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Terra Australis Incognita The intention of the Voyage has in every respect been fully Answered, the Southern Hemisphere sufficiently explored and a final end put to the searching after a Southern Continent, which has at times ingrossed the attention of some of the Maritime Powers for near two Centuries past and the Geographers of all ages. That there may be a Continent or large tract of land near the Pole, I will not deny, on the contrary I am of opinion there is....
Journals of Captain James Cook, 21 February 1775
It is the fourth century B.C. and, in the shaded walkways of the Lyceum in Athens, Aristotle is strolling with his students and discussing what is so obvious to the intellectually curious—the spherical nature of the Earth, as opposed to the flat-disc Earth of the ancient Homeric Greeks. Aristotle's reasons are based on observed fact: the constellations change as a person travels north or south, and during a lunar eclipse the shadow of the Earth that falls on the Moon is always curved. "The sphericity of the Earth," Aristotle concludes, "is proved by the evidence of our senses." It follows—due to that sense of balance, order, and symmetry beloved of the Greeks—that there must also be a land mass in the south to counterbalance the land mass of the north. Such theories, perhaps, the young Alexander had heard a few years earlier when Aristotle had been his tutor at the Macedonian court.
But what of the size of this sphere? A century after Aristotle, in 240 B.C., a brilliant polymath, Eratosthenes, is appointed chief librarian of the Museum atAlexandria—the most cosmopolitan city and center of learning in the Mediterranean world. In an experiment elegant in its simplicity, Eratosthenes sets about calculating the circumference of the Earth. The instruments for this measurement are ingenious: the Sun, a deep well, and a vertical obelisk. Near Syene (Aswan), a town south of Alexandria and some fifty days' camel journey away (about 5,000 stadia), Eratosthenes knows of a deep well where the Sun, at noon on the day of the summer solstice, shines directly down the well shaft without casting a shadow. Knowing that the Sun on the same day in Alexandria does cast a shadow at noon, Eratosthenes reasons that by measuring the shadow cast by a vertical obelisk near the Museum in Alexandria, then calculating the angle of the Sun's rays to the obelisk, he will be able to calculate the Earth's circumference.
When Eratosthenes bends down to measure the length of the shadow, he is measuring the size of the Earth. The angle is nearly 7 1/2 degrees—about one-fiftieth of a circle. Thus the distance between Alexandria and Syene is one-fiftieth of the earth's circumference (50x5,000=250,000 stadia, or 25,000 miles)—very close to the actual polar circumference of 24,860 miles. And so begins, with this imaginative experiment, the science of geodesy—the science of Earth measurement.
A quick spin of the globe and the scene shifts to Spain during the first century A.D. Here a Roman geographer, Pomponius Mela, is borrowing from the works of the Greeks to produce a Latin geography, De situ orbis. Herodotus, Eratosthenes, and Parmenides (a Greek philosopher of the sixth century B.C. who had divided the world into climatic zones) are all incorporated. According to Mela, the northern land mass of Europe, Asia, and Africa is separated by an equatorial ocean from a large southern continent. This is the land of the Antichthones—the people of the opposite world. There are five zones of climate in Mela's world. The equatorial zone is so hot as to be uninhabitable and impassable; the two polar zones are so cold as to be uninhabitable; but between these two dreadful regions there is a northern and a southern temperate zone where life is supportable. The groundwork is being laid for centuries of speculation, myth, and misconception.
"In the second century of the Christian era the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth and the most civilized portion of mankind." So Edward Gibbon, with classical grace, opens his masterpiece The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But if Rome is the political center, the center of learning is still Alexandria. And working among the crowded shelves in the libraries of that bustling city is a scholar by the name of Claudius Ptolemy. He is going to bequeath to posterity a number of volumes and maps which will mark the high tide of classical geographical knowledge. His maps are oriented with the north on the top and the cast to the right—as in modern maps; for the location of towns and cities a coordinate system of lines of latitude and longitude is used; the problem of scale is tackled and Ptolemy has short shrift for his contemporaries and predecessors who enlarged land masses to accommodate place names or shrunk them them to avoid blank areas; squarely grasped is the thorny question of how to draw the curved surface of the world on a flat sheet of parchment; he advises that a small-scale map of the world should be supplemented with larger-scale regional maps. In short, Ptolemy is advocating the layout of a modern atlas. Calculating distances is a grave problem and he suggests an astrolabe or gnomon for measuring the Sun's altitude and thereby giving the latitude for north and south distances. But it will be centuries before the problem of longitude—the east to west distance—is solved. An annoyance to Ptolemy are travelers' estimates of distance. These, according to the vexed geographer, are unreliable, as due to "their love of boasting they magnify distances." Ptolemy, in brief, is attempting to place the elements of geography and cartography on a rational scientific footing. But in doing so he is selecting and synthesizing other people's information. Inevitably there are mistakes, and his two massive volumes, one on astronomy and the other on geography, contain a number of errors which will have a profound effect upon later European thought and exploration.
