The History Of New Zealand’s Discovery (According To Me)

This post is an attempt to sum up parts of New Zealand’s earliest history, so if you’re not into history and just want to know what I am up to, then you’re better off doing those dishes you postponed when you sat down quickly check your email and then ended up surfing the net for 3 hours.

New Zealand is indeed a new place. Not just as a nation, the actual land mass is still emerging from the sea at a rate fast enough to produce regular earthquakes. Mountains grow about 1 meter a year (but only a centimeter remains after the rest has crumbled away again). The soil is slipping and sliding everywhere as any motorist who has ever driven on New Zealand’s winding, crumbling roads will know. But long before New Zealand became what we know today as Australia’s innocent younger sister (sorry Kiwis but it’s true) and the last outpost of Western Civilization, the land had an altogether different culture; it was the land of the Maori – the normal people.

Now where did that image go?

A brand new road at the site of a big slip. Patience headlines the Kiwi road-worker job description with fresh landslides covering yesterdays work and floods washing away the precious tarmac (and some people) every year.

You see, the Polynesian descendants who first settled down in this wondrous place never even thought of themselves as one people until the Europeans started showing up. Until then, the first waves of canoeing explorers who landed on these pristine beaches had formed individual tribes and chiefdoms and fought each other over land and resources as humans have a tendency to do.

Then, when suddenly, gigantic “canoes” with massive sails blew in with their pale looking crew wearing pointy hats and crazy rags, the locals realized that they had a lot more in common with each other than they had with these strangers, and just like that they decided to call themselves Maori which means “regular” or “normal” people. The stranger, in turn, were from then on called Pakeha which means “stranger”. Pakeha is still in common use today and is mostly thought of as a neutral term or simply a necessary word for distinguishing newer settlers from Maori.

Now where did that image go?

It was in war canoes – Waka’s – like this, that the first Maori settlers are thought to have arrived from Polynesia.

It also wasn’t until the arrival of Europeans that the Maoris agreed on a common name for New Zealand, namely Aotearoa. Until then been considered to be hundreds of tribal chiefdoms (Iwi’s) rather than one united country and the name Aotearoa only applied top the North Island which had been discovered first. According to Maori legend, it was the great Polynesian navigator Kupe, who first set foot on this island when he chanced upon it during a long and epic chase after a giant octopus called Muturangi.

Back then, navigation was the art of interpreting the stars, currents, wave patterns, birds and the winds, and Kupe was a master of that. So much so that he is thought to have circumnavigated the country and then returned to his native Polynesian islands with directions for the first wave of Maori settlers. It was Kupe’s wife Kuramarotini, however, who came up with the name Aotearoa when she saw the tell-tale clouds in the distance and instantly knew they had discovered a new land. She cried out “He ao, he ao tea, he ao tea roa!” (a cloud, a white cloud, a long white cloud!).

Most people don’t know this, but even the Maoris came late to New Zealand. The scientific consensus seems to place the first arrival of Polynesians somewhere between the 11th and 13th century. Before that New Zealand was presumably without people since the day it first popped its green hills up over the sea level. In fact, no land mammals (bar a few bats) at all are thought to have lived here until the first humans came, bringing the human’s worst friend – the rat – with them. Instead there were birds in the millions. All manners of winged creatures traversed the country peacefully without predators to fear for. That is why New Zealand still has so many flightless birds like the famous Kiwi bird.

Now where did that image go?

Professor Richard Owens was the first scientist to assemble a complete skeleton of a Moa.

Of course the first humans quickly decimated the number of bird species. They were simply too easy to catch for the hunters not to do it. Particularly the nearly mythical Moa bird was quickly eradicated and what a shame that was. Imagine if today you could still see a 240 kg emu-type bird in the wild! I’m not kidding, these birds could have made even Hitchcock pee his pants. Alas, the Moa, along with countless other birds, were soon nothing more than a faint memory and to this day the New Zealand Department Of Conservation is still working hard to restore the natural bird life by trapping and poisoning those introduced pest animals like the Australian possum and the European fox.

The thing is, the New Zealand birds still don’t seem to understand that most mammals are bad news for them, and they will often come right up to you to check you out with their head cocked to one side and a piercing eye looking right at you in the hope of finding something edible or perhaps a new friend. I particularly love the weka’s, which are often seen going straight for your back-pack and stealing your food from under you nose.

