The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman

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The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman


It was a long-held belief prior to the seventeenth century that there existed a huge continent in the Southern Hemisphere that would balance the large continents of the Northern Hemisphere. It was commonly known as the great unknown southern continent and was called either Terra Australia Incognita or Nondum Cognita. It was boldly drawn by cartographers, even though there was no evidence of its existence. The discovery of North and South America further fueled the conjecture that below the equator was a huge continent, which had yet to be discovered and explored.

Anthony van Diemen (1593-1645), as governor-general at Batavia in Dutch East Indies, was intent on the exploration of the Southern Hemisphere in order to expand commerce and accumulate wealth. The discovery of land up to this point had been merely coincidental, despite the fact that there was some idea of what was to be found in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean. The western and northern borders of New Holland (present-day Australia) were known to exist, but it was not known what laid beyond these. In fact, it was speculated by many that these were actually the coastal regions of the theoretical great southern continent. Others felt that this was actually part of a large island and could be circumnavigated. However, these and many other questions on the geography of the area were unanswered and this is what drove most of the exploration of this area at that time. After one abortive expedition where the leader died shortly after the start, van Diemen decided to send a expedition north toward Japan in order to find the rumored "shores of gold and silver." While this adventure proved also to be unsuccessful, it was noteworthy on three major points. First, the captain on all of the ships was Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman (1603?-1659?). Second, nearly half of the men were lost due to the disease scurvy. Third, although the expedition was deemed a failure by the Dutch East India Company, it was acknowledged that the region needed further exploration.

Frans Jacobszoon Visscher was a noted geographer in the employ of the Company. He reviewed the known regions and competently designed the scope for expeditions to solve the great southland problem and help support Dutch interests in the region. Visscher envisioned a search for the great southland which would initially track eastward, then turn northward, reverse the initial direction back to the west, and then return to the point of origin by going south. Thus, if no land was found, the journey would take the explorers in a great square. Tasman was chosen to head the expedition, which was slated to begin in August of 1642.


Tasman was given two ships (the Heemskerk and the Zeehaen) and was told to sail initially to Mauritius. From there, he was instructed to sail south in search of the southern continent. It should be noted that the main focus of this expedition was not exploration, but rather to find better trade routes and search for new sources of wealth and commerce. Tasman was given explicit directions on the route he should take, keeping in mind the objectives of the expedition. As an example, if possible, Tasman was supposed to at one point head for the Chilean coast in an attempt to discover an advantageous route by which Dutch interests could snatch trade from the Spanish in this region of the world. Tasman was not to disclose the importance placed on silver and gold should he encounter possible trading sources, and he was to treat all natives in the most friendly manner possible.

With Visscher on board, Tasman sailed for Mauritius from Batavia on August 14, 1642. In Mauritius, he refitted his ships and set off on the intended course on October 8th. Weather forced a change in plans, and Tasman came upon Van Diemen's Land (presently Tasmania) in late November. Again the weather was a problem, and it was difficult to explore the eastern coast of van Diemen's land. Eventually the explorers gave up and continued east.

On the 13th of December Tasman saw land again, having reached the shore of South Island, New Zealand. He anchored in an area he termed Murderer's Bay, because three Dutchmen were killed there when their small boat was rammed by a native canoe. Tasman determined that he would not be able to befriend the local native population and continued on to the North Island.

Tasman could not find suitable fresh water in New Zealand, so the explorers turned northeast, discovering Tonga in early 1643. There they found fresh water, and Tasman was treated well by the natives. He now turned northwest and soon discovered the Fiji islands. These islands were uncharted, and Tasman questioned whether their position was calculated correctly. Tasman suggested returning to Batavia; the ship's committee agreed.

They chose a northerly route home, and after some anxious weeks during which they were unable to determine their position due to weather, they eventually were able to deduce their correct position. They took some time to explore the coast of New Guinea and determined that there was no passage through it. Tasman returned to Batavia in June, completing a ten-month voyage. During this time, he had completely circumnavigated the continent of Australia without ever catching a glimpse of its land.

Van Diemen was not especially pleased with the results of the voyage since no new trade routes or sources of wealth had been discovered. However, he was still interested in resolving several issues around New Guinea and New Holland, so he outfitted Tasman with three ships, the Limmen, the Zeemeuw, and the Bracq for another expedition in February of 1644. There is little information on this voyage except for the fact that the explorers charted the northern coast of Australia and returned in October of the same year. While Tasman noted the presence of natives, he did not seek to trade with them. The Dutch East Indies Company, which had sponsored Tasman's voyage, again was not happy because there was no return on their investment. Thus Tasman's efforts were not highly regarded by the company.


Tasman had set a new standard for Dutch exploration on his voyages, but his expeditions were deemed to have been relatively fruitless and created little excitement for the Dutch East India Company. In fact, he was looked upon with some scorn by the stockholders and many officials. The voyages resulted in no new trading partnerships, and there were no major resources or wealth uncovered, which would be of obvious benefit to the company. Furthermore, in his first voyage, Tasman had not proven there was a passage through the south ocean to Chile, which was one of the original objectives of the expedition. One positive of his first voyage was that he had only lost ten men on the entire trip and over half of those were due to natural causes. This was remarkable in a day and age where many expeditions would return with only a handful of men. There were a few promising details from the first voyage, and Tasman was thought of highly enough to figure prominently in a second expedition.

The second voyage proved to be even a bigger disappointment than the first. In a dispatch to the company's council, van Diemen expressed his disappointment and discontent that the expedition had not discovered a passage through New Guinea. He further stated that Tasman had done nothing but sail along the coasts and had gained no knowledge of the country and its productions; according to van Diemen, Tasman claimed that the explorers did not have enough manpower to venture onto land in the face of the savages. Van Diemen went on to state that Tasman in his two voyages had circumnavigated the hitherto unknown South Land, which was calculated to have an extent of 8,000 miles (12,875 km) of coast, yet in so great a country, with such a variety of climates, he had found nothing of great importance and profit for the company. It was plain that van Diemen was dissatisfied with Tasman. He had looked for immediate results in the extension of trade, or at least for the finding of the New Guinea strait, and, disappointed in this, he could not appreciate the importance of the discoveries from a geographical standpoint. As a direct result of Tasman's voyages, the Dutch were reluctant to undertake any costly expeditions unless it could readily be proven that there would be immediate and substantial profits. Because of this attitude, Tasman had completed the last great Dutch exploration.

The legacy that Tasman left is a much-improved understanding of the geography of the South Seas. While not all of the assumptions proved to be correct, Tasman had proved that New Holland did not extend indefinitely to the east, but that it was an extremely large island. He now separated the real land from the legend. He had also shown that, in fact, there was no large continent in that area of the world. He had discovered many islands and charted that region of the world better than anyone had previously. This stimulated a keen interest in the area and helped to drive the exploration of this area in the future.


Further Reading

Allen, Oliver E. The Pacific Navigators. Alexandria, VA: Time Life Books, 1980.

Beaglehole, J. C. The Exploration of the Pacific. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1966.

Sharp, Andrew. The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.