Maps, cartes and Karta

Are you the kind of person that likes to pore over maps? It's not just navigators that exhibit such "mapaholic" tendencies. Many of us find place name origins fascinating, and the more exotic sounding, the more intriguing.

Australia, like the US, was colonized by the English so we have a plethora of rather boring anglo names. The same names are often duplicated ad nauseum, as settlers in different parts of the country habitually named their new settlement after their hometown. For example, Brighton was a popular choice and there are half a dozen towns with this name around the country.

Naming places after local features is more creative, except when imagination was in short supply. For example, there are 5 Snapper Points in South Australia alone. Surely cartographers could have chosen different fish species for some places? Where is Herring Point, Mullet Point, Snook Point or Whiting Point? The answer is there are none in South Australia, despite an abundance of all of those fish species. How unoriginal!

The most interesting place names are the ones that tell a story. For example, Encounter Bay (35°34.04'S 138°41.95'E) was named after the chance meeting of English explorer Capt. Matthew Flinders and French explorer Capt. Nicolas Baudin in April 1802. England and France were technically at war, but that was half a planet away and Baudin was gracious enough to invite Flinders aboard his larger vessel for afternoon tea. Incidentally, nearby "Victor Harbor" on Encounter Bay is the only town in Australia with “harbor” spelled the American way, not “harbour,” because it was named by American whalers.
Loch Vennachar
Shipwrecks are often immortalized on maps too. For example, Vennachar Point on Kangaroo Island commemorates the loss of of the sailing clipper Loch Vennachar, which sank with all hands in 1905. Maps also chronicle myriad less momentous events too, for example, Boxing Bay (35°34.00'S 137°36.38'E), where two unknown sailors settled their differences many years ago.

Some place names serve as a warning. For example, The Snares comprising North West Snare (36°2.00'S 137°11.70'E) and South East Snare (36°4.28'S 137°16.00'E) are intimidating enough to keep any sailor away. Or how about The Scrapers (35°48.427'S 138°8.220'E)? If I was a pirate, this is where I would hide my treasure!

Places often have multiple names, which is quite common on Kangaroo Island. Flinders was the first explorer to survey the North Coast and he bestowed it with familiar English names, such as King George Beach, Point Marsden, Antechamber Bay, Backstairs Passage, etc. The South Coast of Kangaroo Island however is replete with French names, such as Cap Borda (Cape Borda), Cap du Couedic, Cap Gantheaume, Baie Vivonne (Vivonne Bay), etc, thanks to fact that Baudin got there first. Actually, he named the island L'Isle Decres after Vice Admiral Denis Decres, but unsurprisingly this was less catchy than Kangaroo Island.

Some French names survive on the North Coast too, notably Cap(e) Cassini, named after César-François Cassini de Thury, a famous French astronomer and the inventor of the Cassini map projection. Baudin must have had a thing for astronomers. Cap Delambre was named after Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre, another French astronomer and mathematician. The Delambre Crater on the Moon is named after him too. Cap Delambre lost out to Kangaroo Head though.

Note: Did you know when the French Academy of Sciences was introducing the new unit of measurement, known as the metre (meter), the academics defined it as 1/10,000,000 of the distance from the North Pole to the equator? The French prepared expeditions to measure the new length, and Cassini was chosen to lead one of them. As a royalist however, he refused to serve under the new revolutionary French government, so Delambre got the job instead.

Then there is Ravine des Casoars which is French for "Ravine of the Cassowaries". Sounds reasonable except for the fact there are no cassowaries on Kangaroo Island. The birds that Baudin saw were undoubtedly dwarf emus, which unfortunately later went extinct. Flinders got it right naming Emu Bay however.

Fortunately not all place names have been grafted from the Old World onto the New. We should be grateful for those early cartographers and cartographes who made an effort to preserve indigenous place names, even if they usually butchered the pronunciation in the process. For example Onkapringa (from Ngangkiparinga) (“Women's river”), Myponga (from Naitpangka) (“Place of high cliffs”) and Willunga (“Place of trees”), all on the Fleurieu Peninsula (another French name). Except for features visible from the mainland, such as Narunggawi (Cape Willoughby), Kangaroo Island lacks indigenous place names since Aboriginal Australians had long since left the Island before the arrival of Europeans in the 1800s. In fact mainland Aboriginals named the island Karta which means "The Dead". Now that’s a name to keep away tourists! Although probably not pirates.



  1. Did you know that the French names on Kangaroo Island remain on Island maps because when Flinders prepared his maps he used some of the French names as a mark of respect for Baudin and surveyors such as Cassini pere and fils, despite his years of incarceration on Mauritius at the hands of the French? Flinders had access to the French maps, which were largely plagiarised from his by Freycinet-Baudin was dead. Flinders' maps became the official maps of the Island. Maps are not, as you imply, autochthonic, but are as much products of social and political events as any other cultural product.


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