Abel “Baker” Tasman, a Dutch seafarer, explorer, and wooden clog merchant, arrived in New Zealand hoping to unload his inventory of odd sized wooden shoes to the residents. He had previously called at Van Diemen’s Land (now called Tasmania) en route but was unable to sell or trade anything there so he kept pressing eastwards until he bumped into a couple of connected islands, the southern edition of which would later become famous because of author J.R.R.R.R. Tolkien.
Abel was born in 1603 in the northern part of the Netherlands. He moved to Amsterdam at some stage, but definitely not to the red light district area, and according to written records leaked by an unnamed source, at the age of 28 became engaged to 21-year-old Jannetje “Charlie” Tjaers. He was an employee of the Dutch East India Company at the time and also had a paper route for extra pocket money in the morning. In 1633, he was assigned to a ship that set sail for Batavia in search of spices, which is where all the money was back in those days because food was incredibly bland. How bland? Don’t ask.
Anyway, by 1637 he was back in Amsterdam, and the following year he signed on for another ten years with “the company” and moved his family to Batavia where all the best Dutch people were living at the time. In 1639 he was second-in-command of an expedition sent to explore the north Pacific and in August 1642, he was given command of expedition consisting of two small ships with the objective of heading “out that a way, to see what you can see in the sea”. (The Dutch were quite lyrical when they weren’t singing songs about barnacles.) Abel was given a map produced in 1489 and told to find the land that Marco Polo described as Loach, a kingdom where gold was “so plentiful that no one who did not see it could believe it” (whatever that means).
The infamous Dirk “Dick” Hartog, one time highwayman and pre-eminent confidant of Dick “Duck” Turpentine (unless my facts are muddled again) had apparently landed on the west coast of a very large island somewhere out that way in 1616 and so Abel’s job was to see if he could find it again and bring back mountains of gold.
And so the journey began.
He visited Mauritius first to rest up then flung the ships southwards, out into the roaring forties, which blew him further east around the bottom part of the globe than any one else had ever been before, as least knowingly. On 24 November 1642, Abel reached and sighted the west coast of what is now known as Tasmania but Abel, because he was a bit of a crawler, decided to call it Van Diemen’s Land after the person in charge of the Dutch East Indies Company at the time, Antonio “Bellbottoms” van Diemen … Abel was hoping that he would get a HUGE bonus when he got back home by naming the big chunk of land after his boss.
His ships danced around the coast of Tasmania a bit, which is a pretty rough coast on the calmest of days, but eventually managed to safely land in Blackman Bay where he was able to plant the Dutch flag and run up and down the beach in his clogs, claiming formal possession of the island for the Dutch East Indies Company.
After a few wild clam bakes and beach parties involving ukuleles and surfboards, Abel intended to head north from there but the wind blew him to the northeast until, on 13 December, he sighted the South Island of New Zealand, where most of the Lord of the Rings filming was done.
Abel named it Staten Landt (Staten Island) just to annoy future New Yorkers. He sailed further along the coast to the north but when he eventually anchored and sent boats to gather water from the shore, Maori warriors who were practicing for a rugby game the next weekend, attacked.
According to the ship’s journal entry for that day: “In the evening about one hour after sunset, the cook brought up my cocoa. Serves him right for drinking it earlier. But I digress. When our two boats returned and after our people had been on board about one glass, people in two canoes began to call out to us in gruff, hollow voices. We could not in the least understand any of it; however, when they called out again several times we called back to them as a token answer. But they did not come nearer than a stone’s shot. They also blew many times on an instrument, which produced a sound like the moors’ trumpets. We had one of our sailors (who could play somewhat on the trumpet, especially after a few glasses) play some tunes to them in answer, but they gesticulated wildly and made rude noises in their armpits by flapping their arms aggressively.”
He lost four of his sailors in the attack, the first confirmed interaction between Europeans and the Maoris, who were apparently guarding a very large garden area adjacent to that bay. Rumor has it that they were trying to protect the area from Dutch elm disease which everyone knows can be contracted from dirty wooden shoes.
Abel lingered for a while before continuing north, eventually sighting the Fiji Islands en route back to Batavia, where he finally arrived on June 15 1643. He led several other expeditions after that before retiring to a quiet life as a gentleman farmer. He died a natural death at age 56, which was about the typical life expectancy in those days.
And as Abel Tasman himself once said: “Hey! Look over there. Land!!”
And aren’t those words that all of us can live by? I know I do.