In the third century B.C. Aristarchus of Samos had proposed a theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Ptolemy, however, selects the Aristotlean concept of a geocentric universe, with the Sun revolving around the Earth. It is a theory that will accord well with Christian dogma. And the residue left by the other errors will clog the perceptions of European exploration until well into the eighteenth century. Oddly enough, Ptolemy does not choose to use Eratosthenes' estimate of the size of the Earth, but chooses instead the calculations of the Greek astronomer Poseidonius, whose figures make the Earth three-quarters its true size. The Mediterranean on this smaller Earth stretches too far west, and south of the equator Africa stretches east to join with China and so makes the Indian Ocean an inland sea. The mass of land to the south is terra incognita. Here then, with supreme irony, are the seeds of the two major misconceptions that formed the premise for two of the world's great voyages. The combined errors of a smaller world and an extended Mediterranean will lead Christopher Columbus to believe that the distance from the Canaries to Japan is only twenty-four hundred miles—it is over ten thousand. And the persistence of the terra incognita in the south will send James Cook off on the second of his great voyages around the world.
St. Basil, in the fourth century A.D., sets the tone for the spirit of the new Christian age: "Of what importance is it to know whether the Earth is a sphere, a cylinder, a disc or a concave surface? What is important is to know how I should conduct myself towards myself, towards my fellow man and towards God."
In 391, a few years after St. Basil's death, we watch, with an Olympian shrug of the shoulders, a Christian mob looting and destroying the pagan temples and centers of learning in Alexandria. It is the dawn of a thousand years of Christian dogma that is to cripple any free inquiry into the workings of the natural world. Gibbon will comment sadly that the empty shelves in the libraries "excited the regret and indignation of every spectator whose mind was not totally darkened by religious prejudice." Ptolemy's works—and others of that intellectually spacious Hellenistic world—sink quietly into the slough of intolerance. Theology is all, and the explanation of all phenomena can be found in the Scriptures. The world reverts to the flat-disc theory of the ancient Greeks. For does not the Lord "sitteth upon the circle of the Earth" and "stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in" (Isaiah 40:22)? Jerusalem is the center of this disc, for "I have set it in the midst of the nations and the countries that are round about her" (Ezekiel 5:5). And any suggestion of a southern continent is stomped upon with ecclesiastical severity. In 741 Pope Zacharias excommunicates an Irish priest who has the temerity to preach such a doctrine. "For it would be admitting the existence of souls who shared neither the sin of Adam nor the redemption of Christ." Further, the Apostles had been commanded to "go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). They had not gone to the antipodes; therefore the antipodes could not exist. Terra australis incognita was heresy. On such ideaological thinking a future librarian of the Royal Geographical Society would pass this summary judgment: "It is an unedifying story."
But religion has not yet finished with the Alexandrian centers of learning. Another monotheistic faith is soon to sweep through Egypt, along the coast of North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula: Islam has burst forth from its narrow desert confines. The Islamic general who captures Alexandria asks the Syrian Caliph Omar what are his wishes for the remaining libraries. "If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of God," replies the Caliph, "they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed." The Caliph's Catch-22. And destroyed they were—to heat the public baths. But Ptolemy's works, buffeted by the zealots of both religions, survive and are translated into Arabic. And Islam becomes the custodian and caretaker of much classical learning.
For the lighthearted, however, all is not unrelieved theological gloom. During the Middle Ages one of the most popular books is the Polyhistor of a third-century Roman, Gaius Julius Solinus. Borrowing shamelessly from the Roman naturalist Pliny—Solinus is mockingly known as "Pliny's ape"—and with fabulous additions of his own as to the animals and strange humans that inhabit the world, the Polyhistor is to have a lasting influence on the slumbering cartography of the Middle Ages, if only to provide decorative entertainment. One incensed nineteenth-century geographer, C. R. Beazley, would fulminate regarding Solinus's influence on medieval geography that: "no one ever influenced it more profoundly or more mischievously.'
The thirteenth-century Hereford Map is an ecclesiastical and decorative example of this mischievous influence. The Earth is a circular disc with Jerusalem at its center. The Garden of Eden is located, as well as Noah's Ark. And the lands and islands are peopled with fabulous Solinus creatures. Here are the dog-headed men, the "cenocephali"; here is a horse-footed man, a "hippopod"; here is a man with long ears reaching to his knees; here are cannibals, the "anthropophagi," munching away on limbs; here are men with heads in the middle of their chests; and here are, perhaps most enchanting of all, the "ymantopedes," men with one leg who hop and somersault about and whose feet are so big that they use them as a shade against the sun or shelter against the rain. All is not myth, however, for here also is a drawing of a man holding a long stick and wearing long flat boards on his feet: the first known drawing of skis.
A man very familiar with skis, Fridtjof Nansen, echoing the Royal Geographical Society's librarian, would offer this acid comment on the church's influence on medieval thought: "This was the intellectual food which replaced the science of the Greeks. Truly the course of the human race has its alterations of height and depths."
But the tide is turning. In 1407, to counter the wheel maps of the medieval age, there surface in Europe—via Constantinople—Ptolemy's works on geography and astronomy. Another translation is made, this time from the Arabic into Latin, and within two years these works and maps are available to European scholars. A few years later Prince Henry of Portugal, "Henry the Navigator," founds a school of navigation at Sagres. And from here, overlooking the ceaseless surge of the Atlantic at the westernmost limit of continental Europe, the Portuguese caravels are directed on their extraordinary voyages of exploration.
