Open Letter to the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage re the European discovery of New Zealand. No II.

14 August 2016

Re: Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand – recent updates to the summary on the European discovery of New Zealand

Dear New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage,

I refer to our recent correspondence in respect of the European discovery of New Zealand and the updates to your venerable online resource in respect of the Portuguese and Spanish theories on the discovery of New Zealand.

The forward thinking changes made by Te Ara sparked a welcome literary debate on the genre, with articles in the New Zealand Herald, Te Wahanui, and recently in the New Zealand Listener Magazine.

My responses to those articles include:

A previous article in the Northern Advocate, also provides a good overview.

The result: We are in the midst of an intelligent debate about the European discovery of New Zealand and Australia. The glass appears to be cracking around the negative stigma that has surrounded the theories on the Portuguese and Spanish discovery of Australia and New Zealand for the past 30 years. These theories appear to be moving from being presented as fringe ideas to being discussed in the mainstream as real possibilities. And they are now being taught and assessed as possibilities, probabilities or otherwise in schools and universities. Dr Ross Ramsay, for example, at the Southern Institute of Technology is leading the way in this regard, putting the literature in front of students and asking for their assessment.

From my end, it is pleasing that societal knowledge and interest on this element of New Zealand history appears to be moving forward, and with that, further research will be completed, and the Portuguese and Spanish theories developed further.


History wasn’t written in a day.

Sincere congratulations to the team at Te Ara and the Ministry for your major part in inspiring this discussion and I do apologise for the delay in getting back to you, it has been a rather busy period with family, profession, and a recent charitable goodwill mission to Seychelles and Madagascar. The modern day Conquistadors have been active in the Indian Ocean. Further details can be found here, if interested.

Now, to the updates in Te Ara on the European discovery of New Zealand.

I do have some comments and a query for you, if I may, and propose some alternative text for your kind consideration.


Reference: The Short Story: The European Discovery of New Zealand

1)    The map presented in the encyclopedia is preceded by over 100 years by the Dieppe maps.

In my earlier letter dated 8 October 2015 I previously provided comment that the map that commences this section on the website, the Henricus Hondius 1641 map, is not the earliest map of the Terra Australis Incognita or of Australia and New Zealand. I provided an alternative below based on the 228 year old, well researched theory, that the Portuguese and / or  Spanish may have discovered Australia and New Zealand, a theory that has been taken seriously and believed by some of the top cartographers and historians of their time, from Alexander Dalrymple (1786); the British Admiralty (1803); Richard Henry Major (1859), George Collingridge (1895), José Toribio Medina (1918), Robert Langdon (1975 and 1988), Kenneth McIntyre (1977 and 1982), Dr Helen Wallis (1981), Roger Hervé (1983), and Peter Trickett (2007).

The literature is written by credible sources. As an example, the late Dr Helen Wallis’ (OBE) credentials included:

  • Map curator, British Museum (later British Library) (1967-1987).
  • Chairman of the standing commission on the history of cartography of the International Cartographic Association.
  • President of the International Map Collectors’ Society (1986).
  • Founder of The Geography and Map Section of the International Federation of Library Associations.
  • President of The Society for Nautical Research, 1972-1988, and President of the British Cartographic Society.

She was the top of her field, and completed a very detailed review of the maps. Her conclusion:

“… it is notable how many of these names are descriptive of physical features … others seem to record the events and personal associations of an exploring voyage, including saints’ names … It is clear that the land represents a discovery made on a European voyage or coastal exploration. Secondly, it was apparently not a region of settled and civilised populations whose peoples would tell a visiting expedition the names of towns and other places (in fact there is no sign of towns). Thirdly, the number of Portuguese names suggests that the voyage was made, or at least recorded, by the Portuguese. The flags on Desliens charts of 1561 and 1566 are more explicit, indicating a Portuguese discovery.”

Question: I would be grateful if you could let me know what the reason is for the venerable national encyclopedia appearing to ignore these maps and the literature (particularly Wallis’ experienced view) surrounding them.

Pending your response, and to assist, I have drafted for your kind consideration an alternative section for ‘The Short Story’ section, that provides a reasonable assessment of current knowledge and literature.

Alternative proposals:

In summary, I propose that the map that is currently presented in this section be removed as it is doesn’t represent current knowledge and literature. I propose it be replaced with the ‘Jean Rotz’ map of 1542, presenting the great southern continent in the global context, with a close up of the Vallard Map of 1547 to provide the New Zealand context. I also propose for consistency that a paragraph be added above the Abel Tasman section mentioning the Spanish and Portuguese theory – as it is included in the ‘long story’.

