The 1640’s mark somewhat of a turning point in our story of discovery of Terra Australis. So far discovery has been either driven by logic (Aristotle) or the accidental visit driven by a quest for wealth from the Spice Islands. Now, however, at least one of the participants becomes serious – the Dutch. So while the accidental tourist will remain a part of the future exploration, we now move to a period where the Southern Land is more deliberately quested for, and then its coast mapped (but the interior by no means explored at this time).
This quest commences with a lad named Able Janzoon Tasman who is born in the meadows of Luytjegast in Holland in 1603. Little is known of this boy’s early life prior to 1634 other than he comes form humble stock and takes to sea at an early age and eventually becomes deeply involved in the spice trade in the East Indies.
By 1635 we learn that Tasman has quickly risen from a simple seaman to “Commandeur Abel,” leading a fleet of small vessels that jealously guard the VOC’s monopoly from foreign intrusion, as well as no doubt harass ships of hostile European rivals.
Tasman quickly becomes known as an experienced and “able” skipper, familiar with the great trade routes from Europe to India. He is also experienced in the waters of the Eastern Archipelago, and navigation of the China and Japan seas. By the end of the 1630’s he has ventured beyond the limits reached by any previous European navigator into the unknown and mysterious North Pacific Ocean.
It is therefore of no surprise that in 1642 the Dutch East India Company selects Able Tasman to lead its quest for the Unknown Southland. This search by the Dutch is primarily a commercial venture, not driven by a thirst for scientific knowledge or adventure. Tasman is instructed by the authorities to journal the full particulars of the productions of the countries he visits, describe the sort of goods available for trade, and what they may take in exchange. For this reason the ships that eventually set sail are laden with a great variety of articles of merchandise to potentially trade during the voyage.
It is also important to note there is at this time a clear distinction in the minds of the Dutch between the Known Southland (visited by Dirk Hartog, the Leeuwin in 1622, and the Gulde Zeepart) and the Unknown Southland. The Unknown Southland is still very much shrouded in mystery and legend involving the writings of Marco Polo who described a mysterious land of Beach, where “gold was so plentiful that no one who did not see it could believe it”. The location of this mysterious land at this time is thought to be somewhere south of the Solomon Islands. And it is this Unknown Southland that is being sought by Tasman and the Dutch. As the song goes, “Money, Money, Money”!
In 1642 Tasman sets sail on this voyage of commerce and trade and heads first to Mauritius. From there he turns south to the Unknown Southland. On the 18th of November they pass the longitude of Nuyts Land (Great Australian Bight), the furthest known extension of the Discovered South Land. However, not all goes well. They have to contend with strong westerly gales that push them further west. It was then, on the 24th November they sight their first land, which they call Antony van Diemen’s Land, after the Governor-General. They have reached modern day Tasmania, the large island south of Australia.
On the 3rd of December Tasman’s two boats (the Heemskerck and Zeehaen) make for a bay now known as Prince of Wales Bay. Tasman quickly launches the Heemskerck’s longboat to try and make shore, but the surf is too treacherous, preventing him from landing. Instead the ships carpenter (no doubt a volunteer!! Or perhaps the only person who could swim) swims through the surf, and plants the Prince’s flag on the shore. Tasman, on behalf of the VOC takes formal possession of the newly discovered country.
From there Tasman sails west and goes on to visit the South Island of New Zealand, then he moves on to the Tongan archipelago and the Fiji Islands. It ends up being a true voyage of discovery.
The trip, however, from a commercial point of view is a disappointment to his Dutch masters. Tasman did not discover any rich gold or silver mines, or indeed any rich trade for the Company at all. All he could boast of was that he had circumnavigated New Holland, or “Compagnies Nieuw Nederlandt” and had a damn good story to write about.
But it is not over for the Dutch or Able Tasman.
In 1644 Tasman is commissioned for a second voyage by resolution of the Governor-General. The ships Limmen and Zeemeeuw with the little tender Braek (carrying only 14 men) are commissioned for the voyage. In all a total of 111 hands are provisioned for an eight-month journey of discovery focusing on a northerly approach to the Unknown Southland via Papua New Guinea. Unfortunately Tasman’s journals of this voyage are lost, but Tasman did add to the knowledge of Terra Australis by carefully charting the west and north coasts of Australia, including the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The Great Southern Land is finally taking shape. But to the commercially focused Dutch this land is a disappointment. It was not turning out to be a land of gold and silver.
Perhaps now is a time for others, more “willing and able” to step forward into our story…