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European discovery of New Zealand

by  John Wilson

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.

Before Tasman

Polynesian discovery

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.

Abel Tasman

Searching for mines and treasures

In the early 17th century the Dutch, fresh from winning their country’s independence from Spain, seized much of the East Indies from Portugal. They established their main settlement at Batavia (today’s Jakarta), on Java. When Malacca was captured in 1641, the position of the Dutch in the East Indies was secured and their interest in the South Pacific grew. They wanted to know if there was a southern sea route to Chile which they could use to prey on Spanish ships. They were also eager to profit from the untapped resources of the great southern continent which many firmly believed existed east of Australia and west of Cape Horn.

In the early 1640s the possibility that there might be rich mines of precious metals and other treasures in the unknown part of the globe prompted the leading men of the Dutch East India Company in Batavia to mount an expedition of discovery. The blueprint for such a voyage was sketched in a memorandum prepared in January 1642 by Franz Jacobszoon Visscher.

By this time, the Dutch had already charted the northern, western, and part of the southern coasts of Australia. But how far this land extended to the east was still unknown.

Tasman, Visscher and Gilsemans

The man chosen to command the expedition, Abel Janszoon Tasman, was born in the Netherlands. By 1642 he already had years of experience sailing in north-west Pacific and Asian waters in the service of the Dutch East India Company. Tasman, Visscher and Isaac Gilsemans, who also joined the expedition, had been together in Japan when the Dutch were establishing a trading post there. Working for a company which was more interested in increasing profits than knowledge, Tasman was the servant of ‘a businessman’s empire’. But Visscher, who sailed with Tasman as his pilot-major and chief adviser, was a man of keen scientific curiosity. Gilsemans would draw the first European images of New Zealand.

Tasman’s voyage

Tasman sailed from Batavia on 14 August 1642 with 110 men on two ships, the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen. He first sailed south-west to Mauritius (a Dutch possession from 1598 to 1710), then south to below 49˚ (about the latitude of the Auckland Islands), before running east along about the 45th parallel (the latitude of Ōamaru). He discovered Tasmania (as it would later be called) on 24 November, naming it Van Diemen’s Land after one of the expedition’s chief instigators, the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, Anthony van Diemen. From there he sailed further east, becoming the first to cross the sea which now bears his name.

New Zealand sighted

On 13 December 1642 the Dutch sighted ‘a large land, uplifted high’ – probably the Southern Alps. After sighting land, Tasman’s ships veered south, then turned north to pass Cape Foulwind and Cape Farewell. He sailed around Farewell Spit into what is now called Golden Bay, where he anchored on 18 and 19 December.

What Tasman saw

Which part of the South Island did Abel Tasman actually see when he first sighted land on 13 December 1642? The diary for that day reads: 'towards noon saw a large land, uplifted high, had it south-east from us about 15 miles'. At the time, the ship was located at about 42°10' latitude, which means it was opposite Punakaiki, just north of Greymouth. However, the 15 miles is misleading; a Dutch mile equals four English miles, making Tasman's actual position 60 miles (100 kilometres) offshore. From that distance, looking towards the south-east, he would probably have seen the northern part of the Southern Alps, and he may even have seen, far to the south, the peaks of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, as they were later named.

Bloodied water

One of Tasman’s small boats, passing between the two ships, was rammed by a Māori canoe. Four of Tasman’s party were killed. It is likely that the Māori, of the Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri tribe, saw these strange newcomers as threatening interlopers, an impression reinforced when the Dutch responded by shooting and hitting one Māori. Tasman named the place where he anchored Moordenaers Baij (Murderers Bay). Despite the tragic encounter, Tasman was impressed by the new country. Just days after his men had been killed he wrote that the place was ‘a very fine land’. 1

Unexplored areas

After the incident, Tasman moved his ships to the northern end of D’Urville Island. Although he suspected the existence of the strait that his successor, James Cook, was to discover, bad weather prevented him from investigating it, and he sailed north.

