Nov 242014


On this date in 1642 the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman became the first European to sight Tasmania. Tasman landed at today’s Blackman Bay. Tasmania has fascinated me since childhood. I’ve visited most of the states of Australia, but not Tasmania. Getting there from South Australia in the 1950’s and 60’s would have been a major trip. But as a boy, the island always fascinated me as a place that was Australia, yet not Australia. Whilst the mainland is mostly tropical or subtropical, and largely desert, Tasmania is temperate and lush. The aboriginal population, before it was wiped out by European diseases, was quite different from the mainland, as was, and is, the flora and fauna. I would have loved to have seen a Tasmanian Devil, for example. Maybe one day – but, alas, not a Tasmanian tiger.

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Abel Janszoon Tasman was a Dutch seafarer, explorer, and merchant, best known for his voyages of 1642 and 1644 in the service of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). He was the first known European explorer to reach the islands of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and New Zealand, and to sight the Fiji islands. His navigator François Visscher and his merchant Isaack Gilsemans mapped substantial portions of Australia, New Zealand, and some Pacific Islands.

In 1633, Tasman went to Batavia in service of the VOC; four years later he was back in Amsterdam. Tasman signed on for another ten years and took his wife along to Batavia. In 1639 Tasman was sent as second in command of an exploring expedition in the north Pacific under Matthijs Quast. His fleet included the ships Engel and Gracht and reached Fort Zeelandia (Dutch Formosa) and Deshima.

In August 1642, the Council of the Indies in Batavia dispatched Abel Tasman and Franchoijs Visscher on a voyage of which one of the objects was to obtain knowledge of “all the totally unknown provinces of Beach.” “Beach” appeared on maps of the time, notably that of Abraham Ortelius of 1570 and that of Jan Huygen van Linschoten of 1596, as the northernmost part of the southern continent, the Terra Australis (the southern land), along with Locach. According to Marco Polo, Locach was a kingdom where gold was “so plentiful that no one who did not see it could believe it.” Beach was in fact a mistranscription of Locach. Locach was Marco Polo’s name for the southern Thai kingdom of Lavo, or Lop Buri, the “city of Lavo.” In Cantonese, Lavo was pronounced “Lo-huk” (羅斛), from which Marco Polo took his rendition of the name. In the German cursive script, “Locach” and “Boeach” look similar, and in the 1532 edition of Marco Polo’s Travels his Locach was changed to Boëach, later shortened to Beach. In essence, therefore, Tasman was sent in search of a spelling error. But parts of Australia (or terra australis) had been mapped, so he was not completely sailing blind (I was going to say “all at sea” but thought better of it).


Tasman sailed first to Mauritius and arrived on 5 September 1642. The reason for this was the crew could be fed well on the island; there was plenty of fresh water and timber to repair the ships. Tasman got the assistance of the governor Adriaan van der Stel. Because of the prevailing winds, Mauritius was chosen as a turning point. After a four week stay on the island both ships left on 8 October. After a month’s travel, snow and hail influenced Tasman to alter course to a more northern direction. Part of the western shore of Australia was already known to the Dutch, but no one had gone as far as Pieter Nuyts, who years earlier had mapped a huge stretch of the southern coast as far as what is today South Australia.


On 24 November 1642 Abel Tasman sighted the west coast of Tasmania, north of Macquarie Harbour. He named his discovery Van Diemen’s Land after Antonio van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. Proceeding south he skirted the southern end of Tasmania and turned north-east, Tasman then tried to work his two ships into Adventure Bay on the east coast of South Bruny Island where he was blown out to sea by a storm, this area he named Storm Bay. Two days later Tasman anchored to the North of Cape Frederick Hendrick just North of the Forestier Peninsula. Tasman then landed in Blackman Bay – in the larger Marion Bay. The next day, an attempt was made to land in North Bay; however, because the sea was too rough the carpenter swam through the surf and planted the Dutch flag in North Bay. Tasman then claimed formal possession of the land on 3 December 1642.


I’ve already expressed my wrath sufficiently here about the arrogance of Europeans “claiming” inhabited lands, so I will spare you the lecture again. The arrival of Europeans was disastrous for indigenous Tasmanians. The Parlevar or Palawa are the indigenous people of Tasmania. Before British colonization in 1803, there were an estimated 3,000–15,000 Parlevar. A number of historians point to introduced disease as the major cause of the destruction of the full-blooded Aboriginal population. Geoffrey Blainey wrote that by 1830 in Tasmania: “Disease had killed most of them but warfare and private violence had also been devastating.” Other historians regard the Black War (deliberate massacre by Europeans) as one of the earliest recorded modern genocides. Benjamin Madley wrote: “Despite over 170 years of debate over who or what was responsible for this near-extinction, no consensus exists on its origins, process, or whether or not it was genocide”. However, “[using the] UN definition, sufficient evidence exists to designate the Tasmanian catastrophe as genocide.”

By 1833, George Augustus Robinson, sponsored by Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, had persuaded the approximately 200 surviving aboriginal Tasmanians to surrender themselves with assurances that they would be protected, provided for and eventually have their lands returned to them. These ‘assurances’ were in fact lies – promises made to the survivors that played on their desperate hopes for reunification with lost family and community members. The assurances were given by Robinson solely to remove the Aboriginal people from mainland Van Diemen’s Land. The survivors were moved to Wybalenna Aboriginal Establishment on Flinders Island, where diseases continued to reduce their numbers even further. In 1847, the last 47 living inhabitants of Wybalenna were transferred to Oyster Cove, south of Hobart. Two individuals, Truganini (1812–1876) and Fanny Cochrane Smith (1834–1905), are separately considered to have been the last people solely of Tasmanian descent.


All of the Indigenous Tasmanian languages have been lost. Currently, there are some efforts to reconstruct a language from the available wordlists. Today, several thousand people living in Tasmania and elsewhere can trace part of their ancestry to the Parlevar, since a number of Parlevar women were abducted, most commonly by the sealers living on smaller islands in Bass Strait; some women were traded or bartered for; and a number voluntarily associated themselves with European sealers and settlers and bore children. Those members of the modern-day descendant community who trace their ancestry to Aboriginal Tasmanians have mostly European ancestry, and did not keep the traditional Parlevar culture. For me, the loss of any culture , whatever the reason, is a deep tragedy. Loss to imperial greed is unforgiveable. As an anthropologist I see my mission in life not as the promotion of vapid theory, but as the need to express a simple creed – ALL CULTURES ARE OF EQUAL VALUE.


Given that very little of the indigenous culture of Tasmania survives I suppose it is all right to look to modern Tasmania for a recipe. Tasmania is famous for its apples which are exported to mainland Australia where the climate is less conducive to apple growing.

Go here for a decent recipe for a Tasmanian apple cake: