Cosmography: First mention of California and Australia in print

By Adam Staunton, Special Collections & Archives

Peter Heylin

Cosmography in Four Books: Containing the Chorography and History of the Whole World (1652) is an attempt by Peter Heylin to describe in immaculate detail everything known about the world, including its cultures, religions, politics, customs and geography. Heylin was enrolled in Magdalen College at Oxford University in 1615 and by 1617 had already graduated with a B.A and begun lecturing with the school of Geography. By 1620 he completed his M.A and published his lectures, Microcosmos: a Little Description of the Great World and presented the same to Prince Charles in 1621. His continued loyalty to the Monarchy would cause Heylin a great deal of trouble during The English Civil Wars (1642-1651). His home was attacked by Parliamentarian troops, he narrowly escaped the siege of Oxford and was later forced into hiding. It wasn’t until the Restoration of 1660 that Heylin was restored to his position as sub-dean of Westminster, presenting the royal sceptre to King Charles II at his coronation.

Cosmography is one of Heylin’s most important works. It is the first print mention of California, Australia and the Tierra del Fuego province of Argentina. California is described in book four, part two, The Chorography and History of America and all the Principal Kingdoms, Provinces, Seas and Iles thereof. Heylin starts his description by objecting to the name given to the continent. America was named after Amerigo Vespucci who sailed from Spain to the Gulf of Mexico, then was the first to travel as far as to Brazil and back to Haiti. Heylin argues that Christopher Columbus and John Cabot “led the way” and “touched many places” but that Vespucci did not. Heylin suggests the names “Columbana” or “Cabotia” and refers to Vespucci only as “an adventurous Florentine” and not by name.

Map one of North America first showing California attached to mainland North America

California at this time was believed to be an Island, with the Gulf of California separating it from mainland Mexico, as Heylin notes: “acceptation of it to an Island, as now it is generally conceived to be.”  Although one map in the chapter shows California attached to mainland North America while a second shows it as an island. He goes on to describe California as “very plain, of few trees, nor much of people.” California is broken down into four different provinces, Quivira to the North, Cibola in the South, New Albion to the North West and California as the remaining part. Each with its own climate, food sources and descriptions of its indigenous people. Their religions, clothing, language and first interactions with Spanish or English travellers are described in great detail by Heylin. For example Englishmen had been kidnapped by the Tartary of Quebec who are described as “near neighbours” of the indigenous people of Quivira, only known to be “apparelled in bull skins from head to feet.” While in New Albion, Englishmen were gifted feathers and bull skins by its indigenous people upon landing.

Map two showing the Isle of California as described by Heylin

Terra Australis Incognita is briefly described in An Appendix to the Former Work Endeavouring a Discovery of the Unknown Parts of the World. Heylin notes that mariners travelling along the Cape of Good Hope have noted cold winds coming from the South. Heylin argues that wind blows colder from land than it does from sea, thus there must be a new land mass to the south of Good Hope. This land mass “of glory (and) enough to satisfy the hungry appetite of any Empire” had gone undiscovered as Princes are “engaged in wars and other such avocations” while merchants are busy in their “wealthy factories.”  Terra Australis would end up being Antarctica as we know it today, hence the cold wind theory. While Australia as we know it today was originally named New Holland and it wasn’t until Matthew Flinders circumnavigated the continent in 1803 that he suggested the name Terra Australis, 150 years after it appeared in print in Cosmography.

Cosmography was the last work Heylin could complete by himself before becoming blind. By 1660 he couldn’t read or write and could only make out shapes. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, under his own choir stall after being visited in a dream by King Charles I who told him “Peter, I will have you buried under your own seat in church, for you are rarely seen but there or at your study.” Further reading on the life of Peter Heylin and his relationship with both King Charles I and II can be found in the Russell Library. Cosmography was recently viewed in the Russell Library by Maynooth University president Professor Eeva Leinonen, accompanied by The Australian Ambassador to Ireland, Gary Gray.

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