Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Early mapping

by  Melanie Lovell-Smith

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. But when European settlers began arriving in large numbers 70 years after Cook's voyages, most of the interior remained uncharted.

Early mappers: 1642–1800

Abel Tasman

From the 16th century, world maps often showed an imagined southern land mass at the bottom of the globe, to balance the known land in the north. In 1642 the Dutch seafarer Abel Janszoon Tasman was sent by the Dutch East India Company to find this southern land.

Two charts were produced from his voyage. Tasman charted the coastline from his landfall on the west coast of the South Island to Cape Maria van Diemen at the north of the North Island. His pilot, Frans Visscher, made a general chart of their travels, now only known from a copy made in 1666. Visscher’s chart shows a gap in the coastline around Cook Strait, while Tasman’s shows it as a bay. The first printed map to include Tasman’s discoveries was the 1646 world map published by Johan Blaeu.

James Cook

More than 120 years later, in 1769, the English navigator and cartographer James Cook set out to observe the Transit of Venus from Tahiti and then headed south towards latitude 40° to look for the southern continent.

From his work on the Labrador and Newfoundland coasts, Cook had gained a reputation as an accurate maritime surveyor. Reaching New Zealand in October 1769, he and his crew travelled around the coasts in the Endeavour, preparing the first complete outline of the country. They proved that it was not part of a larger continent, and at certain places they also carried out more detailed surveys, producing large-scale charts.

Cook and his men obtained information from Māori. Te Horetā te Taniwha of Ngāti Whanaunga later described how an old chief, probably Toiawa, drew a chart in charcoal on the deck of the Endeavour. The chart, which has not survived, depicted the Coromandel peninsula, Hauraki Gulf, Great Barrier Island, and as far north as North Cape.

Missed the point

A chart made by Māori chief Toiawa showed Cape Rēinga, where it is said the spirits of the dead leap off from this world. Toiawa lay on the deck as if dead, and then pointed to Cape Rēinga, but the concept was apparently not understood by Cook and his men.

An accurate map

Cook’s chart of New Zealand remained the basis for subsequent maps for nearly 80 years. It was not published by the British Admiralty until 1816, although his outline of New Zealand had been included in other world maps and atlases, and appeared in John Hawkesworth’s Account of the voyages undertaken …. in the southern hemisphere in 1773. He had made only two major errors: ‘Banks Island’ on the Canterbury coast is actually a peninsula, and he thought Stewart Island was a peninsula.

Too far east

On his first voyage, Cook carried lunar tables so he could calculate his longitude. Even a relatively inaccurate longitude was only reached after lengthy calculation. On his second voyage he carried four of the recently invented chronometers and commented that he had originally positioned the whole of New Zealand too far to the east.

Cook made two other voyages to the South Pacific, in 1772–75 and 1776–79. But the only addition he made to his original chart was a detailed survey of Dusky Sound, in March–May 1773.

Other British charts before 1800

Captain George Vancouver, who had been a midshipman on Cook’s Resolution in 1772–75, revisited Dusky Sound in the Discovery in 1791 with Lieutenant William R. Broughton (in command of the Chatham). They produced charts of their respective anchorages, Anchor Island Harbour and Facile Harbour, which were later published by the Admiralty.

They added to Cook’s exploration by discovering that Breaksea Sound split into two arms, now known as Vancouver Sound (northern) and Broughton Sound (southern).

After leaving Dusky Sound the two ships became separated. Broughton charted some islands, the largest of which he named Knight’s Island. Vancouver found the same islands, and named them The Snares, as they are known today. Broughton also became the first European to find and map the Chatham Islands.

Malaspina’s visit

Cook’s account of Dusky Bay inspired Alessandro Malaspina, the Italian commander of two Spanish ships, to visit in 1793. The weather prevented the ships entering Dusky Sound and they moved north to anchor off Doubtful Sound. This sound was partially explored by the chief navigator, the Spaniard Felipe Bauza. A copy of his chart was subsequently published by the British Admiralty in 1840.

French charts before 1840

Although James Cook produced the first outline of New Zealand, it was the French who produced most of the coastal surveys before 1840. At least six charts of the Bay of Islands were produced by French explorers.

De Surville

In December 1769, when Cook was sailing around the north of New Zealand, the Frenchman Jean François Marie de Surville was exploring the same area. De Surville made two charts from this voyage – one of the coastline between Cape Maria van Diemen and North Cape, and the second of Doubtless Bay, which he named Lauriston Bay. His Lauriston Bay chart was the first official New Zealand chart to be published by the British Admiralty, in 1781.

