Abel Tasman and Australia, the Discovery of Van Diemen’s Land

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Abel Tasman

Abel Janszoon Tasman was a player in the colonial expansionism of 17th century Holland. The Dutch, having established a trading empire in South East Asia with its main base at Batavia (now Indonesian capital Jakarta), sent Tasman off in search of new lands and new markets. Tasman had risen quickly through the ranks of merchant seamen, having first sailed to the Dutch East Indies around 1632 while in his 20’s, becoming a fleet commander just three years into his career.

Abel Tasman’s Early Life at Sea

In his early sailing days Tasman was employed in the spice trade, transporting the highly valued pepper, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves from the Spice Islands (today’s Moluccas in Indonesia) to the great trading city of Amsterdam and the markets of Europe. Tasman’s navigation and leadership talents caught the attention of Dutch authorities, and he began to mix exploration with trade. In 1639 Tasman was sent to explore the Pacific Ocean to the east of Japan in search of what was rumoured to be “a very great country or island, rich without measure in gold and silver, and inhabited by civilised and friendly people.”

Trading expeditions to Indo China and Japan followed for Tasman, and he became a hardened seafarer, a keen trader and a skilled leader of men. In 1642 Dutch East Indies Governor-General Antony van Diemen ordered Tasman to undertake another voyage of discovery. His mission was to seek out the great unknown southern continent, Terra Australis Incognita, the land that since antiquity was believed to balance the landmasses of the northern hemisphere.

Tasman’s First Southern Voyage

This was by no means the first Dutch expedition into Australian waters. In 1616 the ship Eendragt came upon the west coast at Shark Bay, captain Dirk Hartog landing on an island that still bears his name. By 1628 the Australian coastline had been mapped from Cape York west and south to the centre of the Great Australian Bight. To the Dutch, this was the ‘Known South Land’.

On 14 August 1642 the 20 tonne Heemskerck carrying a crew of 60 and the smaller Zeehaen with 50 men aboard sailed from Batavia under the Command of Abel Tasman. First port of call was Mauritius, where the ships required considerable repair before they could proceed further. After a layover of a month, the expedition departed on an easterly course that was further south than any previously taken.

The expedition’s broad plan was to sail in the latitudes of the 40’s until reaching 150º East, when the ships would head north eastwards and make towards the known islands of the Pacific Ocean. Opinion was that if the expedition did not find land by the time it reached that longitude (inexact though longitude bearings were with the technology of the day), it would be in open water.

The First European Discovery of Tasmania

Tasman’s course took the ships south of the known coast of Australia and beyond, until on 24 November they made landfall near the entrance to Macquarie Harbour. This was the island Tasman named Van Diemen’s Land. Proceeding south and east in at times poor weather and visibility, Tasman charted the coastline, naming a number of outlying islands and some of the more prominent mainland peaks that he mistook for islands.

On rounding the southeastern corner of Van Diemen’s Land the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen left the aptly named Storm Bay in their wake and turned northward. Tasman finally laid anchor off Forestier’s Peninsula, but high surf prevented the boats from landing. It was left to the ships’ carpenter to swim through the surf and plant the Dutch flag on shore, allowing Tasman to formally take possession of the land that would eventually be renamed Tasmania.

On 4 December 1642 Tasman resumed his journey north along the island’s east coast. However the unfavourable winds drove the ships eastwards, and after naming Maria Island, Schouten Island, and Van der Lyn Island (not an island but now Freycinet Peninsula), the decision was made to recommence the expedition’s easterly journey.

It was Abel Tasman’s fate to miss Australia’s east coast, leaving its shores for Captain James Cook to discover. Nine days after leaving Van Diemen’s Land Tasman became the first European to sight Aotearoa, the Land of the Long White Cloud, before returning to Batavia via Tonga, Fiji and New Guinea. He had failed to find what his masters had been hoping for.

Abel Tasman’s Second Voyage also Disappoints

Tasman returned to Australian waters in 1644, this time travelling the northern coast from west as far as Torres Strait, making improvements to Dutch knowledge of the continent’s northern coastline as he went. Unaware that in 1606 the Spaniard Luis Vaez de Torres had sailed through the strait from the east, and apparently thwarted by the small islands and shoals that stood before him, Tasman turned back for Batavia without proceeding further. Again he came close to but failed to sail a stretch of water that Cook would explore more than a century later.

Abel Tasman made a number of discoveries, adding significant geographical knowledge that later explorers would benefit from. However the results of his endeavours were of little use to his backers. As trading ventures with the intent of opening up new markets, his southern explorations would be considered a disappointment. Tasman died in Batavia in 1859.