Tasman Proves Australia Is a Separate Continent

On his two exploratory voyages, Dutch navigator Abel Janszoon Tasman unwittingly completed the circumnavigation of Australia. He was too far off the coast, however, to confirm and then chart what was the elusive sixth continent. Because of his southerly and easterly route, he was able to find Tasmania, the South Island of New Zealand, the Tonga Islands, and the Fiji Islands.

Summary of Event

From the time they first arrived in the Pacific at the end of the sixteenth century, the Dutch had one goal in mind: profit. Whenever a ship captain reported that some coastal area did not look inviting, no one was sent out to investigate the land even more. As a result, many years passed before anyone realized that some of their sightings, which they assumed were the coastlines of various islands, were actually part of the vast continent that for centuries had been referred to as Terra Australis Incognito (now called Australia). [kw]Tasman Proves Australia Is a Separate Continent (1642 and 1644)
[kw]Australia Is a Separate Continent, Tasman Proves (1642 and 1644)
Exploration and discovery;1642 and 1644: Tasman Proves Australia Is a Separate Continent[1420]
Australia;1642 and 1644: Tasman Proves Australia Is a Separate Continent[1420]
Southeast Asia;1642 and 1644: Tasman Proves Australia Is a Separate Continent[1420]
Indonesia;1642 and 1644: Tasman Proves Australia Is a Separate Continent[1420]
New Zealand;1642 and 1644: Tasman Proves Australia Is a Separate Continent[1420]
Fiji;1642 and 1644: Tasman Proves Australia Is a Separate Continent[1420]
Tonga;1642 and 1644: Tasman Proves Australia Is a Separate Continent[1420]
Australia;Dutch exploration of
Exploration;Netherlands of Australia
Tasman, Abel Janszoon

Those who might have ventured farther inland merely to satisfy their curiosity were discouraged by the fact that their actions were strictly regulated by the commercial enterprise called the Dutch East India Company Dutch East India Company;Southeast Asia , which was established in 1602. The company had a virtual monopoly in the area, and it dictated the movements of explorers. After arriving in Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) in 1616, announcing that they had been the first to round Cape Horn at the southern tip of Africa, Dutch navigators Willem Schouten Schouten, Willem and Jacob Le Maire Le Maire, Jacob learned of the hostility of company officials toward anyone who ventured into the Pacific without obtaining explicit permission from company officials: The two were not believed, their ship was confiscated, and they were sent back to Holland.

Even though officials based in Indonesia Indonesia at later times were no less jealous of the company’s prerogatives, they understood the need to explore areas not appearing to have immediate commercial value. Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Coen, Jan Pieterszoon who was governor-general of the company from 1618 to 1623, not only built forts throughout Indonesia so that Dutch interests would be safeguarded but also drew up a plan to explore and chart the coastline of the area that had been called the Southland (later New Holland), which either adjoined New Guinea or lay to the south of it. However, Coen’s plan was not implemented, and though in the years that followed, vessels would occasionally land on one or another part of what is now Australia, it was not until after Anthony van Diemen Diemen, Anthony van became governor-general in 1636 that the company again became committed to a course of systematic exploration.

Van Diemen chose two men to carry out his plans: Abel Janszoon Tasman would lead the expedition, and Frans Jacobszoon Visscher Visscher, Frans Jacobszoon would serve as chief pilot. Both were well qualified. Tasman was an experienced ship captain with an interest in exploration, and Visscher was a pilot, known for his surveying skills and for his meticulous charts and maps. In fact, the instructions van Diemen eventually formulated were based on a memoir regarding the Southland’s discovery that Visscher had finished in 1642; van Diemen, though, reduced the scope of the project. Tasman was to explore the known coastal areas of the Southland to discover and chart the location of the unknown Terra Australis, ascertain its commercial potential, and find a new route from Java to Chile (across the Pacific Ocean in South America) that would enable Dutch sea raiders to surprise and loot treasure-laden Spanish ships.

As Visscher had suggested, van Diemen instructed the expedition to start at Mauritius in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa, head south to about the 52d latitude, sail east to the longitude of New Guinea, and return north toward New Guinea and then east to Java along the known northern coast of Australia. Van Diemen and Tasman, at this time, had no idea that had Tasman sailed north at the longitude of New Guinea, he and his crew would have sighted the southern tip of the Australian continent. Also, Tasman had been given the option of turning north sooner and sailing along what they believed was the unexplored eastern coast of the landmass to find out whether or not that area was joined to New Guinea. In fact, had he taken this option, once again, he would have sighted the southern coast of the continent.

