Tasman 1642


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.

Portrait of Antonio van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch Indies, by Dirk Jongman. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Portrait of Abel Tasman, his Wife and Daughter. Attributed to Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp c.1637, oil on canvas, Rex Nan Kivell Collection: The National Gallery of Australia  and the National Library of Australia

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.

Want to Know More About the VOC?

During the 17th century, the VOC eclipsed all of its European rivals in the Asia trade. Between 1602 and 1796 the VOC sent almost a million Europeans to work in the Asia trade on nearly 5,000 ships, which was more than all the other European nations combined.

Anthony Van Diemen was the VOC’s governor general in Batavia, which was in those days developing into the most important trading post of this first multinational corporation in the world. Officially, all decisions were taken by the board of directors back in the Republic, the Heeren XVII (the Lords 17). However, as it took six months to sail to Amsterdam and back, the governor general in Batavia acted as the general manager of the VOC and determined his own strategy.  It was Van Diemen who decided to send Tasman on an expedition to the South Land.

Tasman was sent by the Batavia office (current day Jakarta) of the Dutch East India Company, the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC). In 1602 the Dutch government gave the VOC the monopoly on the eastern spice trade. In many ways the VOC acted as if they were the Dutch government. The VOC waged wars, imprisoned and executed convicts, negotiated treaties, had their own coins and established colonies.

The Maps

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.

The two surviving copies of Tasman’s journal are in the Dutch National Archives in The Hague and in the Mitchell Library in New South Wales.  Both are contemporary copies of the original materials, signed by Abel Tasman at Batavia to confirm their accuracy.  Maps prepared from these materials were extremely valuable and often closely guarded secrets.  The obvious commercial advantage they provided kept Dutch VOC traders ahead of their European rivals. While detailed sea maps remained secret, within years of Tasman’s discoveries new editions of world maps were published in Amsterdam and decorated the living rooms of wealthy trader’s homes.
Blaeu Maps

Willem Blaeu was the son of a well-to-do herring salesman, who was so fascinated with mathematics and astronomy that he was allowed to study astronomy in Denmark at the end of the 16th century. Once he returned to Holland, he made country maps and world globes.

In 1633 he was appointed map-maker of the Dutch East India Company. He was also an editor and published works of many famous 17th century scientists, philosophers and poets. His two sons, Johannes and Cornelis Blaeu, would from the 1630s on, also contribute to the mapmaking and publishing business, which continued after Willem’s death in 1638.

Maps from the Blaeu family were popular interior decoration in wealthy Dutch homes in the 17th century. There are several works of the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer of Delft (1632–1675) that show Willem Blaeu maps (in incredible detail) on the wall. The painting featured here, Officer and Laughing Girl (1658), shows a map of Holland and West Friesland from 1621.

The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam and the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam both hold large collections of precious originals. Prints of the family’s works are still sold today.








Image 1: Map of the World by Willem Jansz. Blaeu 1645-1646 includes Tasman’s discoveries. Courtesy of Maritime Museum Rotterdam.

Image 2: Manuscript chart of the Indian Ocean by Johannes Blaeu 1669 picturing Eendrachts Land (Dirk Hartog’s Landing) in the far right corner. These maps were made for navigation and well guarded treasures of the Dutch East India Company.

Image 3: A painting by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, depicting one of Willem Blaeu’s maps with incredible detail. Source: Wiki Commons.

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.

Tasman named his discovery after the Governor of Batavia, Anthony van Diemen. On this map, note that West is at the top of the map. Collection Dutch National Archives
The page from Tasman’s journal that records the first European sighting of the island at 42 degrees south latitude. Note the dates in the top left margin – 1642, November 24. Collection Dutch National Archives.
Want to Read Tasman’s Journal in English?

24th November.

“… In the afternoon about 4 o’clock we saw land bearing east by north of us at about 10 miles distance from us by estimation; the land we sighted was very high; towards evening we also saw, east-south-east of us, three high mountains, and to the north-east two more mountains, but less high than those to southward; …

… we convened our ship’s council with the second mate’s and represented to them whether it would not be advisable to run farther out to sea; we also asked their advice as to the time when it would be best to do so, upon which it was unanimously resolved to run out to sea at the expiration of three glasses, to keep doing so for the space of ten glasses, and after this to make for the land again.”

Excerpt from Tasman’s journal, English translation, courtesy of SixBoats.co.nz

Learn more about their journey at: http://sixboats.co.nz/land-giants/

The Project

Steve Knight (right) with staff of the Dutch National Archives

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.

Who is behind the project?

This idea won support from the:

http://australia.nlembassy.org/organization/embassy-in-canberra Dutch Embassy in Canberra

http://dutchculture.nl/en Dutch Culture and its Shared Cultural Heritage Fund

 https://www.hetscheepvaartmuseum.nl Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam

http://www.gahetna.nl/en Dutch National Archives

http://www.tmag.tas.gov.au Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery agreed to host the exhibition.

Karen Meirik, herself a qualified historian and journalist, agreed to curate the text and images selected to tell Tasman’s story, and the broader story of the VOC and the early Dutch Explorers.

We were particularly excited to discover the New Zealand website Six Boats (http://www.sixboats.co.nz), for which historian and blogger Dave Horry had prepared a brilliant interactive map tracing Tasman’s 1642 journey.  Dave has very kindly shared this excellent resource with us.

Tasman’s mission was to show the VOC directors and the mapmakers in Batavia and Amsterdam what Tasmania looked like. Our aim is to do this again for 2017, this time with 21st century technology. An interactive project to show people that have never been to Tasmania what it looks like, especially if seen from a ship… can you help us?

Get Involved

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: info@australianwoodenboatfestival.com.au

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’. 

Where Did Tasman Go?

The Tasmanian coast is famously rocky and the weather stormy (it was Tasman who gave Storm Bay its name), so it was not an easy task for Tasman and his crew to get to land. Tasman himself only went on shore on December 2, 1642 near current day Marion Bay. The scouting saw smoke rising up and found traces of people, as is described here in the Journal:

Journal entry: 2 December, 1643

(the crew reported)…’that they had heard certain human sounds and also sounds nearly resembling the music of a trump or a small gong not far from them, though they had seen no one.’They had seen two trees about 2 or 2½ fathom in thickness measuring from 60 to 65 feet from the ground to the lowermost branches, which trees bore notches made with flint implements, the bark having been removed for the purpose; these notches, forming a kind of steps to enable persons to get up the trees and rob the birds’ nests in their tops, were fully 5 feet apart so that our men concluded that the natives here must be of very tall stature, or must be in possession of some sort of artifice for getting up the said trees; in one of the trees these notched steps were so fresh and new that they seemed to have been cut less than four days ago.’

It’s interesting to think about what the indigenous Palawa people thought of these unusual visitors with their odd clothing and their large ships.  It not surprising, perhaps, that they chose to stay out of sight and observe these strange creatures carefully before making any move to contact them

The following day the sea was choppy again and the Dutch were unable to land. The master carpenter, Pieter Jacobsz,  swam ashore and planted a flag and a pole with the emblem of the VOC to claim the land for the Dutch Republic and its East India Company.


Master carpenter Pieter Jacobz plants the VOC flag. Drawing by Dutch maritime artist Jan Braamhorst

This is an interactive map of  Tasman’s discovery of Australia and New Zealand, produced by Dave Horry – see Six Boats for more information. If you get lost, zoom out to see the whole of Tasman’s journey.  Click on the journal icon to see what Tasman wrote on that day.
Tasman1642.com.au is grateful for the support of these generous sponsors.
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