The line was based on a treaty between the Spanish and the Portuguese. Picture: Google Maps
The line was based on a treaty between the Spanish and the Portuguese. Picture: Google Maps

Weird fact about the Aussie map

WHEN white Europeans first landed in Australia, they encountered a land that was so intimidatingly large they couldn't even begin to think about dividing it up.

And, if you've ever stared quizzically at a map of our massive nation, you'll have noticed how straight and strongly defined our state's borders are when you compare them with many other countries.

But, if you delve into why these lines ever came about, you'll find some surprising reasons behind them.

It was the British who created the first land boundary on Australian soil in 1786 - at the western border of NSW with South Australia.

And if you look a bit further north, to the border of Papua New Guinea and West Papua, you'll notice the dividing lines are perfectly aligned with those in Australia.

The Treaty of Tordesillas was drawn up in 1494. Picture: Supplied
The Treaty of Tordesillas was drawn up in 1494. Picture: Supplied

This is because the first Aussie state border was actually based on an ancient international treaty between Portugal and Spain to stop them killing each other as they sailed across the world in search of new lands and resources to exploit. It was all signed by the pope in 1494.

The colonial superpowers used this agreement - labelled the Treaty of Tordesillas - to divide the world outside Europe between them.

The state border lines up almost perfectly with Papua New Guinea’s border. Picture: Google Maps
The state border lines up almost perfectly with Papua New Guinea’s border. Picture: Google Maps

And, because they believed the world was flat back then, Portugal had control over all lands east of the Tordesillas Line, while Spain ruled over all lands west of that line.

Basically, it cut off a Portuguese slice from the otherwise Spanish nations of South America - which is why Brazil is the only Portuguese-speaking country in South America.

Dr Gerard Carney, one of Australia's leading constitutional experts, said in a Public Lecture Series that when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman named only the western half of the new continent as New Holland in 1644, he left the eastern half of the country as Terra Australis.

This eastern part of the country was technically within the control of Spain because of the centuries-old Treaty of Tordesillas.

Australia is so vast that explorers struggled to figure out how to divide it up. Picture: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images
Australia is so vast that explorers struggled to figure out how to divide it up. Picture: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

He did this in order to avoid conflict with Spain, which Holland was fighting for its independence on the other side of the world.

Dr Carney, says this boundary was later used by the British so they didn't offend the Dutch.

"Although priority was given in 1788 to ensuring no offence to the Dutch, the British remained mindful of the Spanish claim to Terra Australis and, in particular, to Spain's claim of exclusive sovereignty and navigation rights in the Pacific," he said in a public lecture.

The line which the 141st meridian east was also used to divide up the disputed island of New Guinea to Australia's north among colonial powers, as the west half of the island was governed by the Dutch and the British and Germans vied for control in the East.

So, when you look at a map Australia and New Guinea today, you can see the borders still line up almost perfectly.

The western half is now part of Indonesia, while the eastern half forms the bulk of the independent state of Papua New Guinea, which also consists of the Bismarck Archipelago and several smaller islands.

Dr Carney says our state borders look different to other countries because borders are usually determined by natural geography such as mountain ranges, rivers, lakes, gorges, or deserts.

"All of these geographical features have played some role in the drawing of Australia's boundaries," he said.

Almost all of mainland Australia was called NSW at one point. Picture: Supplied.
Almost all of mainland Australia was called NSW at one point. Picture: Supplied.

"But their role has been a secondary one on the mainland due to the extraordinary distances involved, and the fact that the internal geography of the continent was largely unknown at the time the UK authorities felt the need to define Australia's land borders."

In the years following 1786, New South Wales was massively expanded to take up pretty much the entire continent apart from Western Australia and Tasmania, which was then Van Diemen's Land.

South Australia was the second Australian state to created by free colonists in 1836, after the free Swan River Colony in Western Australia seven years earlier.

The Colony of New Zealand (1840), the Victoria Colony (1851) and the Colony of Queensland (1859) were founded in the years that followed.



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