Story: Early mapping

The narrow islands of New Zealand did not appear on a world map until 1646, after Abel Tasman’s visit in 1642. There were gaps in his charts, and subsequently a big gap in mapping history: nearly 130 years passed before James Cook made his remarkably accurate surveys. These finally put paid to the theory of a ‘great southern continent’, but even when settlers began arriving, most of the interior remained uncharted.

Story by Melanie Lovell-Smith
Main image: 16th-century map of the Pacific

Story summary

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Māori and maps

Māori were living in New Zealand from around 1300 CE. They named the mountains, rivers and harbours, but map-drawing was not part of their tradition. Later, they helped Europeans explore, and some sketched maps to provide information about the land.

Abel Tasman: 1642

People once thought that there might be a huge land mass in the southern hemisphere. The Dutch seafarer Abel Tasman was sent out to find it. Instead, he reached the islands of New Zealand. He drew two charts, and in 1646 New Zealand was shown on a world map for the first time.

James Cook: 1769

Nearly 130 years after Tasman, the English navigator James Cook set off in the Endeavour to look for the mythical southern land. He too reached New Zealand and sailed around, making the first complete outline of its coasts. This proved that the country was not part of a larger land mass. Cook’s charts had only two major mistakes: he thought that Banks Peninsula was an island, and that Stewart Island was joined to the South Island.

French explorers to 1840

Several Frenchmen made maps, including:

  • J. F. M. de Surville: arriving at the same time as Cook, he charted the northern coastline
  • Marion du Fresne: on one map he showed Mt Taranaki
  • Dumont d’Urville: he made 14 charts, and showed Banks Peninsula in almost correct form.

Traders, whalers, missionaries: 1800–1840

Europeans came to trade in flax, seals, whales and timber. Their maps showed the harbours they visited, and where the resources were. Missionaries came to convert Māori to Christianity. They also explored and mapped parts of the land.

Settlers: 1840s onwards

When British immigrants began arriving, there were almost no maps of inland New Zealand. Surveyors looked for good sites for settlement, mapping the rough, mountainous country. Planners drew maps of new towns, showing parks and wide streets. Sometimes they did this without seeing the land, which might actually have swamps, hills and thick forest.

Later maps

Gold was discovered in the 1850s and 1860s. Scientists explored inland, drawing charts of mountains and other places where there might be gold and other valuable resources.

By 1855, the British ships Acheron and Pandora had made authoritative maps of the entire coastline.

How to cite this page:

Melanie Lovell-Smith, 'Early mapping', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 October 2023)

Story by Melanie Lovell-Smith, published 24 Sep 2007