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Last Wednesday, September 12, commemorated the founding of the colony of Tasmania. Although it doesn’t seem to be celebrated in Tasmania, I thought we’d look at the man who gave his name to the state. I chose this topic several months ago, but unfortunately this recent story in the news is giving Abel Tasman a somewhat controversial image at present.

I feel like a mother who has just sent out 300 cards announcing her new daughter’s name as Sahara, then opens the paper to read with horror the headline: Murder at Sahara strip club provides clue to cocaine ring: our paper investigates the seedy underworld of the Sahara, knowing that for months the name Sahara is going to be associated with some very shady dealings. This happens to the best of parents, and possibly even the best of bloggers. However, let us continue.

Abel Tasman was the first known European to reach Tasmania and New Zealand. A Dutch seafarer, he undertook his voyages as an employee of the United East India Company (VOC) – the first multinational corporation in the world, and the first to issue stock. They were based in Batavia, now known as Jakarta, in Indonesia. This company despatched Tasman on a mission to obtain knowledge of “all the totally unknown provinces of Beach”.

That was his first problem: Beach didn’t exist. It was supposedly the northernmost part of Terra Australis, and that didn’t exist either. In fact, they had misread Marco Polo’s handwriting, which said Lohach, and referred to south Thailand, which Polo had assured all and sundry was a kingdom rich with gold. Sent off to find a non-existent kingdom of gold on an imaginary continent with faulty maps based on a vital error, Abel Tasman did the best he could under the circumstances.

On December 3 1642, he formally claimed Tasmania, which he dutifully named Van Diemen’s Land, after Anthonie Van Diemen, the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, and Tasman’s patron (Diemen is a homophone of demon). Battling against very rough seas, he managed to reach New Zealand ten days later, which he thought was connected to Argentina (the map’s fault again). A second voyage gave him the chance to map the north coast of Australia, which he called New Holland, and make observations of the land and its people.

From the point of view of the VOC, Tasman’s voyages were a failure. He hadn’t found Beach, located tons of gold, met anyone to trade with, or discovered new shipping routes. Although the Dutch had discovered Australia in 1606, they weren’t sufficiently impressed to follow it up, and so it was free for the British to claim many years later.

Abel Tasman did manage to make it to Thailand a few years later, although I’m sure he never realised he’d arrived in “Beach” after all. The lack of gold, it’s being called Siam, the way he was only there as a courier to deliver letters to the king – all these things helped disguise the fact he had reached his dream destination after all.

Abel was the second son of Adam and Eve in the Old Testament, and described as a shepherd, while his older brother Cain was a crop farmer. Famously, Abel is the first person in the Bible to die, while his brother Cain becomes the first murderer. The Bible doesn’t provide a motive for Cain’s actions, but it is usually assumed to be jealousy, since God was pleased by Abel’s offering from his flock, while not having a high regard for Cain’s produce. This story tends to irk vegetarians, and does make God seem rather like a capricious judge on Masterchef, but there is more to the story than meets the eye.

The archetypal simplicity of this tale of brother against brother has made an enormous impact, and been dramatised in modern stories, such as John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Something in it speaks straight to our bones – primal emotions of rage, envy and betrayal; a deep sense of the fundamental injustice of the universe; the uneasy knowledge that those closest to us are the ones most likely to hurt us, even harm us.

Scholars believe the tale represents conflict between nomadic shepherds and settled farmers in the Middle East, at a time when agriculture was beginning to take over from hunter-gathering (this probably did sometimes end in bloodshed). Sadly, the story also serves as a commentary on the violence and hatred that has existed between religions who worship the same God, as Cain and Abel did (this still ends in bloodshed).

The name Abel is derived from the Hebrew name Hevel, often translated as “breath, vapour”, with connotations of “waste”, to indicate the transient nature of Abel’s existence. However, the name may simply mean “herdsman” to indicate his role in the story; a similar word still exists in modern Arabic. Another theory is that is based on the Akkadian word for “son”, which seems more likely as a person’s name, and fits in with modern scholarship identifying the story as based on a Sumerian myth.

Back in June, I mentioned Abel as a name I had encountered on a baby during the autumn, and considered it a rare sighting. Well, I have to eat my words, because over winter I met or heard of three new babies named Abel, and have seen a few more in birth notices. Clearly it’s a name on the rise, and in the US Abel is #237, jumping 56 places last year. With Old Testament names for boys growing in popularity, Abel is a solid, underused choice, and one that connects directly to early Australian history.

Tasman is a Dutch form of the German surname Tessmann, derived from both Slavic and German. Slavonic personal names such as Techmir, meaning “consolation”, become Tess in German. The -mann part of the name usually means “servant of”. So Tasman means “servant of Techmir”. English forms include Tesmond or Tessyman.

In Australia, Abel Tasman has given his name to the state of Tasmania, and also the Tasman Sea, which is the stretch of ocean between the east coast of Australia and the west coast of New Zealand (affectionately known as “The Ditch“). The Maori name for it is Te Tai-o-Rehua, which means “the sea of Antares”, the star Antares being associated with the height of summer, and considered a god of kindness and enjoyment. Many more places bear Abel Tasman’s name in New Zealand.

The name Tasman has a long history of use in Australia, and is most common in the state of Tasmania, which naturally feels a strong connection to it. It is turning up regularly in birth notices at the moment, and may be receiving more attention because there is currently a TV advertisement for Uncle Toby’s instant oats, with the little blond boy in the commercial being named Tasman.

This makes a fantastic name for a family which has one side from Australia and the other from New Zealand, with a baby Tasman joining both sides. The name is considered masculine in Australia, but feminised forms such as Tasmyn are thought suitable for girls. Usual nicknames are Tas, Taz or Tazzy.
UPDATE: I’ve just been informed that the reason the name Abel is skyrocketing is because of the TV show, Sons of Anarchy, where someone has a baby named Abel – thank you Twitter.

UPDATE: Thank you to blog reader Madelyn, who tells me that American actress Amy Poehler has a son named Abel.

(The picture shows a view of the Tasman Sea from Tasman National Park in southern Tasmania, on the other side of the bay where Abel Tasman claimed Tasmania; photo from There’s Nothing Like Australia)

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