Volume 102 1993 > Volume 102, No. 1 > Rongotute, Stivers and 'other visitors' to New Zealand 'before Captain Cook', by Rhys Richards, p 7-38
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Knowledge advances at its extremities. Illuminating the shadowy margins of history can be both legitimate and entertaining, particularly if open minds are matched with cautious scholarship, healthy scepticism, and tolerance. But differing interpretations seem inevitable, for, while there is widespread interest in historical extremities such as “Who was first”, the questioning of accepted norms may prompt, instead, a curt dismissive “I don't believe it”, as if that forecloses further discussion. Credibility is fragile, very personal, and easily destroyed by venturing just a little too far. The following review seeks to question, cautiously and undogmatically, just how far back one can reasonably go in redefining the very start of New Zealand's Pakeha history.

History involves facts, probabilities, possibilities and outside possibilities that historians judge with increasingly critical standards of credibility and acceptance. In this present survey of several stories, anecdotes and bald snippets from the margins of accepted history, the few facts are relatively well known, accepted and noncontroversial, but some other elements seem mere shadows that will be accepted by some, but rejected by others as stretching their credibility too far. The critical processes involved in assessing such material are best shown in the case of the suggested visit to New Zealand, before Captain Cook, of the foreigner some Maoris called Rongotute.

The “facts” are that traditional and other early sources indicate clearly that, between 1820 and 1836, a loose confederation of like-minded Atiawa tribes from Taranaki fought their way south, first as raiders and later as migrants, settling on both the north and south shores of Cook Strait (Travers 1872; Shand 1892; Smith 1904; McEwen 1990). Their success reflected the military prowess, strategy and duplicity of their leaders, most notably Te Rauparaha, Te Pehi Kupe, Niho and Te Puoho and Te Tu-o-te-Rangi. In addition, these invaders carried the first muskets seen in these southern districts, which created a fear out of all proportion to their weapons' limited numbers and limited effectiveness, even at close range, in unskilled hands.

A “probability” is that these migrations south entered areas of only widely dispersed settlements with modest to small populations. This seems clear, as the initial raiding parties were small, the opposition they encountered was often weak and, by the end of the decade, some of the invaders had come south to settle permanently. (“Between all these various heke were several minor ones, as well as many individual comings and goings”, not all of which earned - 8 sufficient mana to be remembered only a generation later — Shand 1892:88.) Sometimes, the invading warriors were opposed by superior numbers, but seldom effectively. It is a clear probability that the south in 1820 was much more sparsely populated and vulnerable than the well-settled lands in the north.

A “possibility” is that not only were the southern districts of the North Island underpopulated in 1820, but they were also depopulated. That is to say, the Rangitane, Mua-upoko, Ngati-apa and other tribes who sought to oppose the invaders had been more numerous in the recent past. This seems likely as, in the recent legends, for example, there is no record that such overt, large-scale invasions had been attempted previously. With a timespan of only 60 or so years, however, it is not surprising that the archaeological evidence of depopulation is inconclusive.

The “outside possibility” to be considered next, with appropriate caution and scepticism, is that the Maori traditions were correct when they said that the tribes south of Wanganui had been ravaged and decimated only a generation or so earlier by a disease, or diseases, introduced by a foreign vessel, “the ship of Rongotute”, before the visits of Captain Cook. The evidence for this is, at best, marginal. There is a natural reluctance to adopt a new position which challenges established national values with only limited supporting information, but certainly more attention should be given than in the past to Captain Cook's own conviction that he had been preceded by an unknown foreign vessel in or near Cook Strait. On reflection, there seems at least an “outside possibility” that he was right.

This review has three parts: the first concerns Captain Cook and the ship of Rongotute. The second and third look at “other” supposed arrivals before Captain Cook, including “Captain Stivers” and his “taewa” potatoes. A “judgment” on the significance, if any, of these accounts is left till last.

Captain Cook's Conviction

Captain Cook spent more time in Queen Charlotte Sound (altogether nearly 100 days) than anywhere else on the coasts of New Zealand. In 1770, he wrote that “these people declared to us this morning that they never either heard or saw a ship like ours being upon this coast before” (Beaglehole 1955: 235). Cook assumed that “this coast” referred to all coasts of New Zealand, not just the immediate coast, but unfortunately, this is unclear. But, only a few days later, Banks recorded that an old Maori had told Tupaia, their Tahitian interpreter, that “they had a tradition of two large vessels, which at some time - 9 or other came here and were totally destroyed by the inhabitants and all the people belonging to them killed” (Beaglehole 1955:245, 1962:462; Best 1925:135).

While at Ship Cove in October 1773, the local Maoris, whose tribe seemed to have come only recently from the north, told him that a foreign ship had been in a port on the northern coast of the strait. Captain Cook and his men “thought we must have misunderstood them and took no notice” (Beaglehole 1967:73). On November 3, 1773, Cook tried to get the Resolution into Wellington Harbour, but saw only the entrance before the wind and tide turned against him.

Captain Cook's fourth and last visit to Queen Charlotte Sound was in February 1777. While there, he heard more about “a port on the northwest coast of Teerawitte”, but he was not able to search for it. Later, he regretted this, because he was told more about the ship the Maoris said had preceded them. His Maori informants were reticent and never very forthcoming about this. Some who mentioned it on shore denied flatly having done so when later cross-examined on board. Perhaps they regretted earlier lies, or, on second thoughts, feared reprisals. Cook's main informants did not speak freely about it until they had left Queen Charlotte Sound. They were two local Maoris who had volunteered to leave New Zealand forever to be servants to Omai in Tahiti. One was a young chief of 17 or 18, variously called Tiarooa or Te Wehera or Teweiharooa (?Te Weharua). The other, his servant boy, was a “droll jackanapes” of only 10 or 12 called Cooa or Loa or Kokoa. Both became very attached to the British, and strongly resisted being marooned at Huahine.

Shortly after leaving Queen Charlotte Sound in 1777, Cook and his men inquired again about any vessels which might have been on the New Zealand coast before them. This time, Cook was convinced his Maori informants were telling the truth, as is evident from what he wrote, as careful and cautious as ever, in his official journal:

One day on our enquiring of Tiarooa how many ships he had seen or heard of being in Queen Charlotte Sound or in any port in its neighbourhood, he began with one we had never heard of before, which had put into a port on the NE coast of Tiera wette or Tetara-wette but a very few years before I arrived in the sound in the Endeavour, [in 1770] which they distinguished by calling her Tupaia's ship.
At first I thought he might have been mistaken in respect to the time and place and that it might have been M. Surville who is said to have put into a port on the NE coast of Eaheinomauwe the same year I was there in the Endeavour, or that it might have referred to M. Marion [du Fresne] who was in the Bay of Islands on the same coast a few years later.
But both Tiarooa and the other [Koaa], who seemed to be well acquainted with - 10 the story though not born at the time, assured us there was no mistake in neither time nor place, and that it was well known to everybody about Queen Charlotte's Sound and Teerawitte.
He said the captain during his stay kept a woman of the country and she had a son by him which was about the age of Cooa and now living [i.e., about 12 years old, or born about 1765]. He also told us that it was by this ship the veneral [sic] disease first came amongst them which is now all too common …
I regretted much that we did not hear of this ship while we were in the Sound as by means of Omai we might have had a full or better account of her from people who had seen her, for Tiarooa's account was only from what he had been told and therefore was lyable to many Misstakes.
However I have no doubt but he was right so far as a ship having been at Tierrawitte as it corresponds with what we were told when I was here in the latter end of 1773. When we were continually enquiring after the [missing] Adventure, some of the Indians informed us of a ship having been in a Port on the Coast of Tierrawitte but at the time we thought we must have misunderstood them, and took no notice of it.” (Beaglehole 1955:73-7).

Because he had not examined it himself, Cook showed no harbour on the north side of the strait on his maps. But in the above account he mentioned a “Port” on the coast near “Tierra wette”, which is the name he gave to a stretch of coast from near Wellington Harbour north past Makara to beyond Mana Island. And Cook added another name for the locality which is close enough to indicate “Te Tara”, which was the shortened form of “Te Whanganui a Tara”, the Great Harbour of Tara, which is today called Wellington.

