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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 4, 2001

The Merchant of the Zeehaen

page 60

The Merchant of the Zeehaen

Te Papa Press, P O Box 467, Wellington. 162 p. 2001. $49.95

It is well known that Abel Tasman, and his fellow sailors on the Heemskerck and Zeehaen, briefly sailed into New Zealand waters in 1642 and to many he is credited as the "discoverer" of this country. Although the Maori had settled in New Zealand several hundred years prior to this, and other Europeans may have preceded Tasman, it was this voyage that ensured that New Zealand, or at least its western shoreline, was placed on maps of the world. Grahame Anderson has long been fascinated with Tasman's voyage into the southern oceans and he is arguably the first to appreciate the important role played by the cartographer and illustrator of the voyage, Isaac Gilsemans "the merchant of the Zeehaen". While the author initially in this book set out to document Gilsemans' achievements, he found that this could not be done without extensive reference to Tasman and the Dutch East India Company that sponsored the voyage. The outcome is a fascinating book that attractively presents the voyage of 1642–3 in its proper historical, social and nautical context.

In a somewhat unusual style, which chronicles the author's own learning curve about Tasman and his contemporaries, Grahame Anderson has also assessed what others have had to say on this subject, coupled with a great deal of detective work. Historical research is like completing a jigsaw puzzle where many of the pieces are missing. The author has set out to obtain as many pieces as possible by locating and then deciphering manuscripts, most of which were not written in English, in Dutch and other archives, rather than relying on historical English translations that may be potentially biased.

The Dutch Republic was born out of the almost continuous warfare that raged between the countries of Europe. While religion was always to the fore in these wars, trade was, even if not always stated, the dominant factor. For any country with limited physical resources, such as the Netherlands, human ingenuity had to be both recognised and nurtured. In maritime matters the Dutch were at the forefront of ship design and navigation. The destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588 opened trading opportunities for Dutch merchants and the Dutch East India Company was founded.

The company did not act hastily and all of its operations, including voyages of discovery, were soundly planned. For a number of years the company page 61had been exploring the northwest Pacific, including one voyage that had involved Abel Tasman, Isaac Gilsemans and navigator Francoijs Visscher to Japanese waters. In 1642 these three men were aboard the Heemskerck and Zeehaen which sailed from Batavia (Jakarta) to explore the southern oceans. In particular the men were instructed to discover and chart the coast of the postulated great southern continent or Staten Land.

The Heemskerck and Zeehaen sailed to Mauritius and thence into the southern Indian Ocean before pursuing an easterly heading. No land was sighted until the southern coast of Tasmania hove into view. Named Anthony Van Diemen's Land by Tasman, its southern coast was charted and Gilsemans drew panoramas of the shore. From Tasmania prevailing westerly winds drove the ships across the Tasman Sea before their path was blocked, on 14 December 1642, by the rugged mountain backed shores of the West Coast at Punakaiki. On board the Zeehaen Isaac Gilsemans was to record for posterity panoramas of the coast. As the ships progressed northwards, parallel to the coast, smoke was observed in the vicinity of Whanganui Inlet and clearly signalled to those on board that they were not the first arrivals to Staten Land. After rounding Cape Farewell the ships, in an absence of westerly swells and winds, slowly cruised along the outer edge of the great hook of sand of Farewell Spit, which Tasman named after Visscher. On 18 December the ships entered the sheltered waters behind the spit.

All of this had not gone unnoticed on shore where the Ngati Tumatakokiri would have soon become aware of the ships, the size of which they had never seen before, as they rounded the end of the spit and slowly, but irrevocably, advanced towards the fortified villages of Taupo Point. The leisurely approach of the Hemskerck and Zeehaen gave the Ngati Tumatakokiri ample time to marshal their forces and discuss means of repulsing the visitors whose presence was, until shown otherwise, assumed to be hostile. That evening two wakas approached the anchored ships but, not surprisingly, meaningful dialogue between the two races was not accomplished. The blowing of conch shell trumpets, while failing to banish the visitors, did establish that they were humans and not spirits. The next day nine wakas were paddled out towards the ships and the warriors in one of them made a lightning attack on a ship's boat making from the Zeehaen to the Hemskerck, which resulted in the death of four Dutchmen. Tasman, under orders not to harm either the inhabitants of any lands he came across, or their property, refrained from serious retaliation. Instead, after bestowing the name of Murderers Bay on their charts, the Dutch resumed their voyage northwards along the shores of Staten Land.

