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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition.

Seafarer, explorer and merchant Abel Janszoon Tasman was the first European to discover Tasmania and confirm Australia as an island continent. Born in the Netherlands around 1602, he was raised and educated in Lutjegast, Gronigen. After bearing him a daughter, his first wife died. He remarried in 1632 and, shortly after, went to sea.

Two years later he became skipper for the Dutch East India Company, patrolling Indonesian waters and skirmishing with smugglers and rebels. At that time sailing was a dangerous occupation, with a high death toll to disease and ships lost due to primitive navigation and uncharted waters.

Portrait of Abel Tasman (detail)

Portrait of Abel Tasman, his wife and daughter. Detail. Attributed to Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp, 1637.

Image: Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp
© National Library of Australia

In 1638, Tasman brought his wife and daughter to settle in Batavia. Five years later he was appointed commander of two small ships, Heemskerck and Zeehaen, to search for the ‘still unexplored’ South and East lands (Australia and South America). After a month in Mauritius refitting his ships, he sailed south until driven back by freezing temperatures. Returning to the 45th parallel, he sailed east.

On 24 November he saw the peaks of southern Tasmania and named the area Antony Van Diemen’s Land, after Batavia’s Governor-General. Over the next week, he sailed along the south coast, kept off by poor weather. On 3 December the ship’s carpenter swam ashore to plant the flag, and the ships then continued up the coast to St Patricks Head. Tasman’s crew reported seeing smoke from fires and heard voices, but never saw the Aboriginal inhabitants.

Sailing east, Tasman reached New Zealand, the first European to do so. He mistook it for Staaten Island off South America, had tragic encounters with the Maori and sailed north where he reached Tonga and Fiji before returning to Batavia in June 1643.

The following year, Abel Tasman and cartographer Franz Visscher sailed to Australia’s northern coastline, which they mapped from Torres Strait to Port Hedland. Tasman retired in 1653 as a landowner in Batavia and part-owner of a small cargo ship. He died six years later.

In the early 1800s, there was a push to change Van Diemen’s Land to Tasmania. Since then Tasman has been honoured in the naming of other geographical features in both Australia and New Zealand.

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