With similar caution, Cook recorded surprisingly little about the vessel he believed had preceded him, no doubt to avoid recording any “Misstakes”. He regretted that, on his own earlier visit, in October 1774 [not 1773], they had not then had the service of a good translator and were therefore often mistaken. In fact, what Cook had recorded in his journal at the time of his earlier visit provides more details of this mysterious ship and its fate:

Since the natives have been with us a report has arisen said first to have come from them, that a ship had been lately lost, somewhere in the Strait, and all the crew killed by them, when I examined them on this head, they not only denied it, but seemed wholely ignorant of the matter.
A ship had been lately lost in the Straits, that some of the people got on shore and that the natives stole their Cloathes etc for which several were shot: but afterwards when they could fire no longer, the Natives got the better and killed them with their Pata patoos and eat them. But [the local natives said] they had no hand in the affair, which they said happened at Vanua Aroa 1 near Teerawhitte which is on the other side of the Strait.
One man said it was two moons ago; but another contradicted him and - 11 counted on his fingers about 20 or 30 days. They described by action how the ship was beat to pieces by going up and down against the Rocks till at last it was all scattered abroad (Beaglehole 1955:II:572).
The next day some others told the same story, or one nearly to the same purport, and pointed over the East Bay, 2 which is on the East side of the Sound for the place where it happened.
These stories made me very uneasy about the Adventure and I desired Mr Wales and those on shore to let me know if any of the Natives should mention it again, or to send them to me for I had not heard anything from them myself. When Mr Wales came on board to dinner, he found the very people on board who had told him the story on shore, and pointed them out to me. I enquired about the affair and endeavoured to come at the truth by every method I could think on. All I could get from them was Caurey (No). [Kahore or Ka ore]. And they not only denied every syllable of what they had said on shore but seemed wholly ignorant of the matter, so that I began to think our people had misunderstood them, and that the story referred to some of their own people and [their own] boats (Beaglehole 1955:II:572-3).

With the benefit of hindsight, and Beaglehole's analysis of the private writings that paralleled Cook's official journals, it would seem that the Maoris had cautiously responded to persistant questioning with a contrived silence to what they realised was less than neutral interest. Under their own code, some retaliation and retribution against them would have been mandatory had these new foreigners concluded that they should share in the guilt for the deaths of any earlier foreigners. A discreet silence, enforced by the chiefs or the tohunga, seemed logical then — as it does now.

Nine days later, from a chief they named “Pedero” (perhaps Petero or Pi Te Ro), they received news of the safe arrival and departure of the Adventure. Pedero “further asserted that neither her nor any other ship had been stranded on the Coast as had been reported” (Beaglehole 1955:II:576).

Their Maori hosts there were not always truthful, but some of the variety in the stories they told Cook and his men may have arisen through tribal differences and, indeed, tribal jealousies. The foreign visitors tended to regard all Maoris in Queen Charlotte Sound as if from one tribe, or at least privy to the same knowledge. But Cook found some Maoris had a much better knowledge of distant events than others. Although he met many Maoris who could describe the strait and the southern parts of the North Island, he met none with comparable local knowledge of the northern South Island, and very little indeed was known of the coasts still further south. Thus Cook may well have been among recent immigrants from the north, and some of the confusion in what the foreigners were told would be less unclear if recognised as coming from different, competing groups.

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To recapitulate, in 1770 and again in 1773, Captain Cook dismissed suggestions that he had been preceded by a foreign ship, but, in 1777, he regretted his earlier opinion and concluded, very specifically, that a foreign vessel had been wrecked, somewhere near the straits, shortly before his first visit.

The Ship of Rongotute

A possibility that does not seem to have been examined fully 3 is that Cook's mystery ship was one and the same as “the ship of Rongotute” which is mentioned, in this general vicinity and at about this time, in several Maori traditions. Some of these stories were collected by reliable, fluent Pakeha from respected Maori elders at an early time when other Maori oral traditions were still being handed on with sacred precision. (And, incidentally, the time gap is not great: for comparison, Captain Cook's wife Elizabeth died in 1835, and was thus a contemporary of both Cook's Maori informants and several of these Pakeha collectors!)

One specific account was recorded by Richard Taylor, apparently from elders of the Ngati-hau tribe near Wanganui. Its antiquity is attested by the elders' statement that this was the first time they had seen iron — a commodity widely distributed around New Zealand's coasts by Captain Cook. Taylor wrote:

Very many years ago, before many of the full grown men now living were born, a vessel commanded by a person whom the natives called Rongotute, touched at Aropawa 4 where they committed such excesses that the natives became exasperated and, having murdered the whole of the crew, they cooked and ate them. This was said to have taken place [well] before Te Rauparaha came from Waikato. Having stripped the vessel of everything they thought useful, they left her stranded on the beach. The plates which they had obtained, from the patterns drawn on them, were called te upoko o Rewarewa, doubtless in consequence of their having been afflicted with a disease so called which resembled the small pox, marking their bodies all over. These [plates] they broke up and having drilled a hole threw them, they wore as breast ornaments. One article which they got is said to have been shaped like a mere and was consequently highly prized. It is now in the possession of some person belonging to the Nga ti hene tribe. The natives say this was the first time they ever saw iron. The spike nails they sharpened, and having fixed them on a handle like a native adze which was beautifully carved and ornamented with pieces of shell and dogskin and smeared over with the resin of the Tarata — Pittosporum crassifolium — which when it hardened so gums the lashing together that it cannot shrink. This was carried in their belts when they went to fight, and called kai tangata. Aug. 15. 1848. H.B. [or W.B.] (Taylor MSS, notebook 7:113) 5
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Despite the opprobrium he might well have expected then for querying, even indirectly, the primacy of Captain Cook's claim to have secured New Zealand for the British Crown, Taylor published a very similar version in 1855 in which he noted more explicitly that the name of the disease “rewharewha” arose from the spotted pattern of marks like smallpox left all over their bodies, and that the broken pieces of the dinner plates were worn as ear ornaments as well as on the breast. He also attributed the tradition to “the natives of Cook Strait” and the name of the tribe holding the relic of the visit was published as “Nga-te-hine”. (Taylor 1855:207-8.)

Another version of this story was published by John White with confident embellishments and an attribution, six years earlier, to the elders of the Ngatihau tribe. John White gave this story an explicit title, namely “An Account of the Ancient (European) Navigator Called Rongo-Tute”: [from the] Nga-ti-hau [tribe]:

In the days of old, and in the days when the very old people of these days [1842] were very young, a vessel came to Aro-pawa and Rongo-tute was the name of the chief leader [captain] of that ship; and the crew of the ship were evil, and committed evil on the Maori people, so that the Maori people being so annoyed and disgusted with them, and so enraged by the evil of their ways, attacked the ship, took her, and killed all the crew. They were cooked and eaten.
This act was committed a long long time before Te Rauparaha migrated to the south from Kawhia to Whanga-nui-a-tara (Port Wellington.).
The people of this ship having been killed by the Maori of Aro-pawa, the Maori collected the ropes from the masts, and from the sails and from the ship, and the ship was allowed to drift on to the beach where the various things on board were taken by the Maori, and the dinner plates were broken by the Maori and holes bored in the pieces which were worn by the people instead of the greenstone hei tiki. Now the figures on some of these pieces of plate were not unlike Maori trees, and hence these imitation plate hei-tiki were called Te-upoko-o-rewarewa (the head of the rewa-rewa [flower of the tree] Knightia excelsa) as the Maori thought the figures on the plates were like that Maori tree.
But it was not long after these Europeans had been killed and eaten by the Maori, that the epidemic came on all the district. This was a fever, and little punctures were on the body of the invalid, and thousands of Maori people died of this disease.
From this ship a weapon was obtained which was not unlike a Maori mere pounamu in shape, which is still in the possession of the chiefs of the tribe called Ngati-hine, and that was the first time that iron was seen by the Maori. The nails were rubbed on sharp stones to make them have a sharp point, these nails were then put on to a long spear. Other pieces of iron were made into axes like our stone axes which we called kapu. For these, carved handles were made, and to these dogs' hair of our Maori dog was tied and pieces of paua (haliotis) shell - 14 were inset, and these were also rubbed over with the gum of the tarata tree (Pittosporum eugenioides). One of those axes was called by the name Kai-tangata (man-eater) (White 1888:5:120-1).

Although the possibility cannot be excluded that White heard an identical rote memory account separately, it seems much more likely that White recast and embellished the Taylor manuscript account, or perhaps the version published in 1855. Taylor had learned Maori in the Wanganui area where he heard the globalised w of that dialect as w, and wrote it so, though it corresponds to the wh in other dialects. In the Wanganui dialect, the pattern on the plates was called Te upoko rewarewa, and White, not recognising the Wanganui dialect's globalised w, wrongly interpreted Taylor's rewarewa as referring to the tree now called New Zealand Honeysuckle, and inserted a story not in Taylor about the patterns on the plates being like the flower of the honeysuckle. Moreover, it seems from other clues that White, who had learned Maori in the Hokianga, had translated the text he later published in Maori from Taylor's version in English.

