25 September 2006

3. From Batavia to Mauritius

I skip the log’s entries until they get to Mauritius Island.

The two vessels sail from Indonesia to Mauritius with no problem, except for a sail being torn on the Zeehaen on 30 August. Their speed is rather slow compared with that of our contemporary yachts. They average 33 nautical miles per day. Given that a nautical mile equals 1.8 km, it totals up to about 60 km. Over 24 hours it gives an average speed of 2.5 km per hour… they’re dragging!

4 Sept. (1642)

At noon we estimated our position as 19o 55' S, 85o 13' E. The wind a moderate to soft breeze. We kept our course west-northwest and sailed twenty-six miles.
About midnight we saw land and thereafter lay to for the rest of the night with reduced sails.Variation 22 degrees 30 minutes.5 Sept. In the morning seeing that the land was the island of Mauritius we made for it and came to anchor there about 9 o’clock. We calculated our position as 20o S, 83o 48' E. We were by our earlier estimate fifty miles east of Mauritius when we saw it.


The business of taking bearings every day at lunch time is a question of life and death at sea. If you don’t know where you are, you are lost and in such case survival is not warranted. The same applies to-day. On TV the sailboats of various sailing races around the world seem to be linked to a supporting team on land ready to go and rescue the sailors wherever they might be on the globe. That is Hollywood like… In any case in 1642 Tasman was on his own and had to rely on his sole capacity to face the unknown.

In order to know your position at sea in those days, you could calculate your latitude (vertical position north-south on the chart) but you had to estimate your longitude (horizontal position east-west). To do so the ‘dead reckoning’ method was used which consisted of giving the time and distance thought to have been covered in one precise direction from a known point of departure, as marked on the chart with a pin. Sure as eggs!

The short last sentence by Tasman on his entry of 5 September 1642 says that, when they sighted land around midnight the day before, the calculations on board made it out that they were 50 odd miles out to sea East of Mauritius. It is only in the morning, at first glance because they knew the place, that they figured out it was indeed the island of Mauritius.

What we have to note here is that Tasman was sailing upon the great ocean with a 50 mile error margin. It means he could very well ‘miss’ a continent, for it is not possible to see any land up to 50 miles away from your deck. You can see something on the horizon up to 7 miles away, no more…

Is there a sailor in the room? Please post your comments!

2. Tasman is 39 years old

17 August (1642)


In the morning we had the Prince Islands southwest of us and Krakatau northwest by north. Our course was southwest by west with the wind southeast. At noon we had the southernmost of the Prince Islands east-southeast from us 5 miles. We calculated our position as 6°20’S, 124°E. In the afternoon we drifted in a calm.

This day we resolved that from Sunda Strait we shall sail 200 miles sout-west by west as far as the 14th parallel and from there, west-southwest as far as the 20th parallel: then we shall sail directly west to the island of Mauritius.

Drifting in a calm means idle men on two ships brought to a standstill on an oily looking sea, and not a bit of wind. Noises are different, the sails slackened, swinging to and fro and totally flabby. They are not brought in, taken down, because the wind is expected to pick up at any time. The heat is unbearable, but Tasman’s men are used to it as they normally live in Batavia.

The position is 6 degrees 20 minutes South, i.e. just below the equator which is latitude zero.The boat’s position is known as they are still within sight of charted land. Tasman decides with his crew which route they will be sailing in order to get to the island of Mauritius. The captain makes a suggestion, the sea and the wind make the decision!

In 1642 captain Tasman is 39 years old. Descartes, a famous French philosopher, his contemporary who lives currently in Holland, is 46. Cromwell is 43. Jean de la Fontaine is 21 and Moliere 20, both French writers to have their names set in History. Rembrandt who is 32, has just finished painting his ‘Night’s Rounds’ that we can see at the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam. If you get to see this painting one day, have a thought for Abel Tasman sailing away somewhere in the southern seas, looking for a continent.

Who then is this Tasman? …a famous unknown man in this hemisphere but a hero in the Southern Hemisphere. In New Zealand you can’t walk a mile without seeing his name. Besides Tasmania which is an Australian state bearing his name, you will find a Natural Park by his name in the South Island of New Zealand, and even the bit of ocean separating Australia from New Zealand called ‘Tasman Sea’. Hence the usual name of ‘Tasman relations’ for diplomatic relationship between Australia and New Zealand.

