Over the years, a number of people have been heavily invested in promoting alternative theories about the first people to settle this country. According to one claim (reported uncritically in the Northern Advocate and its sister paper the NZ Herald in 2017), ships from Europe and China visited New Zealand long before Māori arrived from Polynesia — and Northland was actually first settled by Celts. Not Māori.
We could speculate about what’s driving these theories and why they’ve continued to be taken seriously by people who should know better. Or, better still, we could just present this piece from archaeologist Ian Smith, extracted from his new book Pākehā Settlements in a Māori World, explaining why there’s zero credible evidence of any non-Māori setting foot on New Zealand soil before Cook’s arrival in 1769.
Pre-Cook visitors: Is there credible evidence?
The first non-Māori to set foot in New Zealand was almost certainly a seaman leaping from one of HMS Endeavour’s two small boats as they came ashore on the afternoon of 8 October 1769 at the mouth of the Tūranganui River in what is now the city of Gisborne.
This was the first landing by Lieutenant James Cook’s scientific expedition, sponsored by the British Royal Navy and the Royal Society, and took place two days after their initial sighting of New Zealand’s coast. Although Abel Tasman had made contact with Māori 127 years earlier, this was the first time Europeans had come ashore, marking the beginning of a Pākehā presence in New Zealand.
Just as it is sometimes suggested that Māori were not the first settlers of New Zealand, there are claims that the first non-Māori footfall predated Cook’s arrival here.
Cook himself was interested in this: during each of his three voyages to this country he and others in his party asked Māori whether ships such as theirs had been seen here before. Generally the answer was no. However, at Queen Charlotte Sound in February 1770, Joseph Banks was told of “two large vessels . . . which at some time or other came here and were totally destroyd by the inhabitants and all the people belonging to them killd”.
Cook’s report of the same account referred to only one “small vessel” and “four men that were all kill’d”. Banks later suggested that this may have been a distorted reference to Tasman’s unfortunate visit to Golden Bay in 1642, a view supported by recent commentators.
Similarly, a contradictory series of accounts, collected in October–November 1774, of a ship being stranded and men killed, is now seen as likely to refer to the killing of a boat-load of men from Cook’s sister ship, Adventure, in Grass Cove (now known as Wharehunga Bay, on Arapawa Island, Queen Charlotte Sound) the previous year.
While Cook dismissed these accounts, he was more convinced by one recorded in February 1777, which claimed a ship had visited a port on the north coast of Cook Strait a few years before his first visit and was responsible for the introduction of venereal disease. Again, this could have been a distorted rendering of events from the earlier visits by Tasman or Cook.
However, some have equated this account with traditions of a purported pre-Cook ship, captained by Rongotute, that was wrecked and its crew killed; these events were followed by an outbreak of disease. The name Rongotute was also used by Māori to refer to Cook, suggesting that a number of different events were being conflated here. The variations in timing, location, events and consequences make it doubtful that any of these accounts refer to previous landfalls in New Zealand.
Speculation about earlier visits to New Zealand has generally focused on the sixteenth century, when Portuguese ships first reached the western margins of the Pacific Ocean and Spanish ships crossed it from the east. They were primarily interested in establishing trade with the “spice islands”, the Moluccan archipelago in Indonesia, and along the south and east Asian coasts. Suggestions that they ventured further south have been based on the claim that parts of New Zealand are represented on the Dieppe maps, drawn by French cartographers between 1540 and 1566 using information from Portuguese mariners.
Several of these depict a large land mass south-east of Sumatra and Java labelled Jave la Grande, which is supposed by some to represent parts of the coasts of Australia and New Zealand. It is argued that a peninsula on the eastern coast of this land mass, labelled variously Cabo Fermoso, Cabo Fremosos or Cap de Fremose, represents the East Cape of New Zealand.
These assertions have been refuted through detailed historical and cartographic research, which demonstrates that the Dieppe maps were works of art intended for display rather than records of voyages, with Jave la Grande an exaggerated representation of Portuguese exploration of Java and the Indonesian islands. In addition to practical and political impediments to Portuguese exploration in the vicinity of New Zealand, there would have been little motive for “exploring cooler southern seas when . . . tropical islands provided the rich resources sought by Portuguese traders”.
A 1598 map by Hernando de Solis, which shows the southern Pacific, from New Guinea to Tierra del Fuego, bisected by an undulating coastline of the supposed Great Southern Continent, Terra Australis Incognita, has also been used to argue for Spanish discovery of New Zealand. Ross Wiseman has suggested that a section of this coastline, if rotated 90 degrees, corresponds to the east coast of New Zealand from East Cape to just south of Banks Peninsula, and that this derives from exploration by Juan Fernandez in 1576.
Cartographic gymnastics are not the only difficulty involved in accepting this claim.
