Did the Spanish or Chinese visit New Zealand before Polynesians?

by Matthew Wright / 24 June, 2016
Kennett Watkins’ painting of the arrival of Polynesian sailors shows double canoes with lateen sails of woven mat. Photo/Getty Images

Kennett Watkins’ painting of the arrival of Polynesian sailors shows double canoes with lateen sails of woven mat. Photo/Getty Images

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Some claim that Europeans and Chinese beat Tasman and even Polynesians to these shores. The debate has again erupted, but where’s the evidence?

The idea that Europeans might have found these islands before Abel Tasman’s ill-starred encounter with Ngati Tumatakokiri in 1642 has haunted us for generations. It remains unproven, yet tantalisingly plausible, because of the way it flits and darts, shadow-like, on the edges of our knowledge and imagination.

The debate resurfaced last month when online government encyclopedia Te Ara added to its bibliography a book that proposes the possibility of pre-Tasman Spanish and Portuguese visitors. That book – Conquistador Puzzle Trail by Winston Cowie – argues that both Iberian nations visited New Zealand in the 16th century.

Ministry for Culture and Heritage chief historian Neill Atkinson says the encyclopedia already covered the possibility of pre-Tasman Iberian arrivals and he thought Cowie’s work was a “fairly measured discussion of the evidence”.

“While I don’t agree with all his conclusions … we thought it was worth adding to the bibliography.”

But the addition spurred a riposte from Paul Moon – one of New Zealand’s leading historians – who argues that it is thin-end-of-the-wedge stuff, “another step towards the conspiracy theorists gaining wider legitimacy in some people’s eyes”.

This is the problem: there have been many assertions not just of pre-Tasman discovery but of full-on pre-Maori settlement here, by the Phoenicians, Mauryans (from Iron Age India), Greeks, Celts, Arabs, Tamils and Chinese. One theory holds that the Waitaha, a people from an unspecified location in the Pacific, arrived here almost 70 generations ago.

Those who hold such theories offer proof by attributing human craft to natural rock structures such as the Kaimanawa wall and the Moeraki boulders, although both examples are fully explained by conventional geology and were formed before humans even existed. Other “independent thinkers” pattern-match random boulder fields and imagine them to be ancient Celtic observatories.

Spanish caravels. Photo/Getty Images

Typically, they deny or are ignorant of historical and archaeological methodology, and their theories smack of a deep cynicism towards conventional learning – though they cherry-pick genuine science such as carbon-dating results when it suits them. There have even been claims that mainstream historians are conspiring to hide the truth and that history is being censored by Maori. However, none of these “conspiracy” assertions bears any relation to reality, and the disturbing contemporary agenda is scarcely hidden.

Some advocates of this thinking claim that Maori then poured into the country, destroying the peace-loving original inhabitants of New Zealand. The fact that a pro-Celtic settlement group has used assertions of pre-Maori European settlement to dispute the Treaty of Waitangi underscores the point.

Says Moon: “Politically, the motive behind such views appears to be to deny Maori their indigenous status and perversely claim that Europeans are effectively the indigenous people of New Zealand.” Atkinson agrees, calling claims of supposed pre-Polynesian settlement “politically motivated by a desire to undermine tangata whenua status and therefore cast doubt on the Treaty-settlement process”.

Efforts to justify the British colonisation of New Zealand through these displacement mechanisms are not new, of course; and the last time it happened, the fiction entered the mainstream. In the 1890s, the so-called “two-race” theory proposed that Maori had displaced earlier Moriori. This idea emerged in part from a serious scientific search for supposed pre-Maori moa hunters, but gained social power as a period device to justify the British displacement, in turn, of Maori. It formed part of the late 19th-century mythology built by Pakeha around Maori – a colonisation not just of the land, but of Maori identity. The theory was shown to be scientifically baseless as early as 1914, but it took decades to dispel the myth in popular thinking.

It seems clear that present-day assertions of pre-Maori European discovery are part of a Pakeha backlash against the Maori renaissance. However, part of the reason that such thinking has gained ground is to be found in the mainstream uncertainty of the mid-20th century, when the two-race and single great canoe migration theories of Maori origin prevailed. No consistent evidence could be found for either, largely because they were intellectual artefacts of the colonial process, but they had a social persistence. And so for a while it seemed – certainly in popular circles – that New Zealand’s true prehistory might never be revealed.

But since then, the reality of New Zealand’s prehistory has yielded to science, and a consistent picture has been assembled from a wide cross-disciplinary pattern of archaeological, genetic, oral, cultural and linguistic evidence through the South Pacific.

The facts are clear. New Zealand was first settled by Polynesians. The earliest evidence of their arrival is at the mouth of the Wairau River, near modern-day Blenheim, which studies last year indicate was settled in the early 1300s – a little later than the previously accepted date of about 1280 and well after late 20th-century figures of 800 AD.