In early January 1643, while off Cape Maria van Diemen in Northland, Tasman supposed there was a passage through to the coast of South America. That such a passage might exist did not rule out the possibility that the land he had discovered was part of a great southern continent. But he did not explore any further. After failing in an attempt to get wood and water at one of the Three Kings Islands, Tasman sailed north to Batavia by way of Tonga, the northern Fiji Islands and New Guinea.

    • Quoted in Andrew Sharp, The voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman. London: Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 124. › Back

Tasman’s achievement

The naming of New Zealand

Abel Tasman called the land he had discovered Staten Landt, believing it might be linked to a Staten Landt close to Cape Horn, discovered in 1616 by another Dutch navigator, Jacob Le Maire. In 1643, Hendrik Brouwer showed that Le Maire’s Staten Landt was a small island, and not the eastern edge of an undiscovered continent. Subsequently, Joan Blaeu, official Dutch cartographer to the Dutch East India Company, conferred the name Nieuw Zeeland (Nova Zeelandia in Latin) on the land Tasman had discovered. Zeeland was one of two maritime provinces in the Netherlands; Australia was already known to the Dutch as New Holland. ‘Nieuw Zeeland’ stuck.

A subsequent voyage thwarted

In 1643 another voyage was planned, and there was talk of finding ‘a more persistent successor’ to Abel Tasman and Franz Visscher. Nevertheless, they were appointed to make the expedition in 1644, but it was confined to the north coast of Australia and the south coast of New Guinea. Tasman was denied the opportunity to build on the achievements of his great voyage of 1642–43 by exploring further east. The Dutch never followed up Tasman’s discovery of New Zealand. He had not found any land which would provide the material profit the Dutch East India Company had hoped for.

Tasman’s New Zealand was only a ‘ragged line’ on the world map, which might or might not be the coast of the unknown southern land. Despite the uncertainty, Tasman’s achievement was considerable. No European before him had sailed south of 27˚ between the east coast of Australia and the Juan Fernandez Islands off Chile. He had sailed all the way around Australia and proved that it was not part of a larger continent. New Holland became the ‘known’ south land; an ‘unknown’ south land might still stretch east from Tasman’s ‘ragged line’: ‘We trust’, Tasman had written, ‘that this is the mainland coast of the unknown south land’. 1

Tasman and New Zealand

Tasman spent the rest of his life in the East Indies. In the words of the historian J. C. Beaglehole, ‘New Zealand played but a small part in Tasman's life, as he played but a small part in its history’. 2 His contribution was significant, nonetheless. He may have merely set the scene for James Cook’s greater achievement, but discovering Tasmania and then New Zealand was a notable feat. It was Tasman who opened the way for the European history of New Zealand.

    • Quoted in Andrew Sharp, The voyages of Abel Janszoon Tasman. London: Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 124–5. › Back
    • J. C. Beaglehole, The discovery of New Zealand. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs, 1939, p. 36. › Back

James Cook

The English in the Pacific

The first Englishman to sail the Pacific, Francis Drake, crossed it from east to west during his 1577–80 circumnavigation of the globe. Subsequent English interest in the Pacific, like Drake’s own, grew from England’s imperial rivalries with Spain, the Netherlands and France. It was only a little before James Cook’s first voyage, which placed New Zealand definitively on the map, that English ships began to approach the south-west Pacific. John Byron’s voyage of 1764–66 is generally considered the beginning of serious English interest in the Pacific. In 1767 Samuel Wallis was the first European to visit Tahiti.

A new expedition

By the time Wallis returned to England in May 1768, another expedition to the Pacific was already being organised. The Royal Society had proposed to the Admiralty that the transit of Venus (the passage of Venus across the face of the sun) could be observed in the South Pacific. The observation would make it possible to accurately calculate distances from the Earth to both Venus and the sun. When Wallis returned with news of his discovery of Tahiti, the expedition was instructed to go there to make the observations.

