New Zealand had already been discovered by the time any European saw the Pacific or reached the New Zealand coast. Probably some time in the 13th century, Polynesian navigators reached New Zealand from the tropical Pacific. The East Polynesians who arrived were the ancestors of New Zealand’s Māori people. Long before Tasman and Cook, Māori had a detailed knowledge of the New Zealand coast and interior.
Spanish and Portuguese in the Pacific
The first European to sight the Pacific Ocean was the Spanish explorer, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, from the isthmus of Panama in 1513. Portuguese Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan) made the first recorded crossing of the ocean less than 10 years later. In the years following, many Spanish and Portuguese navigators sailed across the Pacific. The Portuguese became established in the East Indies (today’s Indonesia) in the 16th century, and after the Spanish settled the Philippines in the 1560s, their galleons plied a ‘settled highway’ between Manila in the Philippines and Acapulco in Mexico.
An earlier discovery?
Spanish or Portuguese ships sailing out of Callao or Acapulco, or from the East Indies, may have reached, or become wrecked on the New Zealand coast. But there is no firm evidence of Europeans reaching New Zealand before Abel Tasman in 1642. Although fragmentary information found in Portuguese and Spanish archives suggests at least the possibility of earlier arrivals, no one before Tasman reported the discovery of new land that can be identified as New Zealand. It is highly improbable that Arab or Chinese ships, which were trading in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, were ever off the coast of New Zealand.
The ships that came closest to New Zealand before 1642 were probably those in the expeditions of Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendaña de Neyra (1595) and Portuguese mariner Pedro Fernandes de Queirós (1605–06), which touched the northern Cook Islands.
Terra australis incognita
In the 16th and early 17th centuries the tracks of European navigators like Mendaña and Queirós lay well to the north of New Zealand, leaving plenty of space for cartographers to place a terra australis incognita (unknown southern land) to the south. Until James Cook finally dispelled the myth of such a land, the discovery of New Zealand was bound up with speculation about the land and efforts to prove its existence.