Marion du Fresne and d’Entrecasteaux

In 1772, Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne visited northern New Zealand. Ambroise-Bernard-Marie du Clesmeur, in charge of his supply ship Marquis de Castries, produced two charts. One showed their track north, with a very clear depiction of Mt Taranaki and an outline of the coast from around Kaipara Harbour to the Bay of Islands. The second was a ‘Plan du Port Marion’ (the Bay of Islands) which showed sites and the area where Marion du Fresne and 24 of his men were killed by Māori in June.

In 1791, Antoine d’Entrecasteaux sailed from France in search of the lost navigator La Pérouse. He passed the northern coast of New Zealand in 1793. C. F. Beautemps-Beaupré, his surveyor, charted the coastline from Cape Maria van Diemen to the Surville Cliffs (which he mistook for North Cape), and included the Three King Islands.


Further French expeditions came to New Zealand in the early 19th century. Louis Isidore Duperrey visited the Bay of Islands in the Coquille in 1824. A midshipman, Jules de Blosseville, drew a chart of New Zealand that was published by the French Admiralty. In part this relied on charts of Foveaux Strait and other southern bays drawn in 1822 by a flax trader, Captain W. L. Edwardson of the Snapper.

Harbour fantasy

A chart from Duperrey’s 1824 voyage included a large bay named Port de Tarranarki, south of Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont). No such bay existed – it was based on information from English missionaries at the Bay of Islands, none of whom had visited the area. Such a harbour on the North Island’s west coast would have been very alluring to colonists.

Dumont D’Urville

Jules Sébastien César Dumont D’Urville, who served under Duperrey in 1824, returned in the Astrolabe (Duperrey’s Coquille renamed) in 1827. His charts filled in the gaps left by Cook, and he discovered and charted French Pass. D’Urville’s first expedition led to the publication of 14 detailed charts.

Dumont D’Urville returned again in 1840 and charted the Auckland Islands, including a detailed plan of the harbour there. His voyage resulted in two maps. One showed the east coast of the South Island, with Banks Peninsula in almost correct form for the first time. The second was an overall chart of New Zealand, with 21 detailed charts of harbours and bays.

French whalers

There were French whalers in New Zealand waters from the 1830s. The corvette Héroine, under Captain Jean-Baptiste Cécille, was sent to New Zealand to look after France’s whaling interests. Its navigating officer, Lieutenant J. M. Fourmier, produced a number of charts of Banks Peninsula, including Port Cooper (Lyttelton Harbour) and Port Levy, as well as Akaroa.

Traders, whalers, missionaries: 1800–1840

Traders and missionaries

Once New Zealand became known to the European world, visitors began to exploit its abundance of seals, flax and timber. Settlements at Sydney and Hobart provided a base for such expeditions, and their charts showed parts of the coastline in greater detail, marking where these resources could be found.

Sealers and whalers

Sealers produced various charts of the coastline, from sketch maps to details of anchorages. An American sealer, Owen Folger Smith, was the first to chart Foveaux Strait, around 1805. Sealing captains also discovered and charted the subantarctic islands.

Whalers made few charts, but their activities did encourage others to draw them. When the whaler Jacky Guard piloted HMS Pelorus up the ‘Oyerri River’ (Pelorus Sound/Te Hoiere) in 1838, the ship’s master, Mr Craigie, made a chart of the inlet.

Timber and flax traders

During the 1820s and 1830s British officers from naval ships calling into the Bay of Islands and the Firth of Thames would sound and chart their anchorages while waiting for kauri for ships’ spars to be cut and loaded. Other ships ventured to New Zealand to collect flax and timber. The charts of Captain Thomas Wing, employed by Clendon and Stephenson, traders in flax and timber, were widely respected by fellow seamen. Wing sailed extensively around the North Island and made the first charts of many harbours, such as Ahuriri (at Napier).


Christian missionaries arrived in New Zealand from 1814. They travelled widely, and were the first Europeans to explore the interior of the country. Anglican Church Missionary Society missionaries, led by Samuel Marsden, established themselves in the Bay of Islands from 1814. They travelled around the northern part of the North Island, partly looking for suitable sites for further mission stations.

Three missionary maps were published in the Church Missionary Register before 1840. In 1822 a map of the Bay of Islands and its missionary settlements, and ‘A chart of the northern part of New Zealand’ (probably compiled in late 1819 or early 1820) appeared. In 1836 a map showing the North Island from Rotorua northwards, was published, with mission stations marked.

Mapping for settlement

Early harbour charts

In 1826, around 30 potential settlers embarked for New Zealand on board the Rosanna, captained by James Herd. Herd had visited New Zealand previously and in 1822 had charted Hokianga Harbour.

Although the passengers did not find a suitable place to settle, Herd charted Otago Harbour, Port Nicholson (Wellington) and Port Pegasus (on Stewart Island). Port Nicholson was also charted by Captain Thomas Barnett, commander of the Lambton.

