TASMAN, Abel Janszoon
First discoverer of parts of the main islands of New Zealand.
A new biography of Tasman, Abel Janszoon appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Abel Janszoon Tasman, in an extant entry of his proposed second marriage under date 27 December 1631 in a church register of Amsterdam, is described as a seaman, aged 28, of Lutjegast. It appears, therefore, that he was born in 1603. Lutjegast was a village in the Netherlands near the city of Groningen. Nothing is known of Tasman's family background, education, or early youth. The entry mentioned above gives the name of his first wife as “Claesgie Heyndrix” and describes him as a widower, and gives the name of his second wife as “Jannetie Tjaerss”. A declaration by Tasman dated 3 April 1634 shows that he was then first mate of the Weesp in the service of the Dutch East India Company. He spent the following two years as skipper of the Mocha in the Ambon area. In late 1637 and early 1638 Tasman was in the Netherlands, returning to the East Indies with his wife. After some voyaging there as skipper of the Engel, he accompanied Matthijs Hendrikzoon Quast as second in command of an expedition to and beyond Japanese waters in 1639. In 1640 Tasman himself was commander of an expedition to Japan. Twice in 1641 he was at Cambodia. Early in 1642 he commanded a small squadron on a voyage to Sumatra.
In 1642 the Council of the East India Company in Java, headed by the Governor-General Anthony van Diemen, decided to send an exploratory expedition to southern latitudes, one of the main objects being to see if there was a sea passage to South America. At that time the west coast and part of the south coast of Australia were known from previous contacts by Dutch ships. Tasman was appointed commander of an expedition of two small ships, the Heemskerck and Zeehaen. Frans Jacobszoon Visscher was chief pilot. Tasman's journal of this voyage is extant in two main copies.
On 14 August 1642 the ships left Batavia and, after visiting Mauritius, came south of the Australian continent, where Tasmania was discovered. Proceeding east from Tasmania, Tasman came in sight of a large high land toward noon on 13 December 1642, on which day the observed latitude was 42° 10' S. This was the west side of the South Island of New Zealand, some distance south of Cape Foulwind, which was passed toward evening of the following day. The ships continued north, and then came round Farewell Spit. The following day, 19 December 1642, some Maoris came off in canoes and attacked the boat of the Zeehaen, killing four of its seven occupants. Tasman describes the Maoris as being of ordinary height, between brown and yellow in colour, with black hair tied on top of their heads in a tuft adorned by a large white feather. An accompanying illustration in his journal shows a manned double canoe, and indicates that the ships at the time were in the south-eastern part of Golden Bay, named Murderers' Bay by Tasman.
From Golden Bay the Dutch ships sailed past Stephens Island, and on 20 December were embayed on the west coast of the North Island somewhere near the modern Foxton. They tried without success to get out the way they came, seeing Stephens Island again to the south-west; they then tacked north, coming in sight of the south Taranaki coast on 21 December. They then tacked south all the way to Stephens Island and D'Urville Island, anchoring because of broken weather until the twenty-sixth near the south-east part of D'Urville Island. The Dutch explorers suspected there might be a strait to the east, but turned north on 26 December without detecting Cook Strait. A map found with one of the copies of Tasman's journal shows unbroken coastline; another by Visscher shows a conjectural gap.
Standing off the coast, the Dutch ships did not come in sight of land again until 28 December, when they were in sight of Mount Karioi, south of Raglan Harbour. The configuration of west Taranaki and Cape Egmont as shown in their maps was thus a reconstruction from their sightings of the coast to the south and north.
The expedition continued to stand off and on as they made a northing, seeing segments of the west coast at intervals, until on 4 January 1643 they were near Cape Maria van Diemen with an island in sight to the north-west, which they named Three Kings. The next day Visscher went with two boats to look for water on Great Island, the main island of the Three Kings group. The boat party saw good fresh water coming down from a steep height, and two canoes and cultivations nearby, but did not go in because of the surf. The party rowed along the coast, seeing 30 to 35 people on the heights, the men tall, who called out to them. The boats returned, and the ships anchored near the north coast of the island. Next day another unsuccessful attempt at a landing was made, when people were again seen on shore. The same day, 6 January 1643, the Dutch explorers quitted the coast of New Zealand.
Tasman, between 13 December 1642 and 6 January 1643, thus saw considerable portions of the western littorals of the South and North Islands, without making any landings.
The name Staten Landt was given by the Dutch visitors to their discovery, because they conjectured it might be joined to the land in the southern part of South America, discovered and so named by Jacob Le Maire's expedition. Later Dutch geographers named Tasman's discovery Zeelandia Nova or Nieeuw Zeeland, no doubt because Hendrik Brouwer in 1643 had shown that Le Maire's Staten Landt did not extend to the west.
After quitting New Zealand, Tasman discovered a number of islands in the Tonga group and the north-eastern sector of the Fiji group, returning to Java north of New Guinea. By so doing, he demonstrated that the ‘Southland’ – the then known parts of Australia – was separate from his discoveries in the South Pacific.
In 1644 Tasman commanded an expedition which discovered large parts of the north coast of Australia. He was a member of the Council of Justice of Batavia from 1644 to 1648. In 1646 he headed a trading expedition to Sumatra, in 1647 a trading expedition to Siam, and in 1648 an expedition against the Spaniards in the Philippines. During the latter expedition he endeavoured to hang two sailors without due process, and was demoted until 1651 from his rank of skipper-commander. Between the time of his reinstatement and 1653 he was honourably discharged from the company's service. He continued to reside at Batavia with his second wife as a well-to-do private citizen, engaging on occasion in private trading voyages. His daughter by his first marriage, Claesjen, married in Batavia and had children there in Tasman's lifetime. Tasman died in or about 1659.
Tasman's importance in New Zealand history rests on his voyage of 1642–43. The statement that he discovered New Zealand requires some qualification by virtue of the fact that in 1901 the Cook Group became part of New Zealand, and there is good reason to believe that Alvaro de Mendana in 1595, and Pedro Fernandez de Quiros in 1606, each discovered an island in the northern sector of that group. Claims have been made that Spanish or Portuguese ships had visited the main islands of New Zealand before Tasman. Thus a piece of Spanish armour, found in Wellington Harbour, has excited such a speculation, although a more realistic view might be that a later European settler who brought some antiques with him dropped it overboard by accident. Others have seen vague outlines of New Zealand in old maps, although if such suppositions were accepted wherever they have been made, little of the world remained to be discovered after 1600. These claims, however, do not conform with discovery in its conventional sense, which implies that some reasonably recognisable revelation was conveyed to the outside world. There is good reason, therefore, to confer firmly on Tasman the title of first discoverer of parts of the main islands of New Zealand.
by Charles Andrew Sharp, B.A.(OXON.), M.A.(N.Z.), Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- De Reizen van Abel Janszoon Tasman en Franchoys Jacobszoon Visscher, ed. Meyjes, R. P. (1919)
- Abel Janszoon Tasman's Journal, ed. Heeres, J. E. (1898)
- “Spanish Discoveries in the Central Pacific”, Maude, H. E.,Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 68 (1959)
- The Discovery of Tasmania in 1642 – Being Selections from Tasman's Journal, Heeres, J. E. (translator), Journals of Captain Cook, ed. Beaglehole, J. C. (1961).