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Abel Tasman

Searching for mines and treasures

In the early 17th century the Dutch, fresh from winning their country’s independence from Spain, seized much of the East Indies from Portugal. They established their main settlement at Batavia (today’s Jakarta), on Java. When Malacca was captured in 1641, the position of the Dutch in the East Indies was secured and their interest in the South Pacific grew. They wanted to know if there was a southern sea route to Chile which they could use to prey on Spanish ships. They were also eager to profit from the untapped resources of the great southern continent which many firmly believed existed east of Australia and west of Cape Horn.

In the early 1640s the possibility that there might be rich mines of precious metals and other treasures in the unknown part of the globe prompted the leading men of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia to mount an expedition of discovery. The blueprint for such a voyage was sketched in a memorandum prepared in January 1642 by Franz Jacobszoon Visscher.

By this time, the Dutch had already charted the northern, western, and part of the southern coasts of Australia. But how far this land extended to the east was still unknown.

Tasman, Visscher and Gilsemans

The man chosen to command the expedition, Abel Janszoon Tasman, was born in Holland. By 1642 he already had years of experience sailing in north-west Pacific and Asian waters in the service of the Dutch East India Company. Tasman, Visscher and Isaac Gilsemans, who also joined the expedition, had been together in Japan when the Dutch were establishing a trading post there. Working for a company which was more interested in increasing profits than knowledge, Tasman was the servant of ‘a businessman’s empire’. But Visscher, who sailed with Tasman as his pilot-major and chief adviser, was a man of keen scientific curiosity. Gilsemans would draw the first European images of New Zealand.

Tasman’s voyage

Tasman sailed from Batavia on 14 August 1642 with 110 men on two ships, the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen. He first sailed south-west to Mauritius (a Dutch possession from 1598 to 1710), then south to below 49˚ (about the latitude of the Auckland Islands), before running east along about the 45th parallel (the latitude of Ōamaru). He discovered Tasmania (as it would later be called) on 24 November, naming it Van Diemen’s Land after one of the expedition’s chief instigators, the governor general of the Dutch East Indies, Anthony van Diemen. From there he sailed further east, becoming the first to cross the sea which now bears his name.

New Zealand discovered

On 13 December 1642 the Dutch sighted ‘a large land, uplifted high’ – probably the Southern Alps. After sighting land, Tasman’s ships veered south, then turned north to pass Cape Foulwind and Cape Farewell. He sailed around Farewell Spit into what is now called Golden Bay, where he anchored on 18 and 19 December.

What Tasman saw

Which part of the South Island did Abel Tasman actually see when he first sighted land on 13 December 1642? The diary for that day reads: 'towards noon saw a large land, uplifted high, had it south-east from us about 15 miles'. At the time, the ship was located at 42° latitude, which means the visible land would have been just north of Greymouth. However, the 15 miles is misleading; a Dutch mile equals four English miles, making Tasman's actual position 60 miles offshore. From that distance, looking towards the south-east, the land he most likely saw was the Southern Alps, and perhaps the peaks of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, as they were later named. A memorial erected at Ōkarito in 1942, commemorating the landfall in that location, appears to have got it about right.

One of Tasman’s small boats, passing between the two ships, was rammed by a Māori canoe. Four of Tasman’s party were killed. It is likely that the Māori, of the Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri tribe, saw these strange newcomers as threatening interlopers, an impression reinforced when the Dutch responded by killing several Māori. Tasman named the place where he anchored Moordenaers Baij (Murderers Bay). Despite the tragic encounter, Tasman was impressed by the new country. Just days after his men had been killed he wrote that the place was ‘a very fine land’.

After the incident, Tasman moved his ships to the northern end of D’Urville Island. Although he suspected the existence of the strait that his successor, James Cook, was to discover, bad weather prevented him from investigating it, and he sailed north.

In early January 1643, while off Cape Maria van Diemen in Northland, Tasman supposed there was a passage through to the coast of South America. That such a passage might exist did not rule out the possibility that the land he had discovered was part of a great southern continent. But he did not explore any further. After failing in an attempt to get wood and water at one of the Three Kings Islands, Tasman sailed north to Batavia by way of Tonga, the northern Fiji Islands and New Guinea.

Tasman’s achievement

Abel Tasman called the land he had discovered Staten Landt, believing it might be linked to a Staten Landt close to Cape Horn, discovered in 1616 by another Dutch navigator, Jacob Le Maire. In 1643, Hendrik Brouwer showed that Le Maire’s Staten Landt was a small island, and not the eastern edge of an undiscovered continent. Subsequently, Joan Blaeu, official Dutch cartographer to the Dutch East India Company, conferred the name Nieuw Zeeland (Nova Zeelandia in Latin) on the land Tasman had discovered. Zeeland was one of two maritime provinces in the Netherlands; Australia was already known to the Dutch as New Holland. ‘Nieuw Zeeland’ stuck.

A subsequent voyage thwarted

In 1643 another voyage was planned, and there was talk of finding ‘a more persistent successor’ to Abel Tasman and Franz Visscher. Nevertheless, they were appointed to make the expedition in 1644, but it was confined to the north coast of Australia and the south coast of New Guinea. Tasman was denied the opportunity to build on the achievements of his great voyage of 1642–43 by exploring further east. The Dutch never followed up Tasman’s discovery of New Zealand. He had not found any land which would provide the material profit the Dutch East India Company had hoped for.

Tasman’s New Zealand was only a ‘ragged line’ on the world map, which might or might not be the coast of the unknown southern land. Despite the uncertainty, Tasman’s achievement was considerable. No European before him had sailed south of 27˚ between the east coast of Australia and the Juan Fernandez Islands off Chile. He had sailed all the way around Australia and proved that it was not part of a larger continent. New Holland became the ‘known’ south land; an ‘unknown’ south land might still stretch east from Tasman’s ‘ragged line’: ‘We trust’, Tasman had written, ‘that this is the mainland coast of the unknown south land’.


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