Land of Giants

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24th November.

“… In the afternoon about 4 o’clock we saw land bearing east by north of us at about 10 miles distance from us by estimation; the land we sighted was very high; towards evening we also saw, east-south-east of us, three high mountains, and to the north-east two more mountains, but less high than those to southward; …

… we convened our ship’s council with the second mate’s and represented to them whether it would not be advisable to run farther out to sea; we also asked their advice as to the time when it would be best to do so, upon which it was unanimously resolved to run out to sea at the expiration of three glasses, to keep doing so for the space of ten glasses, and after this to make for the land again.”

It was 48 days since they last saw land, but now that they had found land, they were confronted with danger.

Their ships couldn’t make way into the wind; the best they could achieve was to sail directly across it.

Their recent experience was of strong, and often fierce conditions coming from the West, and this coast was a ‘lee shore’; the land was downwind from them. If the wind turned to a westerly storm here they would be driven onto the shoreline.

Sighting Tasmania

Sighting Tasmania. Mt Heeskirk and Mt Zeehan are named in recognition of this achievement. They are the two mountains to the north-east mentioned in Tasman’s journal.

The prudent action was to turn away from the shore while conditions permitted. However, their instructions were to claim land that they find for the VOC, and for this they had to go ashore and plant a flag.

They were in a dilemma that would be repeated many times on this voyage.

They were required to claim all land that they discovered, but if that land was a lee shore, then it was very unwise to approach it. If the land was in the contrary position, upwind of them, then it was safe to land… but they couldn’t reach it because they couldn’t make way into the wind.

The Council was convened in the evening and it was agreed to run out to sea for a while before turning back to land, thus holding their safe distance from the land overnight. They decided to run out to sea for ‘three glasses’, and then back to land under reduced sail for ‘ten glasses’. Time measurement on board was done using sand glasses, each glass being 30 minutes. So ‘three glasses’ and ‘ten glasses’ are 1 1/2 hours and 5 hours respectively.

In the morning the Council met again, and “with the wind now from the South East” they risked making for the coast again.

25th November.

“… in the evening we got near the coast; three miles off shore we sounded in 60 fathom coral bottom; one mile off the coast we had clean, fine, white sand; we found this coast to bear south by east and north by west… our ship being 42° 30′ South Latitude, and average Longitude 163° 50′. We then put off from shore again. If you should happen to be overtaken by rough weather from the westward you had best heave to and not run on. “

They were very cautious on this coast, and properly so; if the conditions changed they would not be able to escape being wrecked. Not only did the shoreline run north-south with a typically westerly wind, the coast was also dotted with islands. They had no way of coming to a halt, and sailed by day and night, so these islands posed an extreme hazard in the dark.

Drawings by Isaac Gilsemans of the southern coastline of Tasmania

Drawings of the southern coastline of Tasmania by Isaac Gilsemans, from the deck of the Zeehaen.

For the next four days they played ‘cat and mouse’ with the coast. Land would come into sight, they would move toward it, the conditions would be unfavourable, and then they would bear away again. As they followed the coast around to the South, the land slowly turned from a westerly aspect, to southerly, and then easterly, making finding a safe anchorage increasingly likely, but only available to them if the wind let them reach the shore.

On 29th November they saw a favourable looking bay, and set out to seek an anchorage there. However, again, the conditions conspired against them.

Storm Bay

Storm Bay

“..In the evening about 5 o’clock we came before a bay which seemed likely to afford a good anchorage, upon which we resolved with our ship’s council to run into it, as may be seen from today’s resolution; we had nearly got into the bay when there arose so strong a gale that we were obliged to take in sail and to run out to sea again under reduced sail, seeing that it was impossible to come to anchor in such a storm; in the evening we resolved to stand out to sea during the night under reduced sail to avoid being thrown on a lee-shore by the violence of the wind…”

The scene of this event is still known by the name Tasman gave it; Storm Bay.

By daybreak they found they were nearly out of sight of land, but turned to it again. However, having passed the southernmost point of Tasmania, land now lay to their North-West, and when the wind turned to the north, the best they could achieve was to sail west, leaving the land to their North.

Abel Tasman finally secured an anchorage in Tasmania on 1st December, 1642

Abel Tasman finally secured an anchorage in Tasmania on 1st December, 1642

Again, on the next day, their attempts to reach the coast were thwarted by unfavourable conditions, but finally, on December 1st, they met with success.
1st of December.

… in the afternoon we hoisted the white flag upon which our friends of the Zeehaan came on board of us, with whom we resolved that it would be best and most expedient, wind and weather permitting, to touch at the land the sooner the better, both to get better acquainted with its condition and to attempt to procure refreshments for our own behoof…

…about one hour after sunset we dropped anchor in a good harbour, in 22 fathom, white and grey fine sand, a naturally drying bottom; for all which it behoves us to thank God Almighty with grateful hearts.”

At anchor in Frederick Henricx Bay

At anchor in Frederick Henricx Bay

They had finally managed to reach a safe anchorage, at a place they named Frederick Henricx Bay.

It had been 55 days since they last replenished their stocks of water and firewood, and Tasman had a contingent of 110 men to support. Replenishing their stocks of water was a matter of some urgency.

In the morning two boats went ashore to search for provisions… “in order to ascertain what facilities (as regards fresh water, refreshments, timber and the like) may be available there.”

Visscher was in charge of the pinnace from the Heemskerck, and was accompanied by the cock-boat from the Zeehaen. Both boats had musketeers on board, and the rowers were armed with pikes and ‘side arms’.

They were gone the whole day, and in the evening they returned and delivered an account of their exploration to the Council.

At anchor

Position at anchor, and Visschers exploration of Blackmans Bay

They had rowed around the point and about 4 kilometres into what is now called Blackmans Bay, and returned with samples of vegetables which they had seen growing there “in great abundance”. The land was high, level and “covered with vegetation (not cultivated, but growing naturally by the will of God)”. There was good timber there, but the water they found wasn’t deep enough to fill barrels, “because the watercourse was so shallow that the water could be dipped with bowls only”. This was impracticable in view of the amount of water they needed to bring aboard.

The Council was particularly interested in what signs of people had been observed.

Visscher told them he’d seen many fireplaces, and on occasions smoke rising from the bush. They’d heard sounds “nearly resembling the music of a trump or a small gong not far from them” but had not actually seen anyone.

His report concluded that

1881 Engraving of an aborigine climping a tree using rope and hatchet

1881 Engraving of an aborigine climping a tree using rope and hatchet.

“… they had seen two trees about 2 or 2½ fathom in thickness measuring from 60 to 65 feet from the ground to the lowermost branches, which trees bore notches made with flint implements, the bark having been removed for the purpose; these notches, forming a kind of steps to enable persons to get up the trees and rob the birds’ nests in their tops, were fully 5 feet apart so that our men concluded that the natives here must be of very tall stature, or must be in possession of some sort of artifice for getting up the said trees; in one of the trees these notched steps were so fresh and new that they seemed to have been cut less than four days ago….
… So there can be no doubt there must be men here of extraordinary stature”.

And so began the legend, that the ‘Great South Land’ was peopled by giants.

There was actually a simpler explanation, but it was less appealing to the press of the time.

Visscher’s observation of “some sort of artifice for getting up the said trees” was correct, but the press found that the prospect of; monsters, giants and cannibals sold far more copies than did a length of rope and a hatchet… and so the giants myth was perpetuated.

Expeditions to Australia, in search of Giant specimens, continued right up to the nineteenth century.

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