The indigenous Australians had the continent to themselves for 50,000 years before the Europeans arrived. They did not have a word for the country as a whole, probably because they just thought about the patch of country that they lived on.
The name ‘New Holland’ was first applied to the western and northern coast of Australia in 1644 by the Dutch seafarer Abel Tasman, best known for his discovery of Tasmania. The name New Holland was used from then, even though the Dutch made no lasting attempt at the establishment of a permanent settlement.
Matthew Flinders was an English navigator and cartographer. He was the first to circumnavigate the continent, and by 1803 a complete outline of the country was mapped. Flinders used the name ‘Terra Australis’ on his charts. Terra Australis is Latin for ‘South Land’, which was a hypothetical continent first posited in antiquity. Its existence had been speculated on in some maps since the 5th century, under the theory of ‘balancing hemispheres’.
In the introduction to his book ‘A voyage to Terra Australis’, Flinders wrote: ‘Had I permitted myself any innovation upon the original term, it would have been to convert it into Australia; as being more agreeable to the ear, and as an assimilation to the names of the other great portions of the earth.’ [ Vol. I, p. iii, facsim. ed., 1966].
The continent was still being referred to as New Holland until 1824, when the British Admiralty agreed that the continent should be officially called Australia.