Matthew Flinders did not invent the word ‘Australia’ nor was he the first to use it in print to refer to lands in the southern hemisphere. Its use goes back to the early seventeenth century and was simply a derivation from ‘australis’, the Latin word for ‘southern’. For centuries, the presumed southern continent had been called terra australis incognita — the unknown southern land.
In 1606, the Spanish explorer Pedro Fernandez de Quiros used the term ‘austrialia’ as a name for Vanuatu, which he believed to be the southern continent. This was a reference to the fact that Philip III of Spain was also a Prince of the House of Austria. In 1612, a Dutch publication had rendered this ‘australia’ and the word appeared intermittently over the next two hundred years.
Until Flinders completed his circumnavigation of the continent in 1803, the true outline of what became known as ‘Australia’ was unknown. Flinders was the first to apply the term to the entity he had delineated.
From 1804 Flinders used the word ‘Australia’ to refer to his discoveries. When he compiled his chart of the continent and Tasmania in that year he titled it ‘Australia or Terra Australis’.
Flinders had to fight to retain these terms because the term ‘New Holland’ was already in use in existing publications. Indeed, in 1810 Robert Brown used the term in the title of his published work on the botany of the Investigator voyage.
Flinders wanted to use ‘Australia’ but eventually had to compromise with ‘Terra Australis’. At least that term did not imply a Dutch discovery of the whole of the continent.
When Flinders’ atlas was published in 1814, the great chart of the nation was headed ‘Terra Australis or Australia’ and his book was titled A Voyage to Terra Australis. He wrote: ‘Had I permitted myself any innovation upon the original term, it would have been to convert it into Australia; as being more agreeable to the ear, and an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth’.
Governor Lachlan Macquarie received a copy of Flinders’ book in 1817 and began to use ‘Australia’ in his correspondence. This official sanction increased its use.
Phillip Parker King, Flinders’ successor in surveying the Australian coast, was able to use ‘Australia’ on his charts, some of which superseded Flinders’. His 1827 publication was titled Narrative of a Survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia …