Story: European exploration

Page 1. Discovery and exploration

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New Zealand writing about history has often distinguished between ‘discovery’, which included initial surveys by sea, and ‘exploration’ – travelling on land through an area to learn about it.

‘Great men’

For a long time discovery and exploration were regarded as distinctively European pursuits. Explorers were seen as ‘great men’ who contributed to the expansion of the British Empire, in Africa, Australia or New Zealand – and they were, indeed, all men. Later, from the mid-20th century, they were admired as much for their courage and physical endurance as for the social impact of their journeys. They came to represent one model of the heroic New Zealand male. However, this heroic view of explorers should be qualified.

Role of Māori

Māori had explored all of New Zealand’s North Island and most of the South Island long before Europeans arrived. European explorers often used Māori accounts of routes and drew up maps from their descriptions. They used Māori guides and porters, followed Māori tracks, and were often fed, and even carried or canoed, by Māori. Only a few later explorers in the South Island’s alpine regions walked where no person had previously been. Even fewer walked alone.

Written records

The great explorers we know about are those who wrote accounts of their journeys, or compiled maps. We don’t know how many sealers, whalers, flax traders, gold prospectors or shepherds ventured far into the bush. Most of the written reports are autobiographical, and the authors sometimes inflated their achievements.


Explorers are often praised for their contribution to knowledge about the land and its features. However, most were not motivated by scientific goals, but by the promise of fresh pastures, new souls to convert, or gold. They saw the land in a number of ways – sometimes in terms of material use, sometimes for its beauty (a number were artists), and occasionally as observers of nature.


Yet the explorers are historically important. They were at the forefront of the colonisation of New Zealand. They defined new routes, mapped territory and imposed names on the landscape. They helped bring ‘Māori land’ into the European imagination, and increasingly under European authority. The explorers gave rise to new stories about the land, and entered New Zealand mythology.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'European exploration - Discovery and exploration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 Sep 2007