NZ Herald | 10 May 2016
New claims that Portuguese and Spanish explorers discovered New Zealand a century before Abel Tasman sighted “a large land, uplifted high” have today been rubbished by a Kiwi historian.
Dubai-based New Zealand historian Winston Cowie has claimed in a new book, added to a list of key sources on New Zealand’s official online encyclopedia Te Ara, run by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, that the Portuguese most likely discovered Australia and New Zealand about 1520-1524 and the Spanish between 1576 and 1578.
But Dr Paul Moon, who is Professor of History at Te Ara Poutama – AUT’s Faculty of Maori Development – has dismissed the claims as “theories [that] have been floating around for decades”.
“There is still not a solitary piece of evidence that has been found that confirms any European reached New Zealand before Tasman. If there is any evidence, let’s see it,” he said today.
Mr Cowie’s book, Conquistador Puzzle Trail draws on several pieces of evidence, the most famous of which is the hazy origins of what appears to be an old pohutukawa in the coastal Spanish city of La Coruna.
The claims have prompted Te Ara to slightly alter its online history to leave ajar the possibility of pre-Tasman exploration – the Dutch explorer reached Aotearoa in December 1642.
Te Ara’s updated version says: “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.
“But there is no firm evidence of Europeans reaching New Zealand before Abel Tasman in 1642.”
The entry goes on to say “fragmentary evidence” in the Spanish or Portuguese archives suggests the possibility of earlier arrivals, but nobody before Tasman reported the discovery.
Dr Moon says that while the Ministry’s language is cautious, there should be no such admission without tangible evidence.
“It is entirely possible that Spanish or Portuguese ships reached New Zealand before Tasman, but without proof, it is nothing more than speculation,” he said.
He is also concerned that this move by Te Ara will be used by various conspiracy theorists who have long argued that New Zealand was settled prior to the Maori arrival in the country.
The ministry’s content manager and chief historian Neill Atkinson said Te Ara’s content was regularly updated and reviewed and his team was often contacted by people suggesting new information, sources or links should be added to the site.
“As Te Ara is a national encyclopedia, we have a fairly high threshold for making changes and seek to avoid the inclusion of content that is speculative or highly contentious,” Mr Atkinson said.
“In this case, after considering Winston Cowie’s recently published research, we felt that small changes to the text would improve the European discovery entry.”
Mr Atkinson said it was important to note Te Ara still says “no firm evidence” exists for the Spanish or Portuguese proposition.
Mr Cowie said he was “happy and humbled” his book was added to the Te Ara sources list.
“They have indicated that the changes are interim with a thorough review still to be completed. I will be advocating strongly for additional changes to be made, given the probability of the Iberians [from Spain] making it to New Zealand and Australia pre Tasman,” he said.
“They are positive changes in that prior to making the changes, what was written was incorrect.”