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Natives and high surfs kept Tasman from leaving footprints

Groningen-born sailor discovered Tasmania, New Zealand and Australia

Tags: Dutch Exploration

Just recently, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands called on New Zealand for an official visit. Her journey ‘down under’ lasted just a few days, meriting scant attention in the island nation’s press. She quickly returned to her own country to resume her daily responsibilities there. During the New Zealand-visit of Queen Beatrix, the seventeenth-century Dutch explorer Abel Tasman received renewed attention for having been the first Dutchman (and European) to set foot on New Zealand’s soil. Tasman’s visit 350 years earlier was also of short duration, and the natives were far from friendly to their unexpected guests.

Dutch sailors indeed ventured far from home! In doing so, they carried on in the tradition of earlier generations who with their small vessels covered the coastal areas of Europe, sailing, shipping and trading. Exploring lands and seas far beyond the traditional horizons became a new dimension and challenge to these Dutch seafarers. This development took courageous men from small towns to exotic places, making history and leaving footprints all over the constantly changing map. Its all part of a very interesting, long bloody struggle for economic survival and religious freedom.

Freight carriers of Europe

The Eighty Year War with Spain (1568-1648) caused serious strains on the economies of the many Dutch cities whose ships served Europe as freight carriers and traders. At first, the Spanish looked the other way when Dutch ships arrived at Mediterranean quays to exchange northern European wares for the spices and other exotic products from the Far East.

It was not lost on the Spanish, however, that Dutch resistance was most formidable at sea where Spanish strength with its cumbersome galleons was being outmaneuvered almost every time. Yet, these people continued to profit from their trade with Spain, while they and their cousins brought proud King Philip II of Spain virtually to financial ruin. The land-war against the Dutch cities was extremely costly to the Spanish crown, causing several periods of insolvency. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Spanish tried to hurt their enemy in a very tender spot - their wallet - by banning Dutch ships from Spanish harbours, in effect denying them their livelihood.

Horizon ‘pushed back further’

It was a decision that would come to haunt the Spanish King! He underestimated the stubborn resolve of these - in his view - despicable, rebellious and independent-minded lowlanders a number of times during his lifetime. The effect was that soon Dutch ships searched the seas of the world for passage ways to the Far East where they hoped the procure spices themselves, cutting out the Spanish (and Portuguese) merchant marine and trading houses. While the search for better passage ways continued for decades, the Dutch found the main route rather quickly, arriving in the Indies where they first pushed Spanish and Portuguese trading interests out of the way, in due time followed by the English, in spite of an accord for mutual cooperation.

These competing trading houses were relegated to the sidelines, the English mainly to the West (the Indian subcontinent), the Portuguese kept a number of scattered trading posts, and the Spanish to the East (the Philippines and the Americas) where often they were raided by Dutch explorers and merchant ships. Clashes with the competitors went on endlessly, regardless of high-level diplomacy.

Search for Southern continent

By the 1630s, the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) under the able leadership of Governor-General Anthony van Diemen, who himself avoided conflicts where ever possible, largely had consolidated its presence in the region and found it necessary to explore unknown territories which lay beyond the isles of the Indies. Van Diemen sent expedition after expedition southward, in search of the mysterious ‘Southern continent’. None of these attempts produced any measurable success to Van Diemen and the VOC. In 1636, for example, he sent two vessels, to examine the island of New Guinea (today, the northern - Indonesian - part is known as Irian Jaya), which was then assumed to be the peninsula of the unknown Southern continent. The vessels spent much time along the coastline of New Guinea but were forced back without the desired results.

By 1642, Van Diemen still had nothing to show for his troubles. He now turned to a Franz Jacobsz Visscher, who was to advise him on a course of action so he could put this Southern continent-question behind him once for all. Visscher who had crossed the Pacific Ocean, and had been to Japan and China, advised that ships be send to the island of Mauritius where the exploratory work was to start.

Manning of ships

The exploring ships were to follow a southeastern course from there. If they have found no land by the time they had reached the 54th degree of latitude, the explorers were to turn toward the east until they arrived at New Guinea’s coast. From there they were to establish the correct relation to the unknown continent of which it was thought to be a solid part. If it proved to be an island, then the strait was to be charted and explored if it provided for a shorter route from India to Strait Le Maire and the Atlantic Ocean.

