What’s in a name: Mercator’s Contribution to the use of ‘Australia’

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A few weeks ago Phillip Clarke, a Professor of Health Economics at University of Melbourne purchased the Cosmographia from Adina Sommer to help with his research on the origins of the name Australia. The amazing findings from his research was published in the captivating article “Australia on the Map” that discussed contributions of Gerard Mercartor to the naming of Australia. 

Adina Sommer sat down with Phillip to have a closer look at his findings. Here is the conversation we had:

AS: Tell us a little about the contribution of Mercartor to cartography?

PC: Gerard Mercator is considered as one of the greatest cartographers, not only for his projection, but also for promoting the use of italic script on maps, as well as creating a highly influential Atlas.

AS: Explain how the linguistic use of the word Australia (adjective vs. noun) has helped to determine who has been credited for the use of the word?

PC: There is no question that Australia owes its name to Matthew Flinders, as it appears on his very influential map of the whole continent published in 1814. Flinders preferred Australia to the more commonly used Terra Australis, as he thought it was “more agreeable to the ear”. There has been some discussion over whether Flinders coined the term himself, or had adapted it from an earlier use by another cartographer.

AS: What was the cartographical importance of the term Australia prior to Flinders?

PC: Over the years isolated examples of the use of the term “Australia” have been found such as Scottish geographer Dalrymple in 1770 and earlier by Pedro Fernández de Quirós. Although it not clear whether de Quirós name for Vanuatu was actually Austrialia (after the House of Austria) rather than Australia. Around a decade ago, the term “Australia” was found on a small figure of the world in the book Astronomia-Teutsch Astronomei first published in Frankfurt by Cyriaco Jacob zum Barth in 1545. This was widely regarded as the first printed use of the term Australia.

AS: How would you explain the different representation or use of Australia by Gemma Frisius and Gerard Mercator?

PC: Cartographers in the 16th century including Mercator and Frisius had to come up with new terms, as the world they were mapping was rapidly expanding. While Ptolemy used a system climata (defined by the length of longest day at different latitudes) to denote regions these were only for the northern hemisphere. “Climata Australia” was a term they appear to have coined for southerly regions on maps.

Diagram shows the use of "australia' in explaining climate.
Diagram shows the use of “australia’ in explaining climate.

AS: What did the Cosmographia help you to understand about climata and ultimately the use of the name Australia by Mercator?

PC: Cosmographia was the starting point, as I first noticed the use of Australia on a figure explaining climata (see attached) and wondered why the term “Australia” appears in a 16th century book. I asked several dealers and collectors, but no one had noticed it before or knew why. By chance, I noticed that Mercator had used the term “climata australia” on a map of the old world much later in 1578. I knew that there must be a link, as Mercator had been a student of Frisius. The hunt was then on for the first use of the term Australia and to also understand why it was used. My sister Dr Jacqueline Clarke, who is a classics scholar, was enormously helpful with translating the Latin text.

AS: How did you use Cosmographia for your research

PC: What is so interesting about Cosmographia is that it goes through a large number of revisions (having originally been written by Petri Apiani in 1524). In the 1545 Latin edition (which was published in French a year earlier) there are some major changes including the use “Climata Australia”. This revision is the first to use italics which again shows the influence of Mercator on Frisius.


AS: Do you think Mercator will ever be given the same level of credit for coming up with the term Australia? Explain?

PC: I hope he will now be given recognition. Mercator appears to have liked the term “australia” and clearly thought it superior to “meridionalia” which had previously appeared on maps to denote southern regions. Interestingly the term he used on his 1538 map for northerly regions, “Borealia” was not adopted by Frisius and Mercator himself later changed it to “Borea” on his 1578 map.There could be a link between Flinders and Mercator, as “climata australia” appears on several Dutch golden age maps which a cartographer like Flinders would probably have studied.



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