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The Naming of Australia

Naming of Australia

Australia's history

Naming of Australia

Naming of Australia

Australia's History

Dutch map of southern lands from about 1690
Dutch map of southern lands from about 1690


The question "Who named Australia?" is not a simple one to answer. Firstly there is the question of the origin of the name, its variants and how and when it was made official. Secondly there is the question of what the name is applying to. Is it a region? Is it a group of islands? Is it the island continent itself? Below are a few important dates and occurrences leading to the naming of Australia.

  • Ancient times - Greeks use the word australis to mean south or the southern part of the world.
  • 800 to 1400 - geographers continue to use the word australis to refer to the region and in particular refer to terra australis incognita (unknown or un-named southern land).
  • Did the Spanish name Australia?

    There are claims that the Spanish were responsible for the naming of Australia. It is claimed that in 1606 Pedro Fernandez de Quiros landed not on Vanuatu but on the coast of Queensland. He then applied the name Austrialia de Espirito Sancto not to the region but the great south land he believed he had discovered. Back in Europe, usage quickly led to the dropping of the first "i" (and hence the compliment to the Hapsburgs) in Austrialia and the name Australia became current.

    If all the above were true, then we could say with some certainty that the Spanish named Australia. At White Hat we see little substantial evidence to support such a theory. However new historical evidence is unearthed from time to time and if new evidence regarding the naming of Australia emerges we may then need to revise our thinking.

    If you are interested in the Spanish naming theory, you can find more information at

  • 1605-6 - The Spaniard Pedro Fernandez de Quiros sails from South America in search of the great south land. Arriving at Vanuatu in the New Hebrides declares "all this region of the south as far as the Pole"Markham, Voyages of Quiros (Hakluyt Society), vol. I., P. xxx to be named Austrialia de Espirito Sancto. The name means roughly  "Austria of the south of the Holy Spirit". The "de Espirito Sanctou" paid tribute to the Holy Spirit for guiding and protecting the voyage while the "Austrialia" was an invented hybrid word combining the names Austria and a compliment to King Phillip III of Spain who was a member of the House of Habsburg (Austria).
  • 1642-3 - The Dutch explorer Abel Tasman makes a complete circuit around Australia (for most of the time at a large distance) thus helping define the outer limits of any possible great south land.
  • 1638 - The Dutch publication Generale Beschrijvinge van Indien describing Dutch voyages in the East Indies uses the word Australische (the Dutch version of southern) throughout the text to refer to regions south of the East Indies. However, whoever was responsible for compiling the index uses the word Australia in the index rather than Australische.
  • 1756 - Charles de Brosses uses the word Australasia in Histoire des Navigations aux Terres Australes to label the still only partially-known area to the south of Asia. The name Australasia is still used today to  designate Australia together with surrounding larger and smaller islands including New Zealand and New Guinea.
  • 1788 - On 26th January 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip arrives with the First Fleet of mainly convicts from Britain and at Sydney Cove declares the area then and declares New South Wales to be a British colony. This date is now celebrated as 'Australia Day' although strictly it should be called New South Wales Day as the British were not to adopt that name until later and it was still not known if New South Wales and New Holland formed part of the same landmass.
  • 1802-3 Mathew Flinders circumnavigates the large continental mass proving that the areas known at that time as New Holland and New South Wales were part of the same continent. On his map the name Australia is used for the first time (to White Hat's knowledge) to specifically describe the continent that now bears that name.
  • 1804 -  In a letter written from Mauritius to the British Admiralty, Flinders referred to this land mass as Australia rather than most commonly used names of Terra Australis and New Holland.

  • 1814 - Mathew Flinders publishes A Voyage to Terra Australis. Throughout the book he uses the name Australia to refer to the island continent. This book helped boost the popularity of the name Australia and until 1824 there was a mixed unofficial use of all three current names, Australia, Terra Australis and New Holland.
  • 1817 - The Governor of New South Wales, Governor Lachlan Macquarie recommends that the name Australia be officially adopted.
  • 1824 - The British Admiralty officially adopts the name Australia
  • 1830s - the colonies South Australia and Western Australia are officially named. The explorer Major Mitchell also referred to the region of western Victoria through which he travelled as Australia Felix (happy Australia)

So who gave Australia its name? If you want a simple answer we would have to say Matthew Flinders. He was the first to know for certain that what he was dealing with was an island continent, referred to it as Australia and his naming recommendation was eventually accepted by the British authorities. However if we found ourselves in a pub surrounded by swarthy Spanish sailors we might become receptive to alternative views.

Useful links

European Voyages of Discovery

Footnote: The Australian anthropologist Raymond Dart made one of the most important discoveries of early man. Although discovered in southern Africa, it  may have been Dart's Australian heritage to name the fossil Australopithecus africanus using austral in its original meaning of 'south'. The combination of Greek and Latin however did not sit well with some scientists.


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