As master of one of the Dutch East India Company’s merchant ships, he came to the attention of the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, Antony van Diemen, who sent him on a number of voyages of discovery. In the first of these (1634), he opened up a route from the Spice Islands into the Pacific via a passage north of Ceram. In 1639 he led an expedition to the northern Pacific in a fruitless search for fabled islands of immense wealth supposedly lying east of Japan. The voyage is no less important for its discovery of only emptiness in that part of the ocean.
After a short return to his trading duties, in 1642 he was commissioned to search for the “Great South Land”. (Increasingly, the west and parts of the northern coasts of the continent of Australia, named by the Dutch, New Holland had been visited by Dutch ships since the first decade of the century; but Van Diemen, with an eye to an extension of the Dutch Empire into the south seas, was eager to discover the extent of any lands in the temperate regions.) With two ships, the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen, he sailed to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, then went south in search of the Roaring Forties, that latitude of prevailing gales the Dutch had used to cross the Indian Ocean since their first forays into the East Indies.
In November 1642 Tasman came across the west coast of what he named Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. He sailed around the south of the island and partly up the east coast, then assuming that it was part of the Australian mainland he, headed west again, heading for the Solomon Islands in a roundabout way. Eight days later, he arrived off the South Island of New Zealand, which he thought was the western extremity of a continent stretching from south of Tierra del Fuego. After a misunderstanding with the local Ngati Tumatakokiri people resulted in a fight in which four Dutchmen and one Maori died, he proceeded up the west coasts of both islands, (missing Cook Strait between them) and headed northeast without landing.
He returned to Batavia in the East Indies (Djakarta in Indonesia) in a great arc out over the western Pacific, discovering parts of the Tongan and Fijian archipelagos, passing New Hebrides and the Solomon Islands and the top of New Guinea. He had been away 10 months.
Tasman’s last voyage of discovery was a failure. Asked to find out whether New Guinea and Tasmania were parts of Australia, he explored the south coast of New Guinea and the north and northwest coasts of Australia, completely missing Torres Strait between them.
For all that he “missed”, Tasman is still considered the greatest of the Dutch explorers.
Reference: The Oxford Book of Ships and the Sea.
- Michael King. The Penguin History of New Zealand; Penguin Books; Auckland. p. 97, (2003)