Having examined and approved these plans, Van Diemen equipped two ships for the journey and enlisted hundred men for the ‘Heemskerk’ and the ‘Zeehaen.’ Visscher was hired to act as pilot and general adviser, while Tasman, who had earned his keep with years of steady service as sailor, mate and captain, was given the general command of the exploration party.

Company policy

The purpose of the enterprise was really scientific in nature. Professional draughtsman were hired and instructed to make accurate maps of everything that was discovered. They were to record the currents of the ocean and the direction of the wind. Also, Van Diemen wanted to know everything about the natives, their customs and habits as well as their way of life in general. Interestingly, they were ordered to treat these natives with kindness. This meant that natives who ventured aboard the vessels and engaged in theft should not be punished for it. Not that theft was condoned by Van Diemen, but it was thought important to develop good relationships with these newly discovered tribes. Many more specific items were listed in this elaborate company manual, including the instruction to annex the discovered lands for the Estates General of the Dutch Republic. The annexation notice was to be left on the coast of such territory in the form of a written document. The notice was to be placed in such a manner that the natives would not destroy it. In general, Tasman was given a free hand.

On August 19, 1642, Tasman and his ships departed for the island of Mauritius, 550 miles east of Madagascar, which lies off the African coast. Upon arrival there they filled the ship’s water tanks with fresh water, while the men received extra food rationing to condition them for the expedition through uncharted seas. The men were allowed several weeks of leisure time as well before they setting out on the voyage on the October 6.

Weather conditions a problem

The ships met with drearier weather as they sailed southward. The climate got colder; snow, hail and fog were the order of the day. The crow’s nest was being manned around the clock, watching for land. Presumably to keep his crew in good spirits, Tasman offered rewards to the sailor first to see a light on the horizon. When they had sailed approximately a month, they had reached the 44th degree of latitude, Tasman sought Visscher’s opinion on a change of direction. They mutually agreed to alter the original plans, but even that change of direction did not ‘produce’ land. Several weeks went by without seeing anything but an endless mass of water. It was not until November 29 that a coastline was sighted. Today we know that Tasman’s party had discovered Tasmania - subsequently named after the explorer - but he called it after his employer, Van Diemen’s Land, which he assumed to be part of the sought-for continent.

Tasman never got so far as to leave footprints on Tasmania’s soil! An attempt to go on land failed when the surf turned out to be too dangerous for Tasman and his officers. Instead, the ship’s carpenter waded through the chilly waters to plant the Dutch flag on the shore. The men in the boat viewed the carpenter efforts from a safe distance. A subsequent search for a safe landing site was eventually abandoned as the surf was dangerous everywhere along the coastline.

Natives on the attack

The exploration party turned seaward again, facing more dreary days with nothing but endless seas. A few weeks of uneventful sailing ended when once more land was sighted. The surfs were again dangerous, the coastline inhospitable and the winds too strong, preventing any thought of attempting to land. An additional concern were the natives, who looked ‘much more savage’ and were more able to defend themselves as Tasman was soon to find out. The first encounters were peaceful enough. The natives paddled around the ships but caused no harm. However when a boat party of the ‘Zeehaen’ tried to establish contact by rowing toward the circling natives, they were in for a bitter experience. The natives at once attacked fiercely, killing three sailors with clubs and wounding several others with spears. Tasman lost some of the wounded men the following day when they died from their injuries. The location of the attack was called Tasman Bay but had the explorers not sailed on so quickly they would have discovered the straight between the northern and southern part of New Zealand. Tasman Bay eventually became known as Cook Strait, named after the British explorer who came calling a century later. The visit by Tasman was still remembered in the local folklore when Cook made contact with the natives.

From there Tasman sailed northward, reaching a few weeks later the Friendly Islands which he individually named after well-known Dutchmen. The natives there were more favourably disposed toward Tasman and his party. The sailors threw little presents into the water, with the natives promptly diving after it to retrieve items such as nails, small knives and mirrors from the sea floor. These fun and games probable helped establish ‘a good understanding’ between Tasman and his hosts. The manner of communication is almost hilarious, but the message came across. Tasman and his men showed the natives a skinny chicken, while pointing to their stomachs. The natives understood and brought fresh food. When Tasman showed an empty glass while making the motion of drinking, they again understood and pointed this time to the shore where fresh water could be obtained. Over a century later, the visit by Tasman lived on in folkloristic tales on the island.

