Abel Tasman was a Dutch mariner, explorer, and merchant, best known for his voyages of 1642 and 1644 in the service of the Dutch East India Company.
He was the first known European explorer to reach the islands of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and New Zealand and to sight the Fiji islands.
Abel Tasman Facts: Early Life and Early Career
Abel Janszoon Tasman was born in 1603 in Lutjegast, a small village in the province of Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands.
The oldest available source mentioning him dates 27 December 1631 when, as a seafarer living in Amsterdam, the young Tasman became engaged to marry Jannetje Tjaers from the Jordaan district of the city.
In 1633 he sailed from Texel to Batavia in the service of the Dutch East India Company, taking the southern Brouwer Route.
Tasman helped out on a trip to Seram Island; the locals had sold spices to other countries. He had a narrow escape from death when in a careless landing several of his companions were killed by people of Seram.
In August 1637 he was back in the Dutch Republic, and the following year signed on for another decade and took his wife with him to Batavia. On March 25, 1638, he tried to sell his property in the Jordaan, but the purchase was canceled. In 1639 he was the second-in-command of an exploration expedition in the north Pacific under Matthijs Quast.
The fleet included the ships Engel and Gracht and reached Fort Zeelandia and Deshima.
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 sent Tasman and Franchoijs Visscher on a trip of which one of the objects was to get an understanding of “all the totally unknown provinces of Beach”.
This expedition used two small ships, the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen.
Abel Tasman Facts: Beach and Terra Australis
Beach appeared on maps of the time, notably that of Abraham Ortelius of 1570 and that of Jan Huygen van Linschoten of 1596, 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 one who did not see it could believe it”. Beach was in fact a mistranscription of Locach.
Locach was Marco Polo’s name for the southern Thai kingdom of Lavo, or Lop Buri, the “city of Lavo”. In Chinese (Cantonese), Lavo was pronounced “Lo-huk”, from which Marco Polo took his rendition of the name. In the German cursive script, “Locach” and “Boeach” look similar, and in the 1532 edition of Marco Polo’s Travels his Locach was changed to Boëach, later shortened to Beach.
They seem to have drawn on the map of the world published in Florence in 1489 by Henricus Martellus, in which provincia boëach appears as the southern neighbor of provincia ciamba.
Book III of Marco Polo’s Il Milione described his journey by sea from China to India by way of Champa (Southern Vietnam), Java (which he called Java Major), Locach and Sumatra (called Java Minor).
After a chapter describing the kingdom of Champa, there follows a chapter describing Java (which he did not visit himself). The narrative then resumes, describing the route southward from Champa toward Sumatra, but by a slip of the pen the name “Java” was substituted for “Champa” as the point of departure, locating Sumatra 1,300 miles to the south of Java instead of Champa.
Locach, located between Champa and Sumatra, was likewise misplaced far to the south of Java, by some geographers on or near an extension of the Terra Australis.
As explained by Sir Henry Yule, the editor of an English edition of Marco Polo’s Travels: “Some geographers of the 16th century, following the old editions which carried the travellers south-east of Java to the land of “Boeach” (or Locac), introduced in their maps a continent in that situation”.
Gerard Mercator did just that on his 1541 globe, placing Beach provincia aurifera (“Beach the gold-bearing province”) in the northernmost part of the Terra Australis in accordance with the faulty text of Marco Polo’s Travels.
It remained in this location on his world map of 1569, with the amplified description, quoting Marco Polo, Beach provincia aurifera quam pauci ex alienis regionibus adeunt propter gentis inhumanitatem (“Beach the gold-bearing province, wither few go from other countries because of the inhumanity of its people”) with Lucach regnum shown somewhat to its south west.
Following Mercator, Abraham Ortelius also showed BEACH and LVCACH in these locations on his world map of 1571. Likewise, Linschoten’s very popular 1596 map of the East Indies showed BEACH projecting from the map’s southern edge, leading (or misleading) Visscher and Tasman in their voyage of 1642 to seek Beach with its plentiful gold in a location to the south of the Solomon Islands somewhere between Staten Land near Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope.
