The first European to set eyes on New Zealand did so 375 years ago today, on December 13th, 1642.
He was Dutch navigator Abel Tasman, who was exploring in the service of the Dutch East India Company and named the newly-discovered South Pacific island group after the Dutch province of Zeeland.
Just under three weeks earlier he had discovered another large island which he named Van Diemen’s Land, after the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, Antonio van Diemen. That island would later be renamed Tasmania in honour of the explorer, as would the Tasman Sea, between New Zealand and Australia.
After several days skirting the southern end of Van Diemen’s Land, Tasman claimed formal possession of the island on December 3rd after one of his crew managed to swim ashore and plant the Dutch flag. He then steered his ship, ‘Zeehaen’, out to sea, but endured very rough weather before sighting land again. In one of his diaries, Tasman wrote that only his compass had kept him and his crew alive as they navigated through the rough and uncharted ocean.
When they did see land again it was the north-west coast of what is now known to be New Zealand’s South Island. Initially Tasman believed it was connected to an island off the southern tip of South America, but continued to explore the coast looking for safe places to land. Finding a sheltered bay, he dropped anchor and sent out some of his crew in small boats to land and collect fresh water.
However, before they could reach shore one of his boats was attacked by Maori warriors who had paddled out in a double-hulled canoe, called a ‘waka’. Four of Tasman’s men were killed by the Maoris using traditional short clubs, called ‘mere’, and the rest of his men turned back for the safety of their ship.
That evening Tasman’s crew saw lots of lights on the shore and at least four canoes, two of which were paddled out towards them. Shouts were exchanged between the canoes and the ship, though neither side could understand the other’s language. The Maoris also blew on an instrument, which Tasman noted in his diary sounded “like the moors’ trumpets”. He had one of his sailors, who could play a bugle, sound some tunes to them in answer.
The next day, as Tasman began to sail out of the bay, he observed 22 canoes, half of which, all filled with people, began to approach the Zeehaen. Interpreting it as an attack, Tasman ordered one of the ships guns to be fired using canister shot, which hit the largest ‘waka’ and at least one of the men in it.
Research carried out much later revealed that the area where Tasman had tried to land was a rich agricultural area and that the Maoris might have been protecting it from other invading tribes. The exchange of trumpet signals could easily have been misinterpreted by the Maoris as a prelude to battle. Whatever the case, Tasman sailed away without setting foot on shore. He named the bay where four of his crew died “Murderers’ Bay”, although it is now known by the much more appealing name of “Golden Bay”.
Despite Tasman’s discovery, and possibly due to his hostile reception, New Zealand attracted very little attention from Europeans for more than a century, until English Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific in 1768-71. He succeeded in mapping the entire coastline of New Zealand before sailing on to Australia, where he made his famous landing at Botany Bay in April 1769. Where Cook first ventured, commerce soon followed, in the form of European whalers, traders and missionaries. In 1840 Britain formally annexed New Zealand and established its first permanent European settlement at Wellington.