Souls and spices are an unlikely recipe for exploration. But it is the search for a sailing route to the Spice Islands of the Moluccas, combined with zeal to convert the heathen, that is the driving motive behind these voyages. And also the adamantine will of Prince Henry. For his chosen captains show a certain pusillanimity at being ordered to sail into Solinus-like regions where oceans boil and monsters lurk to devour foolhardy mariners and sink their vessels. But prodded by the visionary Prince, supported by faith, and sustained by a diet of salted meat, salted fish, garlic, olive oil, beans, biscuits, and flour, these tough and resourceful seamen range down the coast of Africa and into the Indian Ocean on their search for cloves, nutmeg, mace, pepper, ginger, cinnamon, and souls.
By 1487 Bartholomew Diaz has rounded the tip of Africa, and a decade later Vasco da Gama has reached India. Ptolemy's landlocked Indian Ocean is a myth. While the Portuguese have been scouting the coast of Africa for a passage east to the Indies, a self-confident and glib-tongued Genoese is persuading the Spanish—having been rebuffed by the Portuguese—to finance an expedition to sail west to the Indies. Based on Ptolemy's maps, and with judicious juggling of figures to salt the mine, Christopher Columbus estimates that it is only twenty-four hundred miles from the Canaries to Cipangu (Japan). It is ten thousand miles: the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1493 this scramble for gain by the two Iberian powers leads Alexander VI—that most worldly of Popes—to issue, with sublime arrogance and pontifical omniscience, a papal bull dividing the world between Spain and Portugal. The dividing line for this stupendous carve-up is set 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. After some acerbic haggling between the two beneficiaries, the final dividing line is settled, signed, and sealed by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. The new line is set 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. All new discoveries to the west are Spanish, all to the east are Portuguese. Not even the nineteenth-century European scramble for Africa, the American move west, or the Russian move east can compare with this colossal real estate effrontery.
Straddling like Apollyon across the way, the New World is to prove a more formidable barrier than Africa to the riches of the Indies. In 1513 a Spanish conquistador, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, marches across the Isthmus at Panama and gazes at the Pacific. In a dramatic gesture—in an age of dramatic gestures—Balboa wades into the ocean and claims for Spain all lands washed by its shores. The sea he names the South Sea. In 1520 the seeingly impenetrable bulwarks of the American continent are breached by Ferdinand Magellan and the discovery of his eponymous Strait. It is to take thirty-seven days for Magellan's three vessels to thread their way through the Strait. The land to the south they name Tierra del Fuego; but they are uncertain if this is part of a large land mass or merely an island. Only one vessel, the leaking, stinking, and barnacle-encrusted Victoria, returns to Spain. And eighteen scurvy-ridden seamen, barefooted, dressed in rags, faces hidden by matted hair and beards, stagger in file carrying lighted candles to the Convent of Santa Maria de la Vitoria in Triana. There they give thanks for their safe deliverance, pray for the souls of their dead companions and Ferdinand Magellan, and give penance "for having eaten flesh on Fridays and celebrated the feast of Easter on Mondays, due to their having lost a day in their reckoning." These penitents, the first men to circumnavigate the world, had been caught in the time warp of crossing the dateline. Nevertheless, flat-earth churchmen and the dogmas of faith prove hardy beasts. Centuries later, in 1898, Joshua Slocum in the Spray, sailing on the first single-handed circumnavigation, will entertain three Boers in Durban sent by President Kruger of the Transvaal to test the validity Slocum's outrageous claim that he is sailing around the world. They will argue to no purpose. Later in the day Slocum will pass one of these gentlemen on the street and make a curving motion with his hands; not to be outdone, the fundamentalist will return with a flat and level movement of his.
In 1578, Sir Francis Drake, that pugnacious, spade-bearded, and archetypal fighting Elizabethan seaman—or pirate, depending upon your nationality—thumbs his nose at the Treaty of Tordesillas and slips through the Strait of Magellan in sixteen days. After entering the Pacific he is blown south and east by storm-force winds. The winds easing, he sails north and west to make a landing on—or near—the island that boasts Cape Horn. Here Drake, in typical cocky fashion, lies down on his stomach, stretches his arms and torso over the steep face of the cape, and claims, with an urchin grin, that he is the southernmost man in the world. South of his outstretched arms lies a glittering sea. Here "the uttermost Cape or hedland ... stands in 56 degree ... without which there is no maine nor Iland to be seen to the Southwards, but that the Atlanticke Ocean and the South Sea, meete in a most large and free scope." Today that body of turbulent water stretching from Cape Horn to the Antarctic is known as Drake's Passage. In 1919 the International Oceanographic Conference of London will fix on the meridian of Cape Horn as the boundary between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Drake, no doubt, would be wondering why it had taken so long.