Either way, New Zealand was the last large habitable land mass on Earth reached by humanity. The long journey of our species from Africa’s Rift Valley into the wider world ended, it seems, on the Wairau Bar.

And, yes, New Zealand holds that place in wider human history.

The so-called Dieppe maps, produced in the 16th century as a means of asserting France’s place in the world, purport to show the world and a large land mass (see below) between what is now Indonesia and Antarctica.

The so-called Dieppe maps, produced in the 16th century as a means of asserting France’s place in the world, purport to show the world and a large land mass (see below) between what is now Indonesia and Antarctica.

Other arrivals

The settlers were from the Cook Islands and the Marquesas, and their arrival in the South Pacific had been delayed, by comparison with Polynesian journeys elsewhere in the vast ocean, by adverse wind systems. There is some evidence of a later infusion of arrivals from Tahiti.

Although the Wairau Bar settlement itself seems to have flourished mainly during the 14th century, there were also other Polynesian arrivals. Maori culture emerged from all these settlements across New Zealand – making Maori indigenous to this country.

The widely held scholarly agreement about this matter puts the pre-Maori brigade in their place, but it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that the Portuguese or Spanish arrived and encountered Maori in the 16th century.

Atkinson certainly sees a distinction between politically driven pseudoscience and the historical potential for a Portuguese or Spanish arrival well after Maori culture had emerged from the settlements of Polynesian arrivals. As he points out, the Iberian theories, “however likely or unlikely, at least sit within the broader context of early European exploration of the Pacific”.

In this he has a point. Both Iberian nations were active in the Pacific from the early 16th century following the Treaty of Tordesillas, which split the world into two spheres of influence: Portuguese and Spanish.

But the maps have no direct link to a discovery voyage and do not fit either our coast or Australia’s.

Europe’s available maritime technology could tackle Pacific distances by then, but only just. European navigation was marginal – they could measure latitude, but fixing longitude relied on time and speed calculations that carried wide margins of error. Scurvy often made longer cross-Pacific voyages an exercise in slow death, particularly if the ship missed landfall – a failure that might also mean death from thirst as fresh water ran out.

However, the wealth of Asia and the valuable resources of the Spice Islands of modern-day Indonesia were a powerful incentive to keep trying. Spanish efforts began with Ferdinand Magellan’s astonishing globe-spanning voyage of 1519-22, even though he did not live to see its completion and just one of his five ships returned to Spain. The Spanish transpacific effort culminated in the annual voyage of the so-called “Manila galleon” from the Philippines, laden with a fortune in spices and precious metals. It ran a northerly route. But although equatorial wind systems meant off-course ships weren’t going to reach the Southern Hemisphere, there were occasional deliberate voyages into southern waters.

Portuguese efforts to explore trading possibilities began by pushing east from their sphere, which included the Indian Ocean. There has been some speculation that they reached Australia – the name often mentioned as discoverer is that of Cristóvão de Mendonça in the early 1520s. However, this did not necessarily mean he reached New Zealand.

Early Pakeha settlers nonetheless believed the Spanish had been in the area. Pioneer missionary William Colenso discovered a ship’s bell inscribed with Tamil markings in Northland in 1836, and there was later speculation that this came to New Zealand, via Java, on a Spanish ship. James Hursthouse, a tireless Victorian-age advocate of New Zealand’s private-enterprise colonies, wondered whether Spanish voyager Ferdinand de Quiros, who explored the New Hebrides in 1606, might have pressed south to Dusky Bay, citing old charts that allegedly showed the South Island coastline.

There was no direct proof for any of this, but the concept was alluring enough for the Spanish Government, in the 1880s, to ascribe a 1576 “discovery” of New Zealand to Juan Fernandez, an explorer of colonial-era Peru and Chile.

Greek craft. Photo/Getty Images

That idea never gained ground in New Zealand. It was squashed partly by the lack of actual evidence, but also by our rush to Britain’s bosom on the back of the failure of colonial dreams in the 1880s and 1890s. This unrequited love affair with the mother country lasted into the mid-20th century, and it was unthinkable that any country other than Britain could have been first. Even Tasman was slid aside – Robert McNab’s 1908 Historical Records of New Zealand opened with Cook’s first voyage in 1769 – Tasman had to make do with the second volume. And so speculation about Spanish visitors languished.

When the Iberian notion was revived in the late 20th century – by no coincidence on the back of a further redefinition of our national identity – it remained a fringe idea. That spurred a perception that mainstream historians are unwilling or reluctant to explore the concept. Cowie, who wrote Conquistador Puzzle Trail, attributes it to their “fear of being criticised” and what he calls the “negative stigma” of pre-Tasman theories.

He has a point. The Iberian discovery hypothesis has been tainted by the association with fringe thinking and pre-Maori European assertions. Even deconstructing the issue – separating the more plausible Iberian from the absurd New Age and Celtic fantasies – risks being tarred with the wrong brush.

