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Antipodes Map Gallery

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Maps are essential in the early modern history (16th to 18th century) of the imagined southern continent which was most commonly known as Terra Australis or the Antipodes. They were one of the prime modes for Europeans to express and share the geographical knowledge they possessed (or thought they possessed—which is, arguably, the same thing).

It was also the perfect medium to continue to refine and adapt the contours of a land that started off as an idea but soon became almost real: a huge mainland filled with all the geographical variety you would expect to find in a place that actually existed and had actually been visited. Then, once explorers started wearing away at the coastlines of Terra Australis, the map offered up the space needed for that land to be redrafted and redeployed.

One of the reasons why the idea of a southern continent endured so long—until the very end of the early modern period in the late 18th centuryis because of the map. The geography it presents is so handsome and alluring, and filled with such potential and promise, that the world seemed a better place if it existed.

Martin Waldseemüller, world map in 12 sheets, 1507. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

At the beginning of the 16th century, Europeans had started to learn that there were many other lands outside the boundaries of their knowledge. But they still had very little idea what was in the southern hemisphere. Where hard facts failed, theory and conjecture helped fill the void, though at this time map makers were relatively restrained in their depiction of the southern hemisphere. Interestingly, Waldseemüller referred to South America as the “Antipodes”. In doing so he and other scholars cleverly alluded to classical authority, when truly it was no more than a description of space—it meant opposite. Even in this sense, labelling South America as the Antipodes was a stretch, as can be clearly seen.

Johannes Ruysch’s map accompanied the 1507 edition of Ptolemy’s Geography (Bernardinus Venetus de Vitalibus: Rome). (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

In Ruysch’s map, the eastern coast of South America is cut off at the border of the map. He appears to imagine the land tending further south, but how we shall never know. The western border to Ruysch’s South American mainland is even more ambiguous, having been replaced entirely with a strategic cartouche—perhaps a wise move, as Europeans had no information about this region.

Oronce Finé, Nova, et Integra Universi Orbis Descriptio. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Finé’s was an enormously influential map that followed on from the work done by Johannes Schöner. A southern continent was no more than cosmographic theorising, but then in 1519 Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition rounded the tip of South America, in doing so seeing lands that were subsequently labelled Tierra del Fuego. Many people back in Europe interpreted the discovery wishfully—as being the islandic coast of the much-rumoured southern continent! And so it appears on Finé’s map. It should be kept in mind that maps were very much cultural, aesthetic and commercial objects. Map making was a business—and an expensive one—that needed customers. A handsome map with tantalising hints of new lands was sure to be a good seller.

Giacomo Gastaldi, Universale, 1546. (Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University)

Gastaldi’s map presents a large southern continent that reaches up toward the tip of South America. It is particularly interesting for comparison with subsequent maps, because several later cartographers copied it. They were faithful to many of his lands (see Forlani below), particularly where there was reliable information from explorers, but when it came to the imagined southern continent they saw room for drastic improvement. “I see your southern continent, and raise you a mega-continent!”

Paolo Forlani, Universale Descrittione di Tutta la Terra Conosciuta Fin Oui, 1565. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Forlani copied much of Gastaldi’s 1546 map (above), except in two decades his southern continent has tripled in size compared to Gastaldi’s puny cousin! Keep in mind that at this point Forlani’s was a lavish depiction of what would be (if it existed) the biggest continent in the world, when the only piece of hard data they had was Magellan’s sighting of the Tierra del Fuegan islands. But where hard data was absent, all manner of pieces of information ancient, medieval and recent helped convince of existence. For instance, the label of Lucach is present on the continent beneath Southeast Asia. This is drawing on no other than Marco Polo (who never visited any southern continent).

Abraham Ortelius, Typus Orbis Terrarum, 1570. (Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

Ortelius’ map is one of the most famous and influential (it is based on the work of his peer, Gerhard Mercator). This is Terra Australis at its most lavish and impressive. The interior is plain, but the coastline is wonderful, it looks so real… And there were those labels of places actual people had visited—Lucach, Maletur, Beach, Terra del Fuego—all very convincing. It seemed all that was required was a suitably industrious adventurer to properly discover this remarkable land.

