Abel Tasman was born in 1603 in a small village in rural Holland. Little is known about his early life, but this was a time when his country was rapidly becoming the great maritime power of Europe. Dutch merchant fleets were opening up the world, and the all-powerful Dutch East India Company was hungry for talented employees to serve in its empire amongst the Spice Islands of the Far East. By the late 1630s Tasman had a growing reputation as a sea captain, and had moved from Amsterdam to Batavia, the principle Dutch base in the region and the site of present-day Jakarta.
The Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies was the ambitious Antony van Diemen who wanted to expand the Dutch Empire. He had heard persistent rumours that islands rich in gold and silver mines lay in the waters to the east of Japan. In June 1639 he asked Tasman to lead an expedition to find this prize. Disappointingly, when Tasmin returned, the only islands he had discovered were the tiny volcanic Bonin isles, which he had accurately charted and surveyed. Beyond this the waters of the North West Pacific were wide, barren and empty.
Undeterred by this setback, Van Diemen next sent Tasman on an altogether more ambitious project a few years later. Europeans had long believed that a great continent lay somewhere in the southern hemisphere, awaiting discovery. So firmly held was this theory that the landmass had already been named. Discovering the fabled Terra Australis was to be Tasman’s next task.
In August 1642, Tasman left Batavia in command of two ships, the Heemskerk and the Zeehaen. First he sailed west across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius, to stock up with fresh meat for his crews. Mauritius was home to the large, nutritious and easily caught dodo, and would remain a popular destination for Dutch mariners in need of supplies until the birds became extinct in 1681. Replete with dodos, Tasman sailed south until he reached the roaring forties, and with that westerly wind driving him on, he headed East, scanning the horizon ahead for the fabled southern continent. Seven weeks later, land was sighted to the north.
Tasman called his new discovery Van Diemen’s Land, after the expedition’s sponsor, but it has since been renamed Tasmania after its discoverer. For several weeks the expedition mapped and explored the south and east coast, eventually arriving at a point where the land turned west. Tasman deduced correctly that what he had found was an isolated island, rather than the larger land mass he sought. The Dutch had islands aplenty – it was a continent he was tasked with finding, so he ordered his ships to continue east. If he had only ventured a little further north, to the far side of the Banks Straight, he would have spotted the modern Australian coastline.
A week later the Dutch sighted a fresh, more promising shore that ran approximately north/south across their track for many hundreds of miles. This was a land occupied by fierce natives with tattooed faces, who attacked the Dutch whenever they attempted to land. Could this be the west coast of the lost Southern Continent, its secrets protected by its aggressive residents? Tasman certainly thought so, calling the land Staten Landt, the same name given by the Dutch to a landmass discovered off the coast of South American in 1616. A lot of hopeful dots were required on Tasman’s chart to connect these two places, which were many thousands of miles apart, but perhaps they were indeed two sides of the same vast continent? On his way back to Batavia, Tasman took the opportunity to explore a little more of the Pacific. He was the first European to map the Tongan archipelago and Fiji, and he also charted much of the northern side of New Guinea, before eventually returning home in June 1643.
In January 1644, Tasman was sent off on a third major voyage, to explore New Holland. This was Dutch name for a strip of modern Australia’s northern coast that had been previously discovered. He was given three ships this time, the Limmen, Zeemeeuw and the smaller Braek. He followed the south coast of New Guinea eastwards in an attempt to find a passage to the eastern side of New Holland, but missed the Torres Strait between New Guinea and Australia and instead spent his time mapping in greater detail the portion of coast that had been previously discovered. In August 1644 he was back in Batavia once more.
In 1645 Antony van Diemen died, and he was replaced by a more financially-prudent Governor-General. Knowledge and discovery were all very well, but the Dutch East India Company was a commercial organisation. Whatever the significance of Tasman’s voyages for humanity, they were expensive failures in the view of those who funded them. No gold or silver had been found, no new spices had been discovered, and no markets had been opened up for Dutch trade. The company settled down to exploit the considerable resources of its existing spice islands, and the recently conquered Ceylon.
Abel Tasman never returned to his native Holland. He lived out his days in Batavia, eventually dying when he was fifty-six. With his passing, there was almost no further European interest in his discoveries for over a hundred years. By then a new maritime power had eclipsed the Dutch, and had decided to search once more for the Terra Australis, the Southern Continent glimpsed by Tasman. In his three voyages to the region, Captain James Cook filled in many of the blank spaces left on the map. He showed that what Tasman had thought was the western coastline of a continent were actually the twin islands of New Zealand, and that only endless sea, with a few small points of land, separated the two Staten Landts. Cook was followed by other explorers, like Mathew Flinders, who completed his work of mapping the coast of New Holland. It was Flinders who argued that the only Terra Australis was New Holland, and that it should therefore be renamed Australia.