The explorers traveled from island to island, meeting the same type of natives everywhere. While no more trouble with the natives was recorded, the journey itself was in far greater danger on account of the numerous hidden reefs. When the weather grew more unstable it became high time to return to a safe harbour in the known world. Before that aim was materialized, Tasman discovered several more groups of islands (the Solomon islands and the Bismarck Archipelago). It was months before he reached the northern part of New Guinea. When he realized he had returned to familiar territory, he at once sailed for Batavia, to report his findings to Governor-General Van Diemen and the council of the VOC. Unknown to Tasman, he had sailed in a wide circle around Australia, never setting his sight on it.

New continent’s value weighed

Was Van Diemen not satisfied with Tasman’s journey or was his appetite whetted by his explorer’s reports? This question has not been fully researched, so the answer will have to wait for another time. However, Tasman was sailing again a few months later, now with three ships under his command. He made a detailed study of the northern coast of Australia, exploring the Gulf of Carpentaria. He also found the Torres Strait, the narrow waterway between the Australian continent and New Guinea but jumped to the conclusion that it represented a bay. He made another (hasty) conclusion that the lands he had discovered were not really significant to be of benefit to the Dutch East Indies Company! As well-known Dutch-American author Willem Hendrik van Loon commented, ‘New Holland, as Australia was then called, was not settled by the Hollanders because it had no immediate commercial value.’

Tasman’s exploratory efforts for the supposed Southern Continent - some thought that that was the place where King Solomon obtained his ship loads of gold - were the last ones to be commissioned by Van Diemen. Tasman’s assessment was reinforced by other ship captains who had strayed into Australian coastal regions. (The coastline of Western Australia is also a grave yard of Dutch ship wrecks.) Both Australia and New Zealand had to wait another century before land-hungry Europeans would show an interest in these regions.

Birthplace in Lutjegast

Fairly shortly after his return from the second exploration, Tasman was appointed member of the Judiciary at Batavia. However, in 1646 he sailed again, this time to Djambi (on the east coast of Sumatra), a expedition to Thailand followed in 1647 and a year later he headed a fleet of eight ships on an expedition to Thailand and the Philippines. Tasman’s career with the VOC ended abruptly that year, when he was accused of assaulting one of his seamen for the man’s poor behaviour.

Tasman, who had been in the Dutch East Indies since 1639, continued to make his presence felt by settling as an independent merchant-captain at Batavia. By 1653, record identify him as former commander. His will, drawn up in 1657, earmarked 25 Dutch Florins for the poor in his home town and place of birth, Lutjegast, which belongs to the municipality of Grootegast, Province of Groningen. - No, Tasman does not hail from the city of Hoorn as some non-Dutch encyclopedias would have it (his departure to the Indies in 1638 may have been from there). - Tasman died October 10, 1659 at the age of 56.

Tasman finally acknowledged

From a commercial aspect, Tasman’s voyages were a disaster. The investments by his employers were a waste, and his reports in all likelihood gathered dust soon after they were written. Tasman did not enjoy his discoveries very much, he could not even set a foot on Tasmania and New Zealand. Tasman as much acknowledged in a final journal entry that his voyage had not been without risks; most seamen of his days would gratefully refer to having been blessed with ‘a safe journey / behouden reijse.’ Tasman wrote, ‘To God be the praise and thanks for a safe journey’.

Yet, Tasman’s discoveries were quite significant. His journal of the voyages were published in the early decades of this century by a Dutch society, and it is only proper that this part of history again receives its due attention today. Others have shown their interest in Tasman’s voyages. In 1940, Tasman and his ship ‘Heemskerk’ were featured on a New Zealand stamp during a major celebration by that nation. A similar thing happened in 1963, and again in 1985 during Australia’s bicentennial. Fiji and Tonga honoured Tasman respectively in 1970 and 1984. Samoa followed with a stamp in 1987.

Much to its credit, the Netherlands has finally come across to honour its legendary son in an official and a major fashion this year. This recognition has been brought on by the 350th anniversary of the discovery of New Zealand, a country where Queen Beatrix visited recently, but which also has been ‘discovered’ by 70,000 Dutchmen who actually settled there. Tasman’s birth place Lutjegast is to unveil a monument in due course, while Dutch schools will receive course material on the explorer. March 12 was even declared Tasman-day. All this recognition is worthy of applause of course, but somehow it seems that Dutch officialdom still expects to discover its pot of gold by capitalizing on mutual Tasman-ties with these faraway countries!