Journey to the Sinking Lands

A witness to the world's first evacuation of an entire people due to climate change

The half-imagined world

Source; RGS-IBG

Source; RGS-IBG

My source at the Royal Geographical Society (I call her Deep Throat. She doesn’t know this) has just sent me this scanned map of Philip Carteret’s voyage, last published in 1811. Honestly, how cool is that?

I’ve traced the route Carteret took in black so you can follow it. I have to admit, I find this kind of thing incredibly exiting – probably because I read too many Adventure Books for Boys as a child. But, humour me, it is worth a look…

For one thing, the names are strange. The map is framed on one side by South America, whose parts are named, in descending order, Mexico or New Spain, Terra Firma, Amazonia, Peru and Chili. Facing them, across the sea, is New Holland – modern day Australia. The south-west flank of this is called The Land of Lyons, and above it, running north are New Guinea, Celebes, the Philipine Isles, Cochin China and there, in the top most corner of the map, China itself.

The outlines of the hand-drawn coasts and islands are strange too, as if misremembered, dreamed or, I realise, not yet fully formed. They represent only the best understanding of the time; so the south-east coast of New Holland – now the states of South Australia and Victoria, which Elle and I drove along the Great Ocean Road to John’s wedding a few years ago – is filled in with only a dotted line, as if the map’s maker was unsure where the land he was describing truly ran. The coast of New Guinea, too, is drawn in dots and not the shape we know it to be today. And through the middle of this fragmentary, half-imagined world, runs Captain Carteret’s route.
Carteret travelled west to east, rounding the southern tip of South America and heading out into the unknown currents of the Pacific. There he discovered the Pitcairn Islands – where the survivors from the mutiny on the Bounty were washed up and more recently British police investigated serial rape and sexual assault among their descendants – before sailing on past the Isles of Danger, Queen Charlotte’s Island, past A Volcano to the Carteret Islands themselves. Pausing only to name them after himself, he continued, passing in quick succession Joseph Freewills Island, A Dangerous Shoal and Mindano before finally setting his sloop Swallow through the narrow sea-lane between Sumatra and Batavia and north, for home. It is utterly, unforgettably romantic, and I am so exited to be travelling to the region myself.

Though, unlike Carteret, I will be travelling by plane, which is less romantic and has marginally worse food.


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