Maria van Diemen, 'First Lady' of Batavia




Tasmania's Maria Island is named after Maria van Diemen (nee van Aelst, 1607-1674), one of the most powerful and influential women in Batavia (Jakata, Indonesia) during the golden era of the Dutch East India Company when it dominated the spice trade between the East Indies and Europe.

Maria van Aelst was born in 1607 in Steenbergen, the westernmost and least populous province of the Netherlands, located to the south of Rotterdam. Maria appears to have spent some time growing up in the neighbouring province of Zeeland before she ended up in Amsterdam where, at the age of eighteen, was 'purchased' along with six other virgins at a 'Girl's Market' by a Dutch spice trader. He intended to take them to the other side of the world and offer them as virgin brides to the gentry of Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, now Jakarta. They were despatched in Batavia in 1625 in the context of a so-called 'settlement', a project set up by the former governor-general of the Dutch East Indies Jan Pieterz Coen to bring young, marriageable women to the women-poor region.

'We went to give birth, shipped on the orders of the gentlemen over there, seven girls who often had not even been kissed', states the opening lines of Maria's diary. She called herself a 'womb on legs', though she didn't bear any children to her first husband, Bartholomeus Kunst, who died not long after they were married. On 17th January 1630, she married for a second time, this time to Antonio van Diemen.

Van Diemen was by then an official of the Dutch East India Company.He had come to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies (Jakarta) to escape the fallout from a failed business venture in Amsterdam. Using the pseudonym Thonis Meeusz, he sailed on the East Indiaman Mauritius in 1617. The voyage heralded the beginning of Van Dienmen's association with the South Land, the exploration of which he would play a major role in. The Mauritius's second in command was none other than Willem Jansz who, in 1606, had made the first recorded landfall by an European of the Australian coast in the Duyfken. On this voyage, Jansz and Va Diemen would also encounter the coast of the the South Land, this time on its western shores. A river was sighted and named Willem's River; the river appears to be either the Ashburton or Exmouth Gulf.

Arriving in Batavia on on 22 August 1619, Van Diemen became a servant of the Dutch East India Company, and soon caught the eye of Governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen who recognised his potential as an astute administrator. His rise within the company was fast - in 1626 Coen appointed Van Diemen as Director-General of Commerce and member of the Council for the Indies.

Antonio van Diemen married Maria van Aelst on 17th January 1630. A year later Antonio returned to the Netherlands as Admiral of the ship Deventer. Maria accompanied him on what was perhaps their honeymoon. In the role of Admiral of the return fleet, Antonio left for the East Indies with Maria. In 1633 he discovered an island, which he called New Amsterdam. He was reinstated in his previous position (director of trade) and elected the following year to replace Governor-General Hendrik Brouwer. While on route back, Amsterdam Island was sighted and named Nieuw Amsterdam after the vessel they were travelling in. The island is part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands in the southern Indian Ocean. Abel Tasman was also on board, making his way to Batavia and a new life working for the Dutch East India Company there. Whether they met on the voyage out is not known, but seems highly likely since it was Tasman who van Diemen commissioned to head his exploratory expeditions some years later.

In Batavia he was reinstated in his previous position (director of trade) and elected by the Heeren XVII, the board of the VOC, the following year to replace Governor-General Hendrik Brouwer. his appointment taking effect on 1 January 1636. Within ten years of her arrival in Batavia, Maria had ascended to the position of 'First Lady'.

Van Diemen's nine years as Governor-General were successful and important for both the colony and the commercial success of the Dutch East India Company. He devoted much of his energy to expanding the power of the company throughout South-East Asia. Under his rule Dutch power was established in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) via Trincomalee.

Just about all we know of Maria comes from her diary, though it does shed light on the role of women in Dutch society, her duties towards her husband and the extent to which she was allowed to play a more or less independent role. Although strictly prohibited for officials of the VOC, she started a lucrative trade in diamonds, from which she eventually earned more money than her husband. A self-made woman with drive, influence and self-generated wealth, she helped her third husband maintain the clove monopoly, and controlled the social life in Batavia.