Being an Euro-centric white male, I know precious little about the Maori way of life prior to the arrival of the white man. What I do know is that they were well established and in no mood to sit back and be overrun when finally the first shiploads of plague-bearing whities rolled up on their shores. The Maori people had brought with them the Kumara (sweet potato) from their ancestral Polynesia and were farming them skillfully along with other crops. They had built ingenious fortresses – called Pa – to defend themselves against neighbouring tribes and large community houses that served the needs of village rituals such as funerals and tribal meetings. They were also deft seafarers and masters of goods-bartering with each other, so it was simply impossible for the European colonists to write off the Maoris being merely a curious ape as they had done previously with the Australian Aboriginals (who outrageously, in some Australian states, only got taken off the fauna-list in the 1960’s!).

Now where did that image go?

A cross section of the ingeneously designed Maori fortresses called Pa. Image from Tawhiti Museum, Hawera, New Zealand.

Like the Sri Lankan Kings had with the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, the Maori tribal chiefs quickly saw the benefit of having Europeans with their muskets hanging out in their villages. Once word got around that a tribe had the protection of the deadly thunder-sticks, they were suddenly not much of a target anymore in the inter-tribal wars. Not only that, the giant canoes also brought with them such useful items as potatoes and the versatile metal nails. As for the Europeans, the deal was clear; New Zealand had everything a war-faring, pre-electricity European nation could wish for; tall and straight timber for ships masts, flax (INSERT LINK) for making ship sails and sea-mammal blubber for the lubrication of machinery and lighting of lamps.

But unlike so many other colonized Peoples, the Maoris of Aotearoa had a few advantages, principally that of time: Being the world’s last large land-mass to be discovered, Aotearoa’s location at the end of the world made for a natural limitation to the early influx of European visitors (as in Australia, Asian explorers might well have visited but not left any known traces). The first European known to visit New Zealand was the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, after whom the Australian island of Tasmania is named, as well as a handful of locations in New Zealand.

Now where did that image go?

A copy of the first map of New Zealand drawn by Abel Tasman. Tasman only discovered parts of the Eastern shoreline and he even seems to have guessed at this. For instance, the Cook Strait that separates the North and South Islands is pictured as a massive bay (the big bump upwards on the right hand side).

Captain Tasman and his crew had been sent out from Dutch controlled Indonesia in search of valuable resources (i.e. gold), and first caught sight of the long white clouds in 1642. But after 4 of Tasman’s sailors ended up being the main dish for the cannibalistic Maori welcome committee, the Dutch ships quickly pulled their anchors and got on their way again. Ironically, the bay they had chosen for the first, unsuccessful, landing is now known as Golden Bay after the intense gold rush that took place there some 200 years later.

Abel Tasman managed to chart a large chunk of the Western shores of both the South & the North Islands, although he somehow failed to see the strait between them and thus considered them to be one long island. For the next 127 years, New Zealand was therefore nothing more than a tentative western coastline sitting all by itself in the South Pacific. To begin with, the Dutch speculated that this might be the south-western shoreline of South America, but it soon became apparent that this was indeed a new land mass entirely.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Captain Tasman was a "a humane and properly cautious explorer, and a conspicuously able commander".

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Captain Tasman was a “a humane and properly cautious explorer, and a conspicuously able commander”.

Abel Tasman himself called the land Staten land after his superior who had sent him from Indonesia. Perhaps he was fishing for a promotion that would lead him to more hospitable places, but whatever his motif, it ended up being an anonymous cartographer back in the Netherlands who, by a pen-stroke, forever named the new discovery Nieuw Zeeland after a Dutch province. And so the anonymous bureaucracy – once again – managed to influence the daily life of millions of people far into the future without placing any responsibility.

Here is a thought; New Zealand could have ended up being French. Imagine an Eiffel tower in Wellington, the Tricolore flying from every Kiwi flagpole and the quintessential “Qioui” monsieur sipping red wine instead of pints of beer after a long day of shearing sheep in the hills. How so? Well, it may have taken the next Europeans 127 years to rediscover New Zealand, but characteristically of the times, it was merely a matter of days that separated the British envoy led by the legendary Captain James Cook and his much lesser known French colleague Jean de Surville when they both arrived in 1769.

