Yet in the age of simulations and scans, how powerful it is to look upon the original document, complete with names we still use: Batemans Bay, Point Solander, Port Jackson, Cape Byron, Cape Tribulation.
The story of mapping our globe is far from finished. At a party held in the National Library foyer after Barber’s lecture, I overhear curators, cartographers and hydrographers talking about new technological frontiers. The surfaces of land and sea are no longer the only focus: now Google is charting in detail the ocean deeps. “That’s what everyone’s going to worry about now,” one curator says. “Drones. Drones in the sea. And mapping drones in their backyard.” In a sense, Google Earth and drone mapping reinforce the idea of the map as a snapshot, a time capsule. The more detailed and precise the map, the more quickly it becomes inaccurate and obsolete.
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