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Pedro Fernandez de Quiros: Looking for ‘Terra Australis’

In the early seventeenth century, many people in the then ‘known world’ were not sure that Australia existed – except, of course, the Indigenous people who lived here.

In other parts of the world, there had been stories and myths for a long time about a great continent somewhere in the vast southern oceans. Many maps in Europe from the late fifteen hundreds had called this unknown piece of land ‘Terra Australis Incognita’, which means ‘unknown southern land’. Since the second half of the fifteenth century, seafaring adventurers had been sent on expeditions to search for this mysterious land, hoping to find wealth and fame. 

An adventurer who continued this search was Pedro Fernandez de Quiros. Was he looking for fame and fortune?

Born in Portugal in 1563, he was brought up with a deep belief in God and was full of enthusiasm to share his faith with others. He believed that he had been chosen by God to find this mysterious southern land and to introduce the people who lived there to the one true God.

For many years, de Quiros was fortunate enough to work for the King of Spain. Eventually, he won the King’s and the Pope’s approval to make a voyage to search for this ‘Southland’. He sailed west from Callao, Peru, as others had done. Five months later, he sighted land, and with great celebrations took possession of it in the name of His Majesty and Jesus Christ. He planted a large cross and read a proclamation:

I, Captain Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, hoist this emblem of the Holy Cross on which His [Jesus Christ’s] Person was crucified and whereon He gave His life for the ransom and remedy of the human race. On this Day of Pentecost, 14 May 1606, I take possession of all this part of the South as far as the pole in the name of Jesus. From now on, [these islands and lands] shall be called the Southern Land of the Holy Ghost to the end that to all the natives, in all the said lands, the holy and sacred evangel [the Christian Gospel] may be preached zealously and openly.

But de Quiros had not landed in Australia. Instead, he was on the largest island of what would become known as the New Hebrides and is now Vanuatu. However, his proclamation before God, ‘I take possession of this part of the South as far as the pole [the South Pole] in the name of Jesus’, included Australia, then known as Terra Australis Incognita, even though he did not know exactly where it was – and the new name he gave it reflected the reason for his journey: ‘La Australia del Espiritu Santo’ or ‘the Southland of the Holy Ghost [Spirit]’.

When he realised his mistake, de Quiros, now even more sure that the great Southland must exist, wanted to press on and find it. His crew, however, was close to mutiny. They did not share his vision. De Quiros released his second-in-command, Luis Vaez de Torres, and others who wanted to go home. They left the ship and sailed to the Philippines, passing through the strait that now bears Torres’ name (the Torres Strait). This is just north of Cape York, the most northern point of Australia. Torres, however, made no mention of sighting this land to the south on his journey.

Regretfully, de Quiros himself turned back to America, submitting to what he believed was the will of God. He spent the rest of his life trying to raise support to return. He died in 1656, still trying to fulfil the mission that he believed God had given him.

Pedro Fernandez de Quiros’ vision of a great southern land dedicated to God’s Holy Spirit – ‘Terra Australis del Espiritu Sancto’ – declared the spiritual importance he believed in for this place, even if de Quiros would never be the one to find it. Other European explorers who followed after him had similar visions: to share their faith with people in all parts of the world.

Written by Elizabeth Kotlowski.

Further Reading:

Elizabeth Kotlowski is the author of Stories of Australia’s Christian Heritage, Strand Publishing Co, 2006.

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