Thursday, March 25, 2021

Mapping Australia's coastline

Every map tells a story; it reflects the individual mapmaker's particular perception of the world. Maps are a graphic representation of how we understand the condition of the human world based on concepts and events. They show the location of items and places and the spatial relationship between them. Specific cultural symbols and lines are often used to illustrate geographical features.

Matthew Flinders

Matthew Flinders. Published by Joyce Gold, Naval Chronicle Office, 1814. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an9455829-1-v.

European mapping is based on Western concepts as they relate to geographical space. From the early 1500s to the 1800s, maps represented religious and political views of the communities that the map makers were serving as well as the scientific knowledge at the time. Artistic beauty was combined with geographical information because of the intention to sell the map or please a patron or employer.

Gradually, during the 1800s, the decorative content of maps was removed in the search for accuracy and scientific precision. One of the challenges of western map making is to represent the earth, a curved surface in a three-dimensional space, on a flat surface. The compass, the sextant and the printing press were a few of the inventions that drastically changed the accuracy and distribution of maps.

When Australia's coastlines were being plotted by European mariners and navigators in the late 1700s to 1800s, there was a growing acceptance of a scientific approach to mapping, based on compass points, latitude and longitude, scale and elevation.

In 1810 Matthew Flinders completed the first chart of the Australian coastline including the separation of Tasmania by Bass Strait, naming the continent 'Australia'. Flinders was accompanied by Bungaree, an Aboriginal man from the Broken Bay area, when he sailed on the Norfolk and by Bungaree and Nanbaree on the Investigator.

Indigenous representations of place and space

Indigenous Australian concepts of the world were 'based on another view of creation and on detailed knowledge about particular localities' (Arthur & Murphy, Macquarie Atlas of Indigenous Australia, 2005). According to traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander world views, the features of the land, sea and sky were formed by ancestral creator beings that relate to a person's 'country'. Sometimes these mythical creatures became features of the landscape. The common term for this time of creation is Dreamtime or Dreaming, based on an Arrernte word 'altyerre'.

The representation of landforms in maps and paintings is thus also about representing the journeys of the ancestral creatures. These are represented through ceremony, song and dance, as well as through paintings and sculptures, the basis for much of the contemporary Indigenous art that is produced today for sale.

Use of symbols

Both western maps and Indigenous representation of 'country' use conventional symbols. Symbols in Aboriginal maps can sometimes have more than one meaning depending on both the context of the relationship to other symbols and also who is 'reading' the map. For example, a series of concentric circles usually means a campsite, but it may also mean a rock hole, fire or fruit. Spiralling lines can mean water, rainbow, fire, snakes, lightning, a string or a honey storage place for native bees. Indigenous maps are also not necessarily to scale in a linear sense, and may not show every feature of the landscape.

Indigenous co-operation with drawing European coastal charts


Bungaree. Published by J. Cross, 1830. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an6016167-2.

In the summer of 1801, Matthew Flinders was welcomed by Nyungar upon his arrival aboard the Investigator and various items were exchanged. On the 1802 voyage from Sydney, Flinders recruited two Aboriginal people, Bungaree, who had sailed with him on the Norfolk, and Nanbaree. The visit of Flinders and other mariners to the coast of Arnhem Land is recorded in the local Aboriginal paintings of 'praus' (Macassan sailing vessels) and European ships at rock art sites.

In March 1812, the Colonial Surveyor George William Evans was sent to explore Jervis Bay, to determine a possible inland route back to Port Jackson as part of the colonial practice of systematic surveying of the land. Bundle, an Eora man who ranged from Port Jackson to Parramatta in the company of Tedbury, the son of Pemulwuy, was renowned for his tracking skills. Bundle was with Evans on board the Lady Nelson. The journey was never publicised by Macquarie because it almost ended in disaster for the members of the exploration party. This survey expedition did, however, result in the settlement of the Illawarra area in the drought years that followed.

In the Illawarra region, the Aboriginal artist Mickey of Ulladulla (c.1820–1891), a member of the Dhurga people, drew the world around him with extraordinary vitality and sensitivity to detail, including a chart of the coastal areas north and south of Ulladulla. Depicting flora and fauna of Ulladulla, Mickey added to the European records of the coastal area. His works are an unequalled record of an Indigenous perspective during the mid to late 1800s, a time otherwise dominated by European artists and writers.