What are the cartographers to make of these Spanish, Portuguese and English voyages? In 1531, a French mathematician, Oronce Fine, publishes an elegant map of the world where Magellan's Tierra del Fuego forms part of a huge southern continent confidently named Terra australis recenter invento sed nondum plene cognita—"the southern land newly discovered but not yet fully known." In 1570 Abraham Ortelius publishes his magnificent Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World). This collection of seventy maps eventually runs to forty editions. As in Fine's map, Tierra del Fuego is shown as part of a vast southern continent, a mass of land with a coastline sweeping majestically around the earth, complete with headlands, capes, bays, inlets, and rivers. A year previous to the publication of the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, a friend of Ortelius and fellow cartographer had published a map of the world with a revolutionary new projection. Gerhardus Mercator—born Gerhard Kremer—produced this new type of map for the use of seamen: it was entitled a New and improved Description of the World amended and intended for the Use of Navigators. But another century will pass before seamen, being cautious conservative folk, fully appreciate the practicality of a chart where, for the first time, they can plot a course to a distant landfall with a straight line.
Mercator and Ortelius published their maps in the Low Countries. A decade after their appearance, the stolid burghers of those watery lands declare their independence from Spain and the loathed Spanish Inquisition. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had seen the caravels, carracks, and galleons of the two Iberian kingdoms carving furrows across the world's oceans. The seventeenth century is to belong to the mercantile Dutch, who, in their seaworthy flyte and armed jacht, oust the Portuguese and the English from the East Indies. The Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company), founded in 1602, is the formidable company—virtually an arm of the government—that monopolizes the Dutch East India trade. This formidable company, before its dissolution in 1798, is to lay the foundations for the Dutch overseas possessions and etch on the world's maps the islands of the East Indies and the north, south, and west coasts of New Holland (Australia).
The Company, formed for trade and not for exploration, lays down laws for Dutch merchants that only Company ships may sail to the East Indies for trade, going either round the Cape of Good Hope or through the Strait of Magellan. The legislators, perhaps, have been influenced by those maps showing Tierra del Fuego as part of Terra australis incognita. One man believes otherwise. Isaac le Maire, a founder member of the V.O.C., has grown rich—and disenchanted—with the Company. Monopolist companies breed within them men who become stifled by the giant they have created. Such a man was le Maire.
The Strait of Magellan was banned to all but Company ships. Therefore, reasons le Maire, create a new company—Australische Compagnie—and look for a passage to the Indies south of the Strait. Drake's headland where "the Atlanticke Ocean and the South Sea ... meete in a most large and free scope" might be no more than seamen's tavern gossip. But there could be truth in it.
In June 1615 two vessels lie at anchor off Texel in the Netherlands: the 220-ton Eendracht, commanded by Wilhelm Cornelius Schouten, and a 110-ton jacht, the Hoorn, commanded by Jan Cornelius Schouten. In overall command of the Australische Compagnie expedition is Jacob le Maire, old Isaac's son. The Hoorn is to be lost by fire on the Patagonian coast; but on 29 January 1616 the Eendracht rounds and names the southernmost cape of Tierra del Fuego and sails from the Atlantic into the Pacific. Schouten writes in his log: "Cape Hoorn in 57 [degrees] 48'S. Rounded 8 p.m." With this laconic entry the fearsome cape makes its debut into nautical tale, legend, and saga.
The Dutch voyage jolts the Spanish into a galvanic reaction to this end run around their precious Strait of Magellan. With commendable speed the Spanish India Office orders two tough, battle-hardened, and sagacious brothers, Bartoleme and Gonzalo Garcia de Nodal, to the command of two 80-ton caravels. Their crew are impressed Portuguese and the two brothers sail from Lisbon during September of 1618 carrying orders to either prove or disprove the Dutch voyage around the end of South America. They can, of course, only confirm the truth of it. But, driven by gales away from Cape Horn, they discover, on 12 February 1619, a desolate group of islands that lie fifty-six miles south-southwest of the cape. Islas Diego Ramirez are named after the expedition's cosmographer. These bleak, wind- and wave-battered islands are to be the most southerly recorded land for a 156 years. The cartographers dutifully adjust their world maps to show the new passage into the South Sea; and the shores of Terra australis incognita inch south.
Twenty-six years after the rounding of Cape Horn, two more Dutch ships sail from Batavia (Djakarta). This is no maverick expedition, but one that sails under the flag of the Dutch East India Company. It is part of a comprehensive plan to discover "the Southern portion of the world all round the globe, and to find out what it consists of, whether land, sea, or icebergs, and all that God has ordained there." The architects of this expedition are Anthony Van Diemen, the great governor-general of Batavia, and Frans Jocobszoon Visscher, the most brilliant of the Dutch East India pilots. The two vessels are the jacht Heemskerch and the flyte Zeehaen. In command is Abel Janszoon Tasman, with Visscher as "pilot major."
On 13 August 1642 Tasman is issued his instructions and the two ships sail next day, bound for the Dutch possession of Mauritius. The instructions are enlightened ones. The natives of any land discovered are to be treated with courtesy and the Dutch are counseled to "be patient and long-suffering, no ways quick to fly out." This admirable advice, however, is not to affect a certain amount of dissembling on the part of the Dutch. This is, after all, a commercial venture. There is canny advice to Tasman that if the natives "offer you gold or silver in exchange for your articles, you will pretend to hold the same in slight regard, showing them copper, pewter, or lead and giving them an impression as if the minerals last mentioned were by us set greater value on."
The two ships spend a month at Mauritius outfitting for their voyage south. The plan is to sail south to between 52 and 54 degrees south latitude and search for land; if no land is discovered, to run east to the longitude of the eastern extremity of New Guinea, then north to elucidate questions raised by Dutch and Spanish voyages. There is also a contingency plan to continue sailing east to the coast of Chile. Here the gold- and silver-bearing provinces of Chile and Peru exert a double allure to the Dutch: they can satisfy their hunger for precious metals and have the satisfaction of tweaking the beards of the hated Spanish.
Loaded with their cargo of trade goods, by early November they reach latitude 49 [degrees] 4'S. Snow, hail, gales, and the cold felt by the crew force a return to more temperate latitudes, and they run their easting down in 44 [degrees] S. Toward the end of November land is sighted and by 1 December they come to anchor in a protected bay. The land is named Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). No inhabitants are seen, but traces of them exist, for cut into the tree trunks are notches spaced five feet apart. These natives could be giants. In truth they are not giants; but the descendants of these shy natives quietly watching the Dutch are to have a melancholy history. Their story is terrible and shameful. Tasmania would be settled by the British in 1803 as a penal colony, and the natives, displaced from their ancestral lands, would fight back with their primitive weapons. One settler wrote: "The natives have been very troublesome and treacherous ... the only alternative now is, if they do not become friendly, to annihilate them at once." In 1830 Tasmania would be put under martial law and the pogrom started. This included a massive sweep of the island, with a line of armed settlers attempting to drive the natives, like a herd of game, into the cul-de-sac of the Tasman Peninsula. Needless to say, most of the natives, with their superior fieldcraft, managed to avoid the blundering British. But the settlers won in the end—removing the natives to Flinders Island in the Bass Strait. The last pure-blooded native died in 1876.
Tasman's stay is short. By 4 December the two ships sail from this land that is "not cultivated but growing wild by the will of God" and continue their easterly course.
On 13 December more land is sighted. It proves to be a cloud-capped, mountainous one, with surf beating in a white fringe along its shores. Sailing along this inhospitable-looking coast they eventually reach a low-lying shore that offers hope of a protected anchorage. At sunset on 18 December the two vessels are anchored. An hour later, twinkling in the evening shadows, lights are seen on shore, and then two canoes slip from the shore to the ships. They stop a short distance off, call out to the Dutch in an unknown language, and blow what sounds to the Dutch like a Moorish trumpet. The Dutch shout back and, not to be outdone, play European instruments. This impromptu concert reaches its finale with the fall of darkness. So ends the first contact between Europeans and the Maoris of New Zealand.
The natives of Van Diemen's Land had proved shy, elusive, and mysterious. The following day the natives of this new land are to prove of a different kidney. The next morning the Dutch find themselves encircled by canoes. Suddenly, without warning, one of the larger canoes, the natives furiously paddling, rams into a launch carrying a message between the two ships. In a frenzy of violence, four of the launch's crew are clubbed to death. The piacevole overtures of the previous evening have been replaced by the feroce chords of an all too familiar tragedy. The two ships weigh anchor and sail from this ill-fated refuge, which the Dutch name Murderers' Bay, and for three weeks coast north along the shores of the land they have named Staten Land. Contrary winds prevent them following the land when it trends east and Tasman sails north deeper into the Pacific. The expedition finally returns to Batavia ten months after leaving. The Directors of the company receive the news of his discoveries with marked unenthusiasm. The voyage has brought no trade or profit and, sniff the Directors, Tasman "had been to some extent remiss in investigating the situation, conformation and nature of the lands and peoples discovered, and left the main part of this task to be executed by some more inquisitive successor."
Nevertheless, Tasman's voyage has sliced off a great segment from the coastline of Terra australis incognita. And the world is to wait eighty-five years before the birth of the inquisitive successor.
The year of Tasman's discoveries, 1642, sees the death of Galileo Galilei astronomer, mathematician, physicist, and founder of experimental science. A few years earlier Galileo had been forced by the Inquisition to abjure, on his knees, his heretical views that the Earth moves around the Sun. Legend has it that after making his recantation and while rising to his feet, he murmured sotto voce "E pur si mouve" (nevertheless it does move). 1642 is also the year of the birth of Isaac Newton. The blinkered vision of the Jesuit priests and the narrow byways of Christian dogma are to be illuminated by a new age of scientific inquiry.
In 1660, at a meeting in London, a group of inquiring and learned gentlemen found a society for "Physico-Mathematical Experimentall Learning." The nascent Royal Society is symptomatic of an age when the advances in mathematics, optics, and astronomy lead to improvements in navigation that will be pivotal for exploration in the next century. But practical advances go hand in hand with speculation. Tasman's account of his voyage is printed in English in 1694, and three years later William Dampier's New Voyage Round the World—dedicated to the President of the Royal Society—is published and, such is its success, runs to three editions within a few months.
