Exploration: Abel Tasman



Abel Janszoon Tasman (1603 1659) was a seafarer, explorer and merchant, best known for his voyages of 1642 and 1644 in the service of the VOC (United East India Company). His was the first known European expedition to reach the islands of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) and New Zealand, and to sight the Fiji islands. His navigator François Visscher, and his merchant Isaack Gilsemans, mapped substantial portions of Australia, New Zealand and some Pacific Islands.

Born in 1603 in Lutjegast in the Dutch province of Groningen, at the age of 20 Tasman went to Batavia in service of the VOC; four years later he was back in Amsterdam. In 1639 Tasman was sent as second in command of an exploring expedition in the north Pacific under Matthijs Quast. In August 1642, the Council of the Indies, consisting of Antonie van Diemen, Cornelis van der Lijn, Joan Maetsuycker, Justus Schouten, Salomon Sweers, Cornelis Witsen, and Pieter Boreel in Batavia despatched Abel Tasman and Franchoijs Visscher on a voyage of which one of the objects was to obtain knowledge of "all the totally unknown provinces of Beach".

Beach appeared on maps of the time as the northernmost part of the southern continent, the Terra Australis, along with Locach. According to Marco Polo, Locach was a kingdom where gold was so plentiful that no none who did not see it could believe it . Beach was in fact a mistranscription of Locach. It was during his search for "Island of Gold" that Tasman discovered Tasmania.

Tasmania, 1642
On 2nd June 1639, Abel Janszoon Tasman was dispatched by Antonio van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, on "a voyage to the north-western Pacific, in search of certain Islands of gold and silver, east of Japan". On this voyage Tasman was to visit the Philippines and improved Dutch knowledge of the east coast of Luzon. He did this, and also discovered and mapped various islands to the north. Tasman was also engaged in several other trips, sailing to Formosa, Japan, Cambodia and Palembang as a merchant captain until 1642. In 1642 he set out on the first of his two New Holland expeditions. The expedition left Batavia on 14th August 1642 with two vessels, the Heemskerk with a 60-man crew and the Zeehaan with 50 men on board. They first called at Mauritius, where they stayed for a month long repair to both ships.

Intending to sail eastward at the southern latitude of 52 or 54 degrees, it became evident early on that weather would not permit this. It was decided to sail along the 44th and 40th parallels and as the two ships reached the longitude of the islands of St Peter and St Francis on the South Australian coast, then travelled further south, sighting Tasmania on 24th November 1642. Tasman named the island after the governor of The Dutch East Indies, Antonio van Diemen. The first two mountains they sighted on the island were named Mount Zeehan and Mount Heemskirk, after their ships. Variable weather made exploration of the eastern coast of Van Diemen's Land difficult. Seeking shelter in a large bay, Tasman put into a cove to shelter from a storm. He called the location Storm Bay. A later explorer (Furneaux) misread Tasman's notes and called this bay Adventure Bay and a larger bay nearby was erroneously marked on Furneaux's charts as Storm Bay.

On 1st December, the storm having abated, the ships were able to move on before coming to anchor at Green Island. They put ashore for supplies at what is now known as Blackman Bay (north of Dunalley). Two days later, the carpenter, Peter Jacobsen, volunteered to swim ashore with a pole on which was the Prince's flag, which he planted on the shore of the bay. Thus Tasman took possession of the island for the Dutch. Not finding enough good water, Tasman moved on and continued his search, traversing the east coast of Tasmania.

When the shore fell away to the northwest (Bass Strait) and the weather was coming in directly from the north, Tasman decided to quit this island and continue east, sailing on to the south island of New Zealand. Strangely despite Tasman holding a high opinion of the land he had found, he did not further explore it. A reason for this could be because Tasman was sent on a voyage of discovery in order to increase profits for the Dutch East India Company.