Sheet maps

A growing number of sheet maps of New Zealand were published in Britain, reflecting interest in the country as a place for settlement. The best-known and most accurate was produced by map publisher John Arrowsmith in 1841. Another, less accurate, map by Thomas McDonnell was published numerous times by James Wyld. In 1838 the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge published a chart based on McDonnell’s, with minor variations.

Early surveyors

By 1839, when large-scale European settlement began, New Zealand’s coastline had been charted, and some northern parts of the country sketchily mapped, but the rest of the land was undocumented.

Surveyors, working both for the New Zealand Company and for the Crown, mapped the land and laid out towns and roads. Reconnaissance surveys selected town sites and looked for arable land. Other early maps were cadastral – showing the land divided for the purposes of ownership and sale.

Tough work

The early surveyors often had a hard time. William Mein Smith, chief surveyor for the Wellington settlement, complained, ‘I have not the means of protecting either my instruments or plans from the wet’. 1 It was tougher for Robert Bain in south Westland, who took off his jacket one day and ‘found myself covered from head to foot with live maggots … it took me two days to get entirely rid of the vermin.’ 2

Town plans

Plans showing the layout of towns were drawn up by New Zealand Company and Crown surveyors. Influenced by contemporary ideas about town planning, the early planners often drew wide streets with land allocated for parks, public baths and other facilities.

Some town plans were drawn up ‘blind’, and sections were sold in Britain before they had been surveyed. Translating the plan to the reality of the topography sometimes proved difficult, and surveyors struggled to lay roads up steep hills, or through unmapped bush and swamp.

Geological maps

Gold was discovered on the Coromandel Peninsula in 1852, in Otago in 1861, and on the West Coast in 1864. As a result, provincial governments grew interested in New Zealand geology. The Austrian geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter and Julius Haast made the first systematic geological explorations from 1858.

Maps of their discoveries were published in Hochstetter’s 1863 Geological and topographical atlas of New Zealand. The New Zealand Geological Survey, established in 1865, sent out geologists to report on features, and in 1865 a geological map of the whole country was compiled by the director of the Survey, James Hector, based on information from various observations.

Base maps were often rudimentary, and geologists often had to create topographical as well as geological maps. From 1862, Haast employed surveyors on his expeditions to undertake the topographical work.

Provincial government surveys

The division between the Crown and the New Zealand Company led to several survey techniques being used. When the provincial government system was set up in 1853, each province had its own survey department while the central government controlled the survey and sale of Māori and Crown lands. While there were an increasing number of detailed maps of parts of New Zealand, they were sometimes inconsistent, and some survey techniques were less accurate than others.

Direct speaking

Major H. S. Palmer’s review of New Zealand surveying in 1875 did not mince its words. He described the state of Auckland surveys as one of confusion and neglect, and many Native Land Act surveyors as incompetent, ignorant and slovenly.

Major Palmer’s report

In 1874–75, Major H. S. Palmer, in New Zealand to observe the Transit of Venus, was asked by the government to review the country’s surveying and mapping. He concluded that only about 30% of the land had been adequately triangulated and only around 7% had boundaries accurately established. As a result, court cases over disputed boundaries and ownership were becoming more frequent.

Palmer recommended setting up a central government survey to create accurate cadastral maps (for selling and taxing land). In 1876, with the abolition of the provincial government system, the Department of the Surveyor-General was created. (It merged with the Crown Lands Department in 1891 to become the Department of Lands and Survey.)

    • Quoted in C. A. Lawn, ‘The pioneer land surveyors of New Zealand.’, pp. 27–28. (last accessed 12 October 2006). › Back
    • ‘The pioneer land surveyors of New Zealand’, p. 63. › Back

The coastline: 1840 to 1855

Harbour charts

Although much of the New Zealand coastline had been charted by the time settlement started around 1840, surveyors continued to map the harbours. However a comprehensive hydrographic survey of the coast was still needed.

The Great Survey: the Acheron and Pandora

A survey vessel, the paddle steamer Acheron, under the command of Captain John Lort Stokes, was dispatched by the British Admiralty and arrived in Auckland in November 1848. The first step was the erection of a trig station (for trigonometrical surveying) on what is now Windsor Reserve in Devonport on Auckland’s North Shore. Another vessel, the Maori, surveyed the western shores of the Hauraki Gulf from Whangaparāoa to Cape Rodney.