Lieutenant James Cook was appointed to command the expedition. In his youth Cook had been a sailor in the North Sea coal trade. After enlisting in the navy he served for 10 years in North American waters, taking part in the capture of Quebec in 1759, and refining his skills and compiling charts as surveyor of Newfoundland. In 1768, approaching 40 and still engaged in the Newfoundland survey, he was given the job of commanding the South Pacific expedition.

The expedition’s purposes

Once the planetary observations had been made, the expedition was to investigate if there was land to the south of Tahiti. The voyagers were then to turn west towards Tasman’s New Zealand, to establish how far it extended to the east. They were also to establish where Australia’s eastern coastline lay.

The goals of the voyage were apparently scientific, inspired by a quest for knowledge typical of the Enlightenment. Because of this emphasis, Cook’s voyage has often been thought of more favourably than Tasman’s, yet the English, like the Dutch, also wished to expand trade and empire. The British Empire was flush with its recent success in the Seven Years’ War with France, and had political, strategic and economic expansion in its sights. Cook was careful to include in his reports information about the resources of the lands he visited, and the suitability of those lands for settlement by Britain.

Cook’s three voyages

First sighting and landfall

James Cook’s ship Endeavour was a relatively small vessel of 368 tons, just 32 metres long and 7.6 metres broad. It departed from Plymouth on 26 August 1768 with 94 men, entering the Pacific around Cape Horn. After almost four months in Tahiti, from mid-April to mid-August, the Endeavour sailed south into uncharted waters. On 6 October 1769 a cabin boy sighted land.

Two days later Cook landed at Poverty Bay. But skirmishes on that day and the next resulted in the deaths of several Māori, including the leaders Te Maro and Te Rakau. The incidents appear, like Tasman’s bloody experience at Murderers Bay (Golden Bay) in 1642, to have been in part the result of Māori efforts to deal with strange newcomers in a traditional way. After the encounters, Cook sailed first south to Cape Turnagain, then north, pausing at Tolaga Bay and Anaura Bay before rounding East Cape to Mercury Bay. After a week in the Bay of Islands, he turned the top of the North Island in a storm, and sailed down its west coast.

Young Nick’s sharp eyes

Sailing across uncharted seas in October 1769, James Cook offered a reward of rum to the man who first sighted land, and promised that ‘that part of the coast of the said land should be named after him’. The sighting was made by the surgeon’s boy, 12-year-old Nicholas Young. He had probably come aboard the ship in the retinue of the botanist, Joseph Banks. It is not recorded if Young Nick was given the rum, but the headland below the high hills which he first saw from the masthead was named Young Nicks Head after him. He was certainly sharp-eyed because he was also the first to see Land’s End when the Endeavour returned to England in 1771.

A favoured anchorage

On 15 January 1770 Cook brought the Endeavour to anchor at Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound at the top of the South Island. From a high point on Arapawa Island he gained his first view of the narrow strait that now bears his name. Sailing through the strait, he returned to Cape Turnagain, confirming that the North Island was indeed an island. He then sailed south down the east coast of the South Island and round the southern tip of Stewart Island.

Observing the new land sometimes from well out to sea, he made two famous mistakes, charting Banks Peninsula as a probable island and Stewart Island as a probable peninsula. He did not land again until he put into Admiralty Bay, D’Urville Island, on 27 March 1770 for wood and water.

On 1 April 1770 Cook sailed west to discover and chart the eastern coast of Australia. He reached Batavia (Jakarta) on 11 October and returned to England, having circumnavigated the globe, on 13 July 1771.

The second voyage

When Cook made his two subsequent voyages into the Pacific, New Zealand was no longer a place unknown to Europeans. The first voyage in 1770 had confirmed that it was not a vast southern land waiting to be discovered. Joseph Banks, the naturalist on board the Endeavour, had recorded that Cook’s rounding of Stewart Island’s South Cape had totally demolished ‘our aerial fabrick called continent’. Yet there still remained unexplored ocean to the east of New Zealand, where a great continent could lie. On his second voyage (1772–75) Cook used New Zealand as a base for probes south and east, which finally proved there was no such continent.

