Contrary to popular notion, the history of European exploration in Australia predates the discoveries of Lt. James Cook by more than 125 years. Before the famous voyage of the Endeavour, several Dutch seafarers had set foot on Australian soil. They were eager to find out more about the mythical South Land, hoping to discover a large continent on what was still a large white blank on the world map.
A 1619 map by by Amsterdam cartographer
Willem Blaeu includes the supposed
continent Terra Australis.
A 1657 map by Jansonius incorporates discoveries made by Dutch explorers in early 17th century, but not yet Tasman’s voyage of 1642-1644.
Blaeu’s 1635 map was popular with Dutch merchants and sailors
Maps courtesy of the Rotterdam Maritime Museum and the Dutch National Maritime Museum
In the course of the 17th century the Dutch Republic would take over the Euro-Asian spice trade from the Spanish and the Portuguese. The Dutch were skilled in the arts of navigation and mapmaking. After several more or less accidental discoveries of the Australian coast, in 1642 the Dutch East India Company (VOC) decided to fund a serious expedition.
In our era of GPS it is hard to fathom what it would have been like to sight the traces of an unknown coast after nearly seven weeks at sea. But in this project ‘Though Tasman’s Eyes’, we would like to try to share his experience with you. We invite you to share your photographs of the Tasmanian coast and compare them to what Abel Tasman would have seen 375 years ago. To find out how, visit our ‘Get involved’ section.
Abel Tasman was appointed commander of the two ships Zeehaen and Heemskerck and sent out to chart the unknown Southland, to discover its natural resources and establish new trade connections with the inhabitants. His expedition would rival that of Christopher Columbus 150 years earlier. But while Columbus discovered a continent where he thought there was only water, Abel Tasman found mainly water where his masters had hoped he would find land.
Tasman joined the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1633. Like many of the people employed by the VOC, he came from a simple farming background. His hometown was Lutjegast, a small village in the north of the Netherlands. In this region it was not uncommon for farmers to work at sea in summer, when times were slow. Tasman took his vocation seriously and studied navigation in his spare time. Once he joined the VOC he moved quickly up the ranks and made it to skipper. In 1639, he decided to move with his wife and daughter to Batavia (Indonesia) to join an expedition searching for the mythical gold and silver islands east of Japan.
That expedition was not a success; however it made the VOC trust Tasman enough to give him command of the 1642 expedition to chart the South Land. They left Batavia in August and sailed to Mauritius. From there, the real expedition started on October 8th. They first sighted land on 24 November 1642. The land they saw was the west coast of Tasmania, north of Macquarie Harbour. They called it Van Diemen’s Land, after Anthony Van Diemen, the governor-general of the VOC in Batavia. Tasman followed the coast and charted Van Diemens Land until the 6th of December, when they headed east again to New Zealand.
On his return to Batavia (current day Jakarta) Tasman’s masters were disappointed; he had neither found gold or silver, nor any promising trade prospects. Still, he was trusted with a second expedition in 1644. He mapped the north coast of Australia and named the land New Holland.
Detailed maps of the Tasmanian coast were drawn up by skilled illustrator Isaac Gilsemans and chief navigator Frans Jacobsz Visscher. A flagpole on the beach of Frederik Hendricx Bay (now Marion Bay) marks where carpenter Pieter Jacobsz planted the flag and VOC pole to claim the land for the VOC. Can you zoom in on this image and find the Dutch flag?
Courtesy of Dutch National Archives.
Before photography or modern mapping techniques, it was hand and paper and ink that recorded new discoveries. Typically, these drawings were made aboard ship by skilled draftsmen and returned to the VOC headquarters in Batavia to be made into ‘fair copies’ for the use of company navigators.
The master of the vessel was responsible for recording the best possible estimate of the ship’s position, using the methods available to them at the time. Tasman was not doing this all by himself. His pilot-navigator Frans Jacobsz Visscher, was a very experienced sailor in the East Indian waters and had an important role in both navigational decisions and map making. Another vital team member was Isaac Gilsemans, whose on-board title was ‘Head Merchant’ (a very high rank within a merchant company like the VOC). Gilsemans was a skilled artist who took part in various other VOC-expeditions.
The Chairman of the Australian Wooden Boat Festival, Steve Knight, visited the Netherlands in March 2016 to promote the event at HISWA, a major European boat show in Amsterdam. Associate producer Karen Meirik took him for a surprise visit to the Dutch National Archives in The Hague. Here, one of the remaining two original copies of Abel Tasman’s Journal is conserved and considered a national treasure. Steve was allowed to leaf through it, and couldn’t believe his eyes as he saw the detailed drawings made by Isaac Gilsemans and navigator Frans Jacobsz Visscher, almost four centuries ago. ‘I sailed there only last weekend!’ he said, while pointing at a beautiful map of Maria Island and Frederick Hendrick Bay.
It was this moment of historical closeness that motivated the AWBF to start this project: bridging the distance, both in time and in place, between the Netherlands and Tasmania, between 17th century sailors and current day yachtsmen, between 17th century drawings and 21st century Google Maps, GPS and photographs.
Imagine yourself in Tasman’s place, or that of Isaac Gilsemans, who made these drawings. Which mountains can you make out?
Is it rocky coast or a safe harbor? Have you been there or do you have photographs of the area?.
Here are the drawings – can you recognise the coastline? (hint: use the arrows to slide the images) We will be compiling a library of modern photographs, as we determine which parts of the Tasmanian coastline Tasman was looking at. You can help by submitting your photos to: firstname.lastname@example.org
This way, we can show people all around the world what Tasmania looks like and how little many parts of our coastline have changed in 375 years. Tasmania really is a rare and wonderful place, home to some of the purest wilderness left on the planet and great stands of temperate rainforest growing on the edge of the Southern Ocean. We’d like to make it possible for modern Internet explorers to see our
island ‘Through Tasman’s Eyes’.