The alternative proposition is:

Proposal: Short Story: European discovery of New Zealand

In their search for the vast ‘terra australis incognita’ (the unknown southern land) thought to lie in the Pacific, explorers made daring journeys across uncharted waters.

They did not find the fabled continent, but they did find New Zealand.

Circumstantial evidence points to the possibility of the Portuguese and Spanish being the first Europeans to voyage to New Zealand, however the Dutchman Abel Tasman is first recorded as having sighted New Zealand, and the country was later mapped by James Cook, the British captain who dominates the story of the European discovery of New Zealand.


Jean Rotz Circular Chart - 1542, which it is theorised includes some of the eastern coastline of Australia and some of the North Island of New Zealand.

Jean Rotz Circular Chart – 1542, which it is theorised includes some of the eastern coastline of Australia and some of the North Island of New Zealand.

Vallard Map 1547 - the eastern coast of Australia with portolan realigned. Part of the North Island of New Zealand may be the island the 'Illa do Magna'

Vallard Map 1547 – the eastern coast of Australia with portolan realigned. Part of the North Island of New Zealand may be the island the ‘Illa do Magna’

Vallard Map 1547. The North island of New Zealand?

Vallard Map 1547. The North island of New Zealand?

The Short Story

Portuguese and Spanish voyages

There is a possibility that both Iberian nations voyaged to or were wrecked in New Zealand in the 1520s, with sixteenth century maps with coastlines similar to New Zealand and Australia, appearing on world maps from the 1540s. On the most detailed map, the Vallard of 1547, over 120 Portuguese place names appear on landmasses where modern day Australia and New Zealand are located, and in some places, the place names describe physical features that still appear in places on those maps today. There is, however, currently no ship’s journal making these discoveries definitive – a sighting of New Zealand was not recorded by a European until 1642.

Abel Tasman

In 1642 the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman sailed in search of the southern continent, which sixteenth century maps indicated was located in the South Pacific. Dutch merchants hoped this land would offer new opportunities for trade. Tasman discovered New Zealand on 13 December 1642, but after a bloody encounter with Māori in Golden Bay, he left without going ashore.

Shortly afterwards, a Dutch map maker gave the name Nieuw Zeeland to the land Tasman had discovered.

James Cook

The English navigator Captain James Cook sighted New Zealand on 6 October 1769, and landed at Poverty Bay two days later. He drew detailed and accurate maps of the country, and wrote about the Māori people. His first encounter with Māori was not successful – a fight broke out in which some Māori were killed. However, after this Cook and his men had friendly contact with Māori.

The naturalists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, who sailed with Cook, gathered a great deal of information about the country’s plants and animals. Their records formed the foundation for the modern study of New Zealand botany.

On two later voyages, Captain Cook used New Zealand as a base to prove that a great southern continent did not exist in the Pacific.

Citation: John Wilson and Winston Cowie ‘European discovery of New Zealand’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 10-August-16.


Reference: The Long Story: The European Discovery of New Zealand

I have some comments on the ‘Before Tasman’ section. As always, comments are well intended with a view of bringing knowledge forward.

An earlier discovery?

The sentence: ‘Spanish or Portuguese ships sailing out of Callao or Acapulco, or from the East Indies, may have reached, or become wrecked on the New Zealand coast.’  

My view is that this sentence can be improved a little semantically – as the way it reads, it could be interpreted to mean that both Spanish and Portuguese ships sailed out of Callao, Acapulco and the East Indies. As you are aware, given the treaties of Tordesillas and Zaragoza, it was the Spanish that sailed out of Callao and Acapulco with the Portuguese sailing out of the East Indies.

Alternative proposal: ‘Spanish ships sailing out of the Philippines and Central and South American ports (Acapulco, Callao and Concepcion), and Portuguese ships sailing from the East Indies (Malacca and Ternate), may have reached, or become wrecked on the New Zealand coast.’


The sentences: “But there is no firm evidence of Europeans reaching New Zealand before Abel Tasman in 1642. Although fragmentary information found in Portuguese and Spanish archives suggests at least the possibility of earlier arrivals, no one before Tasman reported the discovery of new land that can be identified as New Zealand.”

My view is that these two sentences can be improved by referring to the circumstantial evidence that support the Portuguese and Spanish case – maps, the existence of artefacts and a skull, and oral tradition, as opposed to ‘fragmentary information found in Portuguese and Spanish archives’ which doesn’t reflect what the evidence is or where that information is located.