There are however other, apparently separate, accounts of Rongotute. As early as 1859, Thomson, who had by then lived 11 years in New Zealand, published the following brief report:

Maori tradition states that a European vessel manned by a man named Rongotute visited the southern part of the North Island of New Zealand about the year 1740, and that from some cause, the natives killed the crew and plundered the vessel (Thomson 1859:1:229).

Elsdon Best recorded several accounts of Rongotute. In 1912 he wrote:

In divers early works on New Zealand, reference is made to a tradition that a European vessel was wrecked at some place in the southern part of New Zealand during the eighteenth century. The accounts so published are extremely brief and vague. When however a strong force of Nga-Puhi, Ngati-Whatua and related tribes raided the Wairarapa district in 1820, they were informed by natives of that district whom they captured, that a vessel known to them as Rongotute had been wrecked on the coast there long before that time, and that the crew had been killed, cooked and eaten by the local natives, after which occurrence a very fatal epidemic had broken out among them.
On enquiry of Te Whatahoro of Wairarapa if he had heard his elders speak of the above vessel, he replied that he had, that Rongotute was the name by which the captain of the ship was known, that the ship was wrecked at Te Kawakawa (Cape Palliser) after the first coming of Captain Cook.
This occurred in the time of Whakataha-ki-te-rangi, a local cheiftain, 6 Who - 15 obtained from the wreck a tomahawk which he mounted on a long handle of whale's bone, and named Te Whata-o-te-rangi [i.e., his food store.] The vessel was driven ashore by a southern gale. The natives obtained many articles from the wreck, including red blankets, which they called tahurangi (Best 1912:26-7).

Best added that, though he was not told the Maoris killed the survivors, this was probably the case, it being their practice, 7 but that he had heard that three survivors had put to sea in a boat and had gone up the east coast. Best then mentioned various Pakeha estimates of the time of this wreck: “the Rev Jas. Buller puts the date about 1640, two years before Tasman's arrival … Thomson makes the same remark about the ship and crew, but puts the date at about 1740. Mr John White puts the date of Rongotute's ship at a time shortly after Cook's arrival” (Best 1912:26-7). However, White stated that the first time the Maoris saw iron was from Rongotute, and as he knew of Cook's gifts of iron around the coast began from 1769, White really implied Rongotute preceded Cook — as White made clear elsewhere.

The various Maori reports are, thus, not entirely consistent, which could perhaps indicate there were several different accounts preserved by different tribes living as far apart as Wanganui, Wairarapa and Queen Charlotte Sound. Yet they would not be inconsistent with a composite scenario along the following lines: that the vessel arrived and sheltered in Cook Strait, either near Queen Charlotte Sound or Wellington Harbour; that the initial good relations with the Maoris ashore later deteriorated with some or all of the crew slaughtered; and that the vessel was either wrecked immediately or drifted some distance, before going ashore and being dashed to pieces, apparently on rocks off Cape Palliser.

The locality of this catastrophe is given by White alone as at Queen Charlotte Sound, and by the other accounts as at Palliser Bay, or at Cape Palliser itself. A crew in distress wishing to go ashore for fresh water or food, or one that had already satisfied such needs nearby, might choose to lay off Palliser Bay on the assumption a wreck on a beach would be better than on rocks, but at all times this coast is a dangerous roadstead exposed to strong southerly gales. The cape itself, Te Kawakawa, has foul ground, strong rip tides and extensive sunken rocks. Even today, vessels are warned that Cape Palliser “should not be approached within a distance of two miles, even in fine weather” (New Zealand Pilot 1958:111.)

There have been many wrecks at Cape Palliser in historical times. One at least prompted the Maoris living nearby in 1897 to recall a wreck before 1820:

A very interesting relic of the early days has been brought to light by workmen - 16 engaged at Cape Palliser Lighthouse in the shape of an old cannonade. Evidently it is not a signal gun because it still shows the slight veins. The gun, which is in a fair state of preservation, is three feet nine inches in length.… The Maoris who live in the neighbourhood state that 80 years ago, a French man-o-war was wrecked in the vicinity, and that only two survivors reached the shore. What became of them “this deponent sayeth not.” They may have made a meal for the ancestors of the present historians. There is no doubt however that there had been a wreck in this vicinity many years ago, for other wreckage in the shape of iron bands can be seen in smooth water. The old weapon is to be taken to Wellington and burnt in one of the foundries there to see if there are any marks on it that will lead to the identification of the vessel (New Zealand Herald November 19, 1897).
This cannonade, or carronade, could have come from any one of a number of early wrecks (e.g., the local trader David of Hobart lost there in August 1841, or the whaleship Elbe of Poughkeepsie, New York, in December 1841). Its main value in this review may be only that it prompted local Maori to associate the earliest foreign wreck with Cape Palliser rather than Palliser Bay.


Most of the Maori traditions of Rongotute mention that, after some of the crew had been killed or eaten, a great epidemic followed, apparently taking effect particularly quickly, with unusual virulence and usually fatal. It affected many parts of the North Island, being recorded in traditions as far away as in the Nga Puhi in North Auckland, and at Wanganui where the local Maoris suffered a great affliction (Smith 1899:8:203; 14:151). It may have been a smallpox.

A rather jumbled account, which probably has the first epidemic mixed with subsequent epidemics, notes:

In 1790 [sic] an epidemic broke out among the Maoris which they called Rewharewha. Thomson says it was of a dysenteric nature and was occasioned by the visit of an English ship to Mercury Bay, [but] of such a visit, there is no record. Colenso said it destroyed nearly three fifths of the people of the southern parts of the North Island (Sherrin and Wallace 1890:115; Thomson 1859:1:229).
In no Maori account is this epidemic associated with the visits of Captain Cook, who, incidentally, believed a venereal disease had been introduced to New Zealand before the arrival of his own crew.

The name of the epidemic is curious. As noted, John White was probably mistaken when he said the name “rewarewa” arose from a flower design, as Taylor had earlier said it referred to the spotty pattern the smallpox-like - 17 disease left all over their bodies. However, the same name, “te upoko-o-te-rewharewha” and more simply “rewharewha”, has subsequently been given to any epidemic, including influenza or even to common head colds, and it is still in common use today.

Maori Tribal Memories

It is, of course, entirely valid to question why Maori traditions are so weak on such a major event as a pre-Cook visit (while also remembering it is equally valid that an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence). But this scarcity of traditions about Rongotute is not an unusual case: there is only one isolated Maori story about Tasman's visit, very few about Cook's visits and not many accounts of the earliest Pakeha who followed him. Given the importance of these first culture contacts at various points around the New Zealand coast, this is a notable lack of recall among a society famous for their oral traditions relating to tribal descent, social organisation and land.

But such oral traditions were highly selective, and not all issues of interest today were judged at the time to be worthy of oral record. Many other events and incidents in the early years of culture contacts were ignored or became forgotten in the extensive, pervasive disruptions the Pakeha arrival brought to Maori society. Introduced crops, especially potatoes, altered the sinews of war; Pakeha weapons removed the restraints on a warrior society previously limited to hand-to-hand combat; and introduced diseases weakened some formerly populous tribes disproportionately (e.g., Ngai Tahu). In the far north after 1810 and, more particularly, after Hongi secured nearly 1,000 muskets in 1820, Nga Puhi pushed southwards the tribes around Tai Tokerau (the Bay of Islands), South Auckland, the Waikato and Thames. The tribes already there were pushed south into far more devastating conflicts than ever before among the Arawa and Tuwharetoa of the central North Island and the Atiawa of northern Taranaki. From there, a ripple effect spread destruction on other tribes as far afield as Ngati Porou on the East Coast, Rangitane of Manawatu and Ngatikahungunu of Wairarapa and, after 1824, even across Cook Strait to the Marlborough Sounds and Nelson, and to Ngai Tahu elsewhere in the South Island. But these waves of war, some of which were slow infiltrations between related tribes rather than formal enemy invasions, are well known and need not be reviewed here.

