Australia Doesn't Exist, and Other Geographic Conspiracy Theories
A few years ago we covered a conspiracy theory that claimed the country of Finland doesn't exist, and all the world's governments cooperatively conspired to fool all the world's citizens into believing in it as a ploy to get extra fish to feed struggling post-war Japan. Well, regardless of how plausible you may have felt that one was or wasn't, we have another one for you today: a similar claim made about Australia, complete with an equally believable motive.
Australia Doesn't Exist
In 2006, an anonymous post on the Flat Earth Society forum first raised the idea of Australia being fake. It said, in part:
The idea languished in Internet obscurity for a long time until a Swedish Facebook user named Shelley Floryd revived it based on some random thread on Reddit, and this time she added a motivation:
The post was quickly shared over 20,000 times before Floryd deleted it, telling BuzzFeed News at the time that she was buried in ridicule from angry Australians, including "100 or so" death threats. She probably wishes she'd kept a bit more distance from Flat Earther forums. But regardless, let us expend an appropriate amount of effort presenting the evidence that Australia is in fact real.
Now that we're done with that, it's worth noting that Finland and Australia aren't the only places in the world that are both denied by some to exist, and can be easily visited by anyone at any time. In a nondescript part of Germany, you may or may not find a city called Bielefeld.
Bielefeld Doesn't Exist
Like the Australian story, the "Bielefeld doesn't exist" conspiracy theory also has a well-known point of origin. In 1993, some students at the University of Kiel in Germany were having a party in a dormitory and someone happened to mention that they were from Bielefeld, a small city somewhat known for being uninteresting. Achim Held, today a computer scientist, recalls that one of his friends jokingly scoffed at the innocent statement and said that nobody would actually be from there.
Later, Held and some of the same friends were in a car on the way to Essen and saw that the motorway exits to Bielefeld were closed. It was the perfect deus ex machina punchline to their wisecrack from the other night. It was satirical proof of the joke that Bielefeld is just a government-invented myth. So Held went to Usenet — an online thing that was eventually replaced by the Internet, for all you kids out there — and posted about his discovery that THEY (always written in all-caps whenever used in reference to Bielefeld) have created this false city and even gone so far as to generate daily fake sports news about its football team, and produce automobile license plates with "BI" on them. As Held figured that as jokes go this one probably wasn't worth spending more than about two and a half minutes on, he didn't bother to fabricate any particular reason for the deception by THEM. But defying expectations, the joke stuck, and even today it's the running gag about Bielefeld.
(It's worth mentioning that although this joke about Bielefeld is based on it being boring and nondescript, it's actually quite a beautiful city with a lot of history and a thriving arts scene, very impressive for a city of its size, and well worth taking that highway exit.)
But geographic hoaxes are hardly new. Ever since the first few centuries of the Common Era when ships first began venturing into intercontinental waters, knowledge of the world was fuzzy. Cartographers struggled to organize and present geographic information that was incomplete and often contradictory. All of these early maps were wrong to some degree — some more than others, yet most were made with the very best of intentions. But not all of them. Combine the fact that the claimed existence of certain places could be beneficial to certain parties, with the limited ability for others to verify some far away place on a map, and we should not be surprised to find that there was a whole closeted industry of fake geographical information.
To illustrate, let's take two examples: An Italian cartographer who promoted a nonexistent island in an effort to prove that Venetians had beaten Columbus to the New World, and another island whose claimed existence was used to establish mineral and economic rights.
The first of these concerns the island of Frisland, a substantial island nation dotted with cities, ports, surrounding islets, and even its own monarchy. Frisland first appeared in maps of the North Atlantic beginning in 1558, and was included on multiple subsequent important maps for at least a century, until such time as that part of the world became sufficiently thoroughly explored that Frisland's existence was finally debunked.
There has been speculation that Frisland was an honest mistake stemming from misidentification of the southern part of Greenland, but a study into the 1558 map's author puts that speculation to rest. The map was by Nicolò Zeno, a prominent Venetian who came from a family of modest explorers. Frustration had been growing in Venice that the discoveries of their own ships were being eclipsed by those of other nations, and in Zeno in particular because his own family was losing much of its former luster. The map was found in his book Della Scoprimento ("On Discovery") which pretended to be an historical account of his family's voyages, but was in fact more like pulp fiction.
Zeno cast his father in the role of an explorer who first landed on Frisland and had dealings with its prince, who upon learning they came from Italy, were overjoyed that visitors from the world's most famous nation would come to his humble island. Zeno the elder was knighted, of course, the prince citing his "great industriousness and genius" as a Venetian.
The Zeno family's exploits on the island nation of Frisland established the credibility of everything else in the book, which also included Zeno's brother Antonio beating Columbus to the New World. But as discussed earlier, in those days it simply wasn't practical or possible to challenge or verify such stories. So Frisland continued to appear on maps and was even claimed by England sight unseen, and to this day a core of Italian purists accepts the Zeno family as the true discoverers of the New World.
Our second example is Isla Bermeja, an 80-square-kilometer island paradise said to be off the northern coast of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula. It sits on the Campeche Bank, site of some of Mexico's largest oil reserves. Until quite recently, Bermeja was used to extend Mexico's 200-mile economic claim to natural resources, even though the Mexican navy tried to find it in 1997 and reported that it wasn't there. Conspiracy theories appeared immediately; some saying the CIA had destroyed the island with explosives in order to shrink Mexico's oil claim, others saying it had probably become submerged due to global warming.
Isla Bermeja has appeared on old maps of the Gulf of Mexico since at least 1539. Its first known appearance was in a list of islands published in Madrid by the eminent cartographer and astronomer Alonso de Santa Cruz, though there doesn't seem to be any record of what his source might have been. In March of 2008, the National Autonomous University of Mexico conducted documentary research — basically looking at all the old maps — to determine exactly where Bermeja was supposed to be, and came up with 22° 33' N, 91° 22' W. Then they spent a week actually searching 223 square kilometers of the Gulf of Mexico with depth sounding equipment and flying around in a plane. Today this is easy enough to replicate from your desk; just pull up a bathymetric map on Google Earth and it's plain to see that there is no island anywhere near there and never was; the ocean floor is smooth throughout the vicinity. It didn't sink because of global warming, and it wasn't blown up by the CIA.
However, some 30 km to the southwest of those coordinates is a reef complex called Cayo Arenas, which includes a few coral cays and one little island large enough to have vegetation, and it even has a couple of unused structures on it. Clearly this is leaps and bounds from being the 80-square-kilometer island that Bermeja was said to be, but it's a perfectly reasonable source for the erroneous phantom on the ancient maps. So although we have no ulterior motive for how Bermeja first came to be, we certainly have a strong economic motive for modern persistence of belief in it.
And so let us bow our heads in remembrance of those who perished under the guise of being shipped to Australia; the overworked Swedish lackeys paid to claim they're from a place called Finland; the members of Bielefeld's fake football team, threatened with death if they ever reveal their own nonexistence; the good prince of Frisland, so generous with his knighthoods; and the 17th century pirates who landed on Isla Bermeja to bury their fabulous treasures but suddenly found themselves with only water underfoot. Whenever you hear a tale backed only by Reddit threads and a forum post from the Flat Earth Society, you have very good cause to be skeptical.
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