Posted by: cousindampier | 25 September 2011

The Hundred Year Gap in New Zealand’s History

New Zealand is far away from most everything but Australia and Antarctica, which really are two places one does not want to be close to.  It is one of the youngest countries on earth, as well as one of the youngest landmasses, having broken away from Gondwanaland with Australia.  It has almost no mammals, and was the last place reached by humankind.

The European discovery of New Zealand is somewhat similar – it was the last region of the non-arctic globe explored, the last settled, and the last affected by European civilization.  What has always been fascinating is the ‘discovered, but lost’ quality to New Zealand: it was discovered by Abel Tasman in 1642, and then not seen again until 1769 by James Cook.

This huge gap, not only in the discovery of New Zealand, but also of Eastern Australia, is astonishing given the beauty and natural resources of the two areas.

Ortelius' Map of the World

Rough maps of the world were beginning to appear by the mid-1600.  The Dutch were established in modern Indonesia, and the British and French were establishing large trading outposts in India.  The monsoon winds made travel from the Dutch East Indies back to Europe a predictable affair – though a long one, as the winds shifted regularly every six months, making a round trip voyage nearly a year long.

What remained unknown was the far south.  Rumours of the land there existed since the time of Plato.  Those rumours ranged from a massive supercontinent to a land packed full of people and gold to a land in which people were upside down.  The Dutch East India Company, established on Java, decided, at some point before August of 1642, that ‘Beach’ (just one of the names of the southern landmass) was to be explored and new trade to be established with her inhabitants.

So began the voyages of Abel Tasman.  Setting sail in 1642, he made a wide loop around the Indian Ocean before angling his ship south into the roaring forties – the southern latitude in which the winds fiercely blow to the east, and can carry a ship rapidly to the other side of the Indian Ocean.

Western Australia was already known to exist.  The quickest way to Java during the age was to sail from Europe to Cape Town, South Africa.  From there, the ship is pointed south until the sails fill up and the ship hits the roaring forties.

The tricky part began here.  Because of the lack of ability to calculate longitude, a navigator had to reasonably guess the distance his ship sailed each day.  Once the navigator was reasonably sure his ship had gone far enough, he moved north, towards Java.  Too early, and the crew ended up in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  Too late, and the ship caught sight of the deserts of Western Australia.  Dirk Hartog had sighted Australia in 1616, and while its location was not precisely known, it was known to be there.

Tasman hit the roaring forties late in 1642.  His idea was to keep sailing with the winds, far past the point of return to Java, to hopefully sight the lost continent.  For six weeks his crew was at sea with no sight of a major landmass, and no company but each other.

Tasman's First Voyage (from Te Papa)

On 24 November, Tasman sighted what became known as Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania.  He was the first European to sight and chart its existence.  He stayed in the area for nearly ten days, before sailing east again.

On 13 December, New Zealand was first sighted – the northwest coast of the South Island.  He charted part of the west coast, sailing for Tonga near the end of 1642, and returning to Java in June of 1643.

Tasman would have one more voyage, extensively charting the northwest coast of Australia.  He did not return to Tasmania and New Zealand, which remained an enigma for over a century more.  Known to exist, the precise knowledge of how to get to them was a mystery.

Tasman sighted both.  James Cook would return in 1769.  Between their voyages, a few explorers would sight and land on Australia, but none would meet New Zealand.  This lack of return is astonishing, to a degree – it would be as if Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, but nobody followed him there until 1600.

This happened for a number of reasons.  Navigation, secrecy, trade and imperialism all affected the lack of return.

The problems of longitude – how far east or west a navigator was of any precise point, such as London – presented a huge issue.  Until Cook’s voyage, with John Harrison’s chronometer, the issue of how to exactly determine longitude was an enormous obstacle to overcome.  Latitude – the distance north or south of the equator – could be determined easily, through measuring the sun against the horizon.  Longitude had no such easy calculation.  Extensive, decade long projects to map the precise position of the moon and stars on a nightly basis were launched.

So was an effort to build a reliable chronometer (essentially a watch), one which would tick continuously and precisely no matter the conditions.  The chronometer was needed to keep time with the home country.  Noon could be established daily by charting the sun; measuring local noon time against the noon back home, such as in London, would provide an answer to how far east or west a navigator was. By 1769, both had succeeded to a degree, though the chronometer proved much easier to deal with.

Secrecy proved an issue as well.  Though Cook had all the details of Tasman’s voyage when he sailed, the Dutch East India Company went to certain lengths to ensure the details remained in Dutch hands.   Tasman’s voyage was for exploration, but with the core purpose of finding new trade.  The Dutch East India Company wanted to expand trade, especially as the English and French were moving into the Indian Ocean rapidly.  If the land Tasman discovered was rich, the Dutch wanted to be the first there.

The Dutch, however, did not view the land as wealthy.  Tasman had discovered no immediate wealth, friendly people to trade with, and no new shipping route.  The EIC, while appreciative of his efforts, viewed his voyage with mixed feelings.  The sheer lack of results disappointed the commission, and they viewed any new voyage to the area as a waste of resources.

Finally, the century between Tasman and Cook was full of upheaval.  Cook arrived in New Zealand in 1769, after having completed his primary objective of charting the transit of Venus in Tahiti.  By 1769, the British Empire had spread worldwide with the collapse of the Mughal Empire in India and the conquest of Canada.  The American colonies were shortly to revolt. Shooting matches between Britain and France were commonplace in the Americas, and the Seven Years War had just ended.  South Africa was firmly British, as was Gibraltar, and Dutch sea power had been smashed as well.

This century of global war wouldn’t end until 1814, with the fall of Napoleon (the peace beginning in 1763 would be shattered in 1776 with the American Revolution, than again in 1792 with the beginning of the French Revolution, collapse of the monarchy, and rise of Napoleon.  Britain would be nearly continuously at war from 1776 to 1814.  No mean feat.).

New Zealand is far away from almost everything.  Dunedin was perhaps the most remote major port of the British Empire during the 1800’s.    Given the upheaval, practicality played a role in a return south.  Reliable ships and sailors largely couldn’t be spared.  Additionally, the era after Tasman’s voyages saw a dramatic shift in sea power.  Britain was on the rise, at the expense of the Dutch and French, and with the value in the Indian Ocean trade, ships were more valuable moving cargo and reacting to events there.

What was needed for the re-discovery of New Zealand was a period of global peace or the rise of a dominant sea power.  The one small era of global peace was 1763-1776; this also coincided with the endings of French global power and the rise of England (France had been the ‘dominant’ power for the prior century or so).

Hence, the stage was set for a voyage of the nature of Cook’s.  England had smashed the prior system, was building its own, and in order to do so needed to know what existed and where it was.  The Dutch were not powerful enough for this to be a primary motivation, and the French were more focused on the Indian Ocean, India, and the Americas.  Once Britain became…well, Britain, and she had few global challengers, the New Zealand era began.

The gap matters because it was a crucial time in world events.  Say New Zealand was colonized fifty years earlier – a voyage set out in 1719 instead of 1769.  How is land use today? What of Maori relations? What of immigration to New Zealand, do people flood south instead of to America? Is there a New Zealand Mayflower?

Or, perhaps most interestingly, does New Zealand claim a heritage from England or Holland?

As it is, Cook – in addition to disproving the Great Southern Continent and the Northwest Passage, charting New Zealand, discovering the beautiful eastern Australian coast, exploring south past the Antarctic Circle, and placing Hawaii firmly on the map – also brought about the English colonization of the world’s most remote country.


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