18th Century, Cultural Studies, Historical Studies, Humanities, Literary Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Travel Writing

Virtual Voyages

25.04.10 | Comment?

Born out of an ancient geographical theory of balance, the term ‘antipodes’ was first used to refer to the vast uncharted underworld of the southern hemisphere from a northern perspective. The principle behind this belief, as described in the Quarterly Review in the nineteenth century, was ‘that all the land, which had till then been discovered in the southern hemisphere, was insufficient to form a counterpoise to the weight of land in the northern half of the globe’.[1] The idea of the antipodes as a counterbalance, though now remembered only as a peculiar, discredited theory, has been surprisingly influential as an imaginative concept. An antipodean expectancy filled minds, maps, novels and utopian plans, laying the foundations for perceptions of Oceania and Australasia that continue to impact on how this part of the world is seen from a distance as well as from within. The region of the antipodes has been occupied by European settlers and their descendants for a relatively short time. And yet, this brief period is set against a backdrop of one of the longest recorded histories of imagining prior to geographical discovery. It is little wonder, then, that the antipodes provided the setting for a curious battle to be played out—between discovery and invention, fact and fiction, historical experience and fantasy, science and faith—within the literary genre of the ‘imaginary voyage’ that is the focus of this book. For more than two centuries this once popular form of travel fiction, now all but forgotten, made use of the shifting boundaries between these sets of binaries. In doing so, it contributed to the course of literary history and also to the history of colonialism.

A giant southern continent featured in the classical imagination as early as the fifth century BC, with the landmass once thought to fill much of the southern half of the globe.[2] In his commentary on Cicero’s Republic, the Dream of Scipio (c. fifth century AD), Ambrosius Macrobius included a map showing Europe, Africa and Asia in the northern hemisphere separated from a southern continent by a great ocean. A version of this map from a sixteenth century edition of the Dream of Scipio (c. 1560) is reproduced here [Figure 1]. Similar schematic maps were produced over this 1000-year period, based on theories informed by classical geography. On many of these maps the equatorial region was portrayed as a burning torrid zone, following the beliefs of Pythagoras.[3] As the discoveries of voyagers gradually filled in the blanks on world maps and edged into the antipodean space, the geographical parameters of the antipodes subtly shifted. The boundaries were never fixed, clearly defined or neatly drawn. They were mobile because early voyagers’ mapping was partial and contradictory but also because the idea of the antipodes began as a means of speculating about a geography that could not yet be described. As parts of this southern world were named, mapped and integrated into a northern worldview, the antipodes of the imagination diminished in area by stages until, during the course of the seventeenth century, it came to rest over present-day Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.


Arthur, Paul Longley. Virtual Voyages: Travel Writing and the Antipodes 16051837. London & New York: Anthem Press (Studies in Travel), 2010 (paperback, 2011) ISBN 978-1-84331-800-2.

[1] ‘Behring’s Strait and the Polar Basin’, Quarterly Review 18, no. 36 (1818): 449.

[2] Greek thinkers (such as Pythagoras, then Aristotle and later Pomponius Mela and Ptolemy), saw the earth as spherical; hence the theory that a great south land must exist to balance those of the northern hemisphere. See William Eisler, The Furthest Shore: Images of Terra Australis from the Middle Ages to Captain Cook (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995), 9. New interest in Ptolemy’s ideas about a great south land came with the invention of the printing press. Ptolemy’s famous Geography was used to showcase large-scale printing processes.

[3] Pythagoras imagined that the world was made up of five regions, two frigid and temperate zones north and south of the equator, which was a torrid central band. The equatorial band was imagined as a physical buffer beyond which religion and civilization could not reach. See Eisler, The Furthest Shore, 9.

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Paul Arthur is Vice-Chancellor’s Professorial Research Fellow and Chair in Digital Humanities and Social Sciences, at Edith Cowan University, Western Australia. He speaks and publishes widely on major challenges and changes facing 21st-century society, from the global impacts of technology on communication, culture and identity