Similarly, none of the navigators put forward as the navigators who may have voyaged to New Zealand are included – Christopher Mendonca (Portuguese) and Juan Fernandez (Spanish).

Taking into account the above my proposal for the ‘An earlier discovery?’ section is as follows:

Alternative Proposal: An earlier discovery?

Spanish ships sailing out of the Philippines and Central and South American ports (Acapulco, Callao and Concepcion), and Portuguese ships sailing from the East Indies (Malacca and Ternate), may have reached, or become wrecked on the New Zealand coast.

Whilst no one before Tasman reported the discovery of new land that can be identified as New Zealand, circumstantial evidence including maps, references to voyages in archives, oral tradition, and artefacts suggest at least the possibility of earlier Portuguese or Spanish arrivals.

It is theorised that the ships that came closest to New Zealand before 1642 may have been those of the Portuguese navigator Christopher Mendonca (1522-24), that of the Spaniard Juan Fernandez (1576-78), with the wreck of a Spanish caravel, the San Lesmes, also a possibility in 1527. The expeditions of Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendaña de Neyra (1595) and Portuguese mariner Pedro Fernandes de Queirós (1605–06), which touched the northern Cook Islands, are also possibilities.

It is unlikely that Arab or Chinese ships, which were trading in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, were ever off the coast of New Zealand.


Terra Australis Incognita

My view is that the way this section is written, it appears to try and distance Portuguese and Spanish navigators from the south to make room for the ‘Terra Australis Incognita’ myth. E.g.

“…the tracks of European navigators like Mendaña and Queirós lay well to the north of New Zealand, leaving plenty of space for cartographers to place a terra australis incognita (unknown southern land) to the south.”

This Terra Australia term has its origins in theory with the likes of Aristotle, Ptolmey and Cicero – centuries before this –  there is no need to suggest that space needed to be left for it – as consistent with the theory that the southern continent was needed to balance the globe, it was already appearing on maps prior to Mendana and Queiros’ voyages.

As such, I propose that the following wording be used to describe the Terra Australis Incognita.

Alternative Proposal: Terra Australis Incognita?

The discovery of New Zealand and Australia has always been bound up with speculation about the ‘Terra Australis Incognita’ – the ‘great southern unknown’ landmass, originally theorised about by the likes of Aristotle and Ptolmey. It was considered that a southern landmass was needed to counterbalance that in the north and even given the existence of the sixteenth century Portuguese maps and Tasman’s maps in this part of the world, it wasn’t until the voyages of Captain James Cook that the myth was finally dispelled.

Citation: John Wilson and Winston Cowie ‘European discovery of New Zealand’, Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, updated 10-August-16.


I would be most grateful for your view and response, Te Ara, to my question and proposed text amendments.

May I also state how professional and responsive I have found you in this korero, Te Ara. When-ever I have messaged there has been a prompt response. I am grateful to you and thank you once again for serious consideration of what has become an important national korero.


With Kind Regards,

Winston Cowie

Author – Conquistador Puzzle Trail

United Arab Emirates




About that ‘rubbish’. Yeah Nah. The Portuguese or Spanish probably voyaged to New Zealand pre Tasman.

It’s rubbish. Absolute rubbish. No way did the Portuguese or Spanish voyage to New Zealand pre Abel Tasman.

Rubbish? Really?

The theory that the Portuguese and / or Spanish voyaged to New Zealand pre-Tasman is considered a possibility (and in some cases a probability) by three different government organisations in three different countries – Spain, Portugal and New Zealand.

New Zealand:

New Zealand’s venerable and forward thinking national encyclopedia, Te Ara, have a high threshold for making changes to the encylopedia and seek to avoid the inclusion of content that is speculative or highly contentious. Ministry for Culture and Heritage chief historian Neill Atkinson recently stated: “after considering Winston Cowie’s recently published research, we felt that small changes to the text would improve the European discovery entry.”

The Ministry also stated:

“Te Ara has raised the possibility of Spanish or Portuguese encounters for the last 10 years, and as far as I know that hasn’t been used by people that we might label conspiracy theorists to make any outrageous claims.”

Te Ara’s position is that they consider Portuguese or Spanish voyages to New Zealand a possibility, with no firm evidence, yet….