Confirmation that land existed where the maps showed Beach to be had come from Dirk Hartog’s landing in October 1616 on its west coast, which he called Eendrachtsland after the name of his ship.
Abel Tasman Facts: Mauritius, Tasmania, and New Zealand
In accordance with Visscher’s directions, Tasman sailed from Batavia on 14 August 1642 and arrived at Mauritius on 5 September 1642, according to the captain’s journal.
The reason for this was the crew could be fed well on the island; there was plenty of freshwater and timber to repair the ships.
Tasman got the assistance of the governor Adriaan van der Stel. Because of the prevailing winds, Mauritius was chosen as a turning point.
After a four-week stay on the island both ships left on 8 October using the Roaring Forties to sail east as fast as possible.
On 7 November snow and hail influenced the ship’s council to alter course to a more north-eastern direction, expecting to arrive one day at the Solomon Islands.
On 24 November 1642, Abel 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 he skirted the southern end of Tasmania and turned north-east.
Tasman 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 Tasman anchored to the north of Cape Frederick Hendrick just north of the Forestier Peninsula. Tasman then landed in Blackman Bay – in the larger Marion Bay.
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.
After some exploration, Tasman had intended to proceed in a northerly direction but as the wind was unfavorable he steered east. Tasman endured a very rough journey from Tasmania to New Zealand.
In one of his diary entries, Tasman credits his compass, claiming it was the only thing that kept him alive.
On 13 December they sighted land on the north-west coast of the South Island, New Zealand, becoming the first Europeans to do so.
Tasman named it Staten Landt on the assumption that it was connected to an island at the south of the tip of South America.
He sailed north, then east and five days later anchored about 7 km from the coast. He sent ship’s boats to gather water, but one of his boats was attacked by Māori in a double-hulled waka (canoe) and four of his men were attacked and killed by mere.
“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 swarmings 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.
Archeological research has shown the Dutch had tried to land at a major agricultural area, which the Māori may have been trying to protect.
Tasman named the bay Murderers’ Bay and sailed north, but mistook Cook Strait for a bight. Two names he gave to New Zealand landmarks still endure, Cape Maria van Diemen and the Three Kings Islands.
En route back to Batavia, Tasman came across the Tongan archipelago on 20 January 1643. While passing the Fiji Islands Tasman’s ships came close to being wrecked on the dangerous reefs of the north-eastern part of the Fiji group.
He charted the eastern tip of Vanua Levu and Cikobia before making his way back into the open sea. He eventually turned north-west to New Guinea and arrived at Batavia on 15 June 1643.
Abel Tasman Facts: Second Voyage
Tasman left Batavia on January 30, 1644, on his second voyage with three ships. 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 didn’t fully explore the lands he found and decided that a more “persistent explorer” should be chosen for any future expeditions.
For over a century, until the era of James Cook, Tasmania and New Zealand were not visited by Europeans – mainland Australia was visited, but usually only by accident.
Abel Tasman Facts: Last Years
On 2 November 1644, Abel Tasman was appointed a member of the Council of Justice at Batavia. He went to Sumatra in 1646, and in August 1647 to modern-day Thailand with letters from the company to the King.
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.
In November 1649 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.
On 5 January 1651, he was formally reinstated in his rank and spent his remaining years at Batavia.
He died at Batavia on 10 October 1659 and was survived by his second wife and a daughter by his first wife. His property was divided between his wife and his daughter by his first marriage.
Abel Tasman Facts: Online Resources
- Wikipedia – Abel Tasman
- Abel Tasman National Park in New Zealand
- New Zealand History – Abel Tasman Biography
- Abel Tasman Memorial
- European Colonization
- The History Junkie’s Complete Guide to Famous Explorers
- The History Junkie’s Complete Guide to Colonial America
- The History Junkie’s Biography of Willem Janszoon