The Invention of Terra Australis Incognita

by Corin Braga

Although the explorations of the Renaissance launched a new paradigm in the realm of geographical representations, sanctioning the notion of a cartography that increasingly relied on empirical verification and accurate measurements, the mappae mundi of early modernity perpetuated the “enchanted thinking” of the Middle Ages by positing the existence of a fantastic southern continent, Terra Australis Incognita. On much acclaimed world maps such as those of Ortelius (1570) or Gerardus and Rumold Mercator (1587), but also in the extraordinary or utopian voyages of early modernity (Joseph Hall, Gabriel de Foigny, Denis Veiras, etc.), the hypothetical continent occupied almost all the southern hemisphere, from the South Pole up to the level of Australia.

According to our analysis, there were two theoretical arguments inherited from ancient and medieval cartography that generated the chimera of Terra Australis Incognita: the theory of the antipodes, which stated that a hypothetical continent was located in the southern hemisphere, symmetrically positioned in relation to the northern oecumene, and the theory of isthmuses, which, based on the idea that the mass of earth was dominant in the world, claimed that the Indian Ocean was surrounded by a strip of land uniting Africa and Asia.

When Magellan discovered, during the first circumnavigation of the world, the strait which bears his name, he assumed that the islands to the left, towards the pole, were the protuberances of another continent, which the Renaissance geographers subsequently named Terra Australe Magallanica, Brasilia Regio, Brasilia inferior, Papagalli Terra, etc. Based on the two geographical theories of the southern antipodes and of Ptolemy’s strip of land, this hypothetical land became “Terra Australis recenter inventa, sed nondum plene cognita”, as geographer Oronce Finé put it (1534).

Ptolemy's World Map

Ptolemy’s World Map in [Cosmographia]. Ulm: 1486. Image courtesy of the Renaissance Exploration Map Collection, Stanford Libraries.

Starting from the assumption that earth is dominant on the terrestrial disk, the theory of isthmuses explains one of the oddities of Ptolemy’s maps: the strip of land which unites southern Africa with southern Asia, transforming the Indian Ocean into an inner sea. Even the Atlantic Ocean was enclosed by an artificial strip of explanatory cartouches, in order to suggest that water merely filled the hollows of the terrestrial surface.

[Hémisphère portugais], “Mappa Mundi”

[Hémisphère portugais], “Mappa Mundi” in [Atlas nautique du Monde, dit atlas Miller]. Lopo Homem. 1519. Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

When bi-dimensional maps were projected onto the sphere, the theory of isthmuses produced the image of the terrestrial globe (globe terraqué in French). A curious extension of Ptolemy’s strip of land appears on Lopo Homem’s Mappa mundi of 1519, where the continuity of the southern terrestrial mass of land is secured by the unification of Asia not with Africa (the Portuguese had already circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope), but with South America.

Les Trois Mondes

Les Trois Mondes. La Popelinière. Paris: 1582. Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

For two hundred years, the illusion of the Terra Australis Incognita nourished the fantasies not only of geographers, but also of politicians, explorers, conquistadors, as well as authors of extraordinary and utopian voyages. The French geographer La Popelinière (1582), for example, urged the French monarchs to try and match the huge colonial expansion of the Spaniards by launching expeditions that would enable them to take possession of and colonize this “France Australe”, deemed to be as large as the Old World and the New World combined.

Mundus alter et idem (Another World, and Yet the Same)

Mundus alter et idem (Another World, and Yet the Same). Joseph Hall. Hannover: 1607. Image courtesy of Cornell University Library.

Joseph Hall’s Another World and Yet the Same (1605) is one the first early modern dystopias. The author fancifully locates on the hypothetical Southern Continent a series of burlesque immoral kingdoms: Pamphagonia, Ivronia, Moronia, Viraginia, Lavernia, etc.