Terra Australis Incognita

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

      Since an early time - at least that of the Greeks before Christ - when the earth was already believed to be round, it was widely supposed that a continent in the southern hemisphere was "necessary" to balance the continents of the northern half to allow the earth to maintain its "equilibrium" in the heavens. To the modern thinker, the notion is immediately absurd: the whole earth is a solid ball; what appears to be wide (and deep) expanses of water is really a superficial phenomenon. No dry continent needs to be present in the southern hemisphere because water on the surface is too trivial to upset any balance.

Yet that is what was believed. In the first century AD, Pomponius Mela, and in the second century, Claudius Ptolemy, he of the Alexandrian academy of astronomy, predicted such a continent. Mela proposed that the earth was land surrounded by water, Ptolemy proposed that it was water with areas of land. Neither seemed to think much about what lie beneath the surface. Ptolemy was the larger influence on Europe, and even in the 18th century, when much of the earth had been explored, Captain James Cook was charged with, among other important duties in the South Pacific, finding - and presumably claiming for England - this "Land, Southern, Unknown", which is the literal translation of the title of this essay. That the earth rotated was proven by Magellan's circumnavigation in 1521. But that it rotated "correctly" added strength to the notion of a balancing land mass in the southern hemisphere.

To this was added the account of Marco Polo in 1477 in which he described, in his journey back from Cathay (along with now familiar locations in Southeast Asia), the country of Locac ("a good country, and rich") which he placed more than a thousand miles south of Java. Yet before the late 18th century, before it was possible to know longitude at sea (which required a good clock) exploration of the immense Pacific, covering more than a third of the earth, was based on hope and accident.

In the three hundred years since Magellan, sea routes had been well established in the Pacific, for example between Mexico and the Phillipines, where useful trade winds predominated. But the terra australis had not been found. (Nor had the island group of Hawaii, which ships passed either to the south or to the north.) In 1605, a Spanish search resulted in the discovery of Australia. This would be the sunset of Spanish discovery in the Pacific - giving way to the Dutch and the trade empire known as the Dutch East Indies Company. The Dutch found Australia, presumed that they were the first Europeans to find it, and named it New Holland. Though large, it was felt to be too small to qualify as "terra australis incognita", and since it was desolate, did not qualify as "Locac" either.

In 1714, the British government offered the astounding sum of 20,000 pounds sterling to anyone who could develop a method of determining longitude at sea. Naturally, this brought out, as inventors, the wise, the eccentric, and the truly insane. It took 50 years to test the submissions and declare a winner - a genius named John Harrison, who had crafted a wondrously expensive machine that could tell time reliably. Meanwhile the search continued: several European countries had boats in the water - the French were now active. New Zealand had been found. There was a report of a south lying island with "snow covered mountains" but those looking for a continent which did not exist also expected it to be warm and fertile. And - there were now doubters. Never mind; in England the argument went as follows: the American colonies provide good trade, but there are only 2 million people there, whereas "incognita", once discovered, because of its presumed immense size, would have 50 million! In 1764 the British discovered and claimed the Falklands "but nothing beyond it". Actually, had they even looked on the south edge of the Falklands they would have also "discovered" a French settlement!

In 1768, an as yet undiscovered genius of the age, Captain James Cook, was given command of a voyage of discovery to the South Pacific. To that end he would add much knowledge. To terra incognita he would add the final chapter: go as south as you can go and you will find ice, ice, and more ice, not warm, not fertile, not the home of 50 million souls. What he could not know is that there IS land there, buried under thousands of feet of ice and snow, which, barring large and unforeseen global temperature changes, will remain - terra australis incognita.

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