Abel Tasman

The man who opened the first chapter in the history between New Zealand and the Netherlands was Abel Tasman. He was a Dutch navigator and explorer who became the first known European to have reached New Zealand’s shores in 1642. Tasman and his crew were on board the Dutch ships “Heemskerck” and “Zeehaen” when they were the first Europeans to sight Aotearoa, the Māori name for the country, translated as the land of the long white cloud. Documentation of the four-month voyage to this last undiscovered part of the globe placed New Zealand on the world map. Just like Columbus’ landing in America in 1492, the “discovery” of New Zealand was a mere coincidence. The objectives of Tasman’s voyage were to find out how large the presumed southern super continent, Terra Australis, was and to seek an alternative route to Chile.

In the 17th century, The Netherlands became the most important maritime and economic power in the world. It was in this Golden Age, as the Dutch call this period of wealth and power, that the “Dutch East India Company” (VOC) was founded. This maritime company organised voyages of discovery throughout the world, in order to open new trade routes and opportunities. Abel Tasman was one of VOC’s explorers.

Tasman was born in 1603 in Lutjegast, a village in the northern Dutch province of Groningen. He moved to Amsterdam when he was in his twenties and joined the Dutch East India Company in early 1634. Within two years the sailor was skipper of his own boat and within three he was commander of a small fleet guarding the company’s monopoly of the spice trade. In 1642, after working for the company for eight years, Tasman had proven his skill, courage and loyalty, and was appointed to lead a voyage to the last unknown part of the world.

During the trip, Tasman found out that there was no southern super continent, because it ended with the southern coast of Australia. He also discovered the island to the South of Australia that is still named after him, Tasmania. Strong winds pushed Tasman and his crew to New Zealand. On December 13 1642, Tasman’s journal records the sighting of a groot hooch verheven landt: a large, high elevated land. This was the West coast of New Zealand’s South Island, probably near Greymouth. He couldn’t go ashore though, due to the rough sea. After following the coastline, they rounded Farewell Split and on 18 December anchored in what is now Golden Bay, several kilometres off the northern coast of Abel Tasman National Park. The first contact with the Māori people was established on that same day.

Although there still is discussion about the exact nature of events it can be concluded that there was no friendly welcome. One or more waka (canoes) came out from the shore. The occupants then shouted loudly and blew a trumpet-like instrument. The Dutch tried, according to Tasman’s journal, to establish a rapport by displaying gifts and getting one of the sailors to play on his trumpet as well, because they had no idea it was a war horn they were greeted with. Tasman and his officers believed the local inhabitants wanted friendship. The Māori however, interpreted the answering trumpet as an acceptance of their declaration of war and killed three of Tasman’s men during one of the encounters at sea, leaving another one mortally wounded. It led Tasman to make the decision to leave because we could not expect to make any friends here. He named the bay in which all this took place, “Murderers’ Bay”.

After this encounter, the two ships sheltered from a storm behind an island in the waters now called Cook Strait, marking Christmas there. They then continued up the West coast of the North Island reaching Cape Maria Van Diemen (named after the wife of Anthonie van Diemen, the Governor-General of the Dutch East India Company in Jakarta at the time) on 4 January 1643. In need of fresh water, they investigated the Three Kings Islands on the 5th but were put off by a heavy surf and rocky shore, and another sighting of people who shouted in an unfriendly way. On January 6, 1643, Tasman and his crew left behind the New Zealand coast. In his journal he wrote: this land looks like a very beautiful country.

Sailing a North-East course, the expedition arrived in Tonga, where they received a much warmer welcome. Between 19th and 25th of January, he discovered various islands of Tonga. Tasman named some of the islands after Dutch cities: Amsterdam (Tongatabu), Middelburg (Eva), and Rotterdam (Nomuka). Here the crew went ashore for the first time since leaving Van Diemen’s Land. From there Tasman steered North and West, reaching on the 6th of February the Eastern part of the Fiji archipelago, which he called Prince William’s Islands and Heemskerck Shoals. This time however, they stayed on board.

Tasman named New Zealand “Staten Landt”, because he thought it might be linked to the island that is still named Staten Landt, discovered off the coast of South America in 1616 by his fellow countrymen Schouten and LeMaire. These two sailors were looking for a new route to the Moluccas when they found a way around Cape Horn, which they named after their hometown, Hoorn. Later they also “discovered” the islands Futuna and Alofi, which they named the Horne Islands, and islands that are part of Tonga, which they named Coconut Island and Traitor’s Island.

Hendrik Brouwer, a Dutch sailor for the West India Company surveyed Staten Landt (off the South American coast) in 1643 in greater detail and concluded that it was no more than a small island.Therefore Dutch map makers decided that Abel Tasman’s ‘Staten Landt’ was changed into Nova Zelandia, Latin for New Zealand, after the Dutch province “Zeeland”. The Englishman James Cook mapped New Zealand in more detail in 1769-1770 when his trip took him all around the islands.

The Tasman Sea and Tasmania are reminders of Abel Tasman’s exploits, just like Mount Tasman, Tasman Bay, Tasman Glacier and the Abel Tasman National Park. The name New Zealand, until today reminds us of the unique relationship with the Netherlands.


Continue to Early Dutch Arrivals.