Colonial Origins and Imaginations

Australasia is an invented name, the product of European desires to scientifically describe and classify the world’s geography. The name Australasia is the English translation of Australasie, first coined by Charles de Brosses, an aristocratic French magistrate and politician (he became president of the Burgundy parliament), who collected, synthesized, and translated, into French, accounts of all the voyages made to the South Seas by Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and British mariners. His work was originally published as the two volume Histoire des navigations aux terres australes in 1756. The first English version appeared in 1766.

De Brosses derived Australasie from the Latin australis (from auster, austr , meaning south) to describe, literally, everything ‘south of Asia’. He saw Australasie as distinct from Polynesie (‘many islands’, referring to those of the Pacific Ocean between Australasie and America) and Magellanie (the territories south of the line running from the Strait of Magellan in Tierra del Fuego to the Cape of Good Hope; see Figure 1). Included in de Brosses’ original description of Australasie were the islands of the Indian Ocean, New Guinea, New Britain, Espiritu Santo (a land mass imagined on maps as physically attached to today’s Queensland, but actually an island of what would become Vanuatu), Van Diemen’s Land (later to be called Tasmania), New Holland (later to be called Australia), and New Zealand. He argued that the Pacific was divided by three submerged mountain ranges – one running north–south down the east coast of Asia, the other two spanning the Pacific between Asia and America – whose peaks created the thousands of islands and thus sociocultural distinctions between world subregions. Australasia was one of these. The term fell into regular subsequent use by geographers, politicians, colonists, and bureaucrats – especially in its English translation, Australasia – although, as is seen in this article, not without variation or contestation.

Recognition of de Brosses’ contribution to world geography went far beyond authoring a place name. Indeed, his synthesis of explorers’ writings indelibly shaped the way Europeans interpreted and engaged with the South. Although his work (and others by his contemporaries such as Rousseau and Buffon) was driven by a desire to map and scientifically classify the world’s geography and humanity, in hindsight, it reveals much more about the context of European imaginings of other world regions, and the superiority and power Europeans assumed for themselves. The naming of Australasia was not just an act of benign description. It semantically distinguished and labeled a world region that had already, for centuries, been presumed to be distinct, disconnected, backward, and capable (if not ‘in need’) of invasion and civilization. This was at a time when ‘‘the Pacific became something of a laboratory for the [European] testing of scientific methodologies’’ (Livingstone, 2000: 246). Even before they were fully traversed and mapped by Europeans, the Antipodes were considered an inversion of northern civility, nature, and norms, a ‘‘place of perversity’’ (Ryan, 1996: 105). Writing at around the same time as de Brosses, French astronomer and mathematician Maupertuis (regarded by some as the first to use the term ‘race’ in describing peoples of the world) exemplified this European imagination of Australasie as disconnected and different:

Everyone knows that in the Southern Hemisphere there is an unknown space where there may be situated a new part of the world greater than any of the other foury nowhere else on the globe is there a space as vast as this, but rather than being totally occupied by a continuous sea, there is much more probability that one will find there landy It would be difficult to make unfounded conjectures on the productions and on the inhabitants of these landsy but one suspects that one will find there things very different from those one finds in the four other parts of the world. (1752, trans. in Ryan, 2002: 170)

The mid 1700s was a time of revolutions in science and industry, and both England and France sought to expand their empires. The lure was an imagined great southern continent – terres australes – believed to span the globe beneath the continents of Africa, America, and Asia. Conjecture was rife about the places and societies of the South, with stories of untold riches, potentially vital strategic geographical sites, as well as ‘‘innumerable speculations on giants, Patagonians, savages, natives, and monsters supposedly residing to the far east, west, south, and north of Europe’’ (Said, 1978: 117). Such decidedly fantastical predictions grew and were transformed throughout the Enlightenment period. Amid this conjecture, de Brosses’ text sought to amalgamate otherwise scattered and fragmented accounts from prior explorers, and more accurately categorize places, peoples, landscapes, and biota, redefining terres australes into three sections, in terms of underlying physical geography. Behind de Brosses’ writing was a view to the capacity of these places to be explored; of the natives to be pacified and civilized; and of the suitability of land for colonization by Europeans. The naming of Australasia thus, in many respects, signaled a pivotal moment in the history of European colonialism, as speculation about the little known South culminated in an act of scientific synthesis and classification, with accompanying proclamations of intent to systematically dominate new territories.