The Spanish:

 “Well-structured and impeccably researched, this important work [Conquistador Puzzle Trail] will have a strong impact on the academic representation of conquistadors as well as a wide array of consequences for the future understanding of New Zealand history. We feel incredibly fortunate to witness such a thorough investigation into the history of New Zealand in which we can really appreciate the links shared with Portuguese and Spanish explorers. In our case, the confirmation of these ties between Spain and New Zealand will undoubtedly strengthen the positive relationship that our two countries already share and cherish. At the same time, we would like to acknowledge all of the time and energy devoted to the research that has gone into this investigative work. Throughout the pages, we discover new elements of New Zealand culture and history that invite us to truly believe that Mr Winston Cowie´s theory is correct. Congratulations on the completion of this excellent work.”

Pablo Mateu García, Educational Advisor of the Embassy of Spain, New Zealand.

The Portuguese:

 “A fascinating book and an important contribution for the investigation about the Portuguese having been the first Europeans to reach Australia and New Zealand almost 500 years ago.”

Paulo Cunha Alves, Ambassador of Portugal to Australia and New Zealand.


Both the Spanish and Portuguese embassies to Australia and New Zealand also kindly gave permission for their logos to be included on Conquistador Puzzle Trail as a sign of the cooperation and collaboration shared whilst researching. I am incredibly grateful to both entities for their ongoing support of my research on this important genre.

Conquistador Puzzle Trail - Back Cover Reviews

Conquistador Puzzle Trail – Back Cover Reviews

Case study – ‘About that rubbish’ – ‘New claims that Portuguese and Spanish explorers discovered NZ rubbished’

So, ‘about that rubbish.’ I query whether the person who made that analogy in the recent media article of 10 May 2016 was on top of the detail on this genre – to ‘rubbish’ a theory considered a possibility by three different government organisations in three different countries is a brave move. Was that view informed?

This is a perfect case study for how this conversation has played out over the past 30 years. The conversation begins with a claim in respect of the Portuguese or Spanish discovering New Zealand or Australia followed by that claim being ‘rubbished’ by a New Zealand or Australian history academic. And this is exactly how this played out on 10 May 2016. Please click here for the article if interested.

Let’s consider this rubbish with a wider lens – a historical lens. For 228 years some of the top historians and cartographers of their day have supported the Portuguese and Spanish theories. I am not sure what gives the likes of the opinion of the historian in this case study, Paul Moon, credence over those learned historians. His view isn’t that of the likes of the informed, late Dr Helen Wallis – the president of every cartography organisation imaginable – and who considered an early Iberian discovery to Australia a probability – nor is it that of the British Admiralty in the early 19th century who also considered that the Portuguese probably discovered New Zealand. 

And I am not the first New Zealander to explore (excuse the pun) the theory. In 1894, over 120 years ago, two of New Zealand’s most gifted historians, Dr Thomas Hocken and Dr Robert McNab, theorised that further research might reveal that the true story of the discovery of New Zealand had yet to be told, writing:

“Doubtless before Tasman, there were voyagers who had visited New Zealand … We are justified in thinking that there are buried in the old archives of Portugal and of Spain journals which, if found, would give an earlier account of New Zealand than those which we consider our earliest … The iron-bound chests of Portugal and of Spain are the probable repositories of these treasures, or they may have been emptied into the Papal and monkish libraries … and may lie covered with the accumulated dust of centuries.”

What the likes of Wallis, the British Admiralty, and Hocken and McNab’s views tell you, and they are just examples, is that across multiple generations people have reviewed some of the evidence of Portuguese or Spanish exploration to New Zealand and Australia – the likes of the sixteenth century Dieppe Maps – and seen the same thing and drawn the same conclusion – that being that the Portuguese probably discovered Australia and New Zealand, and the Spanish may have also voyaged to New Zealand pre-Tasman.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, Australians’ Kenneth McIntyre, Robert Langdon, and, more recently, Peter Trickett have had similar views.

I include some of the sixteenth century Dieppe Maps below for your assessment.

Desliens Map 1566

Desliens Map 1566


Jean Rotz Map 1542

Jean Rotz Map 1542


Vallard Map 1547 - the eastern coast of Australia

Vallard Map 1547 – with portolan realigned –  the eastern coast of Australia?


Vallard Map 1547 The North island of New Zealand?

Vallard Map 1547. The North island of New Zealand?

In the place of modern-day Australia there is a landmass called Big Java, and similarly, in the place of New Zealand – an island called Illa do magna.

These maps date to between 1542 and 1566 (over 100 years before Tasman); and the most detailed map (from 1547) includes over 120 Portuguese place names which are descriptive of physical features, features which are in those very places today. As an example, at Fraser Island in Australia where there are pumice deposits, the word pomezita (pumice) is written; similarly where the word camronron appears, which means prawns, there is a modern day prawn fishery today. Where the Great Barrier Reef is: Costa Dangeroza – Dangerous Coast. The list goes on. The coastline of the continent is also similar to that of Australia and New Zealand. On the basis of these maps of the sixteenth century Dieppe school of cartographers, and a number of other artefacts within Australia and New Zealand, with all due respect to the person who ‘rubbished’ these theories, on the contrary, the serious and very tenable theory can be made, that the Portuguese discovered Australia and New Zealand.

