Byte 1: Beginnings – Terra Australis – BC -1200 AD
So let’s get going. When did this journey begin? Well, let’s start with the first hint that there was (or should be) a Great Southern Land…
The notion of Terra Australis, the Great Southern Land, was first introduced by Aristotle in his work Meteorologica, circa 350 BC. For Aristotle “there must be a region bearing the same relation to the southern pole as the place we live in bears to our pole”.
As opposed to the observations of travelers, it was a deemed a matter of physics that land be somewhat distributed evenly around the globe. This was the time when such concepts as the spheric nature of the world was developed and that one could reach the east by traveling west.
This was reinforced by works of other classical writers, for example Ptolemy (1st century AD). He introduced and developed concepts and principles of mapping with his influencial book Geographia, as well as presented the Indian Ocean enclosed on the south by land.
In 1477, around the time of the first European push into the Atlantic, 500 copies of Ptolemy’s book was published in Bologna and further printings occurred in Italy and Germany thus spreading the ideas of Ptolemy.
So it is by deduction, rather than exploration that there is the first hint of Terra Australis. But one thing is clear: Terra Australis, from the earliest of times, has manifested itself in the human psyche of discovery. And no one was going to let it go until it was found…explored…and more…
Our journey of discovery begins…
Byte 2: Beginnings – The Dawn of Discovery – 1200-1300 AD
The last byte introduced the logical argument for a Southern Land. Let’s move to more earthly and tactile experiences.
We commence our physical journey of the discovery & colonisation of the Great Southern Land in an unusual place, in Lyon, where Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, (c.1180-1252) becomes one of the first great explorers to write of lands outside Christendom.
It’s the start of the 13th century. A time of Crusades, Kings and Moorish conflict on the Iberian peninsula.
This is the time when Giovanni Carpine sets off in 1245 to Mongolia and the Court of the Great Khan. Tasked with delivering a letter to the Great Khan by Pope Innocent IV, he makes a 3000 miles journey into unknown lands across Rus and into Mongolia (when he is well into his 60’s).
It is an arduous journey of great hardships traveling north of the Caspian sea. It’s an amazing feat of endurance. But it is what he does on his return that counts. He writes a book, Historia Mongolorum based on his travels. In it he describes the Tartar peoples, the lands, the customs and even how to wage war on them. This is one of the first books to open the eyes of many to the world outside Europe.
William of Rubruck follows soon after and similarly travels to, and writes of, crossing the whole of central Asia traveling to far away Mongolia. Although, it must be said, not all of the observations written of were necessarily accurate, or there was some “tongue in the cheek” employed by locals in the stories they told him.
Take for example this story repeated by Friar Rubruck…
“On one occasion there sat by me a priest from Cathay, wearing a rede material of a very fine hue, and when I asked him where he got such as colour from, he told me that in the eatern district of Cathay there are lofty crags in which dwell creatures having in every respect human form except that do not bend their knees but walk hopping… they are but a cubit high and the woke of their small bodies is covered with hairs… when men go hunting them they carry withy them… very intoxicating mean (mead), and they set traps among the rocks in the shape of cups and they fill them with mean…”
It gets better… so continues William of Rubruck…
“…(then) these animals come out of the caves and toast the drink and they cry out “Chinchin;” from this shout they got their name, for they are called Chinchins. Then they assemble in vast numbers and drink the mean and, becoming intoxicated, they fall asleep… the hunters… bind them hand and foot as they sleep. NExt they open a vein in their necks and… extract three or four drops of blood… and that blood, so I am told is most valuable for dying purple.”
(Before European Hegemony, JL Abu-Lughod, p 162)
Soon it is Marco Polo’s turn to open peoples eyes to what lies out of Christendom. He journeys far and wide throughout Asia for over 20 years, ending up at the court of Kublai Khan in far distant China. His book Travels, like Giovanni Carpine ‘s book, helps Europe in later years lift the shroud of darkness on the outside world.
Europe is reaching out. The spirit of exploration is beginning…
In the preceding centuries Europe has experienced a rapid growth in population. Political stability is on the rise with fewer Viking and Arab raids and Feudalism has brought some order to society.
However, if you walk about Europe in 1300 all is not well. Some 75 million people now live off a land that is not increasing in productivity (for example England’s population had grown seven fold in three hundred years). There are signs of population stress. More and more marginal land is cropped and is now essential to the survival of more and more people.
Life is delicately poised – particularly for the common person – who is very much tied to the produce of the their land. Then climate change strikes. When there is so little margin for error. Enter the Little Ice Age . Longer winters, higher rain fall and shortening ripening periods starts around 1315 and sets the stage for famine in 1317 – the Great Famine. It strikes when the communities reserves are depleted. Seed grain is eaten as opposed to sown, animals are slaughtered, children abandoned, and the old died followed by the young, then by the healthy.
Can things get worse? Oh yes they can! Let’s hear Michael Platiensis words about 1337:
“At the beginning of October… twelve Genoese galleys . . . entered the harbor of Messina. In their bones they bore so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death. The infection spread to everyone who had any contact with the diseased. Those infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed on the thighs or upper arms a boil about the size of a lentil … This infected the whole body, and penetrated it so that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired… Soon the corpses were lying forsaken in the houses. No ecclesiastic, no son, no father and no relation dared to enter, but they hired servants with high wages to bury the dead.”
The Black Death decimates Europe’s population killing some 30% of the population a few short years. The Dead litter the countryside. And a new nursery rhyme is born:
But as always, there are unintended consequences to this calamity. The path this disease takes to Europe is the Silk Road. The life blood of trade with the far East. As it ravages this key trade route we also see the disintegration of the Mongol Empire starting from the 1330’s. Chaos from the break down of established order derails eastern trade (which had been rendered largely safe by the stability of the Mongol Empire). Soon access to the riches of the East are at risk. And an alternative must be found!
One option is for Europe to turn to the sea – where they could pursue the wealth that was to be had from trading with far off lands…
Go to the archive for the next installments in this History of Australia in small bytes…