Dampier's portrait hangs in the London National Portrait Gallery. It shows a rather morose face with heavy underlip and brooding eyes. Underneath is the legend Captain William Dampier: Pirate and Hydrographer—an intriguing title which is to give generations of children a hint of romance and adventure among the more earnest and stuffier figures of British history. Buccaneer he was—but also a man with a scientific bent and an inquiring eighteenth-century mind under the seventeenth-century Carolean fall of hair. In 1699 Dampier publishes his Discourse of Winds, Breezes, Storms, Tides and Currents in the Torrid Zones, a work which is to receive the praise of yet unborn seamen such as Cook and Nelson. Dampier's publisher, having a keen nose for his public and with the sweet smell of the successful Voyage lingering in his nostrils, brings out further volumes of voyages by buccaneers.
The spate of journals fuels the speculations of academics as to the size, shape, location, inhabitants, and possible trade with Terra australis incognita An age's literature reflects its fads, fashions, and concerns; it is no wonder, then, that Swift's Lilliput is located to the northwest of Van Diemen's Land. Swift—no mean pricker of sententious balloons—turns his keen eye and sharp pen on the authors of these weighty leather-bound volumes of geographic speculation. Swift takes deadly aim with his Project for the Universal Benefit of Mankind. "The author," he writes, "having laboured so long, and done so much, to serve and instruct the public, without any advantage to himself, has at last thought of a project, which will tend to the great benefit of all mankind, and produce a handsome revenue to the author. He intends to print by subscription, in 96 large volumes in folio, an exact description of Terra australis incognita collected with great care and pain from 999 learned and pious authors, of undoubted veracity.... This work will be a great use for all men, and necessary for all families, because it contains exact accounts of all the provinces, colonies, and mansions of that spacious country, where, by a general doom, all transgressors of the law are to be transported....'
From our Olympian viewpoint, the full, ripe maturity of Terra australis incognita is approaching: from Ptolemy's egg, through larva, through pupa to a most beautifully realized, if flawed, imago. But, as in the life cycle of the loveliest of butterflies, the final elegant imago stage is also the most fleeting. One of the creators of this closely reasoned chimera is Alexander Dalrymple. A portrait of Dalrymple in middle age shows him to be of corpulent figure with petulant lips, beefy face, and choleric eyes that glare accusingly at the viewer. This is a Scot with a grievance, and one who will nurse it to keep it warm. Dalrymple admitted to being "priggishly precise," an attribute admirable in the Admiralty's first Hydrographer—for this he became in 1795—but not one to smooth and lubricate the vagaries of personal relationships.
Born into a distinguished legal and political Scottish family, Dalrymple enters into the East India Company's service in 1752 and at the age of fifteen is sent out to Madras. The East entrances him. Here, for the next thirteen years, with indefatigable zeal he rummages the libraries for charts and details of the spice trade and Pacific voyages. Geography, discovery, and astronomy are all grist to his powerful intellect. And with the industry, energy, and collecting ability worthy of the Australian bowerbird, Dalrymple builds an entrancing hypothetical structure for a huge, fertile, and populous unknown southern continent. Founded, walled, and buttressed with material from Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch voyages, and roofed by apparently unassailable logic borrowed from French academics, it is an imposing structure.
In 1765 Dalrymple, now a Fellow of the Royal Society, returns to England. In 1767 he prints An Account of the Discoveries made in the South Pacific Ocean Previous to 1764, followed in 1770 and 1771 by the two volumes of A Historical Collection of Voyages ... in the South Pacific Ocean. Here is contained all his research and his case for a huge unknown continent in the South Pacific. Its northern coastline lies somewhere close to 28 [degrees] S latitude, and at 40 [degrees] S latitude the land stretches through 100 [degrees] of longitude, or 4,596 geographic miles, "a greater extent than the whole civilized part of Asia, from Turkey eastward to the extremity of China."
The advocate in Dalrymple argues that trade with a continent of this size can replace trade with those two million ungrateful wretches in the American colonies. For without a doubt there must live in this great southern continent at least fifty million inhabitants, and "the scraps from this table would be sufficient to maintain the power, dominion, and sovereignty of Britain by employing all its manufacturers and ships." The reason that no one has discovered this continent and all its glories is due to the pusillanimous behavior of some of the explorers. A new Columbus, a new Magellan, is needed and Dalrymple considers himself well fitted to the task. His chance is to come.
Dalrymple's return to England coincides with a time when the scientific gentlemen of Europe are greatly excited by the approaching transit of Venus across the disc of the sun. Sir Isaac Newton's theory that the Earth is not a perfect sphere but bulges at the equator has been confirmed by two French expeditions to measure the arc of a meridian in Peru and Lapland. The circumference of the Earth, it is calculated, is some forty-two miles shorter along a polar circumference than along the equatorial circumference.
The transit of Venus, however, transcends the measurement of earthly things, for it concerns the first step in the measuring of the solar system and the universe—the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Edmond Halley, a half century earlier, had predicted, proposed, and urged that the two transits of Venus on 6 June 1761 and 3 June 1769 should be measured from widely separated observation stations set around the Earth. The next opportunities would not come until 1874 and 1882, followed by 2004 and 2012 Halley knew that he would never live to see the eighteenth-century transits, but wished the astrononers all imaginable success. A hundred twenty observers from nine nations gaze into the heavens on 6 June 1761. But the hazards of travel, war, weather, and inadequate instruments prove formidable stumbling blocks, and when the results of the observations are compiled the answer proves unsatisfactory. There is still 1769; and it is to this transit that the Royal Society bends its considerable prestige influence and patronage.
