Terra Australis Incognita


Terra Australis, world map by Rumold Mercator, 1587

From deepest antiquity until the early 19th century, it was widely believed that there was an enormous continent occupying most of the Southern Hemisphere. Known as Terra Australis, or Terra Australis Incognita (“Unknown Southern Land”), it was thought to be centered on the South Pole, and to extend far north into the temperate regions of the South Pacific and the southern Indian Ocean. The necessity of its existence was logically deduced from the fact that large landmasses were known to exist in the Northern Hemisphere, but not in the Southern. It was posited that there had to be a southern mass to balance out the globe, so a huge continent must exist in the far south.

At various times Tierra Del Fuego, the northern coast of Australia (then called New Holland), New Guinea, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, and miscellaneous large islands in Polynesia were identified as portions of the coastline of Terra Australis.

Later, as exploration of the far south continued and maps became more completely filled in, the possible dimensions of Terra Australis shrank, and Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, and eventually even Tasmania had to be identified as free-standing islands (or, in the case of Australia, a continent). Eventually the idea of Terra Australis had to be completely abandoned, and it joined spontaneous generation, the four humors, phlogiston, and the celestial spheres in the dusty attic of discredited scientific exotica.

For centuries the imagined continent had been referred to as Australia. When it became clear that it didn’t exist, New Holland (by then a British territory) was renamed Australia so that it could be identified without reference to either the English or the Dutch. Then, when the real Terra Australis was finally discovered, it had to be given the name Antarctica, since “Australia” was already taken. It turned out to be a cold, bleak, and unromantic place. The customs and practices of the indigenous penguins are nowhere near as interesting as those of the elaborate autochthons imagined by the devotees of Terra Australis.

The people who believed in the great southern continent weren’t wild-eyed zealots espousing a religious cult. They were explorers, scientists, geographers, cartographers, and their aristocratic patrons. The fact that they could hold such firm but erroneous beliefs shows how sober, rational, intelligent, educated men, proceeding carefully and methodically, can get a matter of such great significance completely and utterly wrong.

The elaborate maps and descriptions of Terra Australis arose out of a combination of small scholarly errors and a paucity of well-documented information on the southern reaches. With so little detailed first-hand observations available, a few slight inadvertent errors — mistaking “north” for “south”, the conflation of similar names, etc. — allowed the construction of the imagined continent, assisted by the powerful engine of wishful thinking. Even the habits, customs, and apparel of the natives were described in vivid accounts of the fabulous South.

The idea that there ought to be a landmass in the Southern Hemisphere to balance those in the North makes complete sense. Knowing what we know now, I could have told them: “Yes, there is an actual imbalance in the Earth’s landmasses because of the catastrophic collision that created the Moon and left a big hole on one side of the planet. The southern regions, especially in the Pacific area, comprise the remains of that hole, which is still being filled in by the extremely slow drifting of the Earth’s continents.”

But they had no way of knowing that back then. Their conjecture completely fit the facts, as they understood them.

There may be some lessons in there for us modern-day folk who think we understand everything about everything. Each epoch has embraced its share of “facts” that everyone knew to be true. They were well-understood, beyond discussion, and established by the consensus of the scholars. Yet they were eventually discredited, and now appear as historical footnotes or in anthologies of quaint archaic fancies.

Does anyone believe that our own time is exempt from such misguided fancies?

If not, what are our most significant delusions?

I have my own ideas, but rather than make any suggestions, I’ll invite my readers to duke it out in the comments.

Earlier today, while reading about Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), I happened upon the Wikipedia article about Terra Australis. Since it doesn’t have much contemporary political resonance (with the exception of the fact that its chronicles overlap sections of the Narrative about evil European colonialists exploiting brown people), the wiki is a good source of information and makes for absorbing reading.

Suggested additional sources:

19 thoughts on “Terra Australis Incognita

  1. Interesting piece, Baron. Thank you. Illustrates well that none of us is as smart as he thinks … and when we become embroiled in Group-think, we’re in real trouble !

    As for your invitation to weigh in on what our most significant delusions might be – OK, I’ll play.

    Mine is that I think I’m the King of Newfoundland. (You didn’t require that the delusion be of importance, or universal significance ! )

  2. In my formative years I was a hard core Randist who believed completely in capitalism. Many years of working for those who allegedly are capitalists has disabused me of my youthful idealism. Just as socialism has been almost entirely discredited as an economic system I believe capitalism will also be looked upon by future generations as almost as abusive of an economic theory.

    In my humble opinion there truly hasn’t arisen an alternative economic theory that deals with the flaws of both systems or recognizes and accounts for the worst elements of human nature that are magnified by putting the pursuit of wealth ahead of every other consideration.

