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Why is Australia called Australia?


There seem to be several different origins of the name and it is difficult to precisely pin-point which one actually led to the official name being adopted. We have listed each occurrence we have found to this point in date order.


Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandes de Quiros, (also spelled de Queirós) who journeyed from the Americas to Vanuatu in 1605 believed (mistakenly) that Vanuatu / New Hebrides was the outlying edge of a larger land mass beyond and he named it Tierra Austrialia Del Espiritu Santo in honour of the royal house of Austria (to which Spain was allied at the time.) de Quiros' report to King Phillip III was titled ‘Terra Australis Incognita’. de Quiros may have used a name similar to the one used today but it is generally believed that he never actually sighted the mainland. This has been questioned by a number of historians and de Quiros' own report to the Spanish king stated:


'The greatness of the land newly discovered, judging from what I saw, and from what the captain, Don Luiz Vaez de Torres, the Admiral under my command, reported to your Majesty, is well established. Its length is as much as all Europe and Asia Minor as far as the Caspian and Persia, with all the islands of the Mediterranean and the ocean which en-compasses, including the two islands of England and Ireland'


Details in de Quiros' report do not match with the physical features found on the islands so the question must still be asked, where exactly did the expedition go? In some circles it is believed that de Quiros may have actually been at Keppel Bay and the Gladstone coast in Queensland. It seems as though many details in the report match this area much more closely that they do for Vanuatu. (1)


It was during de Quiros' expedition that Luis Vas de Torres (whose ship became separated from that of de Quiros) sailed between the Australian mainland and New Guinea.


The name Austrialia (used by de Quiros) contains an extra 'i' and clearly demonstrates the intended connection to Austria. It seems unlikely that this led directly to the adoption of the present name but it is very close and cannot be totally ruled out.


Dutch explorers named the newly discovered west coast ‘Hollandia Nova’ (New Holland) and this name was used for many years. Captain James Cook (who charted much of the east coast) named that side New South Wales. For a long time it was not known if Tasmania (or Van Dieman's Land as it was originally known) was an island on its own or attached to the mainland and there was no all encompassing name for the whole continent.


Originally the existence of a continent in the southern oceans was just a theory. No one knew where it was or even if it really existed. The Latin phrase 'Terra Australis Incognita' meaning unknown south land, was used to refer to this theoretical place but once it was discovered the name 'unknown south land' would hardly have remained appropriate, although this is thought by many to be the actual origin of the name.


The first actual use of the word Australia we have discovered so far, comes from the index of the 'General description of the Indies', a Dutch manuscript published in Batavia (Jakarta) in 1638. Strangely the word does not appear in the actual text and may be a mistake.


In 1693 an English translation of a French book 'The known south land' by Jaques Sadeur, uses the name Australia but the English version published in London by John Dutton, differs from the French in that the French version does not contain the name Australia. In any case the book was fictional and did not pretend to be about the real Australia.


Australasia seems to appear for the first time in the 1756 book 'History and navigation of Terra Australis' by Charles de Brosses.


In 1793 the book 'Zoology and botany of New Holland' by G. Shaw and J.E. Smith is the first time the name is used to refer to the actual place.


Whoever was responsible for first 'coining' the name, it was Mathew Flinders who first pushed for the name to be adopted. Prior to 1804 he had usually referred to the continent as New Holland but after 1804 he constantly calls it Australia. He wrote:


'I have considered it convenient to unite the two parts under a common designation which will do justice to the discovery rights of Holland and England, and I have with that object in view had recourse to the name Austral-land or Australia.'


We will probably never know if Flinders came up with the name independently, or if he had read it somewhere in an earlier work (it seems possible that he read it in Alexander Dalrymple's 1771 book 'An Historical Collection of Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean') but there is no doubt that he is the one primarily responsible for the name being made official.


Although the name had been in use for some time, the first official use of the name Australia by the British Parliament seems to have been when the Governor and certain officials appointed by him were granted permission to make appropriate laws for ‘His Majesty’s Settlements in Western Australia, on the western coast of New Holland.’





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