The Society, with a certain degree of urgency, appoints a Transit Committee who in turn recommend that observers be sent to Hudson Bay, the North Cape, and into the Pacific. The Astronomer Royal, the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne, suggests a trapezium-shaped area in the Pacific for the best observation site. Lying between latitudes 5 [degrees] S and 35 [degrees] S and longitudes 172 [degrees] E to 124 [degrees] W in the north, and 139 [degrees] W to 172 [degrees] W in the south, it is in the area of Dalrymple's interests; indeed, part of the trapezium overlaps Dalrymple's unknown southern continent. And the Royal Society think that Mr. Dalrymple is a proper person to send to the South Seas, being "an able Navigator and well skilled in Observation." Maskelyne, meanwhile, is interviewing other candidates who are eager to observe the transit. Mr. Charles Green is willing to go south at 300 [pounds sterling] per annum and expenses; Mr. William Wales to a warm climate on the same terms. Green does indeed go south, but poor Wales is sent to shiver in Hudson Bay. But Mr. Green's and Mr. Wales's conditions pale beside those of Mr. Dalrymple. They are nothing less than the absolute command of a King's ship and the selection of all the officers; and "if in the common course of accident" he should lose this ship before the arrival in the South Seas, the government had to undertake to provide another. Simple terms, according to Dalrymple, but the only ones that would satisfy him. In this matter he has the backing of the Royal Society and of a certain Mr. Adam Smith, a fellow Scot, a philosopher, and an emerging figure in the field of economics. It is also patently obvious that for Dalrymple the transit of Venus is of secondary importance to the primary one of finding his great southern continent. In a letter to the Society's Secretary, breathtaking in its condescension, Dalrymple notes that "Wherever I am in June 1769 I shall most certainly not let slip an opportunity of making an Observation so important to science as that of the Transit of Venus." The new Magellan, the new Columbus, is laying down his terms.
But these terms are fit to choke their Lordships in the Admiralty who are providing the ship and crew for the South Seas voyage. The First Lord, Sir Edward Hawke, swears that he would suffer his right hand to be chopped off rather than sign such a commission. Their Lordships' sentiments are made known to the Royal Society; Dalrymple sticks fast to his demands—an untenable position—and refuses to serve under any but his conditions. The new Magellan, the new Columbus, loses his chance and Sir Edward Hawke saves his right hand.
The Royal Society resigns itself to providing advice, instruments, and Mr. Green as an observer, and the young and wealthy Mr. Joseph Banks—complete with an entourage of eight persons and two greyhounds—to study the natural history of the Pacific Islands and lands. Their Lordships quietly congratulate themselves and appoint an obscure master in the Royal Navy—now raised to the rank of lieutenant—to command their exploration vessel bound into the South Seas. The Endeavour and James Cook are about to enter history.
In hindsight Cook appears to be the obvious and logical choice. But in that April of 1768, a scant few days after the small east-coast collier Earl of Pembroke had been purchased by the Admiralty for 2,800 [pounds sterling] and renamed the Endeavour, there were few men who would have lighted on the name of James Cook as her commander. It was, perhaps, the English equivalent of Kirke Simpson's "smoke filled room" and an instance of the singular English way of arriving at decisions commented upon by another American, Henry Thoreau: "The government of the world I live in was not formed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversation over the wine." Cook was indeed known to the Royal Society—he was appointed by them as the second observer with Green—for his observations of the 1776 eclipse of the Sun while surveying the coasts of Newfoundland; and had earned the Society's acknowledgement that he was "a good mathematician and very expert in his business." And in the Admiralty he was much esteemed by a handful of knowledgeable administrators for his impeccable surveys of the Labrador, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and St. Lawrence coastlines. One administrator, Philip Stevens, Secretary to the Admiralty, can be credited with suggesting Cook's name from the dozens of qualified candidates. He was backed in his choice by Newfoundland's Governor—another Royal Navy man—Sir Hugh Palliser.
On 20 May 1768 Captain Samuel Wallis and the Dolphin anchor in the Downs after a circumnavigation that has taken 637 days. He brings news of the discovery of a new island within Maskelyne's Pacific trapezium. The geographical position of King George III's Island (Tahiti) was accurately fixed at latitude 17 [degrees] 30'S and longitude 150 [degrees] W. The longitude was arrived at by "taking the Distance of the Sun from the Moon and Working it according to Dr Masculine's Method which we did not understand." Wallis's description of the island, the inhabitants, and the position persuades the Royal Society and the Admiralty that here is the ideal site for the observation of the transit of Venus.
The Endeavour sails from Plymouth on 26 August 1768. Packed on board are ninety-four souls, provisions for over eighteen months, spare blocks, canvas, spars, cordage, and the finest instruments available for taking astronomical observations of the transit. The Endeavour, like a space shuttle, is launched on her mission. The instructions for this mission, signed by their Lordships on 30 July, enjoin Cook to sail for Tahiti, set up his observatory, and measure the transit. "When this Service is perform'd," continue their Lordships, "you are to put to Sea without Loss of Time, and carry into execution the Additional Instructions contained in the inclosed Sealed Packet."
