Saturday, October 10, 2009

The discovery of Tasmania

Abel Janszoon Tasman, a Dutch explorer who is credited with discovering Tasmania, New Zealand and various Pacific island, died three and half centuries ago today. Like other explorers of the time he kept a journal, though an English translation wasn’t published until the late 1890s. A copy of the book with that translation can cost well over £1,000, but thanks to Project Gutenberg Australia it is freely available on the web.

Born at Lutjegast in Groningen, the Netherlands, probably in 1603, Tasman joined the Dutch East India company in the early 1630s and then made several exploratory voyages to the east. He married Claesgie Meyndrix, by whom he had a daughter, but Claesgie died young, and he married Joanna Tiercx in 1632. In the early 1640s, he was chosen to lead the most ambitious of Dutch ventures to the Indian Ocean, south of the regular routes, and to investigate the possibility of a sea route through to Chile. He sailed in August 1642 from Batavia (modern-day Djakarta, Indonesia) with two ships Heemskerk and Zeehaen, first to Mauritius, and then eastward.

On 24 November, Tasman sighted the west coast of Tasmania, north of Macquarie Harbour, and then spent the next few days sailing round the island seeking a place to land. However, the weather was against him, and it was only on 3 December, when a carpenter swam through the rough sea to the shore and planted the Dutch flag in North Bay, that Tasman claimed formal possession. He named his discovery Van Diemen’s Land after Anthony van Diemen, governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, and it was to remain that for over 200 years, until the British changed the name to Tasmania in 1855 (see National Archives of Australia website for an explanation).

Ten days later, Tasman was also the first European to sight land on the northwest coast of New Zealand’s South Island, which he named Staten Landt (thinking it was connected to Staten Island, Argentina). On the northern tip of the same island, one of Tasman’s boats was attacked by Māori, and four of his men were killed. He named it Murderers’ Bay (though it is now known as Golden Bay). On the return journey, he passed the Tongan archipelago and the Fiji Islands, where his ships came close to being wrecked on reefs, and charted the eastern tip of Vanua Levu and Cikobia. Unknowingly, he had circumnavigated Australia.

Several further voyages followed, one again in search of a passage to Chile (in which he mapped parts of the Australian coast), one to Siam (Thailand), and another in charge of a war fleet against the Spanish in the Philippines. Having been promoted to rank of commander, and appointed a member of the Council of Justice of Batavia, he left the service of the Dutch East India company in 1653; and he died on 10 October 1659 - exactly 350 years ago today. For more information see the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the New Zealand in History website, or Wikipedia.

Tasman’s Journal was originally published by Frederik Muller, Amsterdam, in 1898. The book includes a photographic reproduction of the hand-written journal, a translation by J De Hoop Scheffer and C Stoffel, footnotes by Prof J E Heeres, as well as a biography of Tasman also by Heeres. There is one copy currently available for sale on Abebooks for £1,700. But much of the book - including the English translation of the journal itself - is freely available online thanks to Project Gutenberg Australia.

Here are two entries taken from the first days that Tasman sighted the land that would eventually carry his name.

24 November 1642
‘Good weather and a clear sky. At noon Latitude observed 42° 25', Longitude 163° 31'; course kept east by north, sailed 30 miles; the wind south-westerly and afterwards from the south with a light top-gallant breeze. 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 found that here our compass pointed due north. In the evening in the first glass after the watch had been set, 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; all of which may in extenso be seen from today’s resolution to which we beg leave to refer. During the night when three glasses had run out the wind turned to the south-east; we held off from shore and sounded in 100 fathom, fine white sandy bottom with small shells; we sounded once more and found black coarse sand with pebbles; during the night we had a south-east wind with a light breeze.’

25 November 1642
‘In the morning we had a calm; we floated the white flag and pendant from our stern, upon which the officers of the Zeehaan with their steersmen came on board of us; we then convened the Ship’s council and resolved together upon what may in extenso be seen from today’s resolution to which we beg leave to refer. Towards noon the wind turned to the south-east and afterwards to the south-south-east and the south, upon which we made for the shore; at about 5 o’clock in the evening we got near the coast; three miles off shore we sounded in 60 fathom coral bottom; one mile off the coast we had clean, fine, white sand; we found this coast to bear south by east and north by west; it was a level coast, our ship being 42° 30' South Latitude, and average Longitude 163° 50'. We then put off from shore again, the wind turning to the south-south-east with a top-gallant gale. If you came from the west and find your needle to show 4° north-westerly variation you had better look out for land, seeing that the variation is very abruptly decreasing here. If you should happen to be overtaken by rough weather from the westward you had best heave to and not run on. Near the coast here the needle points due north. We took the average of our several longitudes and found this land to be in 163° 50' Longitude.

This land being the first land we have met with in the South Sea and not known to any European nation we have conferred on it the name of Anthoony Van Diemenslandt in honour of the Honourable Governor-General, our illustrious master, who sent us to make this discovery; the islands circumjacent, so far as known to us, we have named after the Honourable Councillors of India, as may be seen from the little chart which has been made of them.’

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