Society for the History of Discoveries


Day, Alan Edwin.  Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of Australia.  Lanham, MD and Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2003.  xlvi, 321 pp. $77.00. ISBN 0810845881.

No one had ever seen it or could be certain of its exact location, but the fathers of geography and the cosmographers of the classical and medieval worlds were certain that a vast continent existed in the southern hemisphere.  Even when the South Land and New Holland began to assume a definite outline, it was considered not to be the continent that, for  centuries, had been thought to exist.  Not until British and French ships sailed where Terra Australis was presumed to be was it finally acknowledged  to exist only in the imagination.  The long-sought-after rich and fertile continent was transformed into the icy, inhospitable, intemperate, uninhabited, and apparently barren wastes of Antarctica.  Although Terra Australis survived on maps until the nineteenth century, it designated only present-day Australia, not the glorious southern continent it once represented.  To that extent, Australia was physically and geographically a sad disappointment.

Although Australia’s aborigines reached the northern shores some 50,000 years ago and there is evidence for possible early Asian and African contacts, the discovery, exploration, and mapping of Australia in historical times was predominantly European.

 All these elements are reflected in the entries of this historical dictionary which is impressive in its depth as well as in its breadth.  Its topics include seamen from eight nations, recovery of storm-wrecked ships, diplomatic treaties, priority of discovery disputes, military and civilian explorers and surveyors, topographical features, geographical terms and places, rivers, and maps.  The entries feature ancient cosmographers, speculative cartographers, influential geographers, discoverers and explorers, surveying and land measuring instruments, place names and geographical locations, diseases, learned societies and research library collections.  The entries also include the evidence for and the speculation surrounding possible early voyages by Egyptians, Arabs, and Chinese seamen.

Many of the entries are brief but substantive essays, well beyond the typical dictionary notation.  E.g., place names include their origins, the person who names the place, the date of naming, and the reasons for the choice; biographies for individuals extend to three pages and include both factual and subjective data.

Other items not usually found in a dictionary include nine maps tracing the evolution of Australia’s states, territories, and capitals, 1494-1863; a 14-page chronology, 3rd century B.C. to 2000; a 16-page narrative introduction which summarizes the roles played by Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain in Australia’s settlement and exploration; and a 84-page classified bibliography.

This exceptionally comprehensive historical dictionary is a worthy addition to the author’s earlier bibliographic work, Discovery and Exploration: a reference handbook – the Old World, New York: K.G. Saur, 1980 and Search for the Northwest Passage: an annotated bibliography, New York: Garland Publishing, 1986.

 Eric W. Wolf
Falls Church, Virginia


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