De Brosses also wrote about the peoples of the South Seas in the context of a wider debate about whether there was one united human race (with shared genetics), or instead a series of ‘races’, ‘varieties’, or ‘kinds’, of which Europeans were considered superior (indeed, a different, more evolved species). Australasie became the place name for a largely unknown southern part of the globe, onto which a series of European fantasies were projected about their (equally unknown) human inhabitants. For instance, Maupertuis argued that in contrast to other world regions, such as Europe, Asia, Africa, and America – where people and animals had always been in communication and thus shared many traits – in Australasie distinct species of all life forms, including a kind of ‘man ape’, may yet be discovered:

It is certain that they [the islands of Australasia] are absolutely isolated, and that they form, so to speak, a world apart, so that one is not able to anticipate what will be found therey it is in these islands in this sea that voyagers assure us they have seen wild men, hairy men, with tails; a species midway between monkeys and ourselves. (trans. in Ryan, 2002: 171)

Australasie was not just a convenient place name for a little known part of the world. Instead, the act of naming Australasie was a mechanism for formalizing, in the European imagination, a distinct sociobiological region. It was remote, disconnected, and savage – the archetypal product of the European Orientalist gaze. In this way, Australasie as a category represented a spatial manifestation of European ideas about race, evolution, and superiority.

The translation of Australasie into the English Australasia occurred in 1766 when John Callander, a minor writer, translated de Brosses’ original Histoire des Navigations into English without crediting the original author (de Brosses happened to leave his name off the cover of his opus). Claiming the extensive work as his own, Callander translated the full text (renaming it Terra Australis Cognita), including place names, into English. Thus Polynesie became Polynesia and Australasie became Australasia. Maps were stolen and redesigned with Anglicized nomenclature, and ‘‘associated ideas of diverse ‘savage’ racial groups and societal types coexisting in the Pacific, formally entered English language and thought’’ (Ryan, 2002: 180). Far from being a noble exchange of scientific ideas, the wholesale theft of de Brosses’ work was representative of the manner in which colonial ideas, concepts, maps, and names were hotly contested and claimed between France and England. The two rivals fought wars in the middle decades of the 1700s, and competed for territorial expansion in North America and in the Pacific. In the intervening years between the publication of de Brosses’ original and Callender’s copy, France and England fought the Seven Years War and England had deprived France of its colonies in Canada and India. De Brosses text was written to inform a French colonial expedition in the midst of this rivalry. But crucially, the translation of new geographical knowledges into English provided information to support the English crown’s invasions of that part of the world.

Thus began the British colonial use of Australasia, to define the parts of the South Pacific it would come to dominate through colonial invasion. Captain James Cook’s voyage of the 1760s and 1770s shortly followed, during which Aotearoa (as New Zealand was known to Maori) was surveyed; Fiji and the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) visited; New Caledonia named; and New Holland claimed. Of little surprise, in light of the precolonial fantasies described above, native inhabitants were variously described as ‘degraded’ or ‘savages’, occupying a place ‘at the edge of humanity’ (Anderson, 2007). Australasian botany was unusual and was described as inverted, twisted, and abnormal. This way of imagining the continent’s indigenous peoples and plant and animal life had already been framed prior to colonization by a European geographical classification of Australasia as a ‘world apart’, inhabited by man apes and bizarre creatures.

Research, exploration, and writings of British colonial geographers maintained the fiction of Australasia – but also further confused it. In 1804, Matthew Flinders circumnavigated New Holland, and used the term Australia on resulting maps, thus ushering in the formal use of that term to describe just the mainland of one part of Australasia. His naming of Australia built on centuriesold uses of variants of that word in the writings of European explorers and geographers, to refer to the mythic ‘great southern land’. Flinders did not invent ‘Australia’, but he did pin the name formally to the one land mass. It eroded claims that the Dutch once had to the continent (as New Holland), but was also a direct acknowledgement of the importance of de Brosses’ work in mapping and describing the Antipodes. In addition, the naming of Australia created a semantic slippage with the word ‘Australasia’ – such that one part of the world region shared part of its name (indeed, ‘Austral’, the dominant part) with an individual country. This would later confuse the meaning of ‘Australasia’ and complicate its usage. ‘Australia and New Zealand’ was often used instead as a de facto hyphenated place name (as with ‘Trinidad and Tobago’), because it encompassed all the ‘seven colonies’ of Britain in the region (none of which had yet been federated into unified nation states). It has even been said that in the late 1800s, New Zealanders were comfortable with ‘Australia’ as a shortened place name encompassing all the region – including their own colony – rather than just one landmass, reflecting the loose geopolitical categories of the time. Only adding to this confusion, a few years after Flinders’ voyage, John Pinkerton in Modern Geography, in 1807, defined Australasia, Polynesia, and the ‘Asiatic Islands’ as the primary geographical divisions in the Pacific, and at around the same time, another English geographer, Conrad Malte-Brun, coined the terms ‘Oceanique’/‘Oceanica’ (later to morph into ‘Oceania’) to describe the unknown ‘fifth part of the world’ (as de Brosses described it). These alternatives would make even more fluid the naming of this part of the world and lay the foundations for later misunderstandings.

