Down with Swanland!

Geographical musings

Maps are funny things. When you create a map you’re creating a version of a physical space that people move through, live in and interact with, so there’s genuine potential for strange things to happen. Such as Swanland.

Back when I was in highschool  (some time in the Cretaceous era I think) my friends and I – for reasons that escape me but were probably to do with intense boredom – went into the school library and looked up ‘Australia’ in all the encyclopaedias (an encyclopaedia is a big book that people used to use to find things out before there were iPhones). In one of these – an American production – we discovered that the south west corner of Western Australia is called ‘Swanland’.

This was something of a surprise to us, all having been born and brought up in said area and never having heard the term. We toyed with the idea of writing a letter (a message written on paper that people used before there were iPhones) to the publishers to ask them what the hell they were doing, but never got around to it.

Jump forward to yesterday when I was examining a map of submarine telephone cables (you don’t need to know why). What do I spot written across the bottom of Western Australia? Swanland!

It’s back.

I can only speculate on the origin of the name. Perhaps the region was once known as Swanland, and ended up on some American map before falling out of use. Perhaps the area is called Swanland, and I’ve just been prevented from coming across it by random acts of fate (although a Google Search suggests it’s not in common use on the internet at least). More intriguingly however is the possibility that it’s a massive misinterpretation of a very real but very obscure instance of governmental organisation…

You see, there is a ‘Swan Land’ in Western Australia. It’s an official government Land District existing since at least the 1820’s and covering a chunk of territory roughly between the Swan and Moore rivers, including the city of Perth. I daresay hardly anyone living in it is aware that it exists, but it’s there on the books.

So, I can see a series of theoretical events that could lead to this comparatively small area of the state getting conflated into a title for the entire south west, and that title being circulated around between maps, encyclopaedias and geographic computer programs without anyone from Australia really noticing ever since.

So here I state it once and for all. The term ‘Swanland’ is a geographic anomaly not used by anyone who lives within it’s supposed borders which should be permanently struck from the records! Down with Swanland!

Later: I’ve now realised that in my enthusiasm for an explanation of the Swanland enigma I’ve confused the “Land Division” named “Swan” with a “Division” named “Swan Land” thus completely invalidating my hypothesis (unless the cartographer responsible is as foolish as I). In any case, the main argument still stands – there is no such place as Swanland!

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