Tasman was put in charge of two ships, the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen, carrying a total of 110 men. The ships and their crew set out for Mauritius on August 14, 1642, and sailed eastward on October 8. Because of bad weather, Visscher persuaded Tasman to alter his course and sail along a latitude that was more southerly. Had he taken the second option and turned north and then east, Tasman would have become the discoverer of the south and east coasts of Australia. Instead, on November 14, the explorers were far south of the continent, and so they sighted the island now called Tasmania Tasmania (the explorers had named it Van Diemen’s Land in honor of the governor-general). Unfortunately, however, they decided not to investigate further; if they had sailed to the north of Van Diemen’s Land, they would have found the southeastern coast of the continent they sought.

Still sailing east, they discovered New Zealand’s South Island, but the hostility of the island’s indigenous Maori Maoris made a landing there impossible. From South Island, the expedition turned northeast and sighted the Tonga Islands, where they spent two weeks with the islands’ indigenous peoples. After sighting the Fiji Islands, they found their way back to New Guinea and finally to Batavia, arriving on June 14, 1643.

Before long, van Diemen began to plan a new expedition, even though he first was disappointed because Tasman did not explore the areas he had found. Van Diemen ordered Tasman to find out whether or not New Guinea and the Southland were connected and to look for a strait leading from the Gulf of Carpenteria, off the northern coast of the Southland, that might lead south to Van Diemen’s Land. The 1644 voyage was much shorter than the voyage of 1642. After more than six months at sea, Tasman returned to Batavia and reported that he had been unsuccessful. He had not been able to make his way through the Torres Strait, which he thought was a bay, and therefore could neither confirm nor deny if New Guinea and the Southland were connected by land. Moreover, Tasman had found no outlet in the Gulf of Carpenteria.

The Amsterdam managers of the Dutch East India Company were not happy, and they soon made it clear that they did not intend to fund voyages that returned empty-handed, that is, without knowledge of new trade possibilities. To make matters worse, the death of van Diemen in 1645 silenced the only voice that could have persuaded the managers otherwise. Several years later, Tasman left the company but remained in Batavia, where he became a wealthy merchant.


Although Tasman was wrong in believing that New Guinea and Van Diemen’s Land were part of the Southland and that it extended to New Zealand, he knew more about the approximate location of Australia than any of his predecessors. A map of the area that he drew after his second voyage evidently became the basis of charts and globes produced by Dutch cartographers later in the seventeenth century, which were amended as new discoveries were made. However, it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the extent of Tasman’s achievements became clear. Scholars unearthed the manuscript of Tasman’s journal, which contains a large number of drawings and charts, and they also recovered the journal of one of his sailors. The publication of these documents led to the discovery of other early maps and charts, which were then used to study and confirm Tasman’s cartography.

Further Reading

  • Allen, Oliver E. The Pacific Navigators. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1980. One of the most accessible accounts of Tasman’s voyages. Lavishly illustrated.
  • Clark, C. M. H. A History of Australia. 3 vols. London: Cambridge University Press, 1963-1978. This definitive work has a detailed account of the events that led up to the 1642 voyage, including the reasons Tasman’s instructions were so self-contradictory.
  • Day, Alan Edwin. Historical Dictionary of the Discovery and Exploration of Australia. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2003. An excellent, detailed source, with cross-references and an extensive bibliography.
  • Estensen, Miriam. Discovery: The Quest for the Great South Land. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Beginning with the speculations of the ancient Greeks, this work details the search for the sixth continent. Includes maps and illustrations.
  • Fischer, Steven Roger. A History of the Pacific Islands. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Fischer emphasizes the degree to which the Dutch East India Company guarded its monopoly of commercial ventures and exploration.
  • Robert, Willem C. H. The Dutch Explorations, 1605-1756, of the North and Northwest Coast of Australia. Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1973. Extracts from journals, logbooks, and other documents relating to the voyages of Dutch explorers of Australia. Includes original Dutch texts, edited and with English translations; a critical introduction; and notes. Also includes appendices, a bibliography, and indexes.
  • Sharp, Andrew. The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1968. Contains Tasman’s journals and charts, along with commentaries by the author. The final chapter explains how scholars came to understand the scope of Tasman’s achievements.
  • Tasman, Abel Janszoon. Abel Janszoon Tasman’s Journal of His Discovery of Van Diemen’s Land and New Zealand in 1642, with Documents Relating to His Exploration of Australia in 1644. . . . Translated by J. de Hoop Scheffer and C. Stoffel. Amsterdam: F. Muller, 1898. A facsimile of Tasman’s journal with English translation. Includes the articles “Life and Labours of Abel Janszoon Tasman” by J. E. Heeres and “Observations Made with the Compass on Tasman’s Voyage” by W. van Bemmelen. Maps, illustrations.

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