Although beaten by the British in colonizing much of the Pacific, the French continued to invest in the scientific quest to further and more accurately describe and categorize world regions, as precursor or companion to actual colonial annexation. Major colonial voyages (often disguised in the name of science) were led to Australasie by Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1766–69) and Jean-Francois de Galaup, the Comte de la Perouse (1785–88). On them, France claimed numerous Pacific possessions including Nouvelle Cythere (Tahiti) and Vanuatu (New Hebrides); indeed, many islands were claimed on Bougainville’s journey from the bow of their passing ship, without him or his crew having to disembark. In contrast, on his voyage, De Galaup had the ignominious misfortune of arriving at Botany Bay, Sydney, a mere 5 days after Captain Arthur Phillip had established Britain’s first permanent colony in New South Wales, and thus just missed out on the opportunity to claim Australia for France. Departing rather despondently after experiencing what one commentator has since called ‘a fluke of cosmic proportions’, de Galaup headed for New Caledonia, but never arrived.

Anglo French rivalries in Australasia continued into the nineteenth-century, both in the development of scientific geography, and as competing powers extending their tentacles of empire. Gregoire Louis Domeny de Rienzi presented his paper to the Societe de geographie in Paris in 1831, in which he further classified Oceanie (Oceania) into five geographical regions and four principal ‘races’. At the same time, (and to the same audience) Jules Sebastien Cesar Dumont d’Urville argued that the region was made up of four geographical divisions – Polynesie, Micronesie, Malaisie, and Melanesie (including Australia) – and two key racial divisions, one belonging to the first three geographical regions, the other to the last. Explicit in these classifications were hierarchies of culture, as peoples were organized into fixed racial types, positioned along continuums of civilization, and partitioned by geographical space. Further French expansion soon followed; the Marquesas were annexed in 1843 and 10 years later Nouvelle Caledonie (New Caledonia) was made a penal colony in an attempt by Napoleon III to rival the British colonies in Australia and New Zealand.

Britain too reconfigured its role in the Pacific in the mid 1800s. No longer penal encampments or remote geopolitical outposts, the large Australasian colonies became important contributors of raw materials to a newly industrializing Britain, while the smaller island states became largely ignored. The textile mills, heavy industry, and shipbuilding yards of rapidly growing towns like Liverpool, Leeds, and Bradford all required vast quantities of inputs transported from Australia and New Zealand. Pastoral and mining activities were expanded (or more accurately, were ‘allowed’ to expand in a largely unregulated and invariably damaging manner), and Britain poured capital into the building of capital cities, ports, and railways. By contrast, British colonial authority over its smaller island territories was held onto rather reluctantly; investment was rare, and Australia and New Zealand assumed much of the colonial responsibility over them. New power relations and patterns of uneven development within the region were being established. In Australia and New Zealand, populations grew, cities were built, and this new form of industrial capitalism delivered the fruits of Antipodean colonialism long promised as part of the myth of Terra Australis. Accompanying this was the persistence of a more deeply exploitative racist undercurrent. Indigenous peoples continued to be denigrated, presumed to be subhuman, less advanced, or in the process of becoming extinct, and thus their sovereign rights were downplayed or ignored. Throughout the 1800s, wars were fought by soldiers, ‘settler’ farmers, and civilian populated militia against most of the approximately 250 Aboriginal nations on the Australian and Tasmanian land masses; and British descendant Australians and New Zealanders lined up together to fight Maori in New Zealand. Widespread dispossession of Australian Aboriginal peoples and Maori accompanied the re imagining of Antipodean spaces as productive suppliers of raw materials for the colonial centers. At the same time, neighboring islands were often excluded from flows of capital and commerce, and faded from the center of the British colonial imagination in Australasia.