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Edited extract from Avan Judd Stallard, Antipodes: In Search of the Southern Continent, Monash University Publishing, Nov 2016.

As both an intellectual curiosity and an article of wisdom, the concept of Antipodes
passed from Greek to Roman to Christian scholars. That this knowledge still retained currency at the turn of the sixteenth century is because, in the early modern period, ancient knowledge was venerated for its antiquity and pedigree. Wherever new could be reconciled with old, it was. What is more, as a new age was dawning—the Age of Discovery— ancient cosmographical reckonings became increasingly important, for they seemed to offer ready hints as to the composition of an earth full of surprises.

With geographical horizons expanding at a dizzying pace through the series of remarkable maritime discoveries that mark the start of the early modern period, what the world looked like and how one might profit from that knowledge became central pursuits of cosmographers, cartographers, kings and queens, explorers and entrepreneurs alike. New worlds were opening up and, for those driven to make sense of it all, the idea of Antipodes became a crucial tool as they set about organising the chaos of geographical fragments foisted upon them into some sort of cosmographic order.

During this period empirical data was eagerly sought after, but it must be kept in mind that these early cartographers, cosmographers, raconteurs and entrepreneurs operated in a paradigm where conjecture and adherence to tradition was an accepted part of intellectual culture ... The rigid delineation between the verifiable and empirical on the one hand, and the conjectural and unfalsifiable on the other—so common and important in modern times—simply did not exist in earlier times.

Because cosmography rapidly became the obsession of a dawning era, the ancient concept of Antipodes was eagerly appropriated to bring order and holism to a confused image of the globe. Of course, this early willingness to embrace the concept of a southern continent could easily have been jettisoned before it became entrenched as a part of the new global reality. There were other ideas about the composition of the earth, and however strong the desire to venerate ancient knowledge, patently fanciful constructs demanded no devotion. That the southern continent did demand devotion, that this cosmographic construct did not fritter away as so many antique curiosities, is due to an event of unparalleled fortuity—the single most important event in the history of the mythical southern continent.

In 1519 a stubborn explorer named Ferdinand Magellan persisted in the face of mutiny and disaster to execute a voyage that proved the existence of a passage south of the Americas connecting the Atlantic and Pacific. That passage, known from that point as the Straits of Magellan, was flanked by the American mainland to the north and some hitherto unknown land to the south. It was exactly as cosmographical conjecture had supposed, proof positive, it seemed, that the ancients had indeed possessed insight beyond their paltry geographical horizons. It was considered confirmation of the existence of a magnificent southern continent.
That it was in fact none of these things is important only to historians looking back and analysing what happened and how it came to be. Perception creates its own reality, and in the early sixteenth century the southern continent—corroborated in spectacular fashion—was the new reality.

Just what form existence would take, nobody could be completely sure. Nevertheless, more than a few offered suggestions. Reasoning by analogy, extrapolating from the known and nearby, projecting from understandings of climatic zones, postulating based on latitudinal determinism, enlarging rumour, employing deductive reasoning based on fragments of geographical data, resorting to imagination precipitated through the filter of desire—that is how the southern continent came to take form.

By the time Mercator constructed his world map of 1569 there was wide agreement on various of the forms and characteristics of the southern continent; Mercator took that to a new level, offering unparalleled geographical detail with the buttress of reasoned justification. A wealth of empirical information was combined with ancient learning for each element of his representation. The stunning expression of those ideas—words married to images—was all included on an enormous world map that became the definitive announcement of the southern continent’s transition from space to place. The amorphous and abstract Antipodes was no more, replaced by the tangible verisimilitude of Terra Australis.

It was around this time that the world was once again starting to feel small, inadequate to the imperial and commercial designs of competing European powers. But while most corners of the globe had been discovered and claimed, the southern continent remained tantalisingly out of reach. Explorers and their backers soon set their sights squarely on the discovery of Terra Australis—though not the continent in its entirety. It was the warm, lush, bountiful parts of Terra Australis beneath Java and throughout the southern Pacific that interested the Europeans, not the cold misery apparently already known on the southern side of the Magellanic Strait.

The first to set out were the Spanish with an expedition in 1567 seeking a combination of land, souls and riches. They discovered the Solomon Islands—not entirely devoid of promise, but hardly what they were seeking. The voyage was judged a disappointment. Nevertheless, there always seemed to be something that pointed to future discoveries that would fulfil all expectation.

In that first 1567 voyage it was the promise of gold: the Spanish could not speak the language and did not share the culture, but, upon showing the Pacific Islanders examples of golden nuggets, they divined from conversation and gesticulation confirmation of the presence of gold. So it was that the gold-poor Solomon Islands would forevermore wear the moniker of a biblical king remembered for his golden mines. In 1606 it was the promise of a subtropical continent fashioned from a visit to Vanuatu, a land that seemed so promising as to be honoured with the name of New Jerusalem, yet in reality so disappointing as to be swiftly abandoned and fled by the Spanish following a string of deaths and misadventure; the subsequent name—Terre de Quir—was the more enduring, representing the many hopes for a Pacific continent.

In 1616 it was a new promontory to the southern continent seen south-east of Magellan’s Strait in the rugged northern coast of Staten Island: undeniably a formidable island, but an island nonetheless. In 1642 the northern coasts of New Zealand were chanced upon, along with displeased Maoris; the captain’s first conclusion was the one preferred by European cosmographers, being that the land was, as likely as not, the distant western side of the temporarily continental Staten Island. In 1739 it was more land: a tiny spec of rock in an enormous landless ocean, so small that with a good jacket and crampons you could walk the circumference of the ice-covered extinct volcano in a day; now known as Bouvet Island, it nevertheless became the South Atlantic promontory of Terres Australes. In 1764 it was animal, plant and human portents in the Tuamotu Archipelago of the South Pacific that forecast the discovery of a reduced but still commercially and strategically valuable southern continent. And in 1767 it was a distant cloud bank seen beyond the islands of Tahiti that was moulded into enough rock and dirt to form Terra Australis.

However, by the late seventeenth century enough expeditions had ended in failure that the desire to seek out the southern continent was waning. Maps still sketched its borders and cosmographers still listed it in their books, but not a single expedition had turned a profit or capitalised on an advantage as a result of seeking Terra Australis. The Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) knew this better than any. In 1645 their directors decreed that there were to be no more voyages of discovery—they would focus on enterprise that could reliably turn a profit. The rest of Europe adopted a similar stance, and for many years Terra Australis was left largely unmolested at the bottom of the map.
When the tide eventually turned and explorers once again set their sights on the southern continent it was for a combination of imperial, commercial, empirical, and scientific factors.

A flurry of exploration followed sailors’ encounters with icebergs in the southern latitudes, as it was understood that ice, and certainly icebergs, could only form on land, with the implication being that ice entailed nearby land. Numerous discoveries were made, and yet the enigma of Terra Australis seemed no closer to being unravelled. It was at that point that the British Admiralty sent out James Cook.

Cook approached the task not with the conviction of a devotee, but with the fire of a true sceptic. He spent two expeditions scouring the southern latitudes with such merciless rigour as to completely extinguish the last lingering hopes for the magnificent southern continent worthy of the label Terra Australis.

Cook is also famed for discovering the eastern coast of Australia in 1770. That he should have done so was by no means inevitable, for on that first expedition his instructions were not to reconnoitre the emerging land of New Holland (Australia), but to discover the region of Terra Australis thought to lie in the southern Pacific. Cook eventually reached the Australian coast only because he had an insatiable geographical curiosity, and he had already completed the expedition’s main objective, having found no evidence of a southern continent.

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