By contrast, the impact such conquests had on the retention of Maori traditions seems less well recognised. In brief, those conquered males who survived were bereft of mana and wives, and seldom in any position to pass on aspects of their tribal heritage that differed from, or conflicted with, those of their new masters. Conquered women, though enslaved, had some capacity - 18 to rectify this loss by informing their new children, but even this possibility was limited, particularly where women were not normally entrusted with the sacred task of conveying tribal knowledge from generation to generation. Thus, the collective memory of quite recent events, other than those directly relevant to whakapapa, mana and land, were often lost in quite a short time. For example, for southern New Zealand, written historical records show there were numerous visits by foreign sealers between 1803 and 1809 — indeed, many more visits than in the far north. But southern Maori sources have remarkably little to say of Pakeha visitors until two decades later, from about 1829, when the whalers began to arrive. In the interim, the earlier Maori there had been incorporated by the Ngai Tahu. They, in turn, were decimated by in-family feuding facilitated by Pakeha weapons, were greatly weakened by introduced diseases, and were disrupted by the ripple effects of the invasions southwards across Cook Strait by northern tribes.

The south side of Cook Strait was, to borrow a geological analogy, a human “shatter belt” in the conflicts of successive waves of tribal invaders. By the 17th century the Ngai Tahu-pounamu had invaded the Ngati Mamoe and other older groups. In turn, during the mid-17th century, the Ngai Tahu led by Ngati Kura spread south across the strait, followed in the first half of the 18th century by several intermingled groups of common Kurahaupo descent. Subsequent small waves brought south across the straits Ngati Kuia, their relatives Ngati Apa and, in more recent times, Ngati Ira and Rangitane of Horowhenua.

Thus, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Maori residents of the Queen Charlotte Sound area changed several times before and after Captain Cook's visits. By the time other Pakeha recorders arrived after 1840, they had changed again with the devastating invasions of the musket warriors of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Atiawa.

Recent studies have compared the historical and ethnological records collected in the same area of Queen Charlotte Sound by Cook and his scientists from 1773 to 1777, and later by the Russian explorers under Bellingshausen who stayed there for 10 days in May 1820. These studies show clearly that the Russians encountered a very different people from those Cook had befriended. Those earlier Maori, probably Ngati Apa, were mobile food-gatherers without agriculture, passing between temporary villages in constant fear of attacking raids by their similarly itinerant neighbours. The Maori whom the Russians met were not their descendants but were perhaps Ngati Kura and Ngati Ira. They were cultivators of potatoes, living a relatively settled life linked to defending hill forts or pa, but with their economic livelihood based firmly on agriculture and trade rather than war. But the population had fallen sharply from the 400 - 500 whom Cook encountered to - 19 only 80-100 in 1820. Moreover, these later Maori were virtually exterminated by Te Rauparaha and his Atiawa allies by 1828, and the tiny remnant enslaved and extinguished, culturally as well as physically, by 1840 (Barratt and O'Regan 1988.)

Similar, though less well documented, changes were wrought over the centuries by waves of conquerors on the tribes and hapuu living throughout the wider Nelson-Marlborough region, as well as those living on the northern shores of the strait. Thus, in many areas, the Maori inhabitants in the 1840s were relatively recent arrivals with little if any residual knowledge of the events relating to the tribes their recent forefathers had conquered and replaced. 8

O'Regan has commented on this “notable poverty of Maori traditional history in the 50 to 100 years before the pakeha arrival” in the Raukawa-moana area, including both sides of Cook Strait. That influx of successive tribes disrupted Maori society which, in turn, destroyed not only ancestral memories of events in earlier generations but also time-honoured ways of recording tribal histories. O'Regan found, however, that among the Ngati Ira of Wairarapa, now called Ngatikahungunu, there remained useful knowledge of activities of the Ngati Kuri hapuu of Ngai Tahu when they lived at Tory Channel on the south side of Cook Strait. (O'Regan 1987: 40, 141). Consequently, it is not at all surprising that the Maori met by the Pakeha recorders after 1840 failed to pass on coherent reports of the first foreign visitors, including consistent, detailed accounts of Rongotute. By then, any knowledge about the visit of Rongotute 50 or more years earlier could well have been exterminated around Cook Strait by successive waves of new conquerors. Fortunately, however, their distant relatives as far away as Wanganui, whom White called Nga-ti-hau, had been less harassed in the intervening years, and were able to give Taylor the best surviving account of the ship of Rongotute. In these circumstances, the fact that this Ngati-hau report is neither detailed nor complete should not be used to justify its dismissal.

To recapitulate, what emerged from Cook's ever-cautious comments was his growing conviction that there had indeed been a visit by a foreigner before his own. The various Maori accounts contain striking parallels, too much so to justify their joint dismissal as coincidentally similar mistakes. Scepticism is healthy, of course, especially when neither source on its own is convincing, and when no tangible artefacts of Rongotute remain. Nevertheless keeping a receptive, open mind on the “possibility” — or perhaps “outside possibility” — that Cook's predecessor and Rongotute were one and the same, is healthy too, at least if it reflects a capacity to welcome and judge new options on their merits, rather than to favour instead a simply rigid negative.

- 20

Some of the past reluctance to accept a foreign visit before Cook has been apparently based on the belief that there could be no motive for, or purpose behind, such a visit to the far south. Certainl, it is true that, before Cook was chosen to go exploring in the name of science and knowledge, merchant princes and royal powers did not willingly send valuable vessels into the unknown and into oblivion. An insistent search for a motive for such an early visit seems a distraction, however, when the most likely reason for an arrival in New Zealand before Tasman or Cook would be through misadventure at sea. An unintentional visit by a ship in distress, which found insufficient relief on New Zealand shores and perished, seems much more likely, and at least a “possibility”.

At least two possible sources for the ship of Rongotute deserve further consideration. Each year throughout the 18th century a substantial number of trading vessels from Europe crossed the southern expanses of the Indian Ocean. These were the Dutch, English and other traders voyaging to the East Indies and to China. The Dutch discovered at an early stage that, rather than steer direct from the Cape of Good Hope for India, Indonesia and China, it was quicker to go east, keeping well south until in the vicinity of the islands of St Paul and Amsterdam (Richards 1984:24). Thereafter, their vessels turned north-north-east to run along the north-west coast of Australia towards Timor, the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) and Java. Some Dutch vessels were wrecked on that desert coast, and others vanished en route “somewhere” in the southern Indian Ocean. By as early as 1696, the Dutch had lost so many vessels that an expedition with three ships was dispatched from Cape Town under Willem de Vlamingh to explore the Indian Ocean and western Australia and to search for missing ships, including the Ridderschap von Hollandt, which had been lost between the Cape and Batavia in 1695. Later French, English and American traders developed similar routes, though usually a little to the west to keep further off the Australian coast (Richards 1991:39).

Their trading vessels, known as “East-Indiamen”, were large stately ships of up to 1000 tons, by far the largest vessels then afloat anywhere, but were poorly designed and top-heavy. They remained unseaworthy until shipbuilding improved markedly in the 1780s and 1790s. East-Indiamen were well stocked in preparation for long transoceanic voyages to the Indies and beyond, so, if a vessel entered the near-constant “Roaring Forties” south and east of the Cape of Good Hope, but for some reason failed to turn north, it would be borne ever eastwards. With ample provisions, its crew might remain fit for a long time and, if they could keep their wooden vessel afloat, they might hope to eventually reach land. The only large islands that lay directly - 21 across their path, as an obstruction or hazard to a drifting, disabled vessel, were Tasmania and New Zealand.

While the ship of Rongotute might perhaps be one of the “East-Indiamen” that went off course and missing soon after leaving the Cape, there are no strong clues whether it might have been Dutch, French or English. An interesting speculation arises, however, from the (late) mention of red blankets. A feature of the 18th-century trade from Europe to China was the extent to which the European traders had very little to offer, other than scarce silver “specie”, that the inhabitants of China could be relied upon to buy. England's colonies in India were developed primarily in order to provide goods saleable still further east, especially in China. (Harlow 1952:62; 1964:529). Thus, English vessels often set out across the Indian Ocean with relatively few wares from Europe. One exception, however, was a peculiarly English product, coarse-woven, part-wool, broadcloths known as “camlets”, which could be used as blankets in the colder interior in China (Morse 1926:11). They were usually red.

Red blankets were one of the items remembered as looted from the wreck of Rongotute. These the Wairarapa Maori called “tahurangi”, which was probably an elaborate play on words, as both “tahu” and “rangi” can mean “weather”, or “winter weather”, while “tahutahu” can mean “glowing red like a fire”, and “tahuku” is an aristocratic cloak. The reason why red was so important is unknown, but a preference for red began at a very early date: Cook obtained all the best curios traded at Queen Charlotte Sound in September 1773 because he was the only one with red “Otaheite cloth and Red Baze”, and the local Maori would accept no other till his stock was exhausted. The preference for red persisted, but all that can be noted here is that the red blankets of Rongotute were memorable.