Now where did that image go?

A New Zealand stamp commemorating the brief and somewhat dodgy visit of the French explorer Jean de Surville. Surville had massive problems with a dying crew and some long-fingered Maoris who stole his dingy. In retaliation he abducted their chief and sailed way to India where died when his ship capsized in bad weather near Pondicherry.

Captain Cook thus became the first European to circumnavigate all of New Zealand and his skillfully charted maps were still in use well into the 20th century. If ever there was a chap to thank for spearheading the colonisation of the South Pacific, it must be James Cook who, for good and bad, is commemorated with place-names and statues all across this vast region of the world, including New Zealand’s highest point – Mount Cook – and the Cook Strait that divides the North Island from the South Island.

For the next 71 years, New Zealand was officially unofficial as no nation put forward a claim to this resource-rich land. Instead, it became the favourite haunt for rugged whalers and entrepreneurs who negotiated with the Maoris for the right to stay on their land and harvest the sought-after flax, timber, furs and whale-blubber. The hunt for seal and whale blubber lead to the interesting phenomenon of Americans being probably the most numerous nationality in New Zealand at the time. Sailing out from New England, they docked in the tiny town of Kororareka (now; Russel) which was then known among the missionaries as the “hellhole of the Pacific” with the main industries revolving around drinking and whoring.

Now where did that image go?

This 1901 picture shows a bunch of tough whalers, including Maoris, who were often hired as seamen and traversed the globe on European boats.

No less than 271 ships, for instance, anchored at the Hellhole between 1833 and 1839, and together with the many fortune-seekers, missionaries and run-away convicts from Australia’s penal colonies, the Maoris had plenty of opportunity to trade with and to seize up the size of their uninvited visitors, whose government would eventually end up dividing and conquering their ancestral land. Unfortunately, there was also plenty of opportunity to contract the often deadly disease which accompanied the European settlers. At the time, the English colonial authorities thought it to be a matter of time before the Maori would vanish from the impact of European culture and diseases, but to their surprise, the resilient and resourceful Maori people managed to survive the European onslaught and to this day the Maori inhabit their land with pride and authority alongside their so-called rulers.

No other place in the world have I seen such a strong indigenous culture remaining within a post-colonial government system, and no other place in the world have I seen the colonizers adopting the native traditions to the extent that I have seen here; the New Zealand army (and rugby team) routinely perform the ancient Maori war-dance – the Haka – before going into battle and many are the Pakehas who know enough of the original Kiwi language to sing the national anthem in Maori. After a year in Australia, where racism is rife and the bloody history is only just getting uncovered, it is an absolute pleasure to study this atypical country where the native culture seems to co-exist somewhat peacefully with that of the settlers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the Maoris had it easy, but for a number of reasons they did get through colonisation with their cultural identity much more intact than in so many other places in the world.

Now where did that image go?

The traditional Maori greeting – the hongi – is the touching of nose and forehead at the same time. Image by Chris Sisarich.

If this historical rant of mine has kept you interested enough to read these last lines, you might find it worth while to check in again in a few weeks and read my next post which will explore the circumstances around the official founding of the British colony of New Zealand and the signing of the Waitangi Treaty between English representatives and the Maori. Thank you for reading 🙂


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Enfidaville Titore
    Mar 10, 2014 @ 00:09:34

    This is a very interesting blog. the photo of the whalers was taken in 1901 at the Whangamumu whaling station not far from TeRawhiti where I come from.
    On the front row: far left sitting down is my grandfather Wii Titore: Full name, Wiremu Kingi Titore Kareko. There are quite a few TeRawhiti men in this photo too.

    The Whaling station closed in the late 1930s early 1940s. My father also worked there too. None of the local Maori men that worked there liked that job but that was their only means of employment at that time. My father told me that he was haunted by the cry of dying whales when they slaughtered them he stayed haunted by these cries for the rest of his life. So did my grandfather…


  2. cornelius
    Mar 10, 2014 @ 05:58:51

    Thank you so much for your reply! Interesting to hear from someone who knows the details and can tell a bit more – like what you said about your father and his father. No doubt that would have been a hard job to work as a Maori, who traditionally honor the whales… Thanks again!


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