I ask: Would a 16th-century cartographer make up the coastlines and creatively name more than 120 places? And if they did, isn’t it too much of a coincidence they guessed what the coastline may look like and knew that pumice and prawns and the Great Barrier Reef were in the exact place they imagined?

If interested, for more detail, please read the recent article in the Northern Advocate, entitled: Conquistador Trail From Portugal to Pouto. Click here.

For additional detail, please read my original open letter to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Click here.

For all the detail, have a read of Conquistador Puzzle Trail, assess each puzzle piece on its own merit and form your own view. I think you’ll be as surprised as I was….

It is available at all good independent bookstores and Paper Plus Stores. For those based overseas, please contact Susan Holmes at Bookreps.


Back to our media case study. After nearly 200 years of some of the top historians and cartographers taking the theory seriously, around 30 years ago something changed and it is difficult to put a finger on what that was in historical circles. It is a shame that there seems to have been a generation of historians (some – I am not saying all) in New Zealand and Australia who have largely ignored what is a fascinating area of research, the ramifications being that we most probably have our discovery history wrong. Apart from the likes of Langdon, McIntyre and Trickett, many historians have taken the ‘safe option,’ either ‘rubbishing’ the Iberian theories of this triumvirate, or ignoring them completely. I think fear of being criticised is probably the answer.

Thankfully, society is changing – people are information and knowledge hungry – they want to know the arguments for and against a topic and make up their own mind – as opposed to not having the discussion at all because of fear of being criticised.

On this point, in the case of Conquistador Puzzle Trail, I have asked people’s views, put mine forward – for what is worth – and without fear of criticism. How on earth could one be fearful of criticism when all they are doing is putting information in front of people and asking them to make up their own mind? I’ll stand up and be counted on this one.

Looking ahead, my challenge to New Zealand and Australia, is to forget about the negative stigma that for whatever reason has been associated with the Iberian theory, especially for the past 30 years, and take the time to digest what the Conquistador Puzzle means for New Zealand and Australia. Assess each puzzle piece on its merit and come up with your own conclusions.

And my conclusion, as yours may be, is that the Portuguese nobleman Christopher Mendonça most likely and on the balance of probabilities discovered New Zealand and Australia circa 1520-24. And the Spanish captain Juan Fernandez may have voyaged to New Zealand in 1576-78.

What happens next in this case study?

Historically, if the past 30 years is anything to go by, nothing usually. The Portuguese or Spanish claim is made. It is rubbished. And so the cycle goes on. It’s rubbish, rubbish and rubbish. Don’t talk about it. Don’t discuss it. It’s rubbish.

Yeah, Nah.

The good thing about the present is that it’s in our hands and we don’t have to go down the same route that has been played out time and again over the past 30 years.

My feeling is that this time, this case study is different.

Anyone can make a theory on anything. The theory then sits in the public domain to be assessed and debated. If the majority believe that the theory is true, then it stands the test of time, until new material comes to light either proving it or disproving it. Shouldn’t that be how our history is considered – as a dynamic evolution of ideas? History is, after all, only the bits we know.

On the Portuguese and Spanish discovery question, there is a real opportunity for it to be explored more widely – there just needs to be the interest from society, students and teachers.

In this respect, I have been in contact with the Head of the New Zealand History Teachers Association, Mr Graeme Ball. Like Te Ara, the Association have been open and transparent and professional with their communication, also posting information on Conquistador Puzzle Trail on their website. A history teacher is also currently being sought to review Conquistador Puzzle Trail but to date there have been no volunteers….

A fun challenge: Is there a history teacher in New Zealand or Australia who would like to review Conquistador Puzzle Trail and assess its suitability for teaching in schools?

The first history teacher to get in touch and volunteer for the review, I will send you a free copy.

Looking ahead, at this end, I’ll review the updated text in Te Ara in the Portuguese and Spanish section and with good intentions, try and add some value and additional knowledge.

And ‘About that rubbish.’

Perhaps making the ‘rubbish’ call in respect of the Portuguese or Spanish voyages is now the new ‘rubbish call’.

But that is up to you and what your view is. What is it by the way?

It is your view that is the most important in this korero.