Casualties Off Cape Horn

A second possibility that merits equal consideration is that the ship of Rongotute was a trader that had become disabled off the justifiably dreaded Cape Horn, and had drifted from there, on the constant winds and currents, half-way round the globe till its path was blocked by New Zealand. By 1760, there was a considerable volume of coastal trade not only on the Atlantic coast of South America, but also round Cape Horn to and from the Spanish settlements in the Pacific. Some vessels from the Pacific rounded Cape Horn carrying large cargoes of food to be consolidated at the River Plate and at Rio de Janeiro for export to Spain and Portugal, respectively. By the 1770s, these local traders had been augmented by a few British and American whalers and sealers frequenting the Falkland Islands and the coasts of Patagonia (Richards - 22 MS n.d.). All these hardy sailors feared and detested the bad weather and storms off Cape Horn — and with good justification, for it took a very heavy toll on their ill-designed vessels.

Between Cape Horn and New Zealand there is no land, and the prevailing westerly winds cross vast unbroken stretches of the southern Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Because of the earth's rotation and the Coriolis effect, the prevailing near-constant westerly winds and the strong ocean currents tend to be deflected slightly, but consistently, from the south-west towards the northeast. The old mariners en route to China knew this and used these consistent currents and winds to cross the southern Indian Ocean throughout the 18th century. But today, it may need explaining that the same forces would apply equally, though still slowly, to a disabled or unmanned vessel drifting across these oceans, namely, the westward drift would be deflected slightly to the north-east.

Recent scientific studies in the southern oceans have shown surprisingly fast drift “voyages” from the vicinity of Cape Horn. In January 1977 and January 1981, Dr Nigel Wace, of the Australian National University, dropped well-sealed liquor bottles in Drake Passage south of Cape Horn. One was found 80 months later on Easter Island, one on Sandy Cape on the north-west of Tasmania after 48 months, and two more after 33 and 32 months, respectively, at Massacre Bay, near Peterborough in Victoria, and on Rakaia Beach on the South Island of New Zealand. Yet another took only 26 months to drift from Drake Passage to Strachan Beach on Tasmania. (Wace 1979 and personal communication). The bottle that reached Rakaia Beach had averaged a minimum rate of 11 1/4 miles per day! (Wace 1990:1-20).

These low-lying bottles travelled by current alone with scarcely any wind assistance. Given the constant strong winds in those southern latitudes, the drift time would certainly be very much less for a high-sided, wooden sailing vessel with a blunt stern, even if it had no masts and sails. How much shorter is not at all clear, but a reduction to under six months may not be unrealistic. And many of the vessels entering the Pacific round Cape Horn carried food for many months, as did the food-carrying traders on the coasts of Patagonia, Argentina and Brazil. With this in mind, the “possibility” of a disabled or semi-disabled, high-sided, wooden sailing vessel drifting slowly from Cape Horn to New Zealand before 1770 no longer seems so unlikely.

Some vessels did travel long distances and reach unusual resting places. In January 1810, in a bay on the exposed, iron-bound coast near the South Cape of Stewart Island, sealers found a huge topmast “64 feet from the heel to the upper part of the cheeks”, which was well preserved along with its iron fittings (McNab 1907:111.) And, later that year, when Macquarie Island was discov- - 23 ered, there were already on shore “several pieces of wreck of a large vessel, apparently very old, high up in the grass”. For unstated reasons, it was first thought this was a French vessel from the voyage of La Pérouse, though this was subsequently proved false (Cumpston 1968:15). Similarly, in Sydney in June 1802 Governor King reported in detail on wreckage found on King Island in Bass Strait, stating though this “did not appear more than three or four months old”, which was perhaps confirmed by the discovery on shore of “an English cat” (Historical Records of Australia, Series 1:3:522-3). While it is impossible to establish now whence these wrecks came, a good case can be made for the latter at least, that probably it had drifted from Cape Horn or the Atlantic coast of South America (Richards 1991).

In January 1992, the Government of Victoria offered a reward of $A250,000 for the discovery of the “Mahogany ship” which, when previously seen in the sands near Warrnambool many decades ago, was thought to be of 16th-century Portuguese design and origin (Evening Post January 16, 1992). If a Portuguese or Spanish ship of that vintage is discovered there, or elsewhere in southern Australia or New Zealand, its origin is much more likely to be from Brazil or Argentina than from the Moluccas, Timor, Macao or the Philippines!


There are “other”, very anecdotal, mentions of foreign “arrivals” in New Zealand before Captain Cook or Captain Tasman. Some are from traditional Maori sources and others were collected by Pakeha at an early date. But these mentions are so short and unspecific that their claims are unsustainable. Unless some new supporting information emerges, which must be most unlikely now, they can never be investigated further nor taken very seriously. At best “outside possibilities”, that status is unlikely ever to change. In addition, however, there are at least four other, rather different, signs of supposed foreign arrivals which, while no less imprecise, anecdotal and unsatisfactory for serious study, nevertheless do establish an important point when taken cumulatively.

“Korotangi is a stone bird said by the Maori to have been brought from Hawaiki by them in their Tainui canoe” (Tregear 1889:499). It remains a highly treasured taonga of the Tainui people. Korotangi is a lifelike crouching bird, though not of any identifiable species, 26 cm long, weighs over 2 kg and is made of very dark green serpentine unknown in New Zealand. Metal tools (also unknown in pre-Pakeha New Zealand) have been used to carve it carefully in a strongly Asian style not in accord with any known Maori or Polynesian art forms. Recent suggestions vary greatly, some favouring - 24 Indonesian, rather than Indian, art affinities, while others mention a very recent, probably European, origin.

Korotangi was found in a deep hole under a manuka tree, probably in, or shortly before, the 1860s. It came into the possession of an early Pakeha settler, Major Drummond Hay, of Cambridge. There it was seen by an (unnamed!) “old chieftainess” who immediately identified it as the Korotangi that features in several evidently ancient legends (Tregear 1889:499-508). These legends have been recorded from several locations in the North Island (Graham 1917:138-40).

There are, of course, no grounds for disputing these particulars —nor for confirming them. Determining whether this Korotangi was the one on board the Tainui canoe, or that it arrived on some unknown foreign ship before Tasman or Cook, or was brought by some later Pakeha who promptly abandoned it — all remain, of course, “outside possibilities”.

Alas, much the same can be said for the “Tamil Bell” William Colenso “found” in 1836 being used by Maori as a cooking pot “in the interior of the North Island”. It was said to have been found when a large tree blew down, and had belonged to the tribe for “many generations”. A “cast bronze bell, or part of a bell”, it has been in the National Museum since 1862. It bears an embossed inscription which, after several varying translations, is said to read “The bell of Moha Din Buksch's ship”, which points to the Marakkaiyah, a seafaring people formerly Hindu but converted to Islam. That in turn suggests it dates from about 400 or 500 years ago, from south India or, equally possibly, from Indonesia (Bagnall and Petersen 1948:101-2,468-9). Naturally, this so-called Tamil bell has prompted speculation of a visit to New Zealand by an Asian ship up to 500 years ago, a “possibility” said to have been heightened by the discovery in 1877 of the wreck of a supposedly Asian vessel buried in a sandy beach near Raglan. Again, on the available evidence, that indeed could be its origin, but equally well, it may not. The “evidence” is too imprecise, as is Colenso's account of its discovery, which was probably somewhere in Northland, so there is no way to advance from “outside possibility” to “possibility” or better.

The third surviving tangible artefact often dubiously accorded a pre-Tasman or pre-Cook arrival in New Zealand is the “Spanish” helmet dredged up in Wellington Harbour and deposited in the Dominion Museum in 1904 (The Dominion February 28, 1924). It has been cited as possible support for a wide range of theories, including unknown Portuguese and Spanish voyagers to Australia, New Zealand and Island Pacific. But, as Beaglehole concluded, “its arrival is unknown and one piece of headgear does not make a discovery. It may have got into the harbour in any one of a dozen different ways” (Beaglehole 1961:xii).

