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John Thomson: New Holland and Asiatic Isles

Map: AUNZ2809
Cartographer: John Thomson
Title: New Holland and Asiatic Isles
Date: 1814
Published: London
Width: 21 inches / 54 cm
Height: 18 inches / 46 cm
Map ref: AUNZ2809
This fascinating map of Australia and New Zealand is one of the earliest English maps to show the full outline of the continent. It was drawn and engraved in 1814, the same year that the account of Matthew Flinders’ ground-breaking circumnavigation of Australia was published. Flinders was the first explorer to circumnavigate Australia since Abel Tasman in 1642-44, and was the first to correctly name Australia as a separate continent. The map which accompanied his report was the first English map to show the full outline of Australia.

Thomson’s map is based directly on Flinders’ map; a remarkable achievement given it was produced within the same year. The discovery of the south coast of Australia is specifically credited to Flinders on Thomson’s map, and the density of place names along that coast guarantees that Thomson had seen and copied Flinders’ map.

The map’s colouring, whilst simplistic in some ways, is also very interesting as it divides the continent in half. Western Australia (in yellow) is labelled as New Holland in recognition of the Dutch claims of discovery. Eastern Australia (in pink) is labelled as New South Wales and claimed by the British as a result of the discoveries of Flinders, Cook, Grant, and Bass, each of whom is named on the map next to the areas of land they discovered. The outline of New Zealand is based on Captain James Cook’s surveys whilst circumnavigating the islands in 1769-70. No major updates to Cook’s geography had been achieved in the four decades since.

Original hand-colour. [AUNZ2809]

John Thomson (1777-c.1840)

John Thomson was a Scottish engraver and publisher working in Edinburgh at the start of the 19th century. Edinburgh, at this time, was in the midst of the Scottish Enlightenment, a period from the late 18th to early 19th century when great philosophers, scientists, and political thinkers abounded in the city. A number of notable cartographers and publishers flourished in Edinburgh during this period, including John Pinkerton, William & Alexander Keith Johnston, and John Thomson. The maps they produced were elegant copper-engravings, handsomely merging the scientific accuracy of the early 19th century with decorative flourishes from the 18th century.

Thomson’s work is no exception, with outstanding hill-shading, an expensive and labour-intensive method for illustrating relief, being the most recognizable feature on his maps. Unfortunately, Thompson struggled to achieve commercial success as his ambitious Scottish Atlas, the largest and most detailed atlas of Scottish maps ever published, would cause him to declare bankruptcy on several occasions. Thomson traded from c.1804-1835, at which point his final bankruptcy was concluded and his maps and copper-plates were sold to the more successful firm of W. & A.K. Johnston. The Johnston firm continued to use Thompson’s maps for decades with minor updates, though Thompson’s name was sadly removed from the plates.