Mapping Inspired by the Imagination

Sand maps were commonly used by Indigenous Australians over their 40,000 year history, to communicate local topography, significant landmarks and the location of water.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Australian National Library in Canberra to view the exhibition ‘Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia’. This exhibition showcased some of the most significant milestones in the history of mapping and discovery of Australia and included Australian Indigenous paintings, a Babylonian clay tablet thought to be the oldest surviving world map, the works of Ptolemy and rare medieval maps. It also explored the development in projections by Mercator and chronicled the expansion of Dutch commercial trading and the voyages of discovery of the Portuguese, Spanish, English and French.

Maps have stirred the human imagination since the earliest times. Sand maps were commonly used by Indigenous Australians over their 40,000 year history, to communicate local topography, significant landmarks and the location of water. Likewise, and possibly less practically, the ancient Greeks included an imaginary landmass Terra Australis Incognita, on their maps, to balance the northern hemisphere’s Europe, Asia and North Africa. Consequently, when in 1606 explorer Pedro Fernandez de Queiros set out from Peru and discovered Espititu Santo in Vanuatu, he assumed it to be the east coast of this great unknown land, although his second in command Torres did later discover Torres Strait.

Australia’s west coast was mapped in the 15th and 16th centuries predominantly by The United East India Company (VOC) which conducted several thousand voyages over almost two centuries as they traded in spices and commodities with Indonesia. A typical voyage from the Netherlands to Batavia (Jakarta) involved rounding the Cape of Good Hope, running across the Indian Ocean before the roaring forties, and then turning to port to shape a course for the Sunda Strait. Due to the difficulty of accurately determining longitude, some of these vessels inevitably encountered the coast of Western Australia. The observations they made and subsequent cartographic work by the VOC was very effective in facilitating safe navigation along this coast, with only 2 recorded wrecks in the first 50 years of trading, the Batavia on the Abrolhos Islands, in 1629, and the Vergulde Draeck just north of Perth, in 1656.

The VOC also sponsored Tasman’s voyage of exploration to Van Diemen’s Land, Pacific and parts of Australia’s northern coast to open safer shipping routes and locate new trading partners. A 1663 chart by the VOC Hydrographic Office of the Eastern and Asian Archipelago accurately depicts almost two thirds of the Australian coast from the Great Australian Bight, along the west and north coasts to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Somewhat surprisingly, the remaining gap in the charting of Australia along the east coast, which was still depicted on maps to extend to Vanuatu, was not completed for another 140 years, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, through the monumental work of Cook followed by Bass, Flinders, Baudin and others.

Visiting this exhibition was a wonderful experience. Set within the framework of the discovery of Australia, it showed how mapping has stirred the imagination of humanity through the ages. I suspect it still does.

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