The sealed packet addresses the question of Dalrymple's great southern continent. Some of the crew of the Dolphin thought they had seen, south of Tahiti and at sunset, the tops of mountains. Could those evanescent peeks be part of the Southern Continent? Their Lordships, pragmatic men, are circumspect in approaching this subject: "Whereas there is reason to imagine that a Continent or Land of great extent, may be found to the Southward of the Tract lately made by Captn. Wallis in His Majesty's Ship the Dolphin (of which you will herewith receive a Copy) or of the Tract of any former Navigators in Pursuits of the like kind"; having got this off their chests, their Lordships continue in the time-hallowed phraseology of the Admiralty and Cook is "hereby requir'd and directed to put to Sea with the Bark you command so soon as the Observation of the Transit of the Planet Venus shall be finished and observe the following Instructions."
The instructions are a model of their kind—concise, precise, but not too restrictive. They had been drafted with care.
You are to proceed to the southward in order to make discovery of the Continent above-mentioned until you arrive in the Latitude of 40 [degrees], unless you sooner fall in with it. But not having discover'd it or any Evident signs of it in that Run, you are to proceed in search of it to the Westward between the Latitude before mentioned and the Latitude of 35 [degrees] until you discover it, or fall in with the Eastern side of the Land discover'd by Tasman and now called New Zealand.
If Cook does fall in with the continent, he is to survey the coastline; note the products of seas, rivers, and land, the wildlife, the minerals; and bring back specimens of the seeds of trees, fruits, and plants. Any natives are to be treated with friendship tempered with caution. No continent being discovered, he is to explore and survey the coastline of New Zealand, reprovision at some known port, and return to England round either the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn.
Three years later, mission accomplished, the weather-beaten Endeavour anchors in the Downs and Cook repairs to London to lay before the Admiralty the reports of the voyage. It is an astonishing account. Here are contained adventures and perils, romantic islands, and near-disastrous shipwreck. The transit of Venus has been observed; great slices have been taken off any theoretical southern continent; five thousand miles of new coastline have been surveyed, with New Zealand and the east coast of Australia firmly marked on the world's maps. Their Lordships are extremely gratified, as is the Royal Society. Never has any expedition brought back so many samples of natural history: over a thousand new plants, hundreds of new fish species, skins of birds, skins of mammals, and "Insects innumberable." If the sailors in the Admiralty and the learned gentlemen of the Royal Society are well pleased with this bounty, the flighty levels of London society are enraptured with the tales of the native Tahitians and their compliant womenfolk. Oh, how appropriate it is that this is the island where Venus was observed! And there is much salacious whispering behind fluttering fans on the amatory adventures of the young Mr. Banks.
As well as providing titillating gossip, Banks brings to London skins of the kangaroo. And George Stubbs—the celebrated painter of horses—exhibits a painting of this strange creature at the Royal Academy. It is, perhaps, this painting, or talking with Banks, that encourages Dr. Samuel Johnson, during his tour with Boswell of the Highlands and Hebrides, after a good dinner, to demonstrate to the assembled company the appearance and habits of this curious animal. Standing erect, gathering his coat to imitate the pouch, and then putting his hands out like feelers, the grave Doctor takes vigorous bounds across the room. One would have liked to be there. Johnson's views on the "insects innumberable" brought back by Banks are less complimentary: the Doctor thinks that there are insects enough in England for study.
But amidst all the acclaim for this historic voyage, one dissenting voice can be heard. Alexander Dalrymple considers that Cook lacked perseverence in his attempts to find the southern continent. The strength of Dalrymple's spleen can be measured in an example from his writings. Indignant italics spatter the page like ink spots from a hard-pressed quill pen. "The point," fulminates the incandescent Dalrymple, "is not yet determined whether there is or is not a SOUTHERN CONTINENT? Although four voyages have been made under their auspices [the Admiralty's], at the same time I dare appeal, even to them, that I would not have come back in Ignorance." Dalrymple had constructed his southern continent—his bowerbird structure—with gleanings from many sources. But in the bowerbird world a rival can appear who can trample down the elegant structure.
There were indeed vast unexplored areas of the ocean that could still contain a southern continent. And Cook, unknown to Dalrymple, was quietly formulating a plan to either find it or dispose of it. Thomas Huxley, a century after the Endeavour voyage, would write that one of the great tragedies of science is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact. The beautiful hypothesis of Terra australis incognita, centuries old, was about to meet its fate.
OVERLEAF: World map by Abraham Ortellus, From Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Antwerp, 1570
|List of Maps|
|I||Terra Australis Incognita||3|
|II||The Haven-Finding Art||22|
|III||The Plague of the Sea||35|
|IV||The Southern Ocean||53|
|V||Edmond Halley and the Pink Paramore||69|
|VI||Mr. James Cook||86|
|VII||The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure||109|
|VIII||The Continent Discovered||146|
|IX||Weddell and Brisbane Sail South||186|
|X||Weddell and the Fuegians||216|
|XI||John Biscoe: The Third Circumnavigation||240|
|XII||Kemp and Balleny: The Last Discoveries by Sealers||259|