However, no matter how much they searched for indigenous people to trade with they could not find anybody. Tasman s crew caught glimpses of the Aborigines, but the Aborigines would always run off and avoid contact. They had probably never seen white people before or such large ships; their reaction was to run and hide. Seeing these early European explorers must have been like a space ship landing today and seeing aliens disembarking.

Gulf of Carpentaria, 1644
The first white man to have seen Sweers Island and the southern shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria was most likely Abel Tasman in June or July 1644, Tasman had been the first European to explore the shores of Tasmania two years earlier. He had been sent by the Dutch Governor-General with three ships, the Zeemeeuw, Limmen and Bracq, to determine whether a strait existed between New Guinea and New Holland as shown on Franco-Portuguese maps.

Tasman failed to find Torres Strait, probably because he sailed too far offshore, however he did map the north coast of Australia, making observations on the land and its people. The dissatisfaction with Tasman's voyage is best reflected in that a further exploratory expedition was sent to the same area with almost identical orders in 1756.

Although rebuked by the directors of the Dutch East India Company for unremunerative exploration - "Why bother about barren and remote countries inhabited by wild and unprofitable savages?" - Tasman's rank of commander was confirmed and, in November 1644, he was appointed to the Council of Justice in Batavia. In May 1648 he was in charge of an expedition sent to Manila to try to intercept and loot the Spanish silver ships coming from America, but he had no success and returned to Batavia in January 1649. Later that year he was charged and found guilty of having in the previous year hanged one of his men without trial, was suspended from his office of commander, fined, and made to pay compensation to the relatives of the sailor. Tasman retired from the Company in 1651, becoming a wealthy merchant until his death in 1659.

Coastal Features Named By Tasman

De Witt Isld
25.11.1642. Tasman. Named after Gerritt Frederikszoon de Witt, a member of the Dutch East India Company's Council of India, which gave Abel Tasman regarding the instructions for his voyage to New Holland of 1644. In 1628, De Witt was master of the Dutch East India Company's vessel, Vyanen, which sailed along and mapped over 300 kms of the coastline of New Holland in the vicinity of present day Port Hedland, WA, in 1628. Dutch cartographers named this section of coastline De Witts Land, after him.

Sweers Isld
25.11.1642. Tasman. Named after Salomon Sweers, a member of the Dutch East India Company's Council of India. Sweers was also a member of the Council which gave the Instructions to Abel Tasman regarding his voyage to New Holland of 1644. He was born 15th June 1611 in Amsterdam. Educated as a merchant, he worked as bailiff of the island of Texel (Netherlands) in service for the counts of Holland. He later became an under merchant in India for The East-India Company (VOC) where he became ordinaris counselor as an extension of his role as the manager of one of the Dutch offices. Sweers was married in Batavia (Djakarta) on 16th August 1637 to Catrina Jansdr. On 29th November 1662, he returned to and settled in Amsterdam as a merchant. In 1664 he became the manager of the Madhouse in Amsterdam and in 1667, church master at Noorder kerk (North Church). Sweers died in Amsterdam on 2nd March 1674.

Maatsuyker Islds / Maatsuyker Isld
25.11.1642. Tasman. Named after Joan Maetsuijker, a member of the Council of Batavia who had sponsored the expeditions of its discoverer, Dutch navigator Abel Tasman. The Instructions to Tasman regarding his voyage to New Holland given by the Governor-General and Council of the Dutch East India Company were drawn up at Batavia on 13th January, 1644, and were signed by Anthony Van Diemen, Cornelis Van Der Lijn (Director-General), Joan Maetsuijker, Justis Schouten ("Councillor-Extraordinary to the present assembly"), Salomon Sweers, and Pieter Metschagh (Secretary). Maatsuyker was born in Amsterdam on 14th October 1606. He became a servant of the VOC in 1636 and later a secretary of the Council of justice in Batavia. In 1641 he became an extraordinary advisor of the Dutch-Indies. In this function he distinguished himself, by order of governor general Van Diemen, by adapting the existing edict, proclamations and decree's from the Heeren XVII and governor-general into a code book, the Statutes of Batavia, on which the judicial system in the Dutch-Indies was based until 1848. From 1646 till 1650, Maetsuycker was governor of Ceylon. He was governor-general of the Dutch East Indies for 25 years, from 1653 to his death in Batavia (Jakarta) on 24th January, 1678. During his regime the power of the VOC was adequately extended on Java, Sumatra and Celebes. The islands were named by Commander John Hayes as The Three Brothers. The Aboriginal name for the islands is Draywanee.