After long hours of listening to her husband's conversations with administrators, merchants and soldiers, discussing business and politics, she became very adept at managing those subjects herself. The ever-expanding world is mentioned from time to time in her diaries and was clearly a subject that had fascinated her since she travelled to the other side of the world as a girl of eighteen.

A self made woman, Maria had a similar entrepreneurial drive to her husband, and their shared vision appears to have fueled his success in the development and expansion of the Dutch Empire in the East Indies. It was under his adminstration that the final and most ambitious Dutch voyages of the century were launched.

In 1639 he commissioned two voyages to the north, in search of the "Gold and Silver Islands" that Spanish reports placed in the North Pacific to the east of Japan, and sent Maarten Gerritsz Vries to explore the coasts of Korea and "Tartaria"; they returned fruitless. Undeterred, Van Diemen appointed Frans Visscher to draw up a plan for new discoveries. Visscher mapped out three different routes, and in August 1642 send Abel Janszoon Tasman, accompanied by Visscher, in search of the Great South Land, which Tasman would soon dub "Nieuw Holland".

On what would be the first of two voyages to the South Land (the second was to the Gulf of Carpentaria some years later), Tasman would discover the island he named Van Diemen's Land after his patron - Antonio Van Diemen, the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. In the nineteenth century, Van Diemen's Land would be re-named Tasmania after its discoverer. Tasman named only a few coastal features, all after members of the Board of the Duntch East India Company except for one - the largest island he encountered and what would be his last landfall before returning to Batavia. He named it after Maria Van Diemen, wife of the Governor-General.

In 1644, two years after his return, Van Diemen equipped Tasman with three ships, the Zeemeeuw, Limmen and Bracq, to determine whether a strait existed between New Guinea and New Holland as shown on Franco-Portuguese maps. Tasman failed to find Torres Strait, probably because he sailed too far offshore, however he did map the north coast of Australia, making observations on the land and its people.

Upon his return to Batavia, Dutch East Indies, Tasman found the Governor-General was in a state of deteriorating health. Van Diemen Diemen died on 19 April 1645. Antonio and Maria are believed to have had no children, though one source suggests they had two - a daughter, Anna van Diemen, and a son, Gasparus (casper) van Diemen.

Upon her husband's death, the company granted Maria a large pension, so she disposed of her business interests and returned to the Netherlands, accompanied by Bartholomeus de Gruijter, a cousin of Antonio van Diemen. She settled in Amsterdam where she lived for nearly thirty more years as one of the hundred richest people in the Republic. Not long after returning to Amsterdam, she married Carel Constant (1613-1660) of Middelburg, on 6 September 1646 in Amsterdam. Constant was a former director of the VOC trading post in Persia. They had a daughter baptized in Utrecht in 1647.

After Carel Constant died in 1660, Maria was re-married on 10 October 1661 to Gijsbert van der Houck (1598- 1680), Burgemeester of Utrecht. The couple moved to The Hague , where Maria van Aelst died in 1674. Towards the end of her life, she completed the diary she kept from time to time during her years as Batavia's 'First Lady'.

Her name is perpetuated in the name of the westernmost point of the North Island of New Zealand, Cape Maria van Diemen, named by Tasman in 1643, and by Maria Island off the east coast of Tasmania. Cape Maria van Diemen is one of only two geographical locations in New Zealand to still have the name Tasman gave them, the other being Three Kings Islands.

Abel Tasman had named the islands of New Zealannd 'Staten Land', believing they were part of the Staten Landt that Jacob Le Maire had sighted off the southern end of South America. Hendrik Brouwer proved that the South American land was a small island in 1643. Brouwer had been Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies prior to Anthony van Diemen, in fact van Diemen was his assistant during his term of office, and many of the Dutch explorations into the Pacific carried out under Van Diemen's command were suggested in writing by Brouwer before he left. Brouwer and van Diemen re-named Tasman's Staten Land, calling it Nova Zeelandia (New Zealand), after the Dutch province where Maria Van Diemen has spent much of her youth.


Rembrandt: 'The man and the woman in black', 1633. According to researcher Rudolf Smeets, it is a wedding portrait of Antonio van Diemen and Maria van Aelst. Collection Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.