The Merchant of the Zeehaen: Isaac Gilsemans and the voyages of Abel Tasman
Te Papa Press, published in association with the Royal Netherlands Embassy and the New Zealand-Netherlands Foundation (Inc), $49.95,
The origins of this fascinating book go back to an earlier work by Grahame Anderson, Fresh About Cook Strait, in which he used as an illustration a coastal view from Tasman’s journal of his voyage of 1642-43. This sketch showed Tasman’s two ships anchored off a strangely curved perspective of an unidentified stretch of coast generally believed to be somewhere near D’Urville Island.
During the summer of 1984-85, Anderson and a yachting friend set out to find the position of the anchorage. Tasman had recorded the bearing or compass direction of Stephen’s Island from the anchorage and also the depth in that position. Using these two clues, Anderson’s party identified a probable position for the anchorage and from that place they compared the drawing with what they could see. The illustration matched precisely, feature by feature, the top end of the Marlborough Sounds. This both confirmed they were in the right place and showed the remarkable accuracy of the drawing. Comparing their position with the latitude and longitude given by Tasman in his journal enabled Anderson to establish the error in Tasman’s calculations and from this to rework much more accurately the record we have of his voyage up the west coast of New Zealand.
Anderson records further fascinating work that he and others subsequently did on the drawn coastal profiles in New Zealand, Tasmania and Tonga. In this he exploits his considerable experience of sailing and the sea (experience which also enriches his discussion of Dutch seamanship and voyages of exploration); and in this respect his work is reminiscent of another yachtsman’s, the great American historian of the discovery of the Americas, Samuel Eliot Morison.
The drawing Anderson used was a copy of a lost original by Isaac Gilsemans, the merchant (an official position under the Dutch East India Company) of the Zeehaen of the book’s title. His interest whetted, Anderson set out to discover all he could about Gilsemans, and the book in one sense is a narrative of his tenacious pursuit of information in archives and libraries in many parts of the world. Gilsemans’ importance for the visual recording of the 1642-43 voyage was made clear in Andrew Sharp’s The Voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman (1968), but Anderson has found evidence of his work for the Company in the periods both before and after this voyage. Sometimes the evidence depends on identifying documents through calligraphic styles that suggest Gilseman’s work but cannot be conclusive evidence.
For my taste, Anderson is rather too prone to conjecture in his argument. This comes out in a number of instances. For example, Tasman, Gilsemans and Francoijs Visscher, Tasman’s chief navigator and generally accepted as the brains of the voyage, were all stationed in Hirado, Japan, in 1640. This circumstance, Anderson writes, gave them “an opportunity to plan expeditions … and this seems to have led to the voyage they undertook in 1642-43.” All one can say is that that is possible. Nor am I persuaded by Anderson’s identifying a figure on a beach in a coastal view of Tonga as a portrayal of Tasman. His argument implies Dutch knowledge of Tongan customs that at that point the former could hardly have possessed.
Anderson gives a good account of the general background to Tasman’s voyages and then moves on to the voyages of 1642-43 and 1644 themselves, hoping, through his work on Gilsemans, to bring a new insight to our knowledge of the voyages. But his approach seems rather to blur the focus of the writing. It is not always easy to see why he has chosen the particular direct quotes from Tasman’s journal, and the entry for 19 December 1642, the day of the clash between the Dutch and the Maori in Golden Bay, has been so cut as to change or at least obscure the meaning. Anderson ends his account of that day’s events:
Observers on Taupo [Separation] Point looked on with anxiety as the action unfolded, and then relief as they saw the visitors adjust their sails to the northwesterly breeze and head northeast out of Taitapu bay … Their tactics, so the people of Taitapu felt, had sent the enemy packing.
Again, all one can say is that is possible, but how does Anderson know? On Tasman’s leadership of the 1642-43 voyage, Anderson concludes, “Abel Tasman had erred fundamentally and inexplicably in not persevering eastward to find out more about what lay beyond the lands they encountered in the Southern Ocean” – a rather stronger judgment than that of earlier writers, but appropriate.
Anderson has been well served by the Te Papa Press – though sharper editing could have improved his text – for the illustrations are superb: reproductions of Dutch and Japanese 17th century prints and paintings, of charts from the 17th and 20th centuries, of modern photographs and of those coastal views drawn by Gilsemans which, Anderson has argued so persuasively, represent a remarkable achievement in cartographic precision.
Tim Beaglehole was a history teacher and administrator at Victoria University of Wellington.