South Cape / South Cape Bay
6.12.1642. Tasman. Charts were marked de Zuijd Cap (South Cape).

Boreel Head, Bruny Island
1.12.1642. Tasman. Named after Pieter Boreel, Councillor, Dutch East India Company.

Storm Bay
1.12.1642. Tasman. Storm encountered on previous day. When Tasman gave the name, he was in fact referring to Adventure Bay but more recent map makers marked this bay as Tasman's Storm Bay and the name has been retained.

Frederick Henry Bay
The name Frederick Henry Bay was originally given to what is now known as Blackman's Bay by Tasman, 6.12.1642, but when he visited the area in 1773, Furneaux incorrectly identified this bay as the one thus named by Tasman. The name honours Dutch Prince Frederick Henrijk.

Cape Frederick Hendrick
6.12.1642. Tasman. Named after Dutch Prince Regent Frederick Henrijk.

Visscher Island
12.1642. Tasman. Tasman may have named this island after his pilot-major, Frans Jacobszoon Visscher. According to Tasman's journal entry of 5th April 1643, Tasman named an island off New Guinea with the same name because "inshore of this island we saw some prows lying, which we supposed to be engaged in fishing, or which reason we have to this island given the name of Visschers island". Visscher is Dutch for 'fisher', ie. one who catches fish. Either suggestion for the naming of the Tasmanian Visscher Island is possible.

Maria Isld
4.12.1642. Tasman. Named Maria's Eylandt by Tasman, after Maria Van Aelst, the wife of the the Governor-General of Batavia, Anthony Van Diemen. He married her on 17th January 1630 while in the East Indies. Maria was the widow of Bartholomeus Kunst. For many years it was asserted that Tasman had fallen in love with a daughter of Antonio Van Diemen, after whom he named the island, as a published edition of his journal indicates this, but Van Diemen had no daughters.






Expedition Maps



The following maps were drawn after Abel Tasman's voyages were completed and includes all the discoveries of Tasman, both in the north around the Gulf of Carpenrtaria, and the Tasmanian coast in the south.

Van Diemen's Land, 1639

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Anthony Van Diemen's Landt Besijht en ontdekt in den Jare 1642 den 24e Novemb. A Chronological History of The Voyages and Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean, James Burney. 1813.

Hollandia Nova and Terre Australe, 1663

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Thevenot's famous Map of New Holland, Paris 1663, is said to be copied from a map by J. Blaeu, dated Amsterdam 1659. The latter is included in the Mammoth Atlas preserved in the King's Library at the British Museum and entitled, Archipelagus Orientalis sive Asiaticus. Because of its enormous bulk-this Atlas is known as "the largest book in the world" and was presented by the Dutch merchants to Charles II - the attempt to photograph Blaeu's original was reluctantly abandoned and the Thevenot map substituted in its place.

Indian Ocean map, Amsterdam. 1660

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Pieter Goos. This map includes all the discoveries of Abel Tasman both in the north around the Gulf of Carpenrtaria, and the Tasmanian coast in the south. Note that Cape York is still attached to New Guinea and is shown at a less steep projection that it really is, no doubt a carry over from the Dieppe maps of the 16th century which portrayed it this way.




Monument to Abel Tasman's visit at Dunalley, the closest town to Blackmans Bay where Tasman sent a crew member ashore to take possession of Van Diemen's Land for Holland.


Abel Tasman memorial plaque at Blackman Bay (click photograph to enlarge)