Jodocus Hondius Sr (Jean le Clerc), Orbis Terrae Novissima Descriptio, 1602. (Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

This map is especially interesting because Hondius, who is mostly following the Mercatorian archetype for Terra Australis that we saw on the Ortelius map, has turned the Pacific coast of the southern continent into an island chain. It is suggestive, perhaps, of uncertainty, but still the continent fills the bottom quarter of the map.

Hessel Gerritsz, map of the Pacific, 1622. (Image courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW)

Gerritsz was working for the VOC—the Dutch East Indies Company—and so his goal as a cartographer was not to merely create a compelling map, but an accurate one. This is what a map drawn based only on empirical data looks like. In the decades before this map was drawn there had been some fascinating discoveries made, such as the Solomon Islands in the Pacific, Torres Strait and the Cape York Peninsula of Australia. There was no doubt that lands of some sort existed in the southern hemisphere, but still no proof there was a vast southern continent of the type that had been imagined. Indeed, the encounters with stretches of Australia in the north and west were particularly disappointing to the VOC. They wanted gold or other easily exploited resources, and found none of that.

Philippe Buache, Carte du Globe Terrestre, 1746. (Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

A long period passed in the late 17th and early 18th century without much in the way of European voyages of exploration to the southern hemisphere (largely due to long and complicated wars). That meant no new discoveries of land. Theoretical geographer Philippe Buache was not deterred. He believed he had the evidence he needed: ice. Many explorers had reported icebergs in the southern seas, and so Buache figured there had to be a southern continent otherwise where the heck did they come from? And he was right—just wrong in scale.

Buache was also compelled by the reasoning of equipoisure (hemispheric balance), which is seen very clearly in his map. He argued that the Earth does not wobble on its axis as it rotates, which implies the Earth must be perfectly balanced. Buache reasoned that for there to be balance, there had to be equal amounts of land in the southern and northern hemispheres, which meant there had to be more land in the south than had at that time been discovered. That meant there had to be a mighty southern continent after all! (I for one am quite certain I would have believed this 250 years ago.)

Unfortunately, many continue to mistakenly state that the theory of equipoisure originated with the ancient Greeks thousands of years ago, or shortly thereafter with Ptolemy, and explains the first ancient ideas about a southern continent. This is incorrect. Equipoisure appears to be an early modern invention, first popularised by Gerhard Mercator in the late 16th century. It wasn’t till the 18th century that anyone took any real notice of the theory. (It’s not clear how this strange and egregious error about equipoisure began, but it is remarkable how firmly the error has become entrenched, and how long it has gone mostly unchallenged [with an early nod to James McClymont and a later nod to Benjamin Olshin on this front]. You may have also heard comments about Greek ideas of symmetry entailing Terra Australis—also incorrect).

Jean-Claude Dezauche, Hémisphere Méridional pour voir plus distinctement les Terres Australes, circa. 1785. (Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia)

This map shows the routes of European explorers in the southern hemisphere. Especially after James Cook executed his famous expeditions, there was nowhere left for the southern continent to be reimagined. For centuries, Terra Australis—the idea of a vast and resource-rich southern continent—survived every single instance of an explorer sailing through its supposed shores. Map makers readily obliged by revising the continent’s shape and location, pushing it back into the unknown. But with the late 18th century and relentless explorers like Cook, there was nowhere left for Terra Australis. The mighty geography was dead. In its place was the possibility for a smaller, ice-covered southern continent, but that was not the magnificent land that had been imagined for so long.

For more on Terra Australis—plus more stunning maps—and to find out why Europeans really imagined the southern continent then kept on imagining it for decade after decade, century after century, take a look at ANTIPODES: IN SEARCH OF THE SOUTHERN CONTINENT published by Monash University Press.

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