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Putting Australia on the map


Matthew Flinders, who died just over 200 years ago, is widely credited with giving this country its name: Australia. Flinders preferred Australia to the more commonly used Terra Australis as he thought it was "more agreeable to the ear". He liked it so much that he included the name Australia on his map of the whole continent published in 1814.

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Matthew Flinders, who died just over 200 years ago, is widely credited with giving this country its name: Australia. Flinders preferred Australia to the more commonly used Terra Australis as he thought it was “more agreeable to the ear”. He liked it so much that he included the name Australia on his map of the whole continent published in 1814.

It has also long been known that the term Australia was used prior to Flinders, to describe southern regions on maps, including by James Wilson in 1799 and the Scottish geographer Dalrymple in 1770.

Much earlier, the Spanish used the phrase “Austrialia del Espiritu Santo” for Vanuatu in 1606. Some of the maps that included these usages were on display earlier this year at the National Library of Australia’s Mapping Our World exhibition.

The south end of the map

In the 16th century, most maps were published in Latin and cartographers were just starting to record European discoveries such as America. What these cartographers had inherited were maps of what has become known as the “Old World”, typified by Schedel’s map from his Nuremberg Chronicle (below), which in turn were copies of maps constructed from Ptolemy’s Geographia from the 2nd century AD.


Many of these maps contained divisions at different latitudes called climata that were defined by the length of the longest daylight. Typically there were seven such divisions on classical maps, often denoted by Roman numerals I to VII indicating latitudes from 13 to 16 hours of daylight in the northern hemisphere.

During the course of the 16th century, cartographers extended their maps to cover the southern hemisphere including the Waldseemuller world map from 1507 that includes both South America and all of Africa. There seems to have been no accepted conventions about what labels to apply to climata.

Mercator’s climata australiaGerard Mercatorcordiformclimata

On this map Mercator appears to apply the term australia to all the climata in the southern hemisphere.


The phrase “climata australia” is on the top right hand corner in the figure above, a version which can be enlarged is available online.

Climata is a Greek term which was adopted into Latin.

The adjective australis, formed from the noun auster which is used of the South wind, is employed as a term for “southern” by Classical writers such as Cicero and Seneca. When it is used to describe climata it takes the inflection -ia (australia) rather than –is (australis) because in Latin the endings of adjectives agree with the nouns they describe (thus australia agrees with the neuter plural ending of climata).

Schooled by Frisius



The other map-maker who employs the term Australia on maps during this period is Gemma Frisius (1508-55) who was Mercator’s teacher and collaborator. He created his own cordiform wall map in 1540, no copies of which survive, but what is believed to be a reduced version is contained in his revised version of Cosmographia from 1544 (Figure A and B).


This book also includes an explanation of climata in a separate figure in the text (Figure C): both the map and the figure use the term Australia to denote southern latitudes.

Australia appears on at least two later 16th-century maps.

The word appears in a rare book on astronomy by Cyriaco Jacob zum Barth published in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1545 that was also on display in the Mapping Our World exhibition. The catalogue notes is “the first appearance” of the use of Australia in print. While books were traded across Europe even at this time, including through the Frankfurt Book Fair, it is unclear whether there is any link between zum Barth’s use of Australia and Mercator or Frisius.

Mercator also uses the term again on a map of the old world much later in 1578. He again denotes southerly latitudes as climata australia. This map was reproduced for at least the next 150 years and the Birmingham Public Library digital collection contains a copy of a later edition.

The first AustraliaFrisius

What seems less likely is that they were copying the term Australia from an earlier map. Frisius’ earlier editions of Cosmographia (published as late as 1540 – which can be downloaded from Google books) have a figure equivalent to the one reproduced in Figure C.

But the world in this earlier figure is inverted (with south at the top) and uses the term Meridionalia rather than Australia to denote southern altitudes. This suggests he only adopted the term for naming climata after 1540, but intriguingly elsewhere in the text of this earlier edition, the term Australia is used as an adjective for southern.

From the end of the 16th century, the declining influence of Ptolemy meant that climata zones were no longer used on most maps, so there was no need to use the term Australia. Even here, there are exceptions, such as the delineations on several world maps from Dutch Golden Age which are based on Mercator’s projection.

Some of these include climata and follow Mercator in calling southerly latitudes australia. e.g. Hendrick Doncker map (bottom right hand corner of this map).

All of the maps mentioned in this article are widely available for study on the internet and have been reproduced numerous times in books.

What is rather surprising is that the use of Australia on several maps dating back to the 16th century has to date gone unrecognised. Maybe this is due to the fact that collectors of Australian maps have less interest in this period, as it is one which predates maps that document the European exploration of Australia.

Clearly we will need to add a few more names to the cartographic history of Australia.

The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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