But in general, the issue doesn’t boil down to an argument between official and fringe. The mainstream historical theories by which we understand ourselves are not dictated from a central source. Historical understanding grows organically, from wide intellectual trends held across the field, in which New Zealand, usually, also reflects international thinking.

Publicly funded historical research usually reflects the consensus of this intellectual community, which, in general, is built around the universities, polytechnics and research institutes and from the work of academically qualified freelancers. New ideas need to be accepted by this broader intellectual historical community – effectively, socially – if they are to become mainstream; and change is usually driven by the way the ideals of this community shift on the back of generational changes in wider society. So such a system is an average of many viewpoints and cannot be dictated to, totalitarian style. Nor can it co-ordinate within itself to pursue the detailed and obstructive party line alleged by conspiracy theorists.

Phoenician craft. Photo/Alamy

Indirect evidence

So is a Spanish or Portuguese visit to New Zealand likely? There is a mass of indirect evidence, ranging from possible shipwrecks to the usual suspects such as the iron helmet first recorded in the national museum collection in 1904, which was attributed to the Spanish and credited with having been pulled out of Wellington Harbour. Whether this was empirically true was another matter.

More specific evidence has long pointed at Portuguese explorer de Mendonça, who in 1520 led three ships to look for the “Island of Gold” east of Sumatra that had been mentioned by the Roman historian Pliny as early as the first century. Possible Spanish arrival later in the century is usually credited to Fernandez.

Lending weight to these suspicions are the so-called Dieppe maps, produced in that Normandy port town in the 16th century as part of a French assertion of their economic place in the world. The problem is that the evidence is circumstantial. The maps have no direct link to a discovery voyage – and the wavering lines of the putative southern Pacific coasts require translation to fit either our own or Australia’s.

Those maps also have to be understood in context of the belief – long held in Europe – that a great Terra Australis Incognita (unknown southern land) had to exist as a kind of global counterbalance to the land mass of Europe. Maps produced before and after the Dieppe ones speculated on likely coastlines. These fruits of cartographic imagination – sometimes decorated with curious graphics of men with faces in their stomachs and wild fantasy animals – bore little resemblance to reality; any similarity to coastlines found later was entirely coincidental.

Arab craft. Photo/Getty Images

That lack of direct documents is suspicious, since the voyages we do know about were well recorded. Records may have been lost, but it is equally possible that voyagers didn’t come here: most of the Iberian exploration effort was centred on the central and northern Pacific because they were following the wealth.

Other speculation suggests an accidental Spanish discovery by an off-course ship, crewed by men who had no idea where they were, that somehow blundered into the New Zealand coastline. The usual suspect is the caravel San Lesmes, under the command of Francisco de Hoces, which was separated from its consorts while rounding Cape Horn in January 1526. The ship was never seen again and its fate remains unknown, but competing theories by Robert Langdon (1975) and Roger Herve (1983) postulate that the caravel blundered west, reaching either New Zealand or Australia before, perhaps, being wrecked on Amanu, an island in the Tuamotu archipelago. Again, the evidence is circumstantial, and such an accidental voyage would have been sailed, mostly against prevailing winds, by a ship that was storm-battered and short of supplies.

The irony in all these theories is that had English explorer and privateer Sir Francis Drake followed orders in 1577-78, he would have sailed west across the Pacific on a course likely to bring him to the Kermadecs. There is every chance that he would have reached Australia’s east coast – or, had he turned south, New Zealand. But he ignored that order, partly by arrangement with his monarch, instead turning north up the coast of the Americas to plunder the Spanish as far north as California. Only then did he cross the Pacific to the Philippines.

So is there anything other than circumstantial evidence of an Iberian visit? A formal archival search in Lisbon and Madrid along with professional archaeological surveys of suspect shipwreck sites here might produce answers. But they might also draw a blank, and such studies would be costly.

The signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas. Photo/Getty Images

Wider trends

In the end the issue is academic. A proven pre-Tasman Iberian visit is unlikely to disturb our wider sense of place. History, as a way of understanding our human journey from past to present, is about wider trends. In that sense, even a demonstrable Spanish or Portuguese visit would be no more significant for our history than Tasman’s brush past our shores in 1642. That was the first time we can be sure that Europe found New Zealand. And that visit gave us our name – Nieuw Zeeland, probably chosen by Dutch cartographer Johannes Blaeu.

But the first significant European impact on Maori did not come until the arrival of British ne’er-do-wells, convicts, whalers, sealers and traders, broadly around the beginning of the 19th century. They brought the products of Britain’s industrial revolution – and the detritus of a British society in flux – into collision with traditional Maori life. So began a cascade of events that led to the colonisation of New Zealand by Britain – and, eventually, to New Zealand as it is today.

So even if records of a Portuguese or Spanish journey to our shores are found in dusty archives, or compelling archaeological evidence is discovered, this can only ever be a footnote – fascinating though it would be – to the well-established realities of our wider past.

Matthew Wright has written many books on New Zealand history and is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He blogs here.

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