Story: European discovery of New Zealand

Page 6. Cook’s achievement

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James Cook is a key figure in the history of New Zealand. On his first voyage he and his colleagues created an important record of the country’s coastline and geography, its indigenous people and its flora and fauna. He added further detail on his second and third voyages. 

Māori and European contact

Cook’s first voyage provided Europe with its first substantial knowledge of the Māori people. The observations of Cook himself, and of others on the Endeavour, are still valuable sources of information about Māori life at the time of first European contact. His first landing place at Gisborne has been celebrated by one historian as the point where, ‘for the first time, the two great streams of race and culture in New Zealand, Polynesian and European, came into confluence’. 1

Cook had been instructed to cultivate a friendship and alliance with the inhabitants of any new land he discovered. On board the Endeavour was a Tahitian chief and priest, Tupaia, whom had come on board during the ship’s stay in Tahiti. Because of the similarities of the Tahitian and Māori languages, Tupaia was able to translate spoken exchanges between European and Māori. But even with Tupaia’s mediation, misunderstandings arose. Many were over the nature of trade and exchange between the two groups. Problems also arose when some crew from the Endeavour inadvertently broke sacred restrictions Māori had placed on some areas. There were a number of episodes of bloodshed on the first and second voyages, but nevertheless Cook is credited with showing forbearance, restraint and a depth of understanding (he had a more moderate view of cannibalism, for example, than most of his crew).

A line can be drawn from Cook’s first voyage to the Treaty of Waitangi. In his instructions to Cook, the Earl of Morton, president of the Royal Society, stated that any 'natives' he encountered were to be regarded as ‘the natural, and … legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit’, and that their voluntary consent would be needed before any of their lands were occupied by Europeans.

The Māori perspective

If Europeans viewed Cook’s discoveries as momentous, for many Māori it must have seemed only a brief interlude in the normal course of life. Once their initial astonishment had passed, Māori dealt with the newcomers much as they dealt with Māori of other tribal groups.

Māori understanding of Cook’s arrival was inevitably partial, although there was certainly some exchange of information between Māori and Cook’s men. The Endeavour would afterwards be remembered by Māori as 'Tupaia's ship'. He was able to serve as a translator of Māori, a language similar to his own, and he was to become the first important cultural intermediary between Māori and foreign visitors.

Tupaia left New Zealand with Cook on the Endeavour and died at Batavia (Jakarta) on 20 December 1770.

New Zealand’s flora and fauna

Having spent a total of 328 days on the coast, Cook and those with him left a vivid and comprehensive visual and written record of the country’s natural history. Few lands newly discovered by Europeans have been so comprehensively documented.

The gentleman naturalist Joseph Banks travelled with Cook on the Endeavour during its 1768–71 voyage. Wealthy enough to indulge his interests, Banks paid for another botanist, Daniel Solander, and three draughtsmen or artists to join the expedition. Banks’s and Solander’s collections of plants and their descriptions laid the foundations for modern New Zealand botany. Although Banks declined to accompany Cook on his second voyage, he maintained his interest in New Zealand until his death in 1820.


Cook's three voyages touched all three corners of the Polynesian triangle – Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand – and Cook and his associates recognised that ‘the same nation’ was spread over a vast extent of ocean. The scientist Johann Reinhold Forster, who travelled on the second voyage, identified what became known as the Austronesian language group.

New Zealand and Britain

Cook’s discoveries forged New Zealand’s later links with Britain. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries a number of French explorers were active in the Pacific. Cook’s instructions from the British Admiralty authorised him to annex ‘convenient situations’ on any ‘great continent’ he might discover. At Mercury Bay on 15 November 1769, and at Queen Charlotte Sound on 30 January 1770, he made proclamations which helped ensure that Britain, and not another European power such as France, later colonised New Zealand.

  1. Neil Begg, ‘Two streams of race first flow together.’ New Zealand Historic Places (March 1990): 23. › Back
How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'European discovery of New Zealand - Cook’s achievement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

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