Abel Janszoon Tasman

Abel Janszoon Tasman (ca. 1603-1659) was a Dutch navigator who discovered Tasmania and New Zealand's South Island and charted the northwest Australian coastline.

Abel Tasman was born at Lutjegast near Groningen. After his second marriage, to Joanna Tierex in 1633, he became a ship's captain in the Dutch East India Company and lived in Batavia, capital of the new Dutch commercial empire in the East Indies.

A southern continent had long been thought to exist, but Spanish navigators who crossed the Pacific Ocean from the Americas had failed to locate it. After 1611 Dutch vessels which were blown east by the "roaring forties" after rounding the Cape of Good Hope occasionally touched the coastline of "Terra Australis" en route to Java. The Batavian authorities soon decided to find out whether this "South Land" had any commercial potential, and in 1642, Governor General Anton Van Diemen chose Tasman to command an expedition.

Tasman left Djakarta in August 1642 with two ships, the Heemskerk of 60 tons and the Zeehaen of 100 tons, carrying 110 men and sufficient supplies for 18 months. From Mauritius he sped east on latitude 44°S, discovering Van Diemen's Land (renamed Tasmania after 1856) on November 24. After crossing the Tasman Sea, he reached the west coast of Staeten Landt (New Zealand's South Island) on December 13, and a landing party was attacked by Maoris at Golden Bay on December 18. Tasman then sailed up the west coast of New Zealand's North Island to the Tonga and Fiji islands and returned to Batavia along the northern coast of New Guinea in June 1643 after a voyage lasting 10 months.

Although Tasman circumnavigated a new continent, he seldom sailed close enough to the coastline to chart it accurately on a map. Sent to establish a base in the Tonga Islands in 1644, he failed to find a passage through Torres Strait, and instead he surveyed the northwestern coastline of New Holland (Australia) from Cape York Peninsula to Willem's River on the Tropic of Capricorn.

On his return to Batavia after a 6-months' voyage, Tasman was promoted to commander. But his superiors were disappointed. Although he had discovered more about "the remaining unknown part of the terrestrial globe" than any of his predecessors, his accounts of a barren landscape and primitive natives banished all prospects of trade and settlement. Europeans consequently displayed little interest in the colonization of New Holland for more than a century.

In 1647 Tasman led a mission to the king of Siam. His reputation subsequently suffered owing to the way in which he commanded a fleet against the Spaniards in 1648-1649. Soon afterward he left the service of the East India Company and became a merchant. He died in Batavia, a wealthy man.


Further Reading on Abel Janszoon Tasman

The study by Andrew Sharp, The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman (1968), reproduces Tasman's journals together with an excellent commentary and contains a full account of his career. The standard work on the exploration of the whole region, J. C. Beaglehole, The Exploration of the Pacific (1934; 3d ed. 1966), includes a good chapter on Tasman. A copy of Tasman's map of 1644, showing New Guinea, Australia, and Tasmania as one land mass, was published by the Public Library of New South Wales in 1948.

Additional Biography Sources

Allen, Oliver E., The Pacific navigators, Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books; Morristown, N.J.: School and library distribution by Silver Burdett, 1980.

Slot, B., Abel Tasman and the discovery of New Zealand, Amsterdam: O. Cramwinckel, 1992.