For nearly two millennia some Europeans believed that a vast, wealthy, and peopled continent, Terra Australis Incognita, lay in the southern ocean, and acted as a stabilizing counterweight to the northern landmasses. The presence of this frontier, if only imaginary, represented geographical opportunity, and served as a psychological safety valve. Until discoverers possessed the ability to accurately chart the southern seas, the existence of the theoretical continent went unchallenged. Two voyagers serve as bookends in this search during the Age of Exploration: Pedro Ferdinand de Quirós (1565-1615), and Captain James Cook (1728-1779). Beyond their actual voyages, these men serve as philosophical representatives of the ages in which they lived: the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. By examining the written records left by Quirós and Cook, one can discern a clear change in the vision of and for the mythical continent. The philosophical distance between Quirós and Cook mirrors the change which took place among intellectuals in Europe during the same period. Quirós sought to form a religious Utopia on Terra Australis. He found the small island of Santo, Vanuatu, and embellished it into a fifth continent of the world. After Quirós, European men of letters moved Terra Australis to the forefront of the popular imagination by using it as a setting for their works. By the time Captain Cook sailed, the Enlightenment was in full flower. The tolerance for Renaissance legend began to wear thin among all but a few ardent believers. Humankind wanted to know exactly what lay in the South Pacific. Cook embodied this empiricism, doggedly sailing around the South Pole until no more room could be found for an additional continent. Terra Australis vanished not only as consequence of navigation and cartography, but in tandem with the emerging scientific ethos. Humankind lost the possibility of ever discovering another vast and wonderful continent, and traded the romance and Christian humanism of Quirós for the skepticism and severity of Cook.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Australia -- Discovery and exploration; Dissertations (MA) -- Humanities/Teacher Education.

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology


Humanities/Teacher Education

Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Larson, Edward J.