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European Voyaging History Searching for new routes, new knowledge

Europeans explored the Pacific in two waves. The first explorers in the 1500s were mainly looking for new routes to Asian riches. The second, in the late 18th century, wanted to gather new information about geography, the natural world and the customs of different peoples.

Early European travellers to Asia had reported a large ocean off the coast of Asia in the late 13th century. But it was not until the late 15th century that European explorers and trading ships successfully sailed around Africa, across the Indian Ocean and into the western rim of the Pacific. Europeans began recognising the Pacific as an ocean separate from the Atlantic after Spanish explorer Vasco de Balboa sighted its eastern shore from the coast of Panama in 1513.

Just six years later, in 1519, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sailed down the east coast of South America and through the strait that now bears his name. He entered the Pacific on 28 November 1520 and from there made the first recorded crossing of the ocean.

Having braved perilous seas, Magellan called this body of water pacific, meaning ‘peaceful’ or ‘characterized by calmness’, due to the calmness of the water at the time. The name Pacific Ocean derives from Mar Pacifico, the name given in Portuguese and Spanish to this body of water. Magellan sailed north, catching the trade winds that carried him across the Pacific to the Philippines, where he was killed.

Spain and Portugal shared dominance of the Pacific in the 16th century, followed by the Dutch and English in the 17th century. The Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch set up colonies in the west Pacific Basin to gain control over maritime trade with India, Ceylon, China, Japan, the Philippines and the Spice Islands (today’s Indonesia). Batavia, Java (now Jakarta) became the main Dutch settlement. European explorations of the Pacific remained well to the north of New Zealand. This left a vast expanse to the south, which mapmakers since the 13th century had marked as the fabled Terra Australis Incognita, the unknown southern continent.

800Abel Tasman

Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed from Batavia in August 1642 in search of this unknown continent.

His voyage was motivated and financed by business interests. 

The Dutch East India Company was keen to find a southern sea route to Chile and treasures in these unknown lands. 

Tasman sighted land, probably the Southern Alps, on 13 December 1642. Five days later, he anchored in what became known as Golden Bay, where one of his small boats was rammed by a Māori waka. Four Dutch seamen were killed.

The Dutch responded by shooting and hitting one Māori. The people of Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri probably saw these newcomers as threatening interlopers. Tasman called the bay Murderers Bay and left without going ashore. He plotted the country’s west coast from near Hokitika to Cape Maria van Diemen, in the far north, naming it Staten Landt. A Dutch mapmaker later named the country Nieuw Zeeland (Nova Zeelandia in Latin). The east remained unexplored by Europeans.

Serious British interest in the Pacific began with the expeditions of John Byron in 1764–66 and Samuel Wallis, the first European to discover Tahiti, in 1767. By the time Wallis returned to England the following year, the Royal Society was organising another expedition to the Pacific – this time to observe the transit of Venus from the South Sea.

James Cook on board the Endeavour set out for Tahiti in 1768 to observe the transit the following year. While the goals of the voyage were scientific, the British also wanted to expand trade and its empire. Cook was to include information on resources and the suitability of land for settlement.

Cook and his crew sighted the land of what became New Zealand on 6 October 1769, and two days later, became the first Europeans to venture on to land, at Tūranganui a Kiwa, the area now known as Gisborne. 

First formal meetings

The interactions between the indigenous people of the land and those on board the Endeavour, including Raiātean high priest Tupaia, are regarded as the first formal meetings between Māori and European. These meetings altered the course of history and marked the beginning of the dual heritage and shared future of the nation now known as Aotearoa New Zealand.