Story: Tasman, Abel Janszoon

Page 1 - Biography

Tasman, Abel Janszoon

1602/1603?–1659?

Mariner, explorer, landowner, trader

This biography was written by K. A. Simpson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

Abel Janszoon Tasman was born, probably in 1602 or 1603, at Lutjegast, Groningen, The Netherlands. His first wife was Claesgie Heyndrix, with whom he had a daughter named Claesjen. A proclamation of his second marriage, given in December 1631 at Amsterdam, describes him as a widower and sailor; probably on 11 January 1632 at Amsterdam he married Jannetje (Joanna) Tjaerts, aged 21.

Tasman, in service with the Dutch East India Company, was first mate of the Weesp in 1634 and later that year skipper of the Mocha, patrolling in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and engaging in skirmishes with smugglers and rebels. During one voyage three of his men were killed and others wounded by natives of the island of Ceram. In late 1636 he was senior officer on the Banda, which arrived in The Netherlands on 1 August 1637. He returned, accompanied by his wife, to the company's base at Batavia (Jakarta), Dutch East Indies, as skipper of the Engel, in which he patrolled until May 1639. Tasman was chosen for the mission on account of his reputation for leadership.

The company was then enjoying great prosperity, and from 1639 to 1642 Tasman sought cargo and booty in the north-west Pacific and along the coast of Asia, including Japan, Formosa (Taiwan), Cambodia and Sumatra. A high death toll through disease was common, and the Dutch vessels were sometimes sunk. On one voyage, commanding a fleet of three ships, Tasman's considerable skill as a navigator allowed him to return safely to Batavia after the other two ships were lost in a storm. Isaac Gilsemans, a Dutch cartographer and illustrator, sailed with Tasman in 1642-3 and drew the coastal profiles of lands visited during the voyages.

On 1 August 1642 the governor general and councillors of the company resolved to send an expedition to the 'still unexplored South- and East-land [Australia and South America]', which had been partly discovered by Dutch mariners. They wished to ascertain if exploitable southern lands, or a sea passage across the Pacific to Staten Landt (Chile), existed. With the experienced hydrographer Franz Jacobszoon Visscher as chief pilot, Tasman commanded a convoy of two small ships: his flagship, the yacht Heemskerck, and an armed transport ship, Zeehaen.

In accordance with lengthy instructions, on 14 August they sailed west from Batavia to Mauritius, where they stayed for one month, making repairs and taking on supplies. They then sailed due south until unpleasantly cold conditions forced them back to the 45th parallel, which they followed eastwards until they sighted the mountains of southern Tasmania on 24 November. Tasman named this new land Antony Van Diemen's Land, after the governor general of Batavia. They skirted it from North Bay, on the east coast, to St Patrick Head, on the east, finding evidence of inhabitants without seeing them. After taking on fresh water and planting a company flag, they continued east from Tasmania on 4 December.

About noon on 13 December, Tasman sighted a large, elevated land mass (the Southern Alps of New Zealand). At the time he was opposite Perpendicular Point, by Punakaiki. Tasman named it Staten Landt, thinking it the part of South America named by Jacob Le Maire. The ships sailed north past Cape Foulwind, seeing smoke from cooking fires before reaching Cape Farewell on 16 December. On the evening of 18 December Tasman and his men became the first known Europeans to encounter Maori. The ships anchored in Golden Bay; lights were seen on shore and two boats came out to inspect the ships from a distance. A trumpet-like noise was heard, and Tasman's crew replied with a trumpet. 

Next day, 19 December, a boat approached with 13 men of Ngati Tumatakokiri on board, who called out. They were shown white cloth and knives as gifts by Tasman's men, but returned to shore. Tasman noted that the occupants were of ordinary height 'but rough of voice and bones their colour between brown and yellow'. They had black hair, which was fastened at the back and adorned with a large white feather, and wore square cloaks, tied in front of the throat, with a square plate around the neck. Their boats consisted of two long canoes lashed together, with planks laid across for seating. Seven more craft, one with a high prow, came out to the ships. The Heemskerck's small boat was sent to the Zeehaen with the quarter master and six oarsmen, to warn the crew to be on their guard and not to let too many on board. Returning, the boat was rammed by one of the canoes and the sailors were attacked with paddles and 'short thick pieces of wood'. Three were killed and one mortally wounded; the quarter master and two others swam to Tasman's ship and were picked up by its sloop. One of the dead was taken by the attackers, and the canoes sped back to shore out of range of the muskets and cannon which opened fire from both ships. As the ships weighed anchor and set sail, 11 canoes approached and were fired on. The leading boat and one occupant were struck by canister shot. Tasman named the place Moordenaers (Murderers) Bay (Golden Bay).

Sailing east, the fleet reached the Manawatu coast of the North Island the next day, then tacked across the entrance of Cook Strait. They suspected the presence of a strait but were unable to check because of a northerly storm. Anchoring east of Stephens and D'Urville islands, they weathered a storm and celebrated the first Christmas dinner in New Zealand, with pork and extra rations of wine. They sailed up the west coast of the North Island, too far offshore to see Mt Taranaki. On 28 December a high mountain was seen, Karioi Mountain, south of Raglan Harbour, and on 30 December they were north of Manukau Harbour. They reached Cape Maria Van Diemen (named after van Diemen's wife) on 4 January 1643 and sighted Great Island, in the Three Kings group. On 5 January, wanting fresh water, they investigated this island, but were discouraged by a rocky shore and heavy surf, and by the 30 to 35 inhabitants who shouted 'with rough loud voice' and threw stones from the clifftops.

The fleet made a north-east course, reaching the southern islands of the Tonga group on 21 January, where they finally obtained ample supplies of food and water by trading with the islanders. Sailing on, in early February they sighted some of the northern islands of Fiji but did not land. They turned westwards, survived a prolonged storm, and experienced an earthquake at sea. Reaching New Guinea in mid April, they navigated its northern coastline and reached Batavia on 15 June.

The governor general and councillors considered the expedition successful, and officers and men received a moderate reward. However, it was felt that Tasman should have investigated more fully the lands he had discovered, to see if the new Staten Landt was linked to the old. Another voyage was proposed for the following year, but the company's managers in The Netherlands rejected the idea. In the meantime Tasman and Visscher were sent to Australia's northern coastline, which they mapped from Torres Strait westward to Port Hedland while looking for a possible passage to South America.

On 4 October 1644 Tasman's rank of skipper commander, which he had held since beginning the 1642–43 voyage, was confirmed. From 1644 to 1648 he was a member of the council of justice at Batavia, examining ships' journals and advising on navigation to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the Philippines. He was sent on trading missions to Sumatra in 1646 and Siam (Thailand) in 1647. On 14 May 1648 he led a fleet of eight ships on an unsuccessful attempt to capture a Spanish silver-ship in the Philippines. Tasman was charged with exceeding his authority by attempting to hang two men who disobeyed his order to go ashore at the Babuyan Islands on 28 August. Although he denied the charge, he was found guilty by the council of justice at Batavia, and on 23 November 1649 was suspended without salary, fined and ordered to pay compensation to one of the sailors, who had nearly died. He was reinstated 11 months later.

By 1653 Tasman had retired. He owned 288 acres of town land in Batavia, and captained a small cargo ship, of which he was a part-owner. He described himself as ill, but not bedridden, when making his will on 10 April 1657. He died probably shortly before 22 October 1659, when his will was verified, and was survived by his wife, Jannetje, his daughter, Claesjen, and grandchildren.