The southern Pacific was the last habitable part of the world to be reached by Europeans. It was then only gradually explored at the end of long-haul routes down the coast of South America on one side, and Africa on the other. Once inside the rim of the world’s largest ocean, seafarers faced vast areas to be crossed, always hundreds, even thousands of miles away from any familiar territory. So it required not only steady courage to venture into this region but a high degree of navigational skill.
The islands of the South Pacific – tucked away near the bottom of the globe – remained the domain of Polynesian people for nearly 150 years after the Europeans first burst into the western Pacific. Furthermore, New Zealand was ignored for another 130 years after its initial 1642 sightings by the Dutchman Abel Janszoon Tasman.
It was ultimately left to the Englishman James Cook to put the South Pacific firmly on the world map in the latter part of the eighteenth century.
The Dutch Traders
European knowledge of the Pacific Ocean had gradually expanded during the 16th and 17th centuries. This was the era in which Spanish and Portuguese seafarers such as Magellan and Quiros, and England’s Francis Drake, made their epic expeditions.
Then, towards the end of the 16th century, the Dutch emerged as the great seafaring and trading nation of the central and western Pacific. They set up a major administrative and trading centre at Batavia (now Jakarta) in Java early in the 17th century, an operation dominated by the Dutch East India Company.
For the ensuing 200 years the Dutch were a major power in the region, though for most of that period the voyages of exploration were incidental to the activities of trade.
The Dutch ships eventually found that by staying south after rounding the tip of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope and catching the consistent westerlies almost as far as the western coast of Australia, they could make the journey to Java more quickly than by adopting the traditional – sailing up the east coast of Africa and then catching the seasonal winds for the journey eastwards. As a result, islands off the west coast of Australia and stretches of the coast of the unknown continent itself began to be noted on charts.
An ambitious governor of Batavia, Anthony van Diemen, showed a more imaginative interest in discovering new lands for trade than most of his predecessors. In 1642 he chose Abel Tasman to lead an expedition south, to be accompanied by a highly competent navigator, Frans Visscher. The proposed voyage would take them first to Mauritius, then southwest to between 50 and 55 degrees south in search of the great southern continent, Terra Australis Incognita. The expedition, aboard the vessels Heemskerck and Zeeshaen, was then to travel eastwards if no land had been found to impede their progress and to sail across, to investigate a shorter route to Chile, a rich trading area and the preserve of the Spanish. As it turned out, the expedition ventured only as far as 49 degrees south before turning eastwards, whereupon it made two great South Pacific discoveries- Tasmania (or van Diemen’s Land, as he named it at the time) and New Zealand (which he called Staten Landt).
On 13 December 1642, Tasman and his men saw what was described as ‘land uplifted high’ – the Southern Alps of the South Island – and, in strong winds and heavy seas, sailed northwards up the coast of Westland, before rounding Cape Farewell and entering what is now known as Golden Bay. Tasman’s voyage was not immediately regarded as a major success, but ultimately he was given his due for a gallant and well-recorded exploration.
Within a year or two, other navigators had established that New Zealand could not be attached to huge continent which was thought may extend all the way across to South America. The name was therefore changed from Staten Landt (the Dutch name for South America) to New Zealand, after a Dutch province of Zeeland.
TASMAN’s NEAR MISS
TASMAN’S FIRST AND ONLY ENCOUNTER WITH THE MAORI WAS NOTHING SHORT OF DISASTROUS. WHEN A CANOE RAMMED A BOAT THAT WAS TRAVELLING BETWEEN THE ZEEHAEN AND THE HEEMSKERCK, FIGHTING BROKE OUT AND THERE WAS LOSS OF LIFE ON BOTH SIDES. TASMAN CALLED THE PLACE, MASSACRE BAY, AND CONTINUED HIS JOURNEY NORTHWARDS. HE DID NOT LAND AGAIN. WHAT TASMAN FAILED TO REALISE WAS THAT HE HAD ACTUALLY BEEN INSIDE THE WESTERN ENTRANCE TO THE STRETCH OF WATER SEPARATING NORTN AND SOUTH ISLANDS, NOW KNOWN AS COOK’S STRAIT. A VOYAGE EASTWARDS OF ONLY A FEW KILOMETRES WOULD HAVE REVEALED THIS, AND PERHAPS IT MIGHT BE KNOWN TODAY AS TASMAN STRAIT.