A box of clocks

The Acheron had been fitted out with the latest equipment for survey work. Charlotte Godley, a Wellington settler, wrote that, ‘The chronometers are a sight to see; there are about two dozen, in a very safe little lock-up, each ticking away according to its own idea of the “time of day”, some by Greenwich, and all different; but from the whole … they give us the true time every day at noon.’ 1

In 1849 the Acheron travelled to Banks Peninsula, where Stokes surveyed Port Cooper (Lyttelton Harbour) and neighbouring bays, as well as venturing inland to establish survey points. He assisted the New Zealand Company’s surveyor, Joseph Thomas, to map out a site for the Canterbury settlement.

The ship went to Otago, and then back to its winter quarters in Wellington. In the summer of 1850 Stokes and his crew accurately charted the east coast of the South Island, and in the summer of 1851 Foveaux Strait and Fiordland. Some of the crew were sent to survey other parts of New Zealand.

In May 1851 the Acheron was replaced by the smaller sailing brig Pandora, partly because of the cost of coal to fuel the Acheron. Under Commander Byron Drury, its officers spent the next four years painstakingly filling in the gaps on the charts of the north-west coast of the North Island.

Completion of the survey

By 1855, 250 sheets of fair tracings of the New Zealand coastline had been sent to the British Admiralty for incorporation into charts. Fifty were published within the next six years, and others later. The New Zealand Gazette made the information immediately available in the form of sailing directions. A list of astronomically determined positions was also published in the Gazette in 1852 and served as a base for later surveyors’ work. As recently as 1969 one or two charts created by Stokes and his officers were still in use.

  1. Charlotte Godley, Letters from early New Zealand. Plymouth: Bowering Press, 1936, p. 76. › Back

Māori and maps of colonisation

Māori had been living in New Zealand for nearly 400 years before Abel Tasman’s arrival in 1642. They had named every feature of the landscape, forming an oral map, often told as a narrative or genealogy. In some cases posts or piles of rocks were used to mark boundaries.

After European contact

The first Europeans to explore New Zealand were assisted by Māori, who fed and sheltered them, and provided guides. In some cases they drew maps to translate their oral tradition into a visual form familiar to Europeans. At least 18 examples of this are documented. Maps were drawn in the sand or dirt, or occasionally marked on paper.

A 3-D map

John Chubbin, in 1856 one of the first Europeans to see Lake Wakatipu, described how Reko, a Ngāi Tahu rangatira living at Tuturau, showed him the route: ‘[H]e drew a map of the course of the Mataura [River] for me. He drew it in sand with a stick, the streams being represented by hollows and the mountains by little mounds of sand.’

Land purchases and surveyors

As Europeans settled and purchased land, Māori were drawn into the world of maps and survey plans. They helped establish the boundaries of the land they were selling, and some were employed as survey hands. Surviving maps of these purchases have sometimes become vital pieces of evidence in claims to the Waitangi Tribunal.


As the number of Europeans increased and Māori concerns grew, surveyors often became the target of Māori resistance to land sales. In Wellington in 1840, when surveyors began to mark out the town on a new site at Te Aro, Māori pulled up survey pegs, protesting that they had not sold the land in question.

Similar incidents occurred elsewhere as Māori expressed disagreement about land sales or (later) anger at land confiscation. Forms of resistance included pulling up survey pegs, removing surveyors’ tools, sitting in the way of surveyors, burning fences and (occasionally) threatening violence.

Native Land Court

The Native Land Court was established in 1865 to assign individual titles to Māori land. Before a certificate of title could be issued, the land was surveyed, with the owners held responsible for paying the survey costs. The plan had to be drawn by a surveyor licensed to the court.

Maps of conflict

The conflicts that took place between 1845 and 1872 in Northland, Taranaki and Waikato were often triggered by issues related to land sales. As a result of the conflicts, a number of military maps were created. When war broke out in the north in 1845, the surveyor-general, Charles Ligar, produced a sketch map of the Bay of Islands and Hokianga, showing Māori paths, the of Ngāpuhi leader Hōne Heke Pōkai, and the location of a European gun battery and camp. Other plans, such as that of the pā at Te Ruapekapeka, were also compiled.

During the wars in Taranaki and Waikato, a number of maps were published showing paths, roads, European and Māori settlements, and the sites of redoubts. As in the northern war, the British navy charted waterways. Charles Heaphy, on board the Pioneer in 1863, drew a chart of the Waikato River from Whangamarino to Rangiriri. Maps showing confiscated land, and survey plans of military settlements with 50-acre farm lots, were also a result of the 1860–72 conflict.

    • Phillip Lionel Barton, ‘Māori cartography and the European encounter’. In Cartography in the traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian and Pacific societies, edited by David Woodward and G. Malcolm Lewis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, p. 505. › Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Melanie Lovell-Smith, 'Early mapping', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Melanie Lovell-Smith, i tāngia i te 24 o Hepetema 2007