The Resolution, commanded by Cook, and the Adventure, commanded by Tobias Furneaux, sailed from England on 13 July 1772. Both ships spent time in New Zealand waters between excursions into the unexplored parts of the Pacific. The only significant achievement of the second voyage relating to New Zealand was Cook’s charting of much of Dusky Sound, where he spent six weeks in the autumn of 1773.

Historic tree stumps

Some of the earliest evidence of a European presence in New Zealand is found in the far south-west of the South Island. When James Cook rested up in Dusky Sound in the autumn of 1773 after arduous voyages towards Antarctica, one of the tasks he had his party complete was accurately fixing the geographical position of New Zealand. So that the necessary observations could be made, about an acre (half a hectare) of land on Astronomer Point was cleared of bush. The stumps of trees felled by Cook’s men can still be seen beneath the regrown bush.

The third voyage

On his third voyage (1776–79), Cook paid a last visit to New Zealand. He stayed from 12 to 25 February 1777 at ‘our old station’, Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound, before sailing into the north Pacific. He was killed in an incident with the islanders at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, on 14 February 1779.

Cook’s achievement

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.

    • Neil Begg, ‘Two streams of race first flow together.’ New Zealand Historic Places (March 1990): 23. › Back

Explorers after Cook

Because James Cook had done such a thorough job of charting New Zealand, explorers and navigators who came to New Zealand after him tended to use the country as a base or way station to other more challenging destinations.

George Vancouver

The next explorer to visit Dusky Sound after Cook was George Vancouver, commander of the Discovery. The Chatham sailed with it, commanded by William Broughton. In the three weeks Vancouver spent in Dusky Sound on his way to examine the north-west coast of America, he surveyed the Vancouver Arm of Breaksea Sound. Departing from Dusky Sound, the two vessels independently discovered the group of islands that Vancouver would name the Snares. On 29 November 1791 Broughton, on his way to meet up again with Vancouver in Tahiti, discovered the islands which he named the Chatham Islands, after his ship.

Malaspina and Bellingshausen

A base for polar exploration

When Bellingshausen visited New Zealand in 1820 he was in command of an expedition sent south to explore towards Antarctica. This began a long association between New Zealand and polar exploration. In 1837, the French explorer Dumont d’Urville revisited New Zealand after exploring Antarctica. Later, the English polar explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott sailed south from Lyttelton and Port Chalmers. Later again, the American pilot Richard Byrd used New Zealand as base for his Antarctic flights.

In February 1793 the Italian explorer Alessandro Malaspina, leading a Spanish expedition of two ships, Descubierta and Altrevida, called at the northern entrance to Dusky Sound, but did not enter. Although Malaspina and his cartographer Felipe Bauzá y Cañas explored parts of Doubtful Sound, the voyage made little contribution to knowledge of the New Zealand coast.

In 1820 Fabian von Bellingshausen, in command of two Russian ships, the Mirny and Vostok, was sent to continue the work of Cook by exploring the southern polar regions. He visited Queen Charlotte Sound for a week, using it as a base as Cook had half a century before.

French explorers

The French became interested in the Pacific at about the same time as the English. Louis Antoine de Bougainville crossed the Pacific on his 1766–69 voyage, in the wake of British explorer John Byron.

De Surville

As James Cook was rounding the top of the North Island in a storm in December 1769, just 40 km to the south-west a French explorer was battling the same heavy seas. Captain Jean François Marie de Surville had left India on the St Jean Baptiste in March 1769 for a voyage of trade and exploration to the South Pacific. Sailing via Malacca and the Solomon Islands, he reached the western coast of New Zealand (he was the first European to see it since Tasman) on 12 December 1769. His crew was drastically diminished by scurvy. After just missing Cook off the top of the North Island, he anchored in Doubtless Bay for two weeks. There, in a storm in late December, the St Jean Baptiste lost three anchors. After some Māori were seen with a ship’s boat that had been lost in the storm, de Surville took reprisals which included kidnapping Ranginui, a Ngāti Kahu rangatira. This incident has marred his reputation in New Zealand. From Doubtless Bay de Surville sailed east. Ranginui died during the voyage, and de Surville drowned while trying to land on the coast of Peru.

