On June 18, 1767, English flag lieutenant Samuel Wallis, commanding HMS Dolphin, sighted the forested volcanic island of Tahiti. Considered the first European to reach the island, Wallis promptly named it “King George the Third Island”.
The British Admiralty had charged Wallis with confidential instructions to discover, explore and claim a new continent believed to exist somewhere to the south of South America. Terra Australis or Terra Australis incognita had been included on many 16th-century maps, the coastline of this unknown southern land often appearing unbroken, and covering the entire south polar area almost up to the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Although the shape and size and placement of Terra Australis incognita varied between maps, creative and enterprising cartographers often added elaborate, intriguing detail to this mythical place. However, as long as it appeared on maps at all, there was enough abounding doubt and curiosity to check out this huge hunk of possible real estate… hence several voyages of discovery. If it was there, it would belong to the first come, first served claim.