Searching for mines and treasures
In the early 17th century the Dutch, fresh from winning their country’s independence from Spain, seized much of the East Indies from Portugal. They established their main settlement at Batavia (today’s Jakarta), on Java. When Malacca was captured in 1641, the position of the Dutch in the East Indies was secured and their interest in the South Pacific grew. They wanted to know if there was a southern sea route to Chile which they could use to prey on Spanish ships. They were also eager to profit from the untapped resources of the great southern continent which many firmly believed existed east of Australia and west of Cape Horn.
In the early 1640s the possibility that there might be rich mines of precious metals and other treasures in the unknown part of the globe prompted the leading men of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia to mount an expedition of discovery. The blueprint for such a voyage was sketched in a memorandum prepared in January 1642 by Franz Jacobszoon Visscher.
By this time, the Dutch had already charted the northern, western, and part of the southern coasts of Australia. But how far this land extended to the east was still unknown.
Tasman, Visscher and Gilsemans
The man chosen to command the expedition, Abel Janszoon Tasman, was born in the Netherlands. By 1642 he already had years of experience sailing in north-west Pacific and Asian waters in the service of the Dutch East India Company. Tasman, Visscher and Isaac Gilsemans, who also joined the expedition, had been together in Japan when the Dutch were establishing a trading post there. Working for a company which was more interested in increasing profits than knowledge, Tasman was the servant of ‘a businessman’s empire’. But Visscher, who sailed with Tasman as his pilot-major and chief adviser, was a man of keen scientific curiosity. Gilsemans would draw the first European images of New Zealand.
Tasman sailed from Batavia on 14 August 1642 with 110 men on two ships, the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen. He first sailed south-west to Mauritius (a Dutch possession from 1598 to 1710), then south to below 49˚ (about the latitude of the Auckland Islands), before running east along about the 45th parallel (the latitude of Ōamaru). He discovered Tasmania (as it would later be called) on 24 November, naming it Van Diemen’s Land after one of the expedition’s chief instigators, the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, Anthony van Diemen. From there he sailed further east, becoming the first to cross the sea which now bears his name.
New Zealand sighted
On 13 December 1642 the Dutch sighted ‘a large land, uplifted high’ – probably the Southern Alps. After sighting land, Tasman’s ships veered south, then turned north to pass Cape Foulwind and Cape Farewell. He sailed around Farewell Spit into what is now called Golden Bay, where he anchored on 18 and 19 December.
What Tasman saw
Which part of the South Island did Abel Tasman actually see when he first sighted land on 13 December 1642? The diary for that day reads: 'towards noon saw a large land, uplifted high, had it south-east from us about 15 miles'. At the time, the ship was located at about 42°10' latitude, which means it was opposite Punakaiki, just north of Greymouth. However, the 15 miles is misleading; a Dutch mile equals four English miles, making Tasman's actual position 60 miles (100 kilometres) offshore. From that distance, looking towards the south-east, he would probably have seen the northern part of the Southern Alps, and he may even have seen, far to the south, the peaks of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, as they were later named.
One of Tasman’s small boats, passing between the two ships, was rammed by a Māori canoe. Four of Tasman’s party were killed. It is likely that the Māori, of the Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri tribe, saw these strange newcomers as threatening interlopers, an impression reinforced when the Dutch responded by shooting and hitting one Māori. Tasman named the place where he anchored Moordenaers Baij (Murderers Bay). Despite the tragic encounter, Tasman was impressed by the new country. Just days after his men had been killed he wrote that the place was ‘a very fine land’. 1
After the incident, Tasman moved his ships to the northern end of D’Urville Island. Although he suspected the existence of the strait that his successor, James Cook, was to discover, bad weather prevented him from investigating it, and he sailed north.
In early January 1643, while off Cape Maria van Diemen in Northland, Tasman supposed there was a passage through to the coast of South America. That such a passage might exist did not rule out the possibility that the land he had discovered was part of a great southern continent. But he did not explore any further. After failing in an attempt to get wood and water at one of the Three Kings Islands, Tasman sailed north to Batavia by way of Tonga, the northern Fiji Islands and New Guinea.