In the 1600s, many Europeans believed that an unknown continent, the Great South Land, existed in the Southern Hemisphere. It was thought that this huge continent was necessary to balance the weight of land in the Northern Hemisphere, and that it would also contain an abundance of gold and silver.
At this time, the Dutch had gained considerable wealth through the Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC), which was known in English as the United East India Company. This company dominated trade with the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). In 1642, the VOC's Governor, Antony van Diemen, decided to send an expedition in search of the Great South Land, from the company's base at Batavia (now Jakarta).
Explorer Abel Tasman was given command of the expedition. His task was to 'seek out any important lands, or at least convenient passages to known rich places, and to use these... for the improvement and increase of the Company's general welfare.' (1)
Tasman and his two ships were meant to sail west to Mauritius, then south until they either found land or reached the latitudes of around 52 degrees, where they were to turn eastward. They did this, and their eastward journey took them to a land they named Antony van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania). A chart was made of the southern coast, and the land was 'claimed' by placing a flag ashore. This new land did not seem rich in natural resources, so Tasman's expedition sailed on.
On 13 December 1642, Tasman 'saw a large high-lying land'. He 'shot a shot and after noon had a white flag flown'. Tasman and his officers then decided to 'make said land, as soon as At all possible...' (2)
Tasman's words record the first known sighting of New Zealand by Europeans.
The land he saw was part of the Southern Alps, near Hokitika. Tasman named the new land Staten Landt, in the mistaken belief that it was part of South America.
As Tasman's ships sailed up the western coast of the South Island, his chief pilot, Franz Jacobszoon Visscher, drew a map of part of the coast. This was the first time any of this country's geographical features had been recorded by a European.
Later, while anchored in what is now known as Golden Bay, Tasman and his men encountered Maori for the first time, from the Ngati Tumatakokiri tribe (iwi). Tasman observed 'many lights on land and four vessels near the Shore, 2 of which betook themselves towards us... those from the 2 canoes began to call out to us; in a gruff hollow voice... blew also many times on an Instrument which gave sound like the moors' trumpet...' (3)
Tasman's men responded with trumpet calls of their own - which may have been interpreted by the Maori as a challenge to fight. The next day, Ngati Tumatakokiri warriors came close enough to Tasman's ships for him to record a description of 'a vessel of these people having in it 13 men approached our ships to about a cast away, they called out several times... these people were (as far as we could see) of ordinary height but rough in voice and bones, their colour between brown and yellow, had Black hair right on top of the crown of the head fastened together... upon which stood a large thick white feather... their clothing was (So it appeared) some of mats, others Cottons, Some and almost all the upper body naked...' (4)
Seven more waka (canoes) came out to one of Tasman's ships, the Heemskerck, so a boat was sent to the Zeehaen to warn the crew. When the boat returned, it was rammed by a waka. Three of Tasman's sailors were killed, and one later died of his injuries. Tasman was appalled by this 'monstrous deed' and named the site of the incident Moordenaers Baij - Murderers Bay. He decided against making any further contact with the inhabitants of Staten Landt.
From Murderers Bay, Tasman's ships sailed east to the Manawatu coast of the North Island. Then they sailed across the entrance to Cook Strait, without discovering the passage between the North and South Islands. After spending Christmas Day off Stephens and D'Urville Islands, Tasman's ships sailed up the western coast of the North Island. They sailed too far offshore to see Mount Taranaki, but did sight a high peak, Karioi, north of Raglan Harbour.
Cape Maria van Diemen (named after the wife of the Governor of the East India Company) was reached in January 1643. Tasman's men attempted a landing on Great Island in the Three Kings group, but hostile Maori and heavy surf saw them abandon the attempt.
After leaving New Zealand, the ships returned to Batavia via Tonga, Fiji, and New Guinea. Upon his return, Tasman received a lukewarm reception. While the expedition was seen as successful, and Tasman's men were modestly rewarded, van Diemen and his councillors were concerned that Tasman failed to fully explore the lands he had discovered. They believed that future exploration should be left to a 'more persistent' explorer.
(1) Sharp, A. (1968). The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman. London: Oxford University Press. p 20 (2) Sharp, A. (1968). The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman. London: Oxford University Press. p 116 (3) Sharp, A. (1968). The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman. London: Oxford University Press. p 121 (4) Sharp, A. (1968). The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman. London: Oxford University Press. pp 121-122
Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images on Level 4.
Ell, G. (1992). Abel Tasman: In Search of the Great South Land. Auckland: Bush Press.
Sharp, A. (1968). The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman. London: Oxford University Press.
Simpson, Kenneth A. (1990). Tasman, Abel Janszoon. (1602/3?-1659?) in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Vol. 1. Wellington: Allen & Unwin New Zealand Limited and the Department of Internal Affairs.
Map showing Tasman's route during the Great Voyage, August 1642 - April 1643