25 September 2006

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.

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