If Abel Tasman’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard of Tasmania, the Australian island named for him, or even the Tasmanian devil, the ferocious little marsupial native to it.
But Tasmania wasn’t the Dutch explorer’s biggest discovery: He was also the first European explorer to see New Zealand. Employed by the Dutch East India Company in his home country, he set off for the South Pacific via the island of Mauritius, off the African coast. By early December of 1642 he had reached the southeastern tip of Australia and landed on the island that would eventually bear his name.
Heading northeast from there, he saw land and assumed he had arrived at the southern tip of South America. In reality, he and his crew had just become the first Europeans to spot New Zealand. When they entered a bay looking for fresh water, a group of Māori attacked them, and several men on both sides were killed. Based on their experience, Tasman’s group dubbed the bay “Murderers’ Bay” (now called Golden Bay). They retreated and headed for home, passing the Tongan and Fiji islands en route.
Despite his discovery of these new lands, Tasman’s voyage was considered something of a failure, since he hadn’t found any new trading partners or natural resources the Dutch East India Company could exploit. But these days, the area he explored are some of New Zealand's most appealing tourist destinations, known for golden sandy beaches and outdoor recreation. There's even a national park named for him.
It would be more than a hundred years before another European explorer, Captain James Cook of Britain, would see Tasmania or New Zealand.