Historian Siebren van der Werf describes how people found their way to sea ★★★★ ☆

Siebren van der WerfPicture Jeroen Koeten

They would find Zuidland. In 1616, Willem Schouten and Jacob le Maire sailed around the southernmost tip of South America to the east. They had thus discovered a new route to Batavia for VOC. Convenient, but she could not care less. They were about 60 degrees south latitude – no one had sailed so south before. The mighty Southland must be somewhere here! The land everyone was talking about! Full of treasures and precious goods! They kept looking as long as possible, as far south as possible. They found Tonga, all kinds of islands. She could not care less. No Sydland. The two captains got into fights.

What Eldorado was for America’s conquerors was the mythical Southland for the explorers of the Pacific. A cardmaker composition that clouded any view of reality. 26 years after Schouten and Le Maire, Abel Tasman made another attempt. He sailed from Batavia to Mauritius, east of Madagascar, then dropped down to latitude 54 degrees south and set course east. Somewhere he had to collide with the huge Southland! Tasman sailed under Australia, so what would become Tasmania sailed on to New Zealand (where it led to a deadly battle with the Maori) – it was all disappointing. He did not get to see Sydland.

And that was not the end. Eighty years later, in 1722, Jacob Roggeveen was still looking for the South – and discovered Easter Island. And in 1769, James Cook was secretly ordered by the British Admiralty to search for … the South. Greed kept the delusion alive.


Cook’s expeditions today are mostly praised for being “scientific”. During his second and third voyages, he tested the applicability of an accurate and shockproof ‘chronometer’ to determine longitude. (in short: the difference between the Greenwich Mean Time on the clock and the time according to the position of the sun indicates how many degrees you have sailed west or east).

The advent of the chronometer was a major step forward in navigation. And that meant the death knell for Zuidland. As punishment, it seems, the British decided to turn the only real southern country, Australia, into a penal colony.

With James Cook began the era where sailors had to look less and less at the sun and the stars. Gone are the days when navigation (determining your position at sea) was a major issue. We therefore find Cook more or less at the end of this fine booklet by the navigation historian Siebren van der Werf.

But along the way, it was about much more than navigation. Van der Werf talks about lost islands, sea monsters and how the sea can rise like a wall. He talks about his computer simulations, which show that air reflections are a possible explanation for such phenomena, and also gives his translation of two famous Viking sagas, ‘The story of Erik the Red’, about the discovery of Greenland, and ‘The history of the Greenlanders , about how Erik’s son Leif Eriksson reached Newfoundland (‘Vinland’). The astronomical explanation leaves a lot to be desired, but the journey is certainly entertaining.

An open question

How the Vikings navigated the seas is still an open question. Van der Werf assumes that they did this based on the rising and setting of the sun and the stars on the horizon. It requires an enormous amount of knowledge, which has since been lost. The same goes for the deep knowledge of the stars and of the Pacific Ocean that the Polynesians must have had around the same time to be able to sail the vast body of water and populate the countless islands, from New Zealand in the west to Easter Island in the east and Hawaii in the north. Were all those islands uninhabited?

Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl came up with the idea that the famous statues on Easter Island should be the work of migrants from Inca-Peru. In 1947, he boarded a fleet, Kon Tiki, in Peru, after which the trade winds swept him over a hundred days to … Easter Island. Heyerdahl was considered crazy. Why could the Polynesians not come up with the idea of ​​making large statues themselves? Why should land crabs like the Incas go out to sea? DNA research has now shown that emigrants from South America have actually entered the Pacific Ocean and have settled there. Driven, perhaps, by the dream of discovering a beautiful and rich continent.

Siebren van der Werf: Three thousand years of navigation on the stars. Querido Facto; 183 pages; € 24.99.

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