The island of Tasmania, off Australia’s southern coast, is unique. Home to some of the strangest species known to man, its forested wetlands are not found anywhere else in the world, confirming it is truly a treasure.
The first European to make landfall and chart the island in any detail is also the man after whom the island is name. Officially, Abel Tasman was also the first European to make contact with the islands of New Zealand in the year 1642.
He was a famous Dutch merchant and explorer who dedicated his entire life to the service of the Dutch East India Company. He is well known for his expedition to still unexplored oceans of the far south, where he hoped to find the mythical Terra Australis, the long-suspected continent of the southern oceans which was believed to stretch across to South America.
This expedition aimed to rediscover the Solomon Islands, explore New Guinea, and find anything else that might be of interest to the Dutch East India Company. If he could find Terra Australis, he would be a legend in his own lifetime.
But he completely missed it.
Abel Tasman was born in Lutjegast, Netherlands, in 1603. When he was serving in the Dutch East India Company, he was given an opportunity to explore the seas, and he received his first command in 1634.
He got his start searching for the rebels and smugglers while patrolling the waters of the Dutch East Indies. But by 1642, Abel Tasman had risen high enough to be appointed to lead the “still unexplored South and East land” expedition.
Dutch mariners have already partially explored this area and returned with evidence that there were island chains and potentially larger territories in the area. The main motive of the Company was to find out whether the gap between these Pacific islands and Chile in South America was open ocean, or whether there the existence of any exploitable southern lands.
For the expedition, Tasman was allotted 2 small ships: an armed transport ship named Zeehaen and his flagship Heemskerck. Franz Jacobszoon Visscher was specially appointed for the expedition as chief pilot, an experienced sailor who had been to the area before.
In August 1642, the expedition departed from Jakarta in Indonesia. First, the ship started sailing to the west, arriving at Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar. After that, they turned in the south, reaching the 45th parallel in the deep southern ocean.
Proceeding east, they travelled across the Indian ocean until they sighted land which they described as beautiful and mountainous, on 24th November. This land was named “Van Diemen’s Land” by Abel Tasman, and is known in modern times as Tasmania.
After skirting the southern coast of the island, Tasman formally claimed it for the Netherlands and the Dutch East India Company on 3th December. However Tasman was looking for a continent, not an island such as this one, and when his two ships were caught up in the violent winds of the southern ocean and flung eastwards he was happy to continue.
This meant that, after travelling the breadth of the Indian ocean in his search for a southern continent, Tasman had passed almost within sighting distance of Australia but had completely missed the great territory. His erroneous conclusion that Tasmania was all there was down there, and his desire to push eastwards, meant he never found what he was looking for.
After travelling eastwards from Tasmania, Tasman encountered the South Island of New Zealand on 13th December, the first European to do so. Finally he thought that he had found the western tip of the mythical Terra Australis, unaware that the territory beyond was open ocean and not exploitable land.
During the period, the initial meeting between Māori and Europeans was quite tense, but it can be considered peaceful. There survives however a record of Tasman observing a violent encounter between the local Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri and Dutch, as it seemed the natives did not welcome the newcomers looking to exploit their land.
However generally things were peaceful. After a small break for a Christmas celebration and to restock, on 4th January 1643, the Dutch moved towards Cape Maria Van Diemen from the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand.
Leaving New Zealand and heading north, on 21th January, the expedition team arrived in Tonga, sailing from a northeast course. They sailed on again after obtaining ample water and supplies of food. Choosing not to land in Fiji, by April the expedition had turned west and reached New Guinea. On 15 June 1643, they returned to Batavia, near Jakarta, their expedition complete.
Overall, it can be said that the expedition was a big success. However, he could have given more effort into discovering many things and investigating more lands. As a result, the Company rejected the idea of another expedition.
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Instead of this, Visscher and Tasman were sent to the northern coastline of Australia, still an unknown coastline with a mysterious interior. They started searching for another possible passage to South America, finding the Port Hedland and Torres Straits through the island chains which dot this area of the Pacific.
A company report issued at this time also shows the cruel behavior of Abel Tasman. In 1648, he attempted to hang 2 sailors in the expedition because they disobeyed his order not to leave the quarters. It was said he was drunk when he gave the order.
In another incident, he attempted to murder one of the sailors. For this behavior, the Company decided to suspend Abel Tasman without giving him any salary, although he was reinstated after 11 months. It seems that finding valuable territories for his employer trumped decency to his fellow man.
Abel Tasman retired in 1653, and he decided to remain in Batavia because he had a substantial amount of land there. After that, he also played the role of a captain, where he was a part owner of a small cargo ship. In October 1659, Tasman died, survived by his daughter, Claesjen, and his second wife, Jannetje.
Did He Truly Lose Australia for the Dutch?
In 1642, different stretches of the coast of Australia had already been discovered by Dutch explorers, but they were not sure whether all these lands had separate islands or simply it has just different sections of a connected and larger landmass.
In the same year, the Dutch East Indies governor-general Anthony van Dieman set up a challenge of commanding an expedition for Tasman into this region. This expedition’s goals were to rediscover the Solomon Islands, to discover sea to South America existed, and to explore New Guinea.
At that time, the Dutch East India company wants to know about the existence of natural resources or riches in the mysterious lands. The business operations in these regions can be explored through the expedition.
However, the Dutch East India company blamed Abel Tasman and mentioned that the following expedition failed. As a result, the Company has rejected the idea of another expedition in the Netherlands. Had Tasman sailed a little further north in his expedition, or had he been permitted to return to the same area a second time, things could have been very different.
Top Image: Abel Tasman with his wife and daughter, pointing to a globe. Not pictured: Australia. Source: Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri
New Zealand History, 2021. Abel Tasman. Available at: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/people/abel-tasman
Twinkl, 2021. Who was Abel Tasman? Available at: https://www.twinkl.co.in/teaching-wiki/abel-tasman