Terra Australis Jam Cognita

Matthew Flinders and Exploration's Constructed Environment


  • Ryan Barker Purdue University


Geography, Scientific Travel, Empire, Exploration, Australia, Matthew Flinders


The following article considers the 1801-1803 expedition sponsored by the British government and commanded by Matthew Flinders to circumnavigate and chart the Australian coastline. Ultimately, this expedition led Flinders to become one of the first explorers to argue against the existence of the fabled continent Terra Australis. In his 1814 book, A Voyage to Terra Australis, Flinders argued that the landmass he circumnavigated—then called New Holland, New South Wales, or Terra Australis—should be renamed Australia. He believed it to be the only landmass of continental proportions found in the South Pacific. The essay considers how Flinders’s assumptions about global geography and Terra Australis’s existence were fundamentally different than those of previous explorers, thus ending a nearly three-hundred-year period of European expeditions to find the hypothetical continent. As a result, the article challenges historiographical trends that frequently define exploration history through a progressive lens with distinct periodic breaks. Instead, it contends that European geographical assumptions evolved much more gradually over the course of centuries.