how the NSW State Library came to own the map of Abel Tasman’s travels


Every year, tens of thousands of patrons of the State Library of New South Wales pass by a stunning mosaic replica of the Tasman map on the floor of the Mitchell Library vestibule. The original map of Tasman, recently restored, traces the two voyages of Dutch explorer Abel Tasman in 1642 and 1644.

The map is perhaps the Mitchell Library’s greatest treasure, though we know little about the time, place, or artist responsible for it.

Yet, as we discuss in a new article, its acquisition by the Mitchell Library is a tale of subterfuge, intrigue, personal animosities and rivalries between state and Commonwealth.

The Tasman map was probably made in the mid to late 1600s in Batavia (now known as Jakarta), headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, on Japanese paper.

It was most likely compiled by a team of designers from a range of maps from the two voyages of Tasman. One of the artists was certainly Isaack Gilsemans, draftsman during the trip.

Mystery surrounds the location of the 17th century map until 1843, when Amsterdam cartographer Jacob Swart described and reproduced it.

Reproduction of the map of Tasman by Jacob Swart, circa 1860.
Wikimedia Commons

In 1891 the original 17th century map was offered for sale by Frederick Muller & Co. An interested group led by historian George Collingridge tried unsuccessfully to persuade the NSW Government to purchase it.

Instead, the map was purchased by Prince Roland Bonaparte, Napoleon’s great-nephew and an anthropologist with a keen interest in Australia.

Read more: How Australia’s early settlers drew maps to erase Indigenous peoples and promote ideas of colonial superiority

The princely promise

In March 1899, Henry Vere Barclay – a failed clergyman, explorer and storyteller – gave a lecture at the Imperial Institute in London where he announced that Prince Roland had promised that the map of Tasman would be bequeathed to the Australian Commonwealth government.

Newspaper reads: Tasman's map of Australia to be given to the Australian Commonwealth.
News from the map, reported in the Argus.
National Library of Australia

Within days, headlines stating that Prince Roland intended to give the card to the Commonwealth of Australia had appeared in at least 44 Australian and New Zealand newspapers.

The Prince’s intention to bequeath the map was confirmed in 1904 by James Park Thomson, President of the Royal Geographical Society of Queensland.

After seeing the map in Paris, Thomson wrote in his memoir, Round the World, how the prince believed the map would be “of the greatest interest and utility to the Commonwealth”.

Thomson also reported that the prince wanted to hand the map over to the Commonwealth government in person – but he was terrified of snakes and didn’t like the rabbits who “seemed to be taking over the place”.

The whispers over the map of Tasmania fell silent for two decades and only resurfaced after the prince’s death in 1924.

Read more: Putting ‘Australia’ on the map

A clandestine operation

In 1926, anthropologist Daisy Bates read Thomson’s book, noting the reference to Prince Roland’s intended bequest.

Knowing that the prince had recently died, she wrote to an acquaintance, William Ifould, asking him to inquire about the prince’s estate and the status of the card.

As Chief Librarian of the NSW Public Library, Ifould immediately launched a clandestine operation to bring the Tasman Map to Australia.

The Mitchell Library photographed in 1923.
State Library of New South Wales

It is clear from his earliest communications, when he warned his agent not to let the map attract the attention of Prime Minister Stanley Bruce, that Iould was consumed by a singular objective: to acquire the map of NSW before anyone in the Commonwealth government can’t remember. the promise of the prince.

Ifould’s main personal enemy was Kenneth Binns, librarian of the Commonwealth National Library, but Ifould also had a constant antipathy for the Commonwealth itself.

In the early days of the map rush, the Commonwealth Library’s collection did not yet have a permanent home, with the nation’s capital of Canberra still in the early planning stages. Binns was based in Melbourne, then the seat of the national parliament, and this played into a rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne.

The Tasman map was in the possession of Princess Marie Bonaparte, who was aware of her father’s desire to grant it to the Australian nation. Her husband, Prince George, wanted to travel to Australia and present the card himself.

This created concern for Ifould and the Mitchell Library, who feared he would accidentally introduce him to the Prime Minister instead of the Mitchell Library.

Princess Marie clearly considered the card to belong to the Australian Commonwealth.

Ifould and his conspirators – including a succession of British ambassadors and NSW agent generals – ignored him. As an agent general advised the Premier of New South Wales:

it probably does not mean that the card will go to the Commonwealth government, and the use of the words “Government of Australia” has no special meaning.

In May 1932 came the breakthrough Iould had been waiting for: Prince George postponed his trip again and Princess Marie agreed to hand over the card to the Australian trade commissioner based in Paris.

Ifould’s seven-year clandestine operation came to fruition when the map, now known as the Bonaparte-Tasman map, arrived in Australia to much fanfare in September 1933.

A global map; a local rivalry

The absence of any version of the story for the past 90 years is admission of knowledge of Prince Roland’s repeatedly expressed wish that the map go to the Commonwealth.

The mosaic reproduction of the map of Tasman, photographed in 1934.
State Library of New South Wales

The role of Barclay’s 1899 anecdote and its nationwide publication was eradicated. This allowed the card falling into Mitchell’s hands to be characterized as a happy coincidence, and not the result of intrigue and subterfuge.

The Tasman map, as commonly seen today, is a mosaic reproduction by Italian craftsmen, of a Dutch map, on Japanese paper, depicting the coasts of the Antipodes, depicting the dominance of East Asia. ‘Is, donated by a French aristocrat, destined for the Australian Commonwealth, but snatched by a state institution obsessed with library rivalry.

This research will be discussed at the NSW State Library’s Mapping the Pacific conference on March 3, 2022.


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