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A fourth and much less known speculation concerns the possible early arrival of the New Zealand otter, which was known to several early groups of South Island Maori as “kaureke” and “waitoreke”. Tracks were examined in 1861 and described in detail by the experienced scientist von Haast, and there is a mass of anecdotal reports from Southland this century (Von Haast 1877:44, 48). However, “most specialists find it simpler to ignore the problems that it implies, by [simply] dismissing its existence out of hand” (Heuvelmans 1958:246). Nevertheless, there are reputable scientists who believe at least a shadow of doubt remains in favour of its presence in New Zealand at some time. By far the best qualified person to examine this closely, Pollock, had had extensive experience studying otters elsewhere in surroundings where their presence was unknown to local inhabitants. He cautioned strongly against dismissing their existence, arguing instead that the mass of evidence, though not in itself conclusive, establishes at least a prima facie case deserving further scientific examination. He suggested such a water-living, fish-eating animal might well have survived on a vessel drifting on storm winds from the Indian Ocean, or the Coral Sea, until wrecked on New Zealand's west coast (Pollock 1970:133, 181).

Until the bones, body or something else tangible from a waitoreke are found, analysed and confirmed, that “foreign arrival” too must remain a shadowy “possibility”. But, like Korotangi, the Tamil Bell and the Spanish helmet, waitoreke directs attention to the arrival in New Zealand by drift voyages of inanimate wreckage and, just perhaps, of living items too. In each case, nothing at all can be proved beyond doubt, but it is worth making the point that few, if any, island coasts anywhere have been totally without such flotsam, and New Zealand is certainly no exception. As noted already, on the prevailing currents and the near-constant strong winds of the Roaring Forties, comparable floating debris of bottles, buoys and plastics continue to reach New Zealand today across amazingly long distances over the great southern ocean (Wace 1990:1-20). Indeed, geography alone does not argue against such arrivals but, rather, very much in favour of them, here as elsewhere round the globe.

Those drift arrivals are tangible, proven “facts”, yet there has been an odd reluctance to acknowledge that New Zealand's comparative physical isolation is unlikely to have left it in times past totally immune from drift voyages and, just possibly, from drift voyagers too. Curiously, the likelihood of accidental and drift voyages among the islands of Polynesia has been debated vigorously, and sometimes extended to cover drift voyagers arriving in New Zealand from the north, but this has not stimulated comparable consideration of the potential, and indeed “likelihood”, of some accidental “drift voyages” arriving from the far west. The chances of survival of living arrivals from the - 26 warm north may be far and away greater than arrivals from the cool southwest, but the “possibility” of arrivals from the west, too, should not be just ignored or dismissed.


There will always be some tales that, like flying saucers, ghosts and fairies, cannot be dismissed, yet cannot be taken seriously either, not even as “outside possibilities”. During 1991, considerable publicity and excitement were given to such a story, even though it states explicitly it is a fairy-tale! This was a rediscovery of the Maori account published by Mohi Turei in 1911 of some foreign visitors “Pakepakeha” seen fishing off the East Coast of the North Island, “long before the arrival of Captain Cook's ship”. Though this account refers to “a long boat with paddles on each side and rows of people in the middle”, which might sound perhaps rather like a rowboat, even a perfunctory examination of the whole text, as translated and republished, indicates the account's credibility is minimal. The Maori of that early time, who certainly did believe in fairies, said explicitly these were “turehu”, that is, fairy people, not humans. On taking their departure, these “turehu” rose up from the sea, and paddled away in mid-air before “being lost into the clouds”, perhaps rather like a flying saucer. Moreover, these “turehu” fairy folk “were sighted many times, before and after that”.

The New Zealand media, without any historical rigour at all, then launched into wild unsustainable speculation that translated these acknowledged fairies into “a possible Portuguese or Spanish discovery of New Zealand”. Anne Salmond must share at least some responsibility for this, however, as she had added to her translation of that fairy-tale the following extraordinary postscript:

A tribal account (discovered as this book went to press) of a visit by pale-skinned people to the East Coast, well before Captain Cook's arrival. Taken in conjunction with the “Dieppe” maps of the mid-sixteenth century that mark “Cap Fremose”, identified by some experts in historic cartography as the East Cape of New Zealand, and Hervé's controversial arguments about a landfall by a Spanish caravel just south of East Cape in 1526, this manuscript adds further interest to speculations about a possible Portuguese or Spanish “discovery” of New Zealand. “Pakepakeha” is a fair-skinned, human-like being, and its use in the haka quoted above, is a possible origin for the term “pakeha”, [for] European" (Salmond 1991:62).

Reports of foreign fairies visiting New Zealand before Captain Cook should be given exactly the same credence as the many reported sightings of fairies since his visit.

- 27

How a fairy-tale supports cartographic analysis of the Dieppe charts is unexplained: indeed, if there were some such connection between the two, it would surely bring the unsupported claims that Cape Fremose was East Cape into still further disrepute! A typical Dieppe chart shows that cape connected by continuous land to a coast just off Java and Sumatra. To thus ignore the Tasman Sea entirely, and to deny New Zealand its insularity, necessitates a cartographic and territorial selectivity that very, very few historical cartographers can accept. As long ago as 1970, Dr Stokes, a well-qualified New Zealand geographer, reviewed all the cartographic evidence of a possible European discovery of New Zealand before 1642. Since no new material evidence has emerged since then, her conclusion still stands, namely, that there are no charts or other documents that support such a speculation, but “nevertheless the scraps of evidence outlined, suspect as they are, will continue to bolster the speculations of the romantics who like to think of perhaps a Frenchman, or a Spaniard, or a Portuguese, or someone else, setting foot on our shores during the sixteenth century” (Stokes 1970:19).

The more recent speculations of Hervé merit no more mention than above, as they, too, are based more on ingenuity than evidence. They have attracted so little attention from scholars since 1983 that they also, like earlier fairytales, are not being taken seriously (Hervé 1983).

Repetition does not make things so, and the accumulation of more and more weak speculations does not give them more strength, but, on the contrary, may expose their common weaknesses.


No survey of possible foreign visitors to New Zealand before Cook or Tasman would be complete without considering the visit recorded by Samuel Marsden in August 1819, by Thomas Kendall in 1820 and by Duperrey in 1824.

When we arrived at the first village of Te-Ami [Taia-mai], we were introduced to the old chief, who appeared to be more than eighty years old but was full of life and spirits. He danced for joy when we gave him a chisel…From his hands, he appeared to have just returned from labour in the potato grounds…. He told us he had seen three generations and was in the middle of life when the first ship came to New Zealand. The captain's name he said was Stivers. *Two other ships came afterwards before Captain Cook. The captains of the two ships were killed by the natives near Cape Bret. Before their death they had killed many of the natives and destroyed one whole village in the Bay of Islands. [As a footnote in Marsden's text: “*Staivers — Hence another name for the potato, taewa, since he apparently supplied some seed”] (Elder 1932:208).
- 28

This informant, an active though elderly-looking grandfather, was probably less than 80, as Europeans frequently overestimated Maori ages. He was probably in his teens or older when Cook visited the Bay of Islands quite briefly 45 years earlier in 1769; and Marion du Fresne was there for a much longer visit in 1772. But the chief made no claim to have met either of them there. At that time, he and his tribe may well have lived further north, as there was a general southerly shift of Maori tribes, taking those formerly at the Bay to live “near Cape Bret” by the time of Marsden's visit in 1815. It has been suggested that this chief mistook the timing of the visit by Captain Stivers but, equally well, his confusion could have been over the timing of Cook's visit. His account is consistent with one ship before the two with Marion, and one after, which he may have called wrongly Cook's ship.

Thomas Kendall was not with Marsden when he met that old Maori, but may have heard of Stivers later from Marsden. But the translation of a waiata Kendall included in the second book ever published in Maori probably came from a source other than Marsden, and most likely from the chiefs Hongi and Waikato, who went to England with Kendall in 1819. The translation they and Kendall provided Professor Lee, which was published in 1820, equated “Taewa” with “Stivers — a man who is said to have visited the Bay of Islands before Captain Cook” (Kendall 1820:107; Smith 1899:213).

In April 1824, the French explorer Duperrey visited the Bay of Islands, where his men were helped greatly by the missionaries, though it was mentioned that Kendall, despite being probably the best-informed, was reluctant to be too forthcoming with the visitors in case he might convey errors. Yet it was almost certainly Kendall who was responsible for the next comment about Stivers which was recorded by Duperrey in French as follows: “Tasman does not seem to have had [land] contact at all, and this country was not visited [again] for a long time until a man named Stivers, probably Dutch, anchored at the Bay of Islands around 1766. Cook explored [later] on several voyages…” (Duperrey 1826:405). This is the first and only statement that Stivers anchored at the Bay of Islands, and that the event took place about three years before Cook's visit there. This is considerably more explicit than the information told Marsden five years earlier, and seems likely to have come from another source. It probably reflects a growing conviction by Kendall that Cook was not the first there. “Stivers” is a Dutch surname and also the name for a small coin, but Duperrey conveys a degree of doubt on this nationality greater than he attached to the other elements of this report.

