Abel Janszoon Tasman (1603 - 1659)

Abel Janszoon Tasman was a Dutch seafarer, explorer, and merchant, best known for his two voyages 1642 and 1644 while in the employ of the VOC and the discovery of the fifth continent.

Tasman sailed from Texel to Batavia, now Jakarta, in 1633 taking the Brouwer Route. In August 1637, Tasman was back in Amsterdam, and the following year he signed on for another ten years and took his wife with him to Batavia. He was second-in-command of a 1639 exploration expedition in the north Pacific under Matthijs Quast.

First voyage: On August 1642, the Governor General and the Council of the Indies resolved that an expedition be undertaken to explore the unknown and recently discovered south-land, the south-east coast of Nova Guinea, including the surrounding islands. As well , the little-charted areas east of the Cape of Good Hope, west of Staten Land (near the Cape Horn of South America) and south of the Solomon Islands. One of the objectives of the expedition was to obtain knowledge of “all the totally unknown” Provinces of Beach. This was a purported yet non-existent landmass alleged to have plentiful gold, which had appeared on European maps since the 15th century as a result of an error in the scribed editions of Marco Polo’s works. The expedition was to use two small ships, Heemskerck and Zeehaen.

Tasman and Franchoijs Jacobszoon Visscher sailed from Batavia on 14 August 1642 and arrived at Mauritius on 5 September 1642. to obtain supplies for the voyage. The ships left on 8 October and sailed south using the Brouwer Route which instructed all VOC ships to sail to the Indies using the Roaring Forties. On 7 November, snow and hail influenced the ship’s council to alter course to a more north-easterly direction, expecting to arrive one day at the Solomon Islands.

Tasmania: On 24 November 1642, Tasman reached and sighted the west coast of Tasmania, north of Macquarie Harbour. He named his discovery Van Diemen’s Land, after Antonio van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. Proceeding south, Tasman skirted the southern end of Tasmania and turned north-east. He then tried to work his two ships into Adventure Bay on the east coast of South Bruny Island, where he was blown out to sea by a storm. This area he named Storm Bay. Two days later, on 1 December, Tasman anchored to the north of Cape Frederick Hendrick just north of the Forestier Peninsula. On 2 December, two ship’s boats under the command of the Pilot, Major Visscher, rowed through the Marion Narrows into Blackman Bay, and across the west to the outflow of Boomer Creek where they gathered some edible “greens”. Tasman named Frederick Hendrik Bay, which included the present North Bay, Marion Bay and the inlet Blackman Bay (the name Frederick Henry Bay was mistakenly transferred to its present location by Marion Dufresne in 1772). The next day, an attempt was made to land in North Bay. However, because the sea was too rough, the carpenter swam through the surf and planted the Dutch flag. Tasman then claimed formal possession of the land, on 3 December 1642. For two more days, he continued to follow the east coast northward to see how far it went. When the land veered to the north-west at Eddystone Point, he tried to keep in with it but his ships were suddenly hit by the Roaring Forties howling through Bass Strait. The impenetrable wind wall indicated that here was a strait, not a bay. Tasman was on a mission to find the Southern Continent, not more islands, so he abruptly turned away to the east and continued his explorations.

New Zealand: Tasman had intended to proceed in a northerly direction but as the wind was unfavourable he steered east. The expedition endured an extremely rough voyage and in one of his diary entries Tasman credited his compass, claiming it was the only thing that had kept him alive. On 13 December 1642 they sighted land on the north-west coast of the South Island, New Zealand, becoming the first Europeans to sight New Zealand. Tasman named it Staten Landt “in honour of the States General” (Dutch parliament). He wrote, “it is possible that this land joins to the Staten Landt but it is uncertain”, referring to Isla de los Estados, a landmass of the same name at the southern tip of South America, encountered by the Dutch navigator Jacob Le Maire in 1616. However, in 1643 Brouwer’s expedition to Valdivia found out that Staaten Landt was separated by sea from any the hypothetical Southern Land. Tasman continued: “We believe that this is the mainland coast of the unknown Southland.” Tasman thought he had found the western side of the long-imagined Terra Australis that stretched across the Pacific to near the southern tip of South America. After sailing north, then east for five days, the expedition anchored about 7 km off the coast off what is now believed to have been Golden Bay. Tasman sent ship’s boats to gather water, but one of his boats was attacked by Maori in a double-hulled waka (canoe) and four of his men were killed with mere (clubs). In the evening about one hour after sunset we saw many lights on land and four vessels near the shore, two of which betook themselves towards us. When our two boats returned to the ships reporting that they had found not less than thirteen fathoms of water, and with the sinking of the sun (which sank behind the high land) they had been still about half a mile from the shore. After our people had been on board about one glass, people in the two canoes began to call out to us in gruff, hollow voices. We could not in the least understand any of it; however, when they called out again several times we called back to them as a token answer. But they did not come nearer than a stone’s shot. They also blew many times on an instrument, which produced a sound like the moors’ trumpets. We had one of our sailors (who could play somewhat on the trumpet) play some tunes to them in answer.” As Tasman sailed out of the bay he observed 22 waka near the shore, of which “eleven swarming with people came off towards us.” The waka approached the Zeehaen which fired and hit a man in the largest waka holding a small white flag. Canister shot also hit the side of a waka. Archaeological research has shown the Dutch had tried to land at a major agricultural area, which the Maori may have been trying to protect. Tasman named the area “Murderers’ Bay”. The expedition then sailed north, sighting Cook Strait, which it mistook for a bight and named “Zeehaen’s Bight”. Two names that the expedition gave to landmarks in the far north of New Zealand still endure: Cape Maria van Diemen and Three Kings Islands. (Kaap Pieter Boreels was renamed Cape Egmont by Captain James Cook 125 years later.)

Second voyage: Tasman left Batavia on 30 January 1644 on his second voyage with three ships Limmen, Zeemeeuw and the tender Braek. He followed the south coast of New Guinea eastwards in an attempt to find a passage to the eastern side of New Holland. However, he missed the Torres Strait between New Guinea and Australia, probably due to the numerous reefs and islands obscuring potential routes, and continued his voyage by following the shore of the Gulf of Carpentaria westwards along the north Australian coast. He mapped the north coast of Australia, making observations on New Holland and its people. He arrived back in Batavia in August 1644.

From the point of view of the Dutch East India Company, Tasman’s explorations were a disappointment: he had neither found a promising area for trade nor a useful new shipping route. Although received modestly, the company was upset to a degree that Tasman did not fully explore the lands he found, and decided that a more “persistent explorer” should be chosen for any future expeditions.

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