Tasman has really existed, in the flesh. He lived his life in the 1600s.

We don’t know much about him, about his life in Holland before he joined the VOC (the Dutch East Indies Company) to explore the southern seas. Born in 1603 in Lutjegast, a village near the city of Groningen in the Netherlands, there is no evidence of his family background and the type of education he received.

For my part, reading and translating his log into French, thus getting slowly familiar with the character, I came to think he comes from a poor but pious family. The simple fact that he was called Abel by his parents tells a lot. This kind of first name typically biblical (of the old testament) rather than the usual Peter or Yann (of the new testament) was in fashion among those who had adopted the new way to be a Christian, i.e. the Protestants. In France at the same time those names flourished and can be found in genealogies among those families who were of the reformed faith. This phenomenon did not last very long in France as repression was intense. But these first names are still in vogue in protestant families in America for instance. Moreover, ‘Abel’ means ‘God’s darling’, or ‘loving God’ equivalent to Theophile in Greek. Young Tasman’s parents didn’t call him that way by chance. He would have grown up, I believe, steeped in biblical culture.

He married, no one knows exactly when, a woman called Claesgie Heyndrix who gave him a daughter called Claesjen. Then he was widowed and married Jannetje Tjaerts in Amsterdam, on 11 January 1632. He was 29 years old and Jannetje was 21. His daughter Claesjen will be brought up by Jannetje with whom he has no other children.

On his marriage certificate it is indicated then that he was a ‘plain’ sailor. A plain sailor does not earn much money, his first wife may have died in labour or from a disease that couldn’t be cured for lack of finance. With his second wife Jannetje, and his daughter Claesjen, he probably wished to make good.

Two years after his second marriage, he joined the VOC. In those days that was the social lift. But, of course, you had to be ready to go, leave wife and kid behind, to risk your life in the colonies. And that’s what he did.

1. Leaving Batavia, August 1642

This weblog is going to be the transcription of ABEL TASMAN's Journal of his voyage of discovery 1642-1643, as translated into English from the old Dutch by Brian Hooker.

Here I shall attempt to give life to the document by adding my own data and commentary. All other comments are welcome.

JOURNAL or description drawn by me, Abel Janszoon Tasman, of a voyage made from the town of Batavia in the East Indies, relating to the discovery of the unknown southland in the year of our Lord 1642, the 14th of August. May it please God almightly to give hereto His Blessing on this work. Amen.

14 August [1642]
Sailed from the roadstead at Batavia with two ships, to wit: the yacht Heemskerck [pronounce Hems-kirk] and the flute Zeehaen [Zay-han]. In the evening the Zeehaen grounded on the island of Rotterdam [in the area of Jakarta] but got afloat again without notable damage. Then we continued on the voyage heading for Sunda Strait [between Sumatra and Java, 16 ks wide].


That's all for 14 August 1642... What he forgot to say is the explosion of Dutch swearing that the Heemskerck's crew uttered when they saw the Zeehaen get grounded. I don't know how you spell it but it is the equivalent of f... h..., phonetically more spicy.
I pass the entry for the 15th.

16 Aug
At our anchorage the wind was northeast and we noticed a strong current flowing through Sunda Strait. In the evening, with the land breeze we raised our anchors and shaped our course so as to pass between the Prince Islands and Krakatau.


What you need to know here is that Batavia (Jakarta) is situated in the southern tropical zone, on the Tropic of Capricorn. The prevailing wind is what you call the southern trade wind and it usually blows from the south-east. In any case it blows from the east.

Captain Tasman in fact takes the rhumb line to sail back to Holland, and as far as Mauritius island he expects to have fair winds pushing him. What you need to understand about the land breeze and raising anchors, is that at sea on a sail boat anyway you are always waiting on nature. A good skipper does not 'decide' to raise anchor at 3 pm sharp or at 9.24 am like a train. He waits for the exact moment when nature allows him. A land breeze is going to push the ships towards high sea, the maximum highly dreaded danger being to get pushed towards the land, especially if there is some current.