Most commentators have discounted the possibility that Fernandez ever reached New Zealand. His reported sailing time of a month seems insufficient for his small ship to have reached here against the prevailing westerly winds; there are inconsistencies between various accounts with regard to latitudes and sailing directions; and the time-lag of at least thirty-eight years before publication of these second-hand narratives allows for confusion or embroidery to have crept in.
An alternative claim proposes that New Zealand was settled in 1527 by seamen from the caravel San Lesmes, which had disappeared soon after entering the Pacific the previous year. Robert Langdon argues that four cannons found at Amanu Atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago were jettisoned from San Lesmes when it ran aground there; its crew then sailed on to Ra’iatea in the Society Islands, where they repaired the ship before setting out for Spain. Langdon suggests that they instead arrived in New Zealand, where settlements were established in the Bay of Plenty and at Kāwhia on the west coast of the North Island.
While the three cannons that have been recovered from Amanu Atoll have been shown to be of pre-1550 construction, the rest of Langdon’s argument is entirely speculative.
He claims that Spanish settlement in New Zealand is demonstrated by the presence of Caucasian physical features among Māori; Spanish influence in their language, religion and social organisation; and that the Spanish voyage is recorded in the Te Arawa and Tainui canoe traditions.
None of these propositions stands up to serious scrutiny. Genetic research has clearly demonstrated the Polynesian ancestry of pre-1769 Māori, and the small size of the supposed Spanish immigrant group casts doubt on the contribution they could have made to the Māori gene pool.
Similarly, the few Spanish loan words in the Māori language are most likely to have resulted from contacts with European shipping in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, and Langdon’s interpretations of Māori traditions are fanciful.
Proponents of early visits by Portuguese, Tamils and others, including Langdon, have used the presence of several “mystery objects” in New Zealand as evidence in support of their claims, notably the Tamil bell and the Spanish helmet.
It is argued that these items are proof of pre-Cook visits here because they were made outside of New Zealand. For this to be true, however, there would have to be incontrovertible evidence that the items had arrived here before 1769. Careful examination of each case shows that this is lacking.
The first of these items is a bronze bell missing part of its lip or skirt and bearing a reputedly fifteenth-century Tamil inscription that reads “Bell of the Ship of Mohaideen Baksh”. The bell was found by missionary William Colenso in 1836 or 1837 near Whāngārei, being used by Māori as a cooking pot. He was told that the bell had been discovered some years earlier in the roots of a tree that had blown over in a storm. Propositions that it arrived on a Tamil, Spanish or Portuguese vessel in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, either on a purposeful voyage or a drifting abandoned
wreck, are speculative; it could equally have arrived on a European vessel in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century.
The iron helmet was recovered from Wellington Harbour at some time before 1904. It is dated to the late sixteenth century. Although it has been claimed to be of Spanish manufacture, the style is generically European and it could equally have been made in England or northern Italy. There is no direct evidence on the crucial matter of when and how it came to New Zealand.
However, its state of preservation indicates that it is unlikely to have been immersed in seawater for long, making it improbable that it had been there since the visit of a Spanish ship in the sixteenth century. More plausible explanations are that it arrived in the nineteenth century as ship’s ballast, as an early settler’s souvenir, or as a presentation piece or item of trade for local Māori.
What these examples highlight is the critical importance of provenance — information about the location and context in which an item was found — when using material objects to construct an argument about historical events or processes.
Without good provenance, such items are virtually useless because they can be interpreted in myriad different ways. It is notable that neither of the “mystery items” was recovered by archaeological excavation, a process explicitly designed to incorporate the recording of provenance information.
These examples also highlight the need to critically evaluate evidence, assessing its reliability and accuracy, and considering alternative interpretations. When one of the long-term advocates for pre-Cook European presence in New Zealand adopted this approach, he concluded that “no matter where we’ve looked we have not found one iota of evidence that sixteenth century Portuguese navigators sailed along a New Zealand shore”.
A total disregard for critical evaluation of evidence is apparent in the claim by Gavin Menzies that New Zealand was settled by survivors from the wrecks of two vessels from a Chinese fleet alleged to have sailed along the west coast in 1421.
The first wreck he noted, located in Dusky Sound, was already clearly identified as the hulk of a British vessel deliberately stranded in 1795. It had been subject to both underwater and terrestrial archaeological investigation that had refuted any suggestion of a Chinese origin. The other wreck, buried in sandhills at the mouth of the Toreparu Stream on Ruapuke Beach, between Raglan and Aotea harbours, has been demonstrated to be almost certainly from at least two different nineteenth century vessels.
Menzies ignored all this evidence, and a further raft of claims supposed to demonstrate a Chinese presence in New Zealand are equally fanciful and unfounded.
His book has been described as “inexorably circular, its evidence spurious, its citations slipshod, and its assertions preposterous”.