The peoples of the Torres Strait Islands are sea-faring people known for their navigation skills. The Dreamtime stories of their people, the Tagai, usually focus on stars, which they used to navigate a safe journey when travelling across the seas in their double outrigger canoes under sail.

European discovery of the Southern Continent

European theories of a large southern continent

European ideas of a southern continent date back to Greek mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (ca. 560 – ca. 480 BC). His followers were the first to document the theory of landmasses in the southern hemisphere to counterweight the northern hemisphere to ensure a balance in the globe. This idea of a large southern continental mass strongly influenced cartographers until the late 1400s with the belief in the unknown Great South Land.

In 1570, Terra Australis Nondum Cognita (south land not yet known) appears as a gigantic Antarctic continent on a new world map published by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius (1527–1598). The Spaniard Benito Arias Montano's world map (1571) displays a portion of Northern Australia with an undefined southern boundary, reflecting the French school of map rendition for the southern hemisphere.

By the late 1500s, Portuguese and Spanish explorers opened a sea route to India and Asia and charted most of Indonesia, the northern New Guinea coastline and several islands in the South Pacific.

In 1581, Dutch merchants needed access to spices in order to fund costly military operations in a war with the Spanish and formed the Dutch East India Company. This led to Dutch exploration along Australia's shores and to the making of maps of Australia's north, west and south.

The beginning of European records of Australia

Duyfken Broadside

Duyfken Broadside; Sailing off the coast of Fremantle, Western Australia. Image courtesy of the Duyfken 1606 Replica Foundation.

In 1606, the small Dutch ship called Duyfken (little dove), under the command of Willem Janszoon, sailed south from Indonesia in order to look for trade opportunities in Nova Guinea (Papua New Guinea). After charting parts of the Papua New Guinean coastline, Janszoon and his crew were the first Europeans to map and record Australia.

A few months later Spaniard Luis Vez de Torres sailed through the strait that now bears his name. The next series of Dutch voyages to the continent occurred on the west coast. At the time, there was no reliable method to establish longitude. Many ships accidentally sighted or were wrecked on the Western Australian coast. Dirk Hartog was the first to land on the west coast in 1616. These landings helped establish the form of the coastline but did not result in any accurate charts.

From Great South Land to New Holland

Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter

Attributed to Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp (1594-1651/52), (detail) Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter, oil on canvas circa 1637, Rex Nan Kivell Collection. Image courtesy of

Dutchman Able Tasman was sent to explore the Great South Land from Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1642. He landed on the west coast of Tasmania in November 1642, naming it Van Diemen's Land, after Anthony Van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch Indies. He continued south, to the South Island of New Zealand, then back to Batavia via the Tongan archipelago and the Fiji Islands. After a second voyage of the Pacific, including the north Australian coast, Tasman completed a chart of the northern coastline. He named the continent Nova Hollandia (New Holland) after a Dutch province.

The Tasman Map combines the results of Tasman's first and second voyages with those of earlier Dutch navigators, giving an accurate general outline of Australia.

Tasman's findings from his voyages in 1642–1644 were also incorporated in Cornelis Danckert's double hemispherical world map, which was published in 1648. The Dutch East India Company, however, deemed his voyages unsuccessful, as he failed to establish new trading partnerships.

Charting New Holland's coastlines

Hollandia Nova detecta 1644 ; Terre Australe decouuerte l'an 1644

Melchisédech Thévenot (c1620-1692), Hollandia Nova detecta 1644; Terre Australe decouverte l'an 1644, 1663. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: MAP RM 689A.

By 1700 New Holland was largely defined on the map, even if little else was known about it by Europeans. In 1663 the French traveller Melchisdech Thvenot published a chart of New Holland. It included Tasman's findings as well as an almost complete western coastline. Ferdinand Verbiest, a Flemish Jesuit priest in China, created the Kunyu Wanguo Quantu (1674), which shows Australia based on contemporary Dutch knowledge.

Englishman William Dampier sailed to Western Australia in 1699. His journal, A Voyage to New Holland, included John Thornton's map of the Western Australian coastline and a detailed survey of Shark Bay. In this book, he first introduced Europeans to Australian plants by presenting illustrations of specimens from the Western Australian bush.

