Matthew Flinders' map of Australia

Matthew Flinders, General chart of Terra Australis or Australia, 1814, nla.obj-232588549

The land that is now known as Australia was called by various names by the Indigenous peoples who lived there for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. These names varied between different language groups and regions. The Indigenous peoples had a deep spiritual connection to the land and had a name for every feature of the land.

For many centuries Europeans believed there must be a vast land in the southern hemisphere, variously called ‘Terra Australis Incognita’ from the Latin for ‘Unknown South Land’.

After Dutch navigators charted the northern, western and southern coasts of Australia during the 17th Century this newly found continent became known as ‘New Holland’.

It was the English explorer Matthew Flinders who suggested the name we use today. He was the first to circumnavigate the continent in 1803, and used the name ‘Australia’ to describe the continent on a hand drawn map in 1804. The National Library holds a reproduction.

When the map and book describing his journey was finally published in 1814 the name 'Terra Australis' was used instead, although Flinders stated that his preference was still 'Australia'. You can view his General chart of Terra Australis or Australia map online.

The New South Wales Governor Lachlan Macquarie endorsed the name Australia to replace New Holland in a dispatch to the Colonial Office in London in December 1817, and the name came into common local usage. By 1824 the British Admiralty started to officially use the name, and the term Australia was first used in British legislation in 1828 to apply to the two colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land combined.

The name Commonwealth of Australia for the nation of six federated colonies was formalised in the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 preamble section 3, passed by the UK Parliament.

The name Australia had appeared in print long before Flinder's suggestion, but only broadly applied to the legendary southern land mass. The earliest printing of this name is in an astronomical treatise published in 1545. With south at the top of the map a small wind head map names the imagined southern land mass ‘Australia’.

The State Library of South Australia has an excellent overview of Flinders' naming of Australia on their website Encounter 1802-2002.

Some relevant material held by the National Library includes:

History Maps