Mapping Utopia: Cartography and Social Reform in 19th Century Australia

Matthew Graves, Elizabeth Rechniewski


From the 16th century on, the great Southern continent figured in the European literary and political imagination as a field for utopian thought. While we might expect such Arcadian essays to tail off as the colonisation of Australia proceeded apace in the late 18th, early 19th centuries, such was not the case: there are many examples of utopian literature set in Australia in the 19th and 20th centuries, and several examples from the 1830s , the period examined in this article. This article explores the utopian elements in the work of three near contemporaries: Edward G. Wakefield (1796-1862), Thomas J. Maslen (1787-1857) and James Vetch (1789-1869) who mapped onto Australia political and social projects that had their origin and rationale in objectives for reform in the mother country. They brought to their self-appointed task underlying assumptions and biases that reveal a range of influences, not least those of colonial expansionism, and an imperial disregard for the realities of the terrain and inhabitants of a country they had never visited. The article undertakes a close reading of the maps, systems of nomenclature and division of territory proposed by two of the three: Maslen and Vetch, and their underlying rationale and function. Both writers sought to redraw the map of Australia in order to advance projects for reform, imposing on an ‘empty land’ principles of division and sub-division claimed to be rational and scientific and yet essentially utopian.


imaginary geographies; utopian cartography; early maps of Australia; Australian colonial cartography; speculative geography; utopianism

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