The first European to discover New Zealand was Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer in the service of the Dutch East India Company, who with his two ships, the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen, sighted the west coast of the South Island on December 13, 1642. They anchored at Wharewharangi Bay north of what is now Abel Tasman National Park. Imagine his surprise at finding a National Park named after him!
Anyway, the story goes that the Dutch had a violent encounter with the local Maori tribe, the Ngati Tumatakokiri, in which four of Abel Tasman’s men were killed, and the Dutch consequently set sail for the North Island but not after naming the place they had originally landed Moordenaers (Murderers) Bay for obvious reasons. For what it is worth, in 1770, Captain Cook included the same bay it what he termed Blind Bay; the French later called it Massacre Bay. In the 1840s following the discovery of coal, the same bay was called Coal Bay, and finally in the 1850s gold was discovered in the area and it was called Golden Bay, the name which remains today for the original Murderers Bay. Taitapu is the Maori name for it.
One interpretation of that first encounter is as follows. Two double-hulled canoes filled with Maori set out to investigate the ships that had anchored in the bay. The Maori called out to the ships and blew a horn. It is felt the Maori were asserting their mana (personal power and strength) and while assessing the new arrivals strength, they were also attempting to intimidate and challenge the strangers to a fight if necessary, much like in the context of a haka. A haka is Maori dance/chant consisting of stomping of the feet, slapping of the thighs and forceful body movements. This is accompanied by fierce facial expressions and chanting in Maori. It is used to intimidate and challenge one’s opponents. Hakas can still be seen outside of the Maori culture at special events throughout New Zealand, most notably before the All Blacks, New Zealand’s premier rugby team, plays its opponents.
When the Dutchman responded to the Maori display by yelling back and blowing horns that they happened to have on their ship, the Maori may have interpreted it as ‘game on’. The next day the Maori returned and attacked. Blood was shed and it went down as a bad first encounter between the two cultures.
What is the Maori version of this first encounter? Unfortunately, the tribe that first met Abel Tasman and his crew were wiped out by another Maori tribe and no oral history remains.
Abel Tasman wasn’t sure whether he had found a continent or merely a large island. He initially named what he had found Staten Landt (States Land) thinking it was the west coast of a previously discovered land off the coast of South America. One can only be thankful that the name didn’t stick or else much of New Zealand might have ended up like Staten Island in New York. Dutch cartographers renamed the land Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland. James Cook, the British explorer, later anglicized the name to New Zealand. And as T-shirts in the gift shops of Queenstown now proudly proclaim, “New Zealand—Much Better Than the Old Zealand!” And so it was.
One would guess that discovering a land was somewhat akin to discovering that you had twenty dollars in your wallet instead of five and being pleasantly surprised. Except, of course, on a larger scale. In those days, explorers were wandering all over the globe claiming this land for this country and that land for that country. And, of course, all this was done with total disregard for the indigenous inhabitants of the lands they were claiming as their own.
Anything that was found was claimed and given a name often in the ‘neo-Europe’ tradition. New this. New that. It was all so…new. Lands would be sighted and then not seen again for years, and when they were seen again, they had seemingly turned up in completely different places.
Before leaving, Abel Tasman had mapped some of the west coast of New Zealand. His map, as one historian put it, looked a bit like a ragged question mark. And so New Zealand would remain to European explorers, a ragged question mark, and with a lull of more than one hundred years before any significant European exploration resumed.