Abel Tasman's Voyage of Discovery in New Zealand Waters

Explorer Abel Janszoon Tasman was on a voyage of discovery in 1642. His mission was to locate and chart the 'Unknown Southland' as it was referred to by his employers in Batavia (Jakarta), and to find new commercial opportunities for the great Dutch trading nation.

After discovering Tasmania, the progress of Tasman’s ships Heemskerck and Zeehaen continued eastwards until on 13 December a range of high snow-capped peaks emerged on the horizon. These were the Southern Alps, and Abel Tasman became the first European explorer to set eyes on New Zealand, Aotearoa as it was known to the indigenous Maori people.

Abel Tasman Discovers New Zealand

Making landfall near the point on the South Island that 128 years later Captain James Cook would call Cape Foulwind, Tasman turned north, carefully maintaining a distance from the formidable leeward coast. The ships had not been provisioned since leaving Mauritius nine weeks earlier, and Tasman was keen to find a place to land. When the expedition reached Cape Farewell, (also later named by Cook as he departed New Zealand waters), a large bay with promise of sheltered waters opened before it. In light winds, the Heemskerck and Zeehaen edged towards land.

The Maori of Te Waipounamu (South Island) were a hardy people – they had to be to survive in this land, where the climate was harsh and food was often scarce. The region now called Golden Bay was one of the better places to make a living, and the local people guarded their territory jealously. As they saw the strange ships slowly approaching directly for their main settlement, they sent warriors out in waka to inspect them and their foreign occupants. When the warriors reported back to the tribal council, a decision was made in accordance with customs of the time. The local Maori would resist any approaches,.

Maori Attack on Tasman’s Expedition

On 19 December 1642, when a boat from the Zeehaen became isolated from its protection, the Maori launched an unprovoked assault. Tasman recorded two waka containing a total of 30 warriors attack the boat, killing three sailors outright and mortally injuring one other. Mindful of his instructions not to engage in combat with any natives encountered on his voyage, and now well aware of the large force of fierce warriors in their speedy and agile craft, Tasman withdrew in a northeasterly direction. He named the area Moordenaars (Murderers’) Bay as he left. There would be no landing for Abel Tasman’s expedition on New Zealand shores.

Tasman’s ships then took a somewhat erratic course before anchoring to the east of D’Urville Island, where they sheltered from a fierce northwesterly gale for five days. The significance of this aspect of Tasman’s discovery of New Zealand is that he was now quite close to the western entrance to Cook Strait. He suspected its existence but did not proceed to the east. If he had done so, Tasman would have discovered what Cook later did - that Staten Landt, as he had called Aotearoa on the chance it may be connected to the land of the same name at the tip of South America, was in fact a group of islands.

Tasman's Continuation North

By now Tasman was close to the easterly limit of the expedition’s planned voyage, and he decided to sail north along the New Zealand coast. Keeping his ships far offshore in places, Tasman was unable to determine much detail of the land he was passing.

Tasman only made one further close approach to New Zealand. On passing the mainland’s most northwesterly point, which he named Cape Maria Van Diemen in honour of the wife of the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, Tasman came upon the group of small islands that he named the Three Kings.

Now desperate for clean water, Tasman's crew made a final attempt to land before facing the long journey northward to known Pacific islands. The Three Kings have little in the way of safe anchorages, and they failed to find a place to land there. Tasman was also deterred by the sight of an aggressive-seeming band of warriors, who he assumed would be guarding any water that may be available. So the expedition sailed on, leaving New Zealand and making for Tonga.

Abel Tasman in History

As well as disappointing his employers by not being able to report the location of the ‘Unknown Southland’, Tasman also came under criticism for returning to Batavia ahead of schedule with two months’ provisions still aboard. He was considered to be somewhat conservative in his approach to exploration, and this impression would later be reinforced by his abbreviated second voyage to the south in 1644.

Tasman did, however, attract loyalty from several long-serving crew members, and his record of health and welfare aboard ship stood up well compared to his predecessors and many of the great explorers who followed him.

Dutch cartographers, working from the explorer's record of his voyage, later renamed Tasman's Staten Land as New Zealand, for the southern Dutch province of Zeeland.