Over a century passed before serious exploration resumed in the region. It was primarily to observe the transit of Venus over the disc of the Sun in June 1769 that the English Captain James Cook was dispatched to the South Seas in the 373-ton Whitby built barque, Endeavour. He was instructed to sail to Otaheite (Tahiti) for the transit and then to sail southwards as far as 50 degrees south latitude on another search for the great southern continent, charting the positions of any islands he might incidentally discover.
Cook rounded Cape Horn and entered the Pacific Ocean for the first time on 27 January 1769. After observing the transit of Venus and investigating other islands (which he named the Society Islands), he sailed south and then west. On 6 October, a ship’s boy, Nicholas Young, sighted the east coast of the North Island where it is today called Young Nick’s Head. Two days after this first sighting of what Cook knew to be the east coast of New Zealand, the land reported by Tasman, the Endeavour sailed into a bay where smoke could be seen – a clear sign that there were inhabitants. Their first visit ashore ended with violence when a band of Maori attacked four boys left guarding the ship’s boat; one of the attackers was shot dead.
It was discovered that a Tahitian Chief on board the Endeavour, Tupaea, could converse with the Maori, and he was taken ashore with Cook the next morning. But the Maori were in a threatening mood and Cook ordered one of them shot to make them retreat. That afternoon, the firing of a musket over a canoe (merely to attract attention) brought an attack on the boat from which the shot had been fired; a few more Maori were shot. Cook had quickly learnt that the native population was powerful, aggressive and brave. (Rather then commemorating the bloodshed, the bay was named Poverty Bay to record the fact that the English failed to find the supplies they wanted there.)
THE SON OF A YORKSHIRE LABOURER, JAMES COOK WAS BORN IN 1728. HE SERVED AS AN APPRENTICE SEAMAN ON A COLLIER, AND THEN. VOLUNTEERED AS AN ABLE SEAMAN WITH THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SEVEN YEARS WAR. HE HELPED SURVEY CANADA’S ST LAWRENCE RIVER, AN ESSENTIAL PRELIMINARY TO THE CAPTURE OF QUEBEC BY GENERAL JAMES WOLFE, AND ENHANCED AN ALREADY GROWING REPUTATION AS A MARINE SURVEYOR BY CHARTING THE ST LAWRENCE RIVER AND PART OF THE NEW FOUNDLAND AND NOVA SCOTIA COASTS. IN 1766, HE OBSERVED AN ECLIPSE OF THE SUN, BOTH THE ROYAL SOCIETY AND THE ADMIRALTY WERE IMPRESSED WITH HIS REPORT, AND THIS LED TO HIS APPOINTMENT TO THE SOUTH SEAS VOYAGE.
JAMES COOK MADE TWO CARTOGRAPHICAL ERRORS: ATTACHING STEWART ISLAND TO THE SOUTH ISLAND AS A PENINSULA, AND MAPPING BANKS PENINSULA AS AN ISLAND
First friendly encounter
The Endeavour sailed south into Hawke’s Bay, and then north again around the top of East Cape. It spent 10 days in Mercury Bay, so called because an observation of the transit of the planet Mercury was made there. In Mercury Bay, for the first time, the explorers made friends with the local Maori and traded trinkets for supplies of fish, birds and clean water. They were shown over the Maori settlements and inspected a nearby fortified pa, which greatly impressed Cook.
