The Dutch Nearly Beat James Cook to New Zealand

A shipwreck discovered off New Zealand dates to a time before Cook’s arrival

Captain James Cook statue
A statue of Captain James Cook. Rick Harrison

In 1642, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European known to have officially charted the location of New Zealand. According to the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (published by the country's government), “Tasman’s New Zealand was only a ‘ragged line’ on the world map, which might or might not be the coast of the unknown southern land.”

As the official story goes, “the Dutch never followed up Tasman’s discovery of New Zealand.” It was not until nearly 130 years later when British explorer James Cook set sail on the HMS Endeavour that European sailors made it to New Zealand, joining the descendents of the Polynesian sailors who had settled the islands centuries before.

The discovery of a shipwreck off New Zealand's northern coast, however, is threatening to rewrite this story of European colonization.

According to a new study, it seems that the Dutch did try to follow up on Tasman's discovery, after all. Buried in Midge Bay, says TVNZ, is a ship, thought to be Dutch, that is younger than Tasman's but older than Cook's.

The mystery ship, which is 25m to 27m long and 6.5m to 7.5m wide, was discovered in five metres of water in 1982 by mussel fisherman Leon Searle. He contacted local man Noel Hilliam, who was part of a crew who dived down in 1983 and salvaged two pieces of wood - a teak plank and a smaller piece identified as the tropical hardwood Lagerstroemia.

Using tree ring analysis and radiocarbon dating, says Nature, the scientists worked out the likely age and origin of the ship:

Their team identified different kinds of wood: teak and Lagerstroemia, another tropical species. Combined carbon dating and tree-ring analysis suggested that the outermost layer of theLagerstroemia wood grew between 1663 and 1672. Palmer’s team estimates that the ship was built in the early 1700s, on account of the time it would have taken to build the ship and of the fact that the wood's youngest layer — the outer ring, known as sapwood — was missing.

The ship is most likely to be Dutch, Palmer and his team conclude. The tropical woods come from Southeast Asia, where the Dutch East India Company operated throughout the 17th century.

Interestingly, the scientists say in their study, the lost ship wouldn't be a total surprise, even if it runs against the normal narrative of New Zealand's European history: “[J]ournal entries by Cook and expedition members suggest at least one other European ship visited New Zealand after Tasman but prior to his arrival.”

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