Table of Contents / Explorers
Magellan Strait
Pacific Ocean
Spice Islands

Jacob Roggeveen, 1659–1729

Expedition (1721–1722): Three ships (Arend, Thienhoven, Afrikaansche Galey), 223 men
Charge (by Dutch West India Company): To search for Davis’s Land (the Southern Continent)
Accomplishments: Discovered Easter Island, Bora Bora and Maupiti of the Society Islands, Samoa
Legacy of Roggeveen’s name: None

[Click on the images below for high resolution versions.]

In 1675, Arend Roggeveen, an accomplished Dutch scholar and educator in mathematics, astronomy, and navigational theory, obtained a charter from the States-General of the United Netherlands for a South Sea venture. He and his associates, however, were unable to obtain financial backing for it. Arend died in 1679, but his dream lived on in his sons, Jacob and Jan.
            For much of his life, Jacob Roggeveen was involved in religious controversy. His professional titles included notary of Middleburg (a province capital), doctor of law, and Council of Justice member in Batavia (today’s Jakarta in Indonesia) of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC). He was a wealthy man when he returned to Middleburg from the East Indies in 1714 but was soon banned from the town when he resumed his support for liberal theological doctrines. In 1721, at the age of sixty-two, Roggeveen approached the Dutch West India Company to propose making an exploratory voyage to the unknown regions of the Pacific Ocean, which were within the boundaries defined in the company’s charter—essentially reviving his father’s project. Jacob’s proposal was promoted by his brother, Jan, a Middleburg merchant, who helped in the planning and preparation after it was approved.
           Departing in August 1721, Roggeveen guided his expedition to the Falkland Islands, through Le Maire Strait, and around Cape Horn. The ships proceeded up the coast of Chile; from February 24 until March 17, 1722, they anchored in the Juan Fernández Islands, cleaning, repairing, and resupplying in anticipation of the push into the unknown parts of the Pacific Ocean. From there, on a west-northwest course, they sailed for more than 1,500 miles before, on Easter Sunday (April 5), they sighted what they hoped was the coastline of the fabled Southland: it was Easter Island.


“Plan and Views of Easter Isle, on the Same Scale.” Copperplate map and views on one sheet. From vol. 2 of La Pérouse’s The Voyage of La Pérouse Round the World, in the Years 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788 . . . (London, 1798). Rare Books Division]

On the 8th of April, 1786, at half past six in the evening, being to the eastward of Easter Island, the land appeared very distinctly, as delineated in the first view. . . . The figure of this island is therefore an isosceles triangle, the longest side of which, on the south-east, is rather more than four leagues, the adjacent angles measure each 41°, that opposite the base 98° and the northern and western sides, are each two leagues three quarters long. [pp. 248, 252]


“Geometrical Details of the Monuments of Easter Island.” From vol. 2 of La Pérouse’s The Voyage of La Pérouse Round the World, in the Years 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788 . . . (London, 1798). Gift of Charles Williston McAlpin, Class of 1888. [Rare Books Division]

[I]t would be difficult to reach their summits, on account of the immense quantity of stones which cover the surface, were it not for paths which intersect the island in all directions . . . leading principally to the huts and cemeteries or morais. . . . In these subterranean caverns the inhabitants store their provisions, utensils, wood, and in general all their possessions. . . . The cemeteries or morais, (fig. 8, 9, and 10,) are of a more remarkable construction; and though their dimensions are very various, they are constantly of the same undeviating form. . . . The difficulty of carrying and raising them [monuments], without machines, will disappear when it is considered, that by a certain number of hands, some ropes, two levers, and three wooden rollers, the heaviest masses may not only be drawn, but raised. [pp. 254, 255, 257, 259]

Roggeveen was not interested, though, in delaying his pursuit of Davis’s Land, the large landmass English buccaneer Edward Davis had reported seeing west of Juan Fernández in 1687. After investigating Easter Island’s large, strange stone idols and interacting with its inhabitants for several days—not without friction and causing some deaths—the expedition proceeded west, sighting Bora Bora and Maupiti of the Society Islands and most of the Samoan islands before reaching the Dutch East India post of Jepara (on today’s Java) on September 10, 1722. By then, the voyagers were in dire straits; one ship had been lost, and half of the original crews had succumbed to diseases.
            When the expedition reached Batavia, the Dutch East India Company immediately seized the ships and their cargoes and arrested Roggeveen and his men for violating the company’s monopoly in the area. They were not released until November and reached the Netherlands aboard Dutch East India ships on July 11, 1723. Negotiations in Amsterdam between the two rival companies ultimately resulted in compensation for Roggeveen and his backers. He settled in Middleburg once again, this time without any civic objection. But somehow, somewhere, Roggeveen’s original journal of his Pacific voyage, documenting his discoveries, had disappeared.
            A copy of the lost journal, made by scribes of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia, was finally found in 1836 in a bundle of papers among the archives of the Dutch West India Company in Middleburg. Published in 1838, this journal gave the world the first authoritative account of the expedition; until then, the most popular and famous version was the 1739 French edition of Karl Friedrich Behrens’s account that had appeared in 1737. Behrens was a low-ranking military officer on the expedition, and his publication contained numerous factual errors and embellishments.
            Three other important eighteenth-century expeditions—that of Spanish navigator Felipe González de Ahedo in 1770, English circumnavigator James Cook in 1774, and French explorer Jean-François de Galaup de La Pérouse in 1786—would encounter the enigma of Easter Island.

Map showing the route of Roggeveen’s expedition from the Netherlands to Batavia, including the separate path taken around South America by Cornelis Bouman in the Thienhoven.  From Roggeveen’s Scheepsjournaal: gerhouden op het schip Tienhoven tijdens de ontdekkingsreis van Jacob Roggeveen, 1721-1722 (Middelburg, 1911). [Rare Books Division]

Table of Contents / Explorers
Magellan Strait
Pacific Ocean
Spice Islands