Europe had for long been fascinated by the speculation that there must exist in the South Pacific a great unknown continent, Terra australis incognita, to ‚balance‘ the land masses of the Northern Hemisphere. It was to discover this continent, though for the purpose of trade rather than to further scientific knowledge, that in 1642 the Dutch East India Company dispatched Abel Janszoon Tasman (1603-59) from Batavia (now Djakarta) as commander of two small ships, the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen. So confident was the enterprise of success that Tasman’s orders were detailed even to cover the possibility of encountering civilised races. Such people, he was told, were to be deceived – ‚[make] them believe that you are by no means eager for precious metals, so as to leave them ignorant of the value of the same; and if they should offer you gold or silver in exchange for your articles, you will pretend to hold the same in slight regard, showing them copper, pewter, or lead, and giving them an impression as if the minerals last mentioned were by us set greater value on‘.
Tasman first sailed south-west, to Mauritius, before turning east, eventually to reach the island now called Tasmania but which Tasman himself named ‚Van Diemen’s Land‘, after the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies who had directed the voyage. From there he crossed the Tasman Sea, and on 13 December 1642 he became the first known European voyager to sight New Zealand when land in the vicinity of Hokitika was seen. It is consistent with the vagueness which clouds New Zealand’s early history that even the identity of her European discoverer should be open to question. Some suspect that Portuguese and Spanish expeditions may have preceded Tasman, basing their theories on old maps, a curious bell found by the missionary Colenso, and the finding of an old Spanish helmet in Wellington’s harbour some years ago. Historians generally discount these possibilities.
Tasman followed the west coast of the South Island northwards before anchoring in the shelter of Golden Bay. There he experienced his only encounter with the Maori. As a cockboat travelled between Tasman’s two ships it was intercepted by a canoe and in a brief clash four sailors died. Curiously, Tasman chose not to exact reprisals, a decision out of keeping with the times as later French explorers were to illustrate. Instead, disillusioned, Tasman named the area ‚Murderers‘ Bay‘ and put back to sea. Foul weather frustrated his attempt to enter Cook Strait, which he tentatively plotted as a bay. Had the weather been kinder the possibility of the new land being the great southern continent would have been exploded then and there. As it was, Tasman was left to skirt the North Island’s west coast before finally leaving the inhospitable shores of the country he had discovered but not set foot upon.
He named his discovery ‚Staten Landt‘, both to honour the States-General of the United Netherlands and because he thought it could be connected with the Staten Landt discovered off the tip of South America some 26 years earlier (a name still applied to a small island there). His masters regarded the voyage as fruitless. Although he went on to discover islands in the Fiji and Tonga groups, Tasman had found no riches and had displayed somewhat less enterprise in exploring his discoveries than his masters would have wished.
Two years later Tasman explored the northern Australian coastline before the Dutch East India Company finally abandoned its attempt to find the unknown continent in favour of developing an island trade.
Only two of Tasman’s New Zealand place names survive – Cape Maria Van Diemen, near Cape Reinga (named for the Governor-General’s wife), and Three Kings, the islands off the tip of North Cape where he spent the Feast of the Epiphany. But Tasman had added a tantalising new mapline to an otherwise empty area, and suspicion lingered that he had in fact discovered Terra australis incognita.
The naming of ‚New Zealand‘: Tasman’s name of ‚Staten Landt‘ did not long survive, for within a year Hendrik Brouwer had proved that the original Staten Landt was an island. Australia had been designated ‚Compagnis Niev Nederland‘ (Company’s New Netherland) by the Dutch East India Company’s map-makers, and ‚Nieuw Holland‘ (New Holland) became the usual Dutch name for the Australian continent. By the mid-seventeenth century the name ‚Nieuw Zeeland‘ had begun to be applied to New Zealand (doubtless bestowed by analogy to ‚Nieuw Holland‘, as Zeeland is a Dutch maritime province) and eventually the English equivalent emerged. It is still not known just who actually ’named‘ New Zealand.