Critical evaluation is necessary even when modern scientific tests such as radiocarbon dating and genetic analysis are employed. A human cranium exposed by floodwaters in 2004 in the Ruamāhanga River, Wairarapa, was identified, on the basis of both morphological features and DNA, as being that of a European woman. When dated, this gave a conventional radiocarbon age of 296 ± 35 years before 1950, which was argued to be proof that the woman had died in New Zealand between 1619 and 1689. However, a conventional radiocarbon age is not the same as a date in calendar years; it is a measure of time in radiocarbon years, which vary in length owing to fluctuations in production of the radioactive isotope 14C through time.
In order to derive a calendar date, the conventional radiocarbon age must be calibrated using curves derived from dating either long sequences of tree rings (for organisms that derive their carbon from the atmosphere) or independently dated marine animals (for organisms that derive their carbon from the ocean).
Choosing the appropriate calibration curve is important because the oceans contain old carbon, making radiocarbon dates on marine samples appear older than their true age. For humans, and other animals that may eat both marine and terrestrial foods, it is necessary to use a combination of the two calibration curves, with the appropriate combination usually inferred by examination of stable isotope ratios in the sample.
Isotope data has not been published for the Ruamāhanga woman, but the extent to which a marine component in her diet would have influenced radiocarbon dating can be calculated. In the unlikely event that she had absolutely no marine input in her diet, calibration of the conventional radiocarbon age gives a 95 per cent probability that she died at some time between 1515 and 1797. With just 15 per cent marine input in her diet, the probability date range shifts to 1630–1950.
Three points can be concluded from this. First, without any marine influence, calibration of the conventional radiocarbon age brings it into the late eighteenth century, when European women are known to have been present in New Zealand. Even a small marine component in her diet would shift the date range so that it includes the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Second, radiocarbon dates for this time period yield very broad calibrated date ranges owing to “wiggles” in the calibration curves, making it virtually impossible to get precise radiocarbon age estimates for events that occurred after about AD 1665.
And finally, both these conclusions make it clear that the Ruamāhanga cranium cannot be viewed as proof of European presence in New Zealand before 1769.
Radiocarbon dating also lies behind a recent claim for the pre-Cook wreck of a Dutch ship at the entrance to the Kaipara Harbour. Dates calculated for two pieces of timber recovered in Midge Bay were used to argue that they were boards from a ship constructed at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
Based on the proposition that vessels of this era are unlikely to remain in use for more than fifty years, it was inferred that the wreck must have occurred before Cook’s first arrival in 1769. By dating a series of samples from different growth rings in one of the timbers, the researchers were able to use “wiggle-matching” to locate their conventional radiocarbon ages quite precisely on the calibration curve and thereby determine that there was a 68.2 per cent probability that the outermost ring on their plank had formed in the period AD 1666–72.
Moving beyond that to estimate when the timber was used in ship construction depended not on radiocarbon dating but on three assumptions: that there was no missing heartwood at the outer edge of the timber; that sapwood, forming the outermost part of the tree, represented no more than 25 ± 5 years of growth; and that the time required to season the timber and transport it to a shipyard was no more than 5 ± 5 years. Incorporating these assumptions into the wiggle-matching calibration gives a spurious level of precision to the claimed date of AD 1705 ± 5 for construction using these timbers.
Even if this date is accurate, and we assume that the usable life of a ship was less than fifty years, there are major problems in accepting it as evidence for a pre-Cook wreck. In the absence of controlled archaeological excavation at the site, or technical drawings of the two timbers, it is impossible to verify the claim that they are fragments from the hull of a ship, rather than fragments of driftwood or debris.
Even if they were from a ship, the possibility they were timbers recycled from an older vessel can’t be ruled out. This has been demonstrated for an 1864 wreck in the Auckland Islands, timbers from which yielded sixteenth- and seventeenth-century radiocarbon dates.
The historical context creates further difficulties. The researchers proposed that attributes of the timbers indicate that the vessel was probably constructed in one of the Asian shipyards of the Dutch East India Company. However, detailed historical research shows that the tropical species of the Midge Bay timbers was never used in these shipyards.
More significantly, the reported presence of copper sheathing demonstrates that these timbers were from a ship built no earlier than the late eighteenth century, when sheathing first came into use, and thus cannot predate the arrival of Cook.
In summary, there is no credible evidence that any non-Māori — other than Tasman and his crew — visited New Zealand before Cook’s first arrival in 1769.
Suggestions to the contrary have failed to reveal any material evidence with a secure provenance that can be dated unequivocally. Where claims have relied upon non-material forms of evidence, the failure to carefully analyse historical context and consider alternative explanations have left them in the realm of fantasy.
Professor Ian Smith is an honorary associate professor in the archaeology programme at the University of Otago, having recently retired after four decades of researching and teaching New Zealand archaeology.
This extract from Pākehā Settlements in a Māori World, written by Ian Smith and published by Bridget Williams Books, is reprinted here with permission.
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