While it is probable that Portuguese sailors in the 16th century came in sight of the west coast of what was imagined to be the Great South Land, the usual route taken by the Dutch and Portuguese spice traders on their way to Java and the Moluccas was to round the Cape and sail up the east coast of Africa as far as Madagascar and then turn away from the coast line and across the Indian Ocean. These voyages could be very lengthy, taking up to a year, as ships could become becalmed in the tropical regions and sailors suffered from the unhealthy climate and lack of fresh provisions.
In 1611 Dutch captain Hendrik Brouwer discovered a quicker trade route to Indonesia’s spice islands and halved the time it took to reach Indonesia. After rounding the Cape he used the ‘roaring forties’, a band of strong winds in the southern oceans, to speed the passage of ships in an easterly direction and did not turn north until he estimated he was in the vicinity of the longitude of Java.
Following Brouwer’s discovery, it became standard practice for the Dutch East India Company ships to sail in the roaring forties for one thousand Dutch miles (about 7,400km) before turning north to Indonesia. While this halved the amount of time spent at sea there was at this time no accurate way to calculate distance travelled and it was inevitable that some ships would travel too far east, before turning north, and start to see glimpses of unmapped land.
In 1616 Captain Dirk Hartog in the Eendragh made landfall at an island in Shark Bay in what is now Western Australia. From this time on the “Land of the Eendragh” was used as a sailing direction for Dutch vessels travelling east. Then in 1642 Abel Tasman, under instructions from Anthony Van Diemen, Governor of the Dutch East Indies, set out to discover the extent of the Great South Land. Van Diemen’s instructions to Tasman were to sail to Mauritius, then go due south to Latitude 51 or 54 degrees, or until land was discovered and then to sail east to see if the Great South Land extended as far as Terra del Fuego.
The expedition consisted of two ships, the Heemskirk and the Zeehaen, and sailed from Batavia on 14 August 1642, with the first journal entry by Tasman reading:
Journal or description by me, Abel Janszoon Tasman, of a voyage made from the town of Batavia in the East Indies, for the discovery of the unknown South Land, in the year Anno 1642, the 14th August. May it please Almighty God to grant his blessing thereto! Amen.
They reached Mauritius on 5th September and spent a month refitting and provisioning for their long journey to the south and then to the east where they encountered strong gales and heavy fogs. Continuing their voyage into the unknown they first sighted land on 24 November. Tasman named the land Van Diemen’s Land in honour of the Governor, but as was common in those times, the exact location on the west coast of what is now called Tasmania is uncertain. His position is not marked on his chart but the descriptions and bearings of the mountains he saw make it likely he was in the region of Cape Sorell at the mouth of Macquarie Harbour.
Proceeding south he skirted the southern end of Tasmania and turned north-east until he was off Cape Frederick Hendrick on the Forestier Peninsula.
Tasman’s journal entries for 2 December describe an initial exploration of the land to the north west of where their ships were at anchor, describing vegetation, timber resources and a good quality shallow water course, as well as fowls, wild duck and geese. They observed notches in the trees, at intervals of around five feet, confirming the common belief of all explorers at this time that the inhabitants of the Great South Land were giants. The following morning they went ashore again, this time to the south east, looking for water but were unable to find an easily accessible supply. Tasman’s journal entry recounts that they returned in the afternoon, taking:
… a pole with the company’s mark carved on it, and a flag of the Prince to be set up there, that those that come after us may become aware that we have been here, and taken possession of the said land as our lawful property … [however] the surf ran so high that we could not get near the shore without running the risk of having our pinnace dashed to pieces. We then ordered the carpenter [Pieter Jacobsz] to swim to the shore with the pole and the flag: we made him plant the pole in the earth with the flag upon its top, about the centre of the bay near four tall trees … our carpenter, having performed his work, we pulled as near the shore as we dared, thereupon he swam back to the pinnace … we pulled back to the ships, leaving the above mentioned as a memorial for those who shall come after us and for the natives of this country who did not show themselves, though we suspect some of them were at no great distance and closely watching our proceedings.
The exact spot where the flag was planted remains a mystery as Tasman did not record bearings to, or angles between, the various headlands, islands or prominent features in the vicinity, in relation to the anchorage of his ships.
On 4 December Tasman resumed his voyage northwards but bad weather made it impossible to keep in sight of the coastline so it was decided to turn eastward the following day, and after nine days they made land fall on the west coast of the south island of New Zealand. From there he sailed north east to Tonga, then on to New Guinea, arriving back at Batavia on 15 June 1643. The concluding entry in his journal reads:
God be praised and thanked for a safe voyage! Amen.
Though the Dutch were the first Europeans to discover Tasmania, and to claim it for the Netherlands, it appears they had no colonisation ambitions as it offered no prospect of profitable trade along the lines of the existing spice trade in Indonesia. Apart from the 1642 discovery leading to more lines being added to maritime charts, the island remained forgotten for well over a century. From 1772, however, the French and the British became frequent visitors.
W R Barrett, History of Tasmania to the Death of Lieutenant-Governor Collins in 1810. Hobart: H T Whiting Pty Ltd, 1936 (particularly for extracts from Tasman’s Journal)
R W Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania. London: Melbourne University Press, 1939
J B Walker, Early Tasmania. Hobart: Government Printer, 1950