Paul Giles reviews 'Incognita' by G.A. Mawer

Paul Giles reviews 'Incognita' by G.A. Mawer

Incognita: The Invention and Discovery of Terra Australis

by G.A. Mawer

Australian Scholarly Publishing, $34.95 pb, 279 pp, 9781925003598

As the author explains in his preface, Incognita had its genesis in events to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the voyages of Janszoon and Torres to the Cape York Peninsula in 1606, with the explorations of these Dutch mariners representing the first European sighting of Australia. This book has been several years in the making, and it offers an eminently readable account of engagements across the ages with the idea and reality of ‘Terra Australis’, from Plato’s time through to the turn of the twentieth century. In some ways it usefully complements the ‘Mapping Our World’ exhibition held at the National Library of Australia in 2013, which traced how the southern continent has appeared over the past 1,000 years on world maps, thus reviewing global cartography, as the exhibition’s catalogue claimed, ‘for the first time from an antipodean perspective’. But if the focus of ‘Mapping Our World’ was exclusively on visual cartography, Mawer’s concern is equally with prose accounts of southern maritime exploration, seeking as he does to address ‘the three great traditions that had been at play in the search for Terra Australia – the supernatural, the speculative and the scientific’.

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Published in April 2015, no. 370

Paul Giles

Paul Giles is Challis Professor of English Literature at the University of Sydney. His most recent book is Antipodean America: Australasia and the Constitution of U.S. Literature (Oxford University Press, 2013).

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