DISCOVERY: The Quest for the Great South Land by Miriam Estensen

DISCOVERY: The Quest for the Great South Land

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A map of the social, historical, and often mythical impulses that led the Western world on a search for the great Southern Continent--and Australia's distilling of society's most fantastic dreams and nightmares. The title of this debut volume is misleading, since Estensen's account stops at James Cook's famous 1755 circumnavigation and never gets further inland than the shore, leaving the discovery of the interior to another volume. However, her research is truly impressive regarding the staggering number of voyages European nations undertook in the hopes of finding a rich southern continent. Starting from Pythagoras' first supposition that, on a spherical earth, a massive southern continent must balance the northern half, Estensen details with almost tiresome inclusiveness exactly how many attempts were made to find it and by whom, and with what degree of disaster they met. When even the best ships were like Wiffle balls on the open ocean, when longitude had not yet been invented, and when most captains measured speed and direction by dead reckoning, still, hundreds of ships set out to find either Java La Grande, as it was called, or a trade route around it. What is most striking is the incredible power of the myth, in spite of, and perhaps because of, the massive number of deaths it inspired. A good example is the infamous Batavia disaster, where shipwrecked passengers and crew turned to slaughtering one another mercilessly under an impromptu martial law. At one point, Estensen describes a trip as successful ""despite the usual deaths and crises,"" of which there were a shocking number. Only man's lust for new sources of precious metals, gems, and exotic agricultural products could explain such tenacity. Though a laundry list of voyages, Estensen's meticulous account conveys the bravery and persistence, as well as cowardice and cruelty, of these early explorers.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1999
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: St. Martin's