The Dutch dominated the early coastal mapping of Australia for over 100 years from the early 1600s into the 1700s. The main motivation of their exploration was to determine the resources of the new lands. They lost interest in the South Land due to their concept of it as being dry and inhospitable. This world view prevailed until the influence of the Scientific Revolution. The experience of the east coast moderated the harsh picture the Dutch explorers painted. The map of Australia would remain as the Dutch left it until James Cook sailed up the east coast in 1770.

British and French coastal surveys

The exploration of the globe by the British and French was revived after the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763. The British and French governments were more and more interested in scientific research. The Royal Society, seeking a union between science and government, prompted numerous scientific enterprises. Expeditions were undertaken for both commercial and scientific purposes. Between June 1764 and May 1766 British vice admiral John Byron completed his circumnavigation of the globe as captain of the HMS Dolphin.

James Cook

Capt James Cook

Sir Nathaniel Dance (1735-1811), Captain James Cook, coloured engraving. Image courtesy of the British National Maritime Museum.

Cook's chart of the east coast of New Holland was not only the culmination of a voyage of knowledge and discovery but also a demonstration of navigational and cartographic excellence.

(Australia in Maps, p.50)

In 1768, the Royal Society appointed Lieutenant James Cook RN (1728–1779) to lead a scientific voyage to the South Sea. Cook left England on August 26 on the Endeavour, with a copy of Vaugondy's chart of Australasia on board. Before surveying the east coast of New Holland, Cook and his crew spent time mapping New Zealand.

James Cook's expedition landed at Botany Bay in April 1770. On Possession Island in the Torres Strait, where he landed in August 1770, he claimed possession of the eastern part of the continent, which Cook named New South Wales.

Cook returned to England in July 1771. The discoveries of the expedition by far exceeded the expectations of the Royal Society: countless species of dried plants, preserved fish, bird skins, mineral samples, insect specimens and detailed drawings, collected primarily by Joseph Banks.

Cook's findings changed forever the perception of the continent as a harsh and unrewarding land. His survey completed the outline of Australia, defining the northern limits of the continents at the Torres Strait. Local coastal mapping added to the initial survey of the east coast in years to follow.

Cook's diary was published in 1773. It became an immediate bestseller and was translated into several languages.

Cook's 1768–1771 voyage on the Endeavour is also considered to be of importance to maritime history because of its great contributions to the world's knowledge of seamanship and navigation, as well as geography. On this voyage Cook became the first captain to calculate his longitudinal position with accuracy, using a complex mathematical formula developed in the 1760s.

A New map of the world, with Captain Cook's tracks

W. Palmer, A New map of the world, with Captain Cook's tracks, his discoveries and those of the other circumnavigators, 1800 Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales: Map ZM3 100a/1800/1.

French surveys - La Perouse and D'Entrecasteaux

Jean Franois Marie de Surville arrived in New Zealand within weeks of Cook. He had lost more than half of his crew. French expeditions tended to be less successful; they had not begun using citrus fruit to help cure scurvy at that stage.

Jean-Franois Galaup La Perouse's landing at Botany Bay in 1788, days after the arrival of the First Fleet, stimulated British exploration and settlement. La Perouse's landing site is located in Sydney's suburb that now bears his name. Tragically, his expedition from 1785 to 1788 was lost after exploring eastern, southern and western coast of Australia.

Bruni d'Entrecasteaux led an unsuccessful search for La Perouse in 1791–1792 and was first to explore the southern coast of Van Diemen's Land. That's where their search stopped due to the lack of charts of the Bass Strait.

Principal marine surveyor Beautemps-Beaupr's work on d'Entrecasteaux's expedition set a new standard for coastal charting, a standard that was maintained by his successors, Baudin and Freycinet, and by Matthew Flinders.

Matthew Flinders chart of Terra Australis 1814

General chart of Terra Australis or Australia, showing the parts explored between 1798 and 1803.

Flinders, Matthew. A voyage to Terra Australis : Atlas. - Plate I. 'General chart of Terra Australis or Australia, showing the parts explored between 1798 and 1803.'. Image courtesy of The State Library of South Australia.

