Story: European discovery of New Zealand

In their search for the vast ‘terra australis incognita’ (the unknown southern land) thought to lie in the Pacific, explorers made daring journeys across uncharted waters.

They did not find the fabled continent, but they did find New Zealand. First sighted by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, the country was later mapped by James Cook, the British seafarer who dominates the story of the European discovery of New Zealand.

Story by John Wilson
Main image: Map showing ‘terra australis incognita’, 1641

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New Zealand had already been discovered by the time Europeans first saw the Pacific. Polynesian navigators had reached New Zealand probably in the 13th century. 

Abel Tasman

Portuguese and Spanish navigators sailed the Pacific Ocean in the 1500s, but it was probably not until 1642 that a European sighted New Zealand. In that year the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed in search of a vast southern continent, which many Europeans thought might exist in the South Pacific. Dutch merchants hoped this land would offer new opportunities for trade. Tasman first saw New Zealand on 13 December 1642, but after a bloody encounter with Māori in Golden Bay, he left without going ashore.

Shortly afterwards, a Dutch map maker gave the name Nieuw Zeeland to the land Tasman had discovered.

James Cook

The English navigator Lieutenant James Cook sighted New Zealand on 6 October 1769, and landed at Poverty Bay two days later. He drew detailed and accurate maps of the country, and wrote about the Māori people. His first encounter with Māori was not successful – a fight broke out in which some Māori were killed. However, after this Cook and his men had mostly friendly contact with Māori.

The naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, who sailed with Cook, gathered a great deal of information about the country’s plants and animals. Their records formed the foundation for the modern study of New Zealand botany.

On two later voyages, Cook used New Zealand as a base to prove that a great southern continent did not exist in the Pacific.

After Cook

Several other explorers, many of them French, visited New Zealand in the years after Cook’s first visit. The most important of these was Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville. He sailed through the dangerous French Pass in the Marlborough Sounds and investigated the east coast of the North Island.

Another French explorer who reached New Zealand was Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne. His ships anchored in the Bay of Islands in mid-1772. But Māori tribal groups in the area were at war, and the presence of the French made matters worse. Marion du Fresne and 24 others were killed.

Later discoveries about New Zealand’s geography were made by the sealers, whalers and missionaries who visited during the 1800s.

How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'European discovery of New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 May 2016