Abel Tasman is officially recognised as the first European to ‘discover’ New Zealand in 1642. His men were the first Europeans to have a confirmed encounter with Māori.
The misunderstanding and fear aroused by two such different worlds coming together soon led to violence.
Born at Lutjegast, The Netherlands, Tasman went to sea in the service of the Dutch East India Company, receiving his first command in 1634. After patrolling the waters of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) searching for smugglers and rebels, in 1642 he was appointed to head an expedition to the ‘still unexplored South- and East-land [Australia and South America]’, which had been partly discovered by Dutch mariners. The company wanted to find out whether any exploitable southern lands existed or whether there was a sea passage across the Pacific to Chile. Tasman was given two small ships for the expedition: his flagship, Heemskerck, and an armed transport ship, Zeehaen. Franz Jacobszoon Visscher was appointed as chief pilot.
The expedition departed from the company's base at Batavia (Jakarta) in August 1642. After sailing west to Mauritius they turned south before being forced back by the cold to the 45th parallel. Continuing eastwards they sighted the mountains of a land that Tasman named Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) after the governor general of Batavia. They continued east on 4 December and sighted the west coast of the South Island on the 13th. They anchored at Wharewharangi Bay, near Wainui Inlet to the north of what is now Abel Tasman National Park, on 18 December.
The initial meeting between European and Maori was tense but peaceful. The following day, though, the Dutch had a violent encounter with local Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri. Tasman named the place Moordenaers (Murderers) Bay before sailing east to the Manawatu coast of the North Island. Shortly afterwards they sheltered from a storm east of Stephens and D'Urville islands and celebrated the first Christmas dinner in New Zealand. The Dutch continued up the west coast of the North Island reaching Cape Maria Van Diemen (named after van Diemen's wife) on 4 January 1643. In need of fresh water, they investigated Great Island in the Three Kings group on the 5th but were put off by a heavy surf and rocky shore – not to mention up to 35 inhabitants who shouted ‘with rough loud voice’ and threw stones from the cliff-tops.
Sailing a north-east course, the expedition arrived in Tonga on 21 January. After obtaining ample supplies of food and water they sailed on, sighting but not landing in the northern islands of Fiji. After turning west the expedition reached New Guinea in April before returning to Batavia on 15 June 1643.
The expedition was deemed a success although it was felt that Tasman could have made more effort to investigate more fully the lands he had discovered. Company bosses in The Netherlands rejected the idea of another expedition. Tasman and Visscher were instead sent to Australia's northern coastline. While looking for another possible passage to South America they mapped the coast from Torres Strait westward to Port Hedland.
In 1648 Tasman attempted to hang two sailors who had disobeyed orders by leaving their quarters. He was drunk and one of the men almost died. Tasman was suspended without salary before being reinstated 11 months later.
By 1653 he had retired. He remained in Batavia where he owned a substantial amount of land. He captained a small cargo ship, of which he was a part-owner. Tasman died in October 1659, survived by his second wife, Jannetje, and his daughter, Claesjen.
Adapted from the DNZB biography by K. A. Simpson