    • I was raised under communism, so in my eyes, “capitalism” means the right to own a property, the right to set up your own business, and the right to make your own money.

      Granted – “capitalism” cannot deal with monopolies, cartels, corruption of the law enforcement, too high taxes and subsidies which subsidize competition at the expense of businesses which had not received any state sponsored subsidy…

      Capitalism in my view is mainly competition, and as such it requires referees, or people will cheat.

      We don’t live in capitalism, though. Companies in the EU can no longer survive without the “help from the government”.

      • They came close to an ideal society, at least from the perspective of an observer.

        I used to think that they were socialists but that viewpoint is simplistic. What they were was an ethnically homogeneous high-trust society with an excellent social safety net combined with a strong work ethic. Certainly no longer the case.

        I think that what the Swedes used to have was a sense amongst their population that there were obligations and responsibilities; that those who were successful and had received much in the way of material goods and wealth had an obligation to their employees without whom they would not have made all their wealth, and to support the costs of the infrastructure including physical (roads, bridges etc) and social (good schools and universities, low cost medical care, etc) that produced those well educated and healthy individuals for their work forces. And workers were supposed to be loyal and hard working in return.

        What has changed is the extremely wealthy and powerful elites of society no longer possess a sense of noblesse oblige; they have no loyalty to their own countries let alone their workers and certainly don’t feel any obligation to support or maintain the infrastructure or the social safety net that they fob off their externalities upon.

        • Maybe a few Muslim 9/11 categories will help the entire Swedish population to come together. In western society in general Muslims no longer ride free. Best if none ride all. Destroy the mosques, remove the masks and ban the Koran.

    • Same happen to me regarding Democracy.
      Looking into history I can see that there were good rulers and bad rulers of all kind of governing methods, and democracy by itself cannot even guarantee that the rulers have the same worldview or same motivation as the general population.
      What’s happening lately in the West amazed me, and I have some thoughts that when people know the ruler got there by force, he can also be replaced by force, but interestingly, it seems that in Democracy, the people can not change the administration.

  3. @ The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

    Re: “In my formative years I was a hard core Randist who believed completely in capitalism. Many years of working for those who allegedly are capitalists has disabused me of my youthful idealism.”

    Winston Churchill famously said, “Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries, capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings” … and he wasn’t wrong.

    If it is germane to note, there has been no “free market economy” in the United States for more than a century. The economy has been a mixture of socialist central planning, unrestrained capitalism and the like at least since Franklin Roosevelt, and arguably since Woodrow Wilson.

    The political left, “progressives” as they like to term themselves, make much of the so-called Gilded Age, also known colloquially as the Era of Robber Barons, i.e., Rockefeller, Carnegie, Warburg, Mellon, Morgan, etc. – but for most of the 19th century, the U.S. economy was remarkably free in comparison with the present day, and that era was marked by unprecedented growth and prosperity, at the conclusion of which the U.S. was ready to become a world power.

    The left, then, specializes in corrupting functioning market economies in various ways, thereby reducing their efficiency and effectiveness – damage which they then blame on free-markets themselves!

    The late Michael Crichton was not only a licensed physician and best-selling author of adventure, science fiction and techno-thrillers, he was also an astute commentator upon current events. He commented a number of times, either in person at talks or through his characters in his books, that in many ways the quality of life enjoyed by the typical person of the late 20th and early 21st century was/is inferior to that of a peasant alive six centuries ago.

    Most people work more hours now to survive economically than people in the distant past had to do, and modern Americans pay taxes at a level that would have stunned the Founders of this country.

    Commentators as diverse as Dinesh D’Souza, the aforementioned Dr. Crichton, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn have lamented the soulless nature of modern consumption-driven societies. Solzhenitsyn fed communism to the West, but late in life, returned to Russia – having had his fill of life in the U.S.A.

    “Free Markets and Free Minds” as a system works better than anything else, but it isn’t perfect, and unrestrained by the moral ecosystem the West (including the U.S.) once had but no longer has, it can quickly become predatory.

    A brief example: Much has been said about the merits of pursuing “self interest” and the “virtue of greed” in recent decades. People old-enough to remember the 1980s will recall those very things being said by the mergers-and-acquisitions crowd as they snapped up yet another business into their apparently insatiable maws.

    The original term, however, was not “self-interest,” but “enlightened self-interest.” The two are very different things. The first can be conflated to simple greed and rapaciousness quite easily, and has been many times. “Enlightened self-interest,” however, implies that self-interest and acquisitiveness must be balanced by their effects upon others. If unrestrained ambition and greed become damaging or dangerous to society and civilization as a whole, limits must be placed upon them.

    Unrestrained “capitalism” has given us a world in which a small coterie of extremely rich people – whom we now term globalist oligarchs – want to own and run the whole world, and believe that they can do it.

