The World Today

The World Today
Earth in 2013

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Abel Tasman

A little revising to An Alternate History of the Netherlands. I imagine Australians learned about Tasman in history class...
...and I wish I knew why MS Word always has to jumble up the format.
In the middle of the 17th Century, the island-continent of Australia, as well as nearby islands of the Pacific, was charted by the legendary explorer Abel Tasman (1603-54). Not much is known about his early life, and in fact the exact date in 1603, when he was born in the Province of Ommelanden is unknown. References to being at sea as early as 1615, as a cabin boy, are found in Tasman’s journals. He also married twice; his first wife died and his second outlived him. Tasman has only one know child. What is known for certain is that he was in the employ of the VOC since 1631. For the first seven years, he served as navigator on several ships trading in the East Indies, on trade mission as far as Japan and Indochina. One voyage in 1634, he narrowly avoided death when a portion of his crew was massacred by the natives of Ceram.
            For his first great voyage of exploration he was given command of two ships, the Engel and Gracht in 1638, where he spent eight months out of Batavia mapping Bali, Flores and visiting northern Australia. Along with trade goods, Tasman also brought back tales of dragons on Komodo and a race of monkey-men on Flores, the latter being taken more seriously in light of recent paleontological evidence uncovered on the island. Unlike the other islands he visited, the Australian coastline continued on for days. Before returning to Batavia, and eventually the United Provinces for more than a year, he speculated that this was the same land spotted by other Dutch explorers.
            Upon returning to his homeland, he lobbied the VOC Board to launch an expedition to chart this southern continent. Little attention was paid to the mentions of this land in previous decades, as ship that reached it reported no signs of civilization, and thus no potential trading partners. Expeditions cost, and the Company demanded a return on any investment. Tasman claimed there would be little cost to risk on exploring this land, and the potential for a great return. A great and wealth civilization could thrive on its southern, more temperate coasts, or even in the interior. There was no reason to believe it not true. A century earlier, Spain grew rich off plundering unknown civilizations. The VOC preferred their trading partners to remain in one piece, to provide a steady income for decades or centuries to come. They agreed to Tasman’s request, and in 1641, he began the first circumnavigation of Australia by leaving the island of Mauritius and riding the Roaring Forties to the coast of what is now known as New Holland.
            Upon reaching the southern lands, his ships, the Limmen and Zeemeeuw, sailed into Haai Bay where Tasman and his crew set out in search of food, water and profit. He sought signs of civilization, or at least a people with the Dutch could trade. After a three day trek inland, he encountered his first group of natives. Unlike the peoples of the East Indies, he viewed the natives as wild as the animals that roamed the land. They were a Stone Age tribe of nomads, lacking even basic agriculture. The natives had nothing of interest to trade, though they were fascinated by the metal tools of the expedition.
            The voyage around Australia continued in January. The journey along the southern coast of the continent was a mostly uneventful affair. Tasman stopped at multiple locations in search of natives. The VOC would be most displeased to learn this large southern land had no opportunities for trade. In May, he crossed the Tasman Sea and discovered an island that shares his name; Tasman Island. The island was a far greener place than most of New Holland. As with the mainland, he made contact with the natives, and discovered they lacked anything worth trading. Unfortunately, such an isolated people lacked the immunity defenses of the Javans. By the time a further European expedition arrived, the natives that Tasman discovered were all but decimated. Only the low population density prevented disease from spreading to other bands.
            Sailing north, Tasman discovered the Great Barrier Reef, where the Engel wrecked in October. Tasman was forced to spend three months in Queensland, near modern day Brisbane, to make repairs. Abundant trees provided a source of lumber, though the native trees were less than ideal. Twenty percent of his crew succumbed to tropical diseases as well as venomous fauna during the stay in Queensland. Two of his men were lost to crocodile attacks while Tasman charted part of the Brisbane River, forcing him to turn back after only venturing thirty-three kilometers.
            Tasman returned to Batavia in March of 1643, delivering his findings to a disappointed VOC crowd. His description of the native, as well as the native fauna, was a hit with many people back in the United Provinces. However, it was more important to impress those who fund voyages, and tales of an upright hopping animal with a pouch in its belly did not impress. Tasman returned to the United Provinces that year, spending the next three years organizing a third expedition. His maps provided much information for the famed Dutch cartography industry, with Australia filling in a once empty space. What to call Australia was debated back even then. Was it a small continent or a large island? Earlier predictions of a southern continent called for something much large, perhaps even the size of Africa.
            Tasman made a third voyage to the continent between 1646 and 1648, discovering New Zeeland during his second expedition with its hostile natives and the remains of giant birds, and sailing as far as Fiji and Tonga during his third. As with previous voyages, Tasman was empowered by the VOC to establish trade relations with any natives he discovered. The Maori had the same love of iron as other Polynesians, but instead of peaceful barter, a band of Maori attacked Tasman’s encampment on November 8, 1647. The attackers were repelled, but at the cost of fifteen dead sailors.
            An outbreak of scurvy while in the southern Pacific forced Tasman to bring his small fleet, consisting of the Guilder, Limmen and Otter, to take an extended stay on the island of Tongatapu. There, he traded iron tools and implements for supplies. The natives of Tonga proved to be friendlier than the inhabitants of New Zeeland, so much so that his crew found it difficult to say goodbye. The discovery of the islands gave European sailors a way station in crossing the Pacific. In 1678, a Dutch expedition set out to form a settlement on the island, but was forced to abandon the project when disease claimed a number of colonists. The Tongans, less resistant to European strains, suffered a heavier loss of life due to the epidemic. The islands would eventually fall under an English protectorate before the turn of the 20th Century.
            Fiji proved to be an opposite of Tonga. Instead of smiling, friendly natives, Tasman and his crew encountered warring cannibals of the islands that were constantly at each other’s throats. Human sacrifice was not unknown to Fiji either. One form involved using men as rollers for when launching of a new canoe. Tasman filled his journal with atrocities and the savage nature of the islanders. Often in the course of European exploration, explorers would embellish accounts of savagery among native population. While what Tasman discovered did happen, it was not the everyday occurrence as made out by him. His reports did, however, encourage other European ships to sail well clear of Fiji.
            Tasman would have liked to launch a fourth expedition, and in fact planned for one. It would involve sailing further southeast, past New Zeeland. It was just as well that such an expedition was not launched, for the only natives encountered in the direction would be penguins. When he returned to Java in 1648, the VOC appointed him to the Council of Justice. He retired from the VOC in 1652, returning to his merchant roots until the start of the First Anglo-Dutch War.
            His final voyage saw him commanding eight ships and sailing north to Manila. The VOC hoped to expel the English from the Philippines as well as other trading posts in the East Indies. He never made landfall. His fleet was defeated at the hands of a larger English flotilla on June 19, 1654. Half of the VOC were killed in the fight, or from injuries suffered during the battle. Tasman took a musket round to the hip, fracturing his pelvis. While the wound itself may have left him crippled, the infection that followed claimed his life.

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