Explorers’ Sketchbooks: Abel Tasman Dutch merchant and artist Isaac Gilsemans captures the fateful attack on Abel Tasman’s ships in the later named Murderer’s Bay

In an age before Google Maps, GPS and satellite phones, the unexplored landscapes discovered by pioneering explorers could only be recorded by pen and paper. In this short series, Avaunt will be featuring five excerpts from the sketchbooks of people who shaped – through word and image – our concept of the world over the past six centuries.

Abel Tasman was a Dutch explorer, seafarer and merchant who, in the service of the Dutch East India Company, was dispatched in 1642 to explore “all the totally unknown provinces of Beach” – the northernmost point of the hypothetical continent, Terra Australis.

Sailing further east than any European had ever done, Tasman and his crew skirted the already charted southern coast of Australia before, expecting to land at the Solomon Islands on the other side of the Australian continent, they found themselves instead at Tasmania (named Van Diemen’s land by Tasman after the governor of the Dutch East India Company, it was renamed in honour of Tasman in 1856).

Tasmania was not known to be an island until 1798–99 however and, skirting the southern coast, Tasman headed further east to discover New Zealand – where, less than a week after he landed on the west coast of the South Island, Tasman and his men were attached by the indigenous Maori community.

Tasman recorded in his journal that several war canoes, or waka, approached the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen, and began attacking his men with paddles and clubs. With three of his sailors killed and one mortally wounded, Tasman fired back with muskets and cannon, but the Maori were already out of range. Tasman would make it back to the Dutch base of Batavia (now Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia), discovering Tonga and Fiji on his way, but the place of the fateful meeting with the Maori would come to be known as ‘Murderers Bay’ until British settlement in the mid-19th century.

Abel Tasman illustration
Isaac Gilsemans, a Dutch merchant and artist accompanying Tasman on his voyage, sketched frequently on Tasman’s first Pacific expedition and captured the fateful attack on Tasman’s ships in the later named Murderer’s Bay. Providing the first European depictions of New Zealand and its indigenous inhabitants, Gilsemans drawings are an invaluable record of the contemporary western perceptions of newly discovered lands and peoples. © Dutch National Archives, The Hague

Explorers’ Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Adventure by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert is published by Thames & Hudson, £29.95.

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