The first known Europeans to set foot on Australia’s shores were the Dutch, doing so over 150 years before English explorer James Cook ever sighted eastern Australia.
In 1642, Abel Tasman sighted and named Van Diemen’s Land.
After Tasman had established in 1644 that the continent was separate from other land masses to the north, south and east, he referred to the entire continent as “Nova Hollandia”, rather than the previously used “Terra Australis Incognita”, meaning ‘unknown southern land’.
Thus, the continent became known as New Holland, a name recognised by other European explorers, including the first English visitor, William Dampier, in 1688.
Although the continent was known as New Holland, James Cook claimed the eastern seaboard for Great Britain under the name of New South Wales.
When Governor Phillip arrived with the First Fleet, he was instructed to extend the claim further west, but the western half remained known as New Holland.
In 1802-1803, explorer Matthew Flinders circumnavigated the entire continent, making meticulous observations while charting the coastline.
In a letter he wrote to the British Admiralty from the island of Mauritius in 1804, Flinders used the name “Australia” rather than “Terra Australis” or “New Holland”.
Some years after his exploration, Flinders wrote an account of his voyages just after his return to England.
“A Voyage to Terra Australis” was published in July 1814, just before Flinders died.
It was in this account that Flinders proposed that the name “Terra Australis” should be adopted for the southern continent.
In the introduction to “A Voyage to Terra Australis”, Flinders wrote: ‘Had I permitted myself any innovation upon the original term, it would have been to convert it into Australia; as being more agreeable to the ear, and as an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.’
Discussion still ensued upon the naming of the continent.
In an official despatch dated 21 December 1817, then-Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, recommended Flinders’ proposal that the continent should be named “Australia”, rather than “New Holland”.
The name was later officially adopted by the British Admiralty in 1824