Marion du Fresne

Not far behind Cook and de Surville came another Frenchman, Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne, who had served on French India Company ships. He undertook to return a Tahitian, brought by Bougainville to Paris, to his home island. He was also to seek out the legendary southern continent. His ships Marquis de Castries and Mascarin sailed from Mauritius in October 1771, called at Cape Town, then headed east. After making landfall at New Zealand’s Cape Egmont, he sailed around the top of the North Island.

A long stay in the Bay of Islands was necessary in order to repair his ships, which had been damaged by a collision in the Indian Ocean. They were anchored in the bay from 4 May to 12 July 1772. Many of the initial encounters with Māori were friendly, and the expedition left an extensive record of Māori life.

However, the situation in the Bay of Islands was volatile, as Ngāpuhi tribal groups were gradually displacing the Ngāti Pou inhabitants. The French presence destabilised the situation further, and misunderstandings were rife. In mid-June, Marion du Fresne and 24 others were killed by Māori. His fate seems to have been sealed by an inadvertent violation by the French of a rahui placed by Māori on a particular bay. The French took savage revenge for their captain’s death, killing several hundred Māori before returning to Mauritius via the Philippines.

D’Entrecasteaux and Duperrey

In March 1793 Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, commanding the Espérance and the Recherche, sailed past New Zealand while searching for another French explorer, Jean François de Galoup, Comte de la Pérouse. La Pérouse had sailed from Botany Bay in 1788 and not been seen since. D’Entrecasteaux had brief contact with Māori off far northern New Zealand, but he did not land. On his way to Tongatapu he named the Kermadec Islands, discovered previously by a homeward-bound British convict ship.

Louis Isidore Duperrey sailed from Toulon on the Coquille in 1822. By 3 April 1824 he had reached the Bay of Islands, where he stayed until 17 April before continuing his circumnavigation.

Dumont d’Urville

Duperrey’s second-in-command on his 1822–25 voyage was Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville. The expedition that Dumont d’Urville led in 1826 is considered to be the last important voyage in the story of the European discovery of New Zealand.

Dumont d’Urville came with the intention of completing Cook’s chart of New Zealand. Having left Toulon on 25 April 1826 in the Astrolabe (the Coquille renamed), he sighted the west coast of the South Island on 10 January 1827. After exploring Cook’s Blind Bay (now Tasman Bay), he made his celebrated passage of French Pass into Admiralty Bay.

He went on to examine the east coast from Cape Campbell to Whangārei Harbour, a journey that took in Coromandel Peninsula, the Hauraki Gulf and Waitematā Harbour. He spent a week in the Bay of Islands before leaving New Zealand.

Dumont d’Urville returned to the east coast on his 1837–40 Astrolabe and Zélée voyage to Antarctica, without adding significantly to knowledge of New Zealand’s coasts.

Danger and discovery

One of the most dramatic events in the European exploration of New Zealand’s coast was Dumont d’Urville’s passage through French Pass. On the eastern side of Tasman Bay he found a channel which, he wrote, resembled ‘a gorge between two ranges of high mountains’. It was blocked by reefs which created ‘whirlpools of incredible violence’. Dumont d’Urville decided the passage ‘could be navigated if great precautions were taken’, though the enterprise ‘might have sinister consequences’. It did not, and the names French Pass and D’Urville Island are reminders of the commander’s skilful seamanship. 1

Explorers of the 1830s

Other Frenchmen called at the Bay of Islands in the 1830s, including Cyrille Pierre Théodore de Laplace, Jean Baptiste Thomas Médée Cécille and Abel Aubert Dupetit-Thouars. The decade also saw a similarly brief visit by the Beagle, a British naval ship which was circumnavigating the globe after surveying southern South America.

