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by Miriam Estensen

St. Martin's


286pp+/$24.95/January 1999

Discovery:  The Quest for the Great South Land
Cover by Nada Backovic

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In only a few months, scores, if not hundreds, of science fiction fans will be boarding planes, ships, rafts and other means of transportation to go to the land down under for the 57th Annual Science Fiction Convention in Melbourne, Australia, better known as AussieCon 3. They will be discovering a land whose discovery is detailed in Miriam Estensen’s book Discovery: The Quest for the Great South Land.

Estensen’s style is straight forward as she begins be discussing the Portuguese fervor for exploration which began with Henry the Navigator. Over the first several chapters of the book, she discusses beliefs, often based on nothing more than logical conjecture, that there had to be a great land mass in the south to balance out the land mass of the north. As Estensen advances through the sixteenth century, she describes voyages of discovery in the East Indies, along with cartographic techniques. Although she admits that there is no clear-cut evidence that the Portuguese ever sighted Australia, she does champion the idea that a Portuguese explorer from Goa, Cristovão de Mendonça, sailed along the northern Australian coast in the early 1520s. Estensen doesn’t provide any hard evidence that Mendonça did discover Australia and points out that her evidence is circumstantial at best, but mostly based on lack of contrary evidence.

Eventually, Estensen leaves the Portuguese conjecture behind and looks at the Spanish and English voyages which have left definite proof that they had visited the Australian region. Unfortunately, her narrative still does not reach out and grab the reader because she is not able to focus on the larger-than-life aspect of the individuals who were on these voyages, whether Cristovão de Mendonça, Juan Fernández or James Cook. As long as these characters take a back seat to political and economic forces in her narrative, she fails to give the reader something to grab hold of. While this would not be a problem in an academic historical work, Discovery is clearly meant as a popular work, and such a toehold is needed.

Another failure by omission is the lack of an accurate map showing Australia and its environment in the book. There are several plates showing period maps which might accurately reflect what was believed at the time, but in order to help the reader visualize where the various voyages were, an accurate modern map would have been useful. Furthermore, the period maps which are included are reproduced at a size which makes seeing detail in them difficult without the help of a magnifying glass.

Estensen has an perplexing  habit of referring to other scholars without using their names in the text. For instance, when discussing the fate of the Spanish ship the San Lesmes, she notes that "one writer has argued. . . ." and "Another researcher conjectures. . . ." (p.96). The reader must turn to the endnotes to discover that she is referring to Robert Langdon and Roger Hervé. There is no good reason for this and it comes across as if Estensen is spreading gossip, rather than discussing historical theories.

However, Estensen gives a good outline of the voyages of discovery which led to Australia’s emergence into the European sphere. Unfortunately, she ends with Cook’s discovery of the continent, not caring, at least in this book, to look at the discovery of the interior of Australia or its settlement and use. Instead, Australia is shown as a prize which, once won, is no longer of interest.

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