Many Australians, and in fact many people the world over, are under the mistaken impression that “Terra Australis Incognita” was used to refer to Australia. In fact, the term terra australis goes back much further than the discovery of New Holland (Australia).
The concept that the Indian Ocean must be enclosed by a large, unknown land in the south which acted as a counter balance to the land mass of the north, was first posited by Aristotle and expanded upon later by Ptolemy (1st century AD). Cartographers argued that Aristotle’s theory was logical, and insisted that the south land must exist. Although explorative expeditions reduced the amount of area the great continent was meant to cover over time, it was still thought that New Zealand was certainly a part of the continent, as were Africa and Australia.
In 1615, Jacob le Maire and Willhelm Schouten rounded Cape Horn and proved that the southern land was in fact separated from South America, and Abel Tasman’s 1642 circumnavigation of New Holland proved that Australia was not a part of the mythical continent. Finally, Captain James Cook made a circumnavigation of the globe on a high, southerly latitude, proving that if such a continent did exist, it must lie well within the polar regions and could not possibly extend into temperate zones as previously thought.
The romantic in me, inspired me to take terra australis incognita as the title of this post, and I must beg forgiveness if it was misleading. I would love to believe that Australia is the ‘unknown land’ referred to in the old myth, but alas it is not so.
That doesn’t mean to say, however, that Australia is not a land of mystery and intrigue in her own right. In her short and often violent history since her discovery and settlement, there are a wealth of inspirational stories to be told.
From a GLBT perspective, Australia offers an abundance of opportunities for m/m historical stories just begging to be told. From the outset Australia’s male population greatly exceeded the female population, a situation that was not remedied for many years.
Australia’s history abounds with stories – true ones – of deep bonds of love and affection between male partners.
One such record, discovered in the archives office of Tasmania, has become known as the ‘Dear Lover’ letter. It was written by a male convict facing execution, to his male lover and is a remarkable document, not only in its content, but in the fact that it survived.
I hope you won’t forget me when I am far away and all my bones is mouldered away. I have not closed an eye since I have lost sight of you. Your precious sight was always a welcome and loving charming spectacle. Dear Jack, I value death nothing but it is in leaving you my dear behind and no one to look after you….
Your true and loving
Records from the Norfolk Island Penal settlement “speak of some 100-150 [same sex] couples who consorted together and were referred to as husband and wife.” (Robert French Historian/Archivist - The Hidden History of Homosexual Australia DVD distributed by Madman 2004)
There is evidence of lesbian activity in the records of the Tasmanian Women’s Factory. One such record relates to an incident in 1842 when superintendent John Hutchinson went to investigate a disturbance at around 8pm. Looking in at a window, he identified five women - Ellen Arnold, Elisabeth Armstrong, Frances Hutchinson, Eliza Smith and Mary Deverena - who were:
“dancing perfectly naked, and making obscene attitudes towards each other, they were also singing and shouting and making use of most disgusting language. There was a sixth woman but I could not positively swear to her, the disgusting attitudes towards each other were in imitation of men and women together.”
In the 1830’s, The Mouldsworth Inquiry into the colonies discussed the question of whether the colonies would be granted self-government. This inquiry turned up so much evidence of homosexual activity that the chief justice of the time called Australia a Sodom in the South Pacific. (The Hidden History of Homosexual Australia DVD distributed by Madman 2004)
Although caution in the evaluation of evidence from the report is advisable due to the fact that the reason for the inquiry was an attempt to stop convicts from being sent to Australia, it is also reasonable to think that because Australia was a penal colony, such activities could and did occur.
The stories I have referred to in this article are not even the tip of the iceberg of Australia’s homosexual history. From bushrangers to men of influence to ‘passing women,’ there is bound to be a story to suit every taste buried somewhere in the archives of this young, but unique southern land.