    • Jules Sébastien César Dumont d'Urville, New Zealand 1826–27, from the French of Dumont d’Urville: an English translation of the Voyage de l'Astrolabe in New Zealand waters, with an introductory essay by Olive Wright. Wellington: Wingfield and Olive Wright, 1950, p. 98. › Back

Last discoveries

Unlikely discoverers

A few minor geographical puzzles remained after James Cook’s charting of the New Zealand coastline. They were not all solved by navigators or explorers; some were solved by Europeans who had sailed out of Sydney to catch seals or whales, or trade in timber and flax.

Island and peninsula

James Cook’s two main misconceptions about the coast of the South Island were corrected in the early 19th century. An American sealer, Owen F. Smith, became the first westerner to discover Foveaux Strait in 1804, disproving Cook’s idea that Stewart Island might be joined to the South Island. The existence of the strait was reported in Sydney in 1809 by Captain S. Chase of the Pegasus. In the same year, by trying to sail between what Cook had called Banks Island and the South Island’s east coast, Chase also discovered that the island was in fact a peninsula.

Far to the south

The sub-antarctic islands that are part of New Zealand’s territory were discovered both by British naval vessels, in the South Seas as a result of growing British imperial interest in the region, and by sealers and whalers. Captain William Bligh of the Bounty discovered the Bounty Islands in 1788, and Captain Henry Waterhouse of the Reliance located the Antipodes Islands in 1800. A whaling captain, Abraham Bristow, came upon the Auckland Islands in 1806, and a sealing captain, F. Hasselburgh, discovered Campbell Island in 1810.

Discovery and exploration

Early missionaries also contributed to growing knowledge about the New Zealand coast. On visits to New Zealand in 1814–15 and 1820, Samuel Marsden helped chart the Hokianga, Kaipara, Manukau and Waitematā harbours, and the Firth of Thames. Marsden also penetrated well inland. He stands at the point where the discovery and charting of the coastline develops into the exploration of the interior. Discovery and exploration overlapped in a continuous process.

When the earliest attempt at organised settlement was made in 1826 by the first New Zealand Company, Captain James Herd contributed to knowledge of the coastline by charting Otago Harbour and Port Nicholson.

Whalers continued to make minor discoveries around the coast well into the 19th century. In September 1838 a whaler, John Guard, piloted the naval vessel Pelorus into the sound between Queen Charlotte Sound and Admiralty Bay. The sound was named after the ship.

Definitive charts

The very last chapter in the European discovery of New Zealand was the detailed charting of its coasts between 1848 and 1855 by those aboard the British ships Acheron and Pandora. The completion of these surveys was followed by the publication in 1856 of the first New Zealand Pilot by the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty. These charts remained the basis for navigation around much of New Zealand until well into the 20th century.

Honouring the navigators

While he was at Jackson Bay in 1851, Captain John Lort Stokes of the Acheron named New Zealand’s highest peak Mt Cook, after the greatest of New Zealand’s European discoverers. His example was followed by Canterbury’s explorer and geologist Julius von Haast, who named the second-highest peak Mt Tasman in 1862.

Subsequently, the name of another English explorer, William Dampier, was given to New Zealand’s third highest mountain (even though Dampier had never visited New Zealand). Two peaks near Mts Dampier and Cook were named in the later 19th century after Zachary Hicks, the second-in-command on Cook’s first voyage, and the French explorer, La Pérouse. In the mid-20th century the names of two more early navigators, Vancouver and Malaspina, were conferred by historically minded mountaineers on minor peaks on the ridge between Dampier and Tasman.

These commemorations were a fitting postscript to the story of the European discovery of New Zealand. Equally fitting, as a reminder that the land they ‘discovered’ had already been inhabited for several centuries by Māori, the country’s highest peak now bears two official names: Aoraki and Mt Cook.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: John Wilson, 'European discovery of New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

He kōrero nā John Wilson, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005, updated 1 o Mei 2016