If Stivers was a Dutchman, then there is, at least so far, nothing more that can be said of him. But it is worth noting that excellent records survive of the Dutch East India Company's trade with China and, if the name of Captain - 29 Stivers — or more likely Stuyvers or Stuivers — is recorded there, then there could yet be grounds for further speculation.

Another explanation could be that Stivers came rather later, and was English or American, but first it is worth examining further the Maori record of his gift of a noticeably distinctive type of seed potatoes. The Maori were already meticulous gardeners and gave Maori names to each new species of potato, taro, kumara and yam as they arrived from Europe, America and the Pacific. One species of potato was called “whanako”, which means “stolen”, no doubt because it was stolen from a visiting ship (Morton 1982:187). That there were many different varieties probably explains why the name used today for potatoes today in general varies from district to district: “rewai” from North Auckland to Rotorua, “parareka” on the East Coast, and “taewa” among the Tuhoe.

In his “Dictionary of the Maori Language”, Herbert Williams recorded the name: “taewa, and its variant spellings as taewha, taiawa, taiwa and taiwha, normally mean 1. a foreigner, 2. a cold or catarrh, or 3. a potato. It is not improbable the word represents the name of one Stivers who is said to have visited the Bay of Islands before Cook” (Williams 1957:357; Best 1925:135). Both the potato and a cold were introduced by the foreigner and named after him.

The use of “taewa” for a specific type of potato persisted in Northland, however, well into this century. Jack Lee has written: “My confirmation of the Stivers potato was given to me 50 years ago in Hokianga, by a Pakeha named Irvine who had lived with Maori from a very early age and was a fluent Maori speaker. He would be over 100 if alive now, and he certainly knew nothing of Marsden's or Kendall's writings. He just told me that “rewai” and “taewa” were names of potatoes, the latter being the name of the captain who introduced them (Mr Jack Lee, personal communication, June 1984).

To have been called “taewa” by the Maoris, the captain's name would have had to be pronounced closer to “Stivers” as in “sty”, with an “i” as in “ice” (as from St Ives), than to “Staivers” as in “straight”, or “Stavers” with a low front unrounded vowel as in “stay”. If the name they heard had been pronounced “Stavers”, the likely Maori transliteration would not have been “taewa”, but rather “tawa” or “taawa”. Similarly, exactly how Marsden and Kendall heard the initial s in the name they subsequently wrote as “Stivers” is not clear, as the Maori language lacked that sound, except as a hiss in certain haka. However, today we adopt quite readily unfamiliar sounds and unfamiliar names heard on radio and television and, apparently, their Maori informants did likewise.

The date of arrival of the first potatoes at the Bay of Islands is unknown. - 30 It seems too improbable that Stivers' potatoes were in New Zealand already but evaded entirely the close investigations of Maori gardens made by Cook, Banks, Monkhouse and their ever-hungry crew. It is not known whether Captain Cook left behind any of his precious potatoes during his short visit to the Bay of Islands in 1769, though he did so at Mercury Bay, which he found a much more friendly spot (Heaphy 1862:6; White 1889:5:126).

Moreover, three years later, Marion du Fresne mentioned at the Bay of Islands only “patates” or sweet potatoes, not “pomme des terres” or white potatoes. Foreign white potatoes, wheat, maize, peas and garden seeds were sent by Governor King to Doubtless Bay in 1793, and it was reported that some seeds were still growing there in 1794 (McNab 1914:85, 88). But the first potato gardens, “Extensive fields of potatoes, all very fine”, were recorded in 1801 at the Firth of Thames, where four Pakeha had been living since 1799 (McNab 1914:94). Either they had brought their own potatoes from Sydney and these had grown prodigiously in less than three years, or else these white potatoes had arrived at Thames before them. The first known exports, “some seven or eight tons of very fine potatoes”, were taken to Sydney from the Bay of Islands by Captain Rhodes in the whaleship Alexander in March 1803 (Sydney Gazette June 5, 1803). (Interestingly, the first pig, a prolific sow, was given to the Ngapuhi by Captain Robert Turnbull in the whaleship Britannia in 1801 or 1802, while another given by Captain Rhodes in the Alexander was offered for sale as early as June 1804) (Morton 1982:184; McNab 1914:100).

Thus, if an English or American Captain Stivers introduced his distinctive potatoes to North Auckland at an early date, it would seem likely this was “somewhere” between 1772 and 1803. If Stivers was on a well-equipped ship that could spare a few potatoes but was not in a planned voyage of exploration, then he was probably a trader or a whaler. The first vessel to take what later became well known and well used as “the easternmost route to China” — that is, south round Australia and through the Tasman Sea past New Zealand — was the Alliance of Philadelphia in October 1787, shortly before the convict colony was begun at Botany Bay and Port Jackson (Richards 1986:63). However, her arrival and her route created considerable comment among the Englishmen of the Honourable East India Company trading at Canton. Subsequent vessels taking that route, whether English or American, were also noted in their well-kept records there, and some also at Sydney. Moreover, since English traders to China had to be licensed in advance, there is very little, if any, chance that Stivers was an English trader to China who reached New Zealand but failed to reach his destination. A trading ship lost en route to China would have been certain to prompt recorded inquiries.

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For similar reasons, it is unlikely, though not impossible, that this vessel was a “letter of marque”, a privateer licensed in time of war to attack enemy shipping. Some English vessels did so on the Spanish west coast of South America before and after 1800, and several engaged in “forced trading” with the undefended Spanish settlements in the Pacific, but they were not many, and the name of Captain Stivers is not known among them at that time.

In looking for a motive for a vessel to visit the New Zealand area before 1803, the most obvious purpose would not be for trading, but for sealing or whaling, or both. Contrary to the view prevailing in New Zealand, the history and operation of these two trades are not shrouded in great secrecy. There are extensive, if little-studied, records, and there is seldom good cause to propose the presence of unknown vessels. Sealing began in New Zealand with a trial in 1792, but was not resumed until 1803 after the rookeries closer to Sydney had been decimated. (After an initial bonanza for five or six seasons, sealing at New Zealand virtually ceased in 1809 and was not resumed in any great volume until 1823.) The whaling potential of the Tasman Sea was examined and tested briefly by several whaleships in 1788 as soon as they had deposited their “live lumber” and stores at the convict settlement, and again in 1791. But, as ample whales could still be taken much closer to home off Brazil, South Africa and Chile, the new grounds in the Tasman Sea were not attractive at first. Several former whaleships delivered convicts to Sydney during 1794, but not all then went whaling, and those that did, went promptly to the well-established whaling grounds off Peru and the Galapagos Islands (Richards 1990:45).

New Zealand waters did not become attractive to British whalers until 1798. When the war with France began in 1793, French privateers harried and captured many of the slow-sailing whaleships. Moreover, although some of the remaining whaleships were sent into “safer” waters round Cape Horn, news reached London in November 1799 that the Spanish had seized 15 whaleships in the Pacific off South America (Historical Records of Australia, Series 1:3:741). However, by then the British whalefleet had been advised already to disperse. During 1798, Statute 38 Geo.III, c.57 extended the waters legally open to British whalers without requiring further licences from the monopolistic East India Company, to include all the seas lying between 51 degrees East and 180 degrees, and to the south of 15 degrees South. With the Indian Ocean and the Tasman Sea thus opened, a veritable fleet of six whaleships, owned by five main London merchants, arrived off New South Wales during 1798, and at least four remained some time whaling in the Tasman Sea. It was they who launched the New South Wales and New Zealand fisheries, discovering quickly that the best sperm whaling grounds - 32 lay just north of New Zealand from the Three Kings Islands to the Kermadecs.

No whaling captain named Stivers visited Sydney. This suggests his visit to New Zealand, if there was one, was probably before fishing off New Zealand became legal without a licence, i.e., before 1798. It is unlikely to have been until after the New Zealand grounds had been examined in 1791, and a year or two after the war with France which began in 1793 and which launched the great global dispersal of British whaling. The most likely time for the arrival of a whaling captain named Stivers is, thus, somewhere about 1798, which, though long after Cook, accords well with the first known export of white potatoes in 1803.