Lieutenant Matthew Flinders (1774–1814) first circumnavigated Australia, charting most of its coastline, from 1801–1803. His voyage was prompted by British Admiralty after it learned of preparations for a French voyage under command of Nicolas Baudin. Both expeditions succeeded in producing maps.

Flinders had already been to New Holland and was aware of the absence of any good quality charts of much of its coastline. In 1798, together with his childhood friend and doctor George Bass, he confirmed the long held suspicion that Van Diemen's Land is not connected to the mainland but separated by a strait which was then named in honour of Bass.

Flinders was given command of the HMS Investigator in 1801 at the young age of 26. On his journey he charted the coastline of Australia, completing and linking together other partial surveys to give the first complete picture of the continent. He did not return to England until 1810, after more than 6 years of imprisonment on Mauritius.

A nearly completed map of the coastline was published by Flinders in 1814. Surveys of Australia's coastline from the early 1800s are considered a valuable record to British Admiralty's earliest contributions to the maritime charting and safe passage of Australian waters. Flinders' charts were used as base maps by the Admiralty well into the 1950s.

Matthew Flinders is also closely associated with changing the continent's name from 'Terra Australis' to 'Australia', a term that had been used before his time to describe the South Pacific region. He heavily promoted the term Australia ('as being more agreeable to the ear'), which was officially adopted in 1824.

Safe journey!

Maps played an important role in Australian shipping and navigation. In order to make the coast safe for vessels carrying out trade between the new settlements, coastlines needed to be charted meticulously. The amount of detail within charts varied immensely. While the Torres Strait had been charted very thoroughly by Owen Stanley in 1855, there was a lack of charts for the Bass Strait with only a route mapped.

Charting the Torres Strait

Owen Stanley's chart of the Torres Strait

Torres Strait, the western entrances of Endeavour Strait and Prince of Wales Channel; surveyed by Captains F.P. Blackwood & O. Stanley, R.N. Courtesy of The National Library of Australia:

Luis Vaez de Torres first found his way through the strait in 1606. Willem Jansz in the Duyfken had previously concluded that the strait was connected with the 'Landt vande Papuos' (New Guinea). Torres' account remained unknown for 150 years. Alexander Dalrymple found one of his charts in the Manila archives during the occupation of Spanish Manila and made copies of the chart, which were used by Cook during the voyage of the Endeavour from 1768 to 1771.

The Rattlesnake, captained by Owen Stanley, sailed from Dunk Island to the Torres Strait in 1848. Stanley's chart of the Torres Strait (1855) shows his meticulous attention to survey detail. Stanley also compiled an album of sketches whilst in command of the surveying ship.

Charting of Van Diemen's Land

Matthew Flinders and George Bass, in the sloop Norfolk in 1798, mapped the northern coast of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), located a site for future settlement (today's Launceston) and proved the existence of a strait (named after Bass). They were the first to circumnavigate Van Diemen's Land.

Charting the Bass Strait was a real challenge. The depth of the waters made it a very risky task. The coastline surrounding King Island in the Bass Strait, for example, claimed at least 60 vessels and 800 lives prior to the construction of lighthouses.

The south west coast of Victoria is known as the Shipwreck Coast. There are over 80 shipwrecks along a 130 kilometre stretch of coast from Port Fairy to Cape Otway. This section of coastline is made up of cliffs, reef, islands and outcrops of rocks. The winds of the roaring forties and often stormy seas made sailing these waters very dangerous. 'I have seldom seen a more fearful section of coastline', wrote Matthew Flinders.

Australia unveiled

Due to the spread of settlement in the 1800s, naval and merchant shipping was increased and maritime safety became a priority. Opportunities for the exploration of new lands had been reduced to recording the small-scale coastal detail and shipping routes. The nature of the Unknown Great South Land had gradually been unveiled. It's insularity and definition as a unified land mass became the basis for the concept of an Australian nation.

Useful links

Look, listen and play

European sea exploration


Captain James Cook's life and voyages

Sir Joseph Banks

Matthew Flinders

References used in preparing this story

  • Michael Pearson, Great Southern Land: The maritime exploration of Terra Australis

  • National Library of Australia, Australia in Maps

Last updated: 8th January 2010

Creators: Dagmar Davies, et al.

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