    Wealth has many blessings, but it undermines the principle of one person, one vote. Which is how these predatory capitalists came to be in this position in the first place.

    Of our current economic system, it has been said – accurately, I believe – that the present system embodies the worst characteristics of capitalism and socialism both at one time. Not where you want to be…

    Solving this is probably above my pay grade, but the above represents a start at diagnosing the problem.

  4. A very comment conceit of the present – particularly among the young and/or historically-illiterate – is that the present is superior to the past in every meaningful way, and that the arrow of progress points ever upward toward a brighter and brighter future.

    Fate – God if you will – mocks the affairs of men and just when humans think they have things figured out, something comes along to blindside them and rather quickly, and what Kipling termed “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” return rather spectacularly.

    If humans progress at all, they do it in a two-steps forward, one-back fashion, and in cycles which endlessly repeat down through time. And the historical record is quite clear that long periods of peace and prosperity are just as often followed by dark ages of ruin, calamity and chaos.

    The Fourth Turnings Theory of history offers some ideas which seem to have merit. Namely, that paradigm changes, which Strauss and Howe – the theory’s creators – called “fourth turnings.” The typical human lifespan of roughly eighty years divides into four eras or turnings, and every seventy-five or eighty years, a significant paradigm shift is likely to occur.

    Looking backwards through the last century and a half or so, we see that this pattern holds up pretty well…

    According to the theory, the Second World War (which ended in 1945) was the last “fourth turning,” so humanity is due for another one during the 2020s.

    The Great War of 1914-1918 would seem to disrupt their theory, but maybe not, since many historians now consider WWI and WWII to be the same conflict, just one with an interregnum or lull in between the two main events.

    The American Civil War or War Between the States, as some call it, took place 1861-1865, roughly 75-80 years before World War Two, and so on.

    Why an eighty years interval between paradigm-changing events? The hard-won lessons of each cohort of individuals are, in large part, taken to the grave with them. Once there is no one alive who remembers how awful it was during the War Between the States or the Great War or WWII, humanity foolishly repeats the same mistakes or at least similar ones. And so the cycle goes….

  5. what are our most significant delusions?

    I know some but if I told you you wouldn’t believe me because you are delusional!

    But on a more serious note: The most significant delusion of our time is that “good doctors, wise scientists, moral politicians, and uncorupted police – day and night – work to make the world a better place – so now go to sleep and good night”

    …when in fact, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

    Like when Israel demanded a “King” to rule over them, that’s how delusional people are today. 1 Samuel – Chapter 8:10

    “And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king. And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day.”

  6. Biggest delusion I had growing up was that things were always going to get better. More money, better health care, more leisure time (this was the biggest con) etc. Instead things are getting worse; Australians waiting in tents overnight for treatment in overcrowded hospitals, cities of 8 million people which become unliveable, roadworks everywhere for all the plumbing and new toilets, all the mini mansions built with money from the gold rush in the 19th century demolished and our local culture erased, end of manners and volunteerism…….. Now it is dog eat dog and our taxes subsidising migrants from the third world who hate us. I could go on endlessly. The gold rush homes were beautiful, modelled on the grand and stately homes of Europe.

  7. I am sure that in the future, psychology will be considered as absolutely [solid waste].
    I mean all the theory and method.
    Probably there still will be all kind of consulting by conversation, but without the pretentious of psychology.

  8. I think the theory of evolution is the most delusional and debunked theory so far, but still it is taught at schools as the one and only. The human chromosome or that of any other living thing is mathematically impossible to evolve in such great numbers of millions of genes, and in absolute sequence and without intelligence. The odds are far greater than all the atoms in the universe added together. After 10 to the power of 50 , such possibilities are disregarded by scientists.
    Another stupid farce we are led to believe is that water cannot power our energy needs with H + O . Look where we are today without being allowed to utilise that.

  9. I think ‘religion’ is the biggest and longest running hoax.

    All religions are man made for the sole benefit of the relevant priesthood. Rules and rituals are invented and are either designed to entertain or coerce with the objective of getting ‘bums on seats’ and then milking them dry.

    There is Yah’s truth as given in Tanach (Old Testament), then along come our betters and ‘interpret’ that truth such that they can tax all the food we eat, our clothing, our utensils and almost everything we use in our daily lives, how can a dishwasher be ‘kosher’? by running it through empty with kosher dishwasher powder, of course…..
    (from Jewish Chronocal “ask the Rabbi” some 40 years ago)

    Paul tells Timothy that an assembly needs apostles and prophets, teachers pastors and evangelists. But somehow now we only get the pastor I assume because the other’s salaries are too costly…..

    Religion is good business and a way to get rich quick.

    And then there are the political religions which are even worse…..

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