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7.6.07

Square States

Strange Maps points out an interesting 1838 map proposing to cut Australia up into 10 equal-area states. The map is entertaining as a change from the actual six states and two territories, particularly given some of the naming choices -- southern WA is named "Victoria" (modern Victoria is merged with southern NSW into "Guelphia"), while the Kimberlies and Kakadu become "Tasmania" (the island now using that name retains its 1838 designation of "Van Diemen's Land").

But the map is also a nice commentary on 19th-century European attitudes toward nature. Newly "discovered" lands like Australia were seen as blank slates, whose settlement could be rationalized and organized into mathematically and administratively pleasing forms without regard for nature or history. Just a couple years prior to the drawing of this map, the colony of South Australia had been established based on a plan for systematic, intensive (Europe-style) agricultural settlement. This was also the era of the US's Northwest Ordinance, which established the system of chopping the land into square blocks and allocating them for sale to settlers or other uses based purely on the surveyor's geometry.

To those of us in the 21st century, the divisions in the 10-state map look absurd -- Dampieria (northern WA) and Nuytsland (Nullarbor plain) would have almost no population, while Sydney and Melbourne would both be in Guelphia. One may perhaps excuse the mapmaker because of the great ignorance that prevailed among Europeans about Australia's interior. Melbourne had only just been founded. Few explorers had ventured beyond the comparatively well-watered southeast and southwest corners of the continent, and it would be many years before hope of finding a great inland sea or mighty river would be given up. The favorability of Australia's climate (in terms of both rain and bushfire) was consistently either overestimated or assumed to be improvable by good farming practices (it was believed that "rain follows the plow," and crops would squeeze out more flammable vegetation). Yet this ignorance just highlights the hubris of the European view. It didn't matter to them what the real characteristics of the country were, because the best form of settlement could be determined a priori. (I don't know anything about the author of the ten-state map, but Edward Gibbon Wakefield had never even set foot in Australia when he created the plan for settling South Australia.)

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