Antarctica: mapping the last continent

By Natalie Muller 1 December 2011
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A new exhibition of historic charts at the State Library of NSW revisits how explorers put Antarctica on the map.

ON THE 6 FEBRUARY 1772, Captain James Cook sat down to plan his second voyage south. He had been commissioned by Britain’s Royal Society to discover the vast, largely mysterious landmass thought to exist at the bottom of the world.

He sketched a rough map of the Southern Hemisphere and marked the routes sailed by others before him – French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who circumnavigated the globe in 1766-69, and Abel Tasman, who skirted Australia’s southern shores more than 100 years earlier.

Then he marked in yellow ink the route he would take. This voyage would prove the mysterious ‘Terra Incognita’ was neither as big nor as habitable as previously thought.

Drawing the Terra Incognita

Cook’s chart is one of 120 rare maps on display at the State Library of NSW in Sydney to mark the centenary of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition. The exhibition Finding Antarctica: Mapping the last continent tells the story of the gradual discovery, exploration and charting of this unknown region from the 15th century through to the present day.

“They didn’t really know how big or how far it extended, so they used their imagination,” says Maggie Patton, curator of maps at the State Library. “The early maps are all about the myths of where it might be. They’re incredibly ornate and have got beautiful details.”

Early cartographers such as the Abraham Ortelius of Holland and Pierre Moullart-Sanson of France relied on travel journals and geographic descriptions to create their versions of the world.

Prior to the 17th century many European maps depicted a large continent that stretched over the South Pole, joining up with New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, and Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. It wasn’t until Abel Tasman’s exploration of Australia’s southern coastline in 1642, and Cook’s circumnavigation of Antarctica in 1772-75, that a better grasp of its size and shape emerged.

Changing Antarctic landscape

Maggie says the maps show not only how ideas about Antarctica changed, but also how the land itself changed. For example, some label seal colonies that have since died out because of hunting and trade. “You can certainly see on some of the maps where the first icebergs were, where some of the ice fields were, and how that’s changed,” she says.

Advances in extended flight, aerial photography and satellite imagery have transformed forever how land is surveyed. But Maggie says the early maps are still her favourites: “Some of those maps of South America and Tierra del Fuego are quite beautiful with amazing images and animals and colour.”