The expedition circumnavigated New Zealand and with brilliant accuracy made a chart of the coastline which proved basically reliable for more than 150 years. Cook and his crew spent weeks in Ship Cove, in a long inlet which he called Queen Charlotte Sound, on the northern coast of the South Island, refurbishing the ship and gathering supplies. The stay gave the two botanists aboard, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, a wonderful opportunity to study closely the flora and fauna of the area, and while the ship was being cleaned, the smaller boats undertook detailed survey work.
The Endeavour left for home at the end of March 1770, sailing up the east coast of Australia, through the Dutch East Indies and then rounding the Cape of Good Hope to complete a circumnavigation of the world. The expedition was an extraordinary feat of seamanship, putting New Zealand firmly on the map and gathering huge amount of data. Cook seemed to personify the Great Discoverer as defined by his biographer, Beaglehole: ‘In every great discoverer there is a dual passion – the passion to see, the passion to report; and in the greatest this duality is fused into one – a passion to see and report truly.’
Cook’s first voyage was one of the most successful and detailed expeditions of exploration in all history.
Cook twice again led expeditions into the Pacific – from 1772 to 1775 and from 1776 to 1780. During the second of those, he twice took his ship south of the Antarctic Circle where no vessel was known to have gone before, but he was unlucky in that he did not become the first person ever to see the Antarctic continent. It was to Dusky Sound in the South Island fiords that Cook repaired for rest and recovery after the extreme hardships faced by his crew in the southern ocean.
During the seven weeks the expedition was there, the crew set up a workshop and an observatory, and restored their health with spruce beer (to defeat scurvy) and the plenitude of fish and birds. They made contact with a single family of Maori, in an area which was never thickly populated then or now. They planted seeds on the shore of the sound, and then sailed for their favourite anchorage in Ship Cove at the top of the South Island.
On Cook’s way home from New Zealand during his second voyage a few years later, he gave pigs, fowl and vegetable seeds to the Maori community near Hawke’s Bay, returning again to Ship Cove on his third voyage. By now he had a friendship with some of the local Maori that had lasted nearly ten years. In his journals, he referred to the Maori as ‘manly and mild’ and wrote that ‘they have some arts among them which they execute with great judgement and unwearied patience.’
CAPTAIN COOK WAS KILLED IN JANUARY 1778 IN KEALAKEKUA BAY, HAWAII, AFTER A SERIES OF THEFTS FROM HIS EXPEDITION LED TO A SKIRMISH WITH THE LOCALS.
By then he had done such a thorough job of charting the coasts of New Zealand that there was little else for explorers to discover without going inland. But a number of navigators followed during the remaining years of the 18th century – Frenchman Dumont d’Urville (who arrived only two months after Cook first set foot in New Zealand) and, later, Marion du Fresne; an Italian, Alessandro Malaspina who commanded a Spanish expedition; and George Vancouver, who had served with Cook.
First European Settlement
In 10 years, within the decade of the 1770s, Cook and his contemporaries had opened up the Pacific entirely, and, in 1788, Sydney, in Australia, was established as a British convict settlement. The first Europeans to make an impact on New Zealand, however, were the sealers, with the first gang put ashore on the southwest coast of the South Island in 1792. There was a brief boom in the early years of the 19th century, but it wasn’t long before the seals were in short supply and the ships had to venture further south to the sub-Antarctic islands.
Next, in the last years of the 18th century, came the whalers – some of them driven from the Pacific coast of South America because of the dangers brought about by the war between Spain and Britain. Ships from Britain, Australia and the United States hunted the sperm whales in this region, and visits brought their crew members to frequent contact with the Maori of Northland at Kororareka (later renamed Russell).
At first relations between Europeans and Maori were friendly. But visits were infrequent for a few years after the burning of the brig Boyd and the massacre and eating of its crew in Whangaroa Harbour in 1809. This was a reprisal against previous punishment of high-born Maori seamen by Pakeha (European) skippers.
The inland exploration of New Zealand took place mostly during the early to mid 19th century, mainly those parts that were fairly accessible from the coast. Vast areas of the South Island, however, were not successfully explored by Europeans until the 20th century.
Courtesy of Insight Guides-New Zealand