Although the surname Stavers is entirely absent in the comprehensive records of the American whale fishery, “Stavers” was, however, a famous name in British whaling at this period. Previously an Arctic whaler, John Stavers brought the British whaler Mellish home from the seas south of Britain in 1788. His subsequent whaling voyages, if any, are unknown (Jones 1968:7). Between 1793 and 1799, William Stavers made six or seven short whaling voyages, extending south as far as St Helena and Walvis Bay (Jones 1968:18-25). The only long period unaccounted for is the 14 months after he was reported at Walvis Bay in October 1793, until a return home in December 1794. However, while this leaves ample time for a cruise into the Indian Ocean and home along the route Cook had charted so well via New Zealand and round Cape Horn, on the pattern of whaling voyages at that time, it would seem more likely that Stavers did not make such a voyage then. It seems more likely that neither his early return home nor the start of a new short voyage was recorded in the contemporary records, and he may not have left the Atlantic fisheries until rather later than 1793. William Stavers certainly went further afield after 1800, including probably into the Pacific via Cape Horn: he was off the coast of Brazil in December 1801, and again on a later voyage at the end of 1802 and in mid-1803 before being captured by a French privateeer and recaptured by a British frigate and sent home in October 1803 (Jones 1968:32). Looking further at contemporary whaling voyages, it seems possible that Stavers made a voyage that included New Zealand about 1800. The first whaleships recorded at New Zealand that had not been to New South Wales were early in 1805 (McNab 1914:101), but Stavers could have called at any time after 1799 and before about 1803. Whether he did so then is, of course, mere conjecture.

William Stavers' first certain excursion into the Pacific was not until January and February 1808, when his Perseverance and another British whaler were reported at the Galapagos Islands after preying successfully on Spanish shipping on the Main. He reached home a year later, but soon set out - 33 on another privateering voyage in the 357-ton former whaler Seringapatam which, with 14 guns, was “the finest British ship in those seas”. Nevertheless, after some captures including a Nantucket whaler in July 1813 off the Galapagos, the Seringapatam and Captain Stavers were in turn captured by Captain Porter in the United States frigate Essex. William Stavers, “with the utmost terror in his countenance,” had to confess he had no letters of marque granting him privateer status, and was put in irons like a pirate (Long 1970:102). Nevertheless, after the peace of 1815, Stavers was listed in late-1816 as again in the Perseverance setting out on yet another whaling voyage to the South Seas (Jones 1968:49).

There followed a profusion of whaling voyages by a second generation of Captains Stavers — at least John 1815-23; John R. 1818-21; P. W. 1821-36; Francis 1824-35 and, apparently, others (Jones 1968:97). Several visited the Pacific, e.g., the Offley, Captain Stavers, was in the Bay of Islands in June 1832 (Sydney Herald, August 2, 1832). Several missionaries held Captain Thomas Stavers of the Tuscan in high regard (Williams 1838:466), an endorsement contrasting sharply, however, with several accounts of the young master of the London whaleship Coquette who, in 1825, was executed by the Spanish Governor at Guam after riotous drunken behaviour. His name was written by a journal-keeper on a later London whaleship as “Captain Frank Stivers” (Forster 1991:105; Beale 1839:335-9). An identical pronunciation of Stavers as “Stivers” occurs in the same journal for the captain of the Partridge, and in a separate report when that ship was attacked at Buka in 1831 or 1832 (Heberley MS n.d.). These two examples confirm that, although the British surname was written “Stavers”, it was sometimes pronounced “Stivers”. (In London, the home port of the Stavers, cockneys still pronounce paper as “piper”.)

All of which would seem to make it highly “probable” that Marsden's and Kendall's “Stivers” was not Dutch, nor before Cook but, rather, an English whaling captain named “Stavers” on an otherwise unrecorded visit, probably sometime after 1798 — or at least well before Marsden's own visit in 1819! This conclusion necessitates, however, recourse to suggesting that all the Maori informants were wrong either in their timing of Stivers' visit or that of Cook. The key tangible evidence from Maori sources, the naming of the potato, definitely favours a visit by an English “Captain Stivers”. The Stavers explanation seems more attractive than a Dutch “Captain Stuyvers” because it seems to gain credibility from a known “supporting” context. But the actual details of a Stivers or Stavers visit are probably no better established than other “visits” mentioned previously, and it may well be unwise to regard that context as heightening the credibility of a visit by Stivers or Stavers ahead of, - 34 for example, Rongotute. It is salutary to note that it is the absence of comparable contexts, rather than a difference in inherent detail, that makes the other “visits” seem so bald and comparatively unsustainable.


It is all too easy to dismiss these stories of pre-Cook visits to New Zealand. Perhaps some contain a kernel of truth, perhaps not, but, as noted before, an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so the only valid verdicts are “not proven”, and these, of course, are very different conclusions from “non-existent”.

As is evident in magic and at every circus, levels of credibility and acceptance vary greatly from individual to individual. My own conclusion is that, in terms of the original criteria, only the visit of Rongotute, as accepted by Captain Cook himself, and that of an English Captain “Stavers”, rank better than an “outside possibility”. And even these “possibilities” remain “not proven”.

After reviewing the meagre evidence, Rongotute's early visit seems an apparent “possibility” perhaps verging on a “probability”. Certainly, it seems credible to me that, before 1770, a foreign ship introduced to New Zealand a disease that depopulated the southern half of the North Island, and this facilitated, and made inevitable, the southward Maori migration that continued into the musket wars. In that case, a malign influence of the Pakeha invasion of New Zealand began before the visits of Captain Cook. And if, as the Maori and early missionary accounts agree, a “taewa” potato was introduced before Cook, then there was a positive foreign contribution then too.

What is needed now is probably not so much an intensive re-assessment of the existing fragmentary sources, on which there may never be a meeting of minds, but, rather, a determined multidisciplinary search to see whether any additional “sources” of any kind at all can be brought in from anywhere to illuminate further these shadowy margins of New Zealand's earliest Pakeha history.


I wish to acknowledge the enthusiasm and encouragement of the late Dr A. G. Bagnall and his critical comments on a very preliminary first draft. Others who have read drafts or parts of drafts and have commented constructively include Jocelyn Chisholm, Jack Lee, Michael King, Jock McEwen, and A. G. E. Jones. I am very grateful for their encouragement to continue. Much of this result reflects the consistently excellent support and assistance provided by librarians in many locations, but especially the librarians of the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington. Neverthe- - 35 less, responsibility for this venture into the shadowy margins of history, and the heresies — if any — must remain solely mine.

  • Bagnall, A. G., 1976. Wairarapa: An Historical Excursion. Masterton: Masterton Trust Land Trust.
  • —— and G. C. Petersen, 1948. William Colenso…his Life and Journeys. Wellington: Reed.
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  • Beaglehole, J. C. (ed.), 1955. The Journals of Captain James Cook on his Voyages of Discovery. 3 vols. Cambridge: Hakluyt Society. (Vol. 2, 1961.)
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  • —— 1962. The Endeavour Journals of Joseph Banks. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
  • Best, E., 1912. The Ship of Rongotute. Journal of the Early Settlers and Historical Association of Wellington, 1(1): 26-7.
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1   Beaglehole noted here: “I know of no place name corresponding to this: “whenua aroha” or aroa” is presumably the Maori equivalent. Wales, to whom this story was first told, gives the name as “Venua Arow” (Beaglehole 1955:2:572). However, this might just possibly translate as “whenua aro” (known land), or possibly even “whenua (te) Aro” (the land of Te Aro, now within Wellington city). The name Ara-paoa, now Arapawa, seems less likely.
2   Here Beaglehole suggested makes good sense if the Maoris had pointed over East Bay and beyond, in the general direction of Wellington Harbour.
3   I am grateful for some vigorous prompting by the late Dr A.G.Bagnall to continue to examine such material critically. As far as I know, he was the first to suggest in print that Cook's comments and the traditions of Rongotute might be considered in parallel. (See Bagnall 1976:16-21; and Best 1925: 135.)
4   Incorrectly named today Arapawa Island for Ara-paoa, the downward path of the whalebone weapon of Kupe, the discoverer who killed octopus or squid at Tory Channel.
5   I am grateful to Sharon Dell for drawing my attention to this source.
6   Possibly the same as Whakataha of Wairarapa who joined those made peace with Ngatitama in about 1826 (Best 1918:108). For this, however he would have had to have then been over 70, so this may be father and son, or two others with very similar names.
7   Shand 1892:203 mentioned this grim practice very explicitly.
8   For example, in order to gain information of the arrival of the first Pakeha in Wellington Harbour less than 20 Years earlier, Best had to consult the Ngati Tara branch of Ngati Kahungunu in the Wairarapa since, during early 1820s, the “Ngati Poneke” Maori had lived in Taranaki. (Best 1912:612).