page 62

After sailing across Tasman Bay the Hemskerck and Zeehaen anchored in what is now Admiralty Bay where Gilsemans drew yet another panorama of the shore. Because of prevailing westerly winds Tasman did not enter Raukawa (Cook Strait), whose presence he suspected, and instead the Hemskerck and Zeehaen tacked up the west coast of the North Island. The continuing onshore winds forced the ships to keep well out to sea, before taking their leave of New Zealand waters at Cape Maria Van Dieman and the Three Kings Islands without the Dutch ever landing on Staten Land. Nor were they to return. Apparently Staten Land was too distant and the Dutch had ample trading opportunities in their Far Eastern empire. In addition the eastern coast of this supposedly vast continent sighted off Tierra del Fuego in 1616 was shown, in the same year as Tasman's returned to Batavia, to be a small island. With doubt about Staten Land now gaining ascendancy, Tasman's discovery was renamed Nieuw Zeeland as a consort to the Australian landmass of Nieuw Holland.

While Visscher was able to make an accurate chart of the west coast of New Zealand, the exact track of the Hemskerck and Zeehaen was, until recently, to remain in doubt. Although Visscher, and other navigators of his time, could determine latitude with precision, longitude was considerably more problematical. It was not until the development of the chronometer by John Harrison, a century after Tasman, that explorers like James Cook were able to accurately locate longitude. Using the charts and the journals of the voyage of the Hemskerck and Zeehaen, and making trips on yachts and fishing boats, the author identified where the ships anchored in Golden Bay and off D'Urville Island. Of particular assistance in this task were Gilsemans' coastal panoramas. These panoramas are not, as many have assumed, crude sketches. Instead they accurately portray the coast as seen from the ships and were done as a navigational tool for those who would follow. As well as identifying the features in these first drawings of New Zealand, Grahame Anderson was able to replot the course of the Hemskerck and Zeehaen through New Zealand waters.

As well as giving a balanced account of Tasman's voyage, and in particular the fatal encounter with the Ngati Tumatakokiri in what is now Golden Bay, the author has provided an explanation as to why Tasman did not make more of an effort to land. The Hemskerck and Zeehaen, despite being for their time, of advanced design were difficult to sail directly into the wind. Tasman was not only a prudent sailor but, unlike on naval vessels, his actions could be constrained by a ships' council. Thus with the prevailing westerlies, a mostly forbidding and rocky shore, hostile inhabitants and no obvious riches worthy of exploitation it is perhaps not surprising that the page 63ships kept well offshore. What is more puzzling is why Tasman, on reaching Cape Maria Van Dieman, did not turn eastwards to investigate. If he had done so then his Staten Land would soon have been shown to be two relatively small islands in the vastness of the South Pacific Ocean. Instead the ships continued north to Tonga.

The Merchant of the Zeehaen is profusely illustrated with a variety of relevant maps, drawings and paintings. Unfortunately a number of the illustrations have been so reduced as to make it difficult to discern what they are portraying. This is particularly so for the modern New Zealand charts which have had the course of the Hemskerck and Zeehaen plotted on them, along with annotations by the author. These charts should have made the text all that more easy and enjoyable to read and it is disappointing that they are virtually indecipherable. On the other hand specially drawn maps are clear and concise, giving the reader locations of key places mentioned in connection with Tasman's travels in the Far East and the Pacific. Despite these faults, this is well-written and adequately indexed book that undoubtedly provides an in-depth and balanced account of Tasman's voyage and the events leading up to it. It also does much to redress the past rather erroneous representation of both Tasman and his charting of western New Zealand. It is a book that deserves to be read and will be of considerable appeal to everyone interested in Golden and Tasman Bays.

Mike Johnston.