Page 4 – Early meetings between peoples

Portrait of an unknown young Māori chief
Portrait of an unknown young Māori chief (Alexander Turnbull Library, PUBL-0037-16 )

On the evening of 18 December 1642, two waka of Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri people approached two strange ships, which had anchored near the north-western tip of the South Island. These ships, the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen, were commanded by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman. This was the first known occasion when Māori encountered Europeans.

The Māori group called out to the ships’ occupants and blew on a shell trumpet to challenge the intruders; the Dutch ship replied with their own trumpets. The next day, a waka approached with 13 Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri on board. They were shown gifts by Abel Tasman's men, but returned to shore. Seven more craft then came out to the ships. A small Dutch boat, which was passing a message between the two ships, was rammed by one of the waka and its occupants attacked; four of the Dutchmen died. As the ships weighed anchor and set sail, 11 canoes approached and were fired on, possibly causing injuries. As a result of the incident, Tasman never landed on New Zealand shores, and named the place Moordenaars Baij (Murderers Bay).

Tasman's sketch of Murderer's Bay

Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: PUBL-0086-021.

This drawing, one of the very first European images of Māori, depicts Abel Tasman’s visit to Golden Bay/Mohua in December 1642. It is by Isaac Gilsemans, the artist on Abel Tasman's voyage. In addition to the waka full of Māori men in the foreground, the image shows two incidents during the encounter: in the middle distance you can see Tasman's two ships firing their cannon at the surrounding waka. In the left of the picture, the two ships can be seen leaving after the attack, with one of the small boats towing another.

James Cook

For almost 130 years, Europeans and Māori had no further contact with each other. Then on 8 October 1769, James Cook and others landed on the east side of the Tūranganui River, near present-day Gisborne. It appears from later accounts that the local Māori at first took the ship to be a floating island or giant bird. The fertile land surrounding the wide bay Tūranganui-a-Kiwa was home to a large population of Māori at that time, divided into four main tribes.

Cook’s relationship with Māori got off to a disastrous start when a Ngāti Oneone leader, Te Maro, was shot and killed by one of Cook’s men. It seems likely that the local people were undertaking a ceremonial challenge, but the Europeans believed themselves to be under attack.

When Cook returned to shore the next day a large group of Māori gathered. This time Cook had brought with him the Tahitian tahua (priest) Tupaia, who was able to converse with the Māori. A local man greeted Cook with a hongi, possibly on Toka-a-Taiau, a sacred rock in the Tūranganui River. As historian Anne Salmond observed, this would have been a ‘portentious, powerful place for the first formal meeting between a Maori and European’.

However, another fracas occurred in which the Rongowhakaata chief Te Rakau was killed by the Endeavour’s company, and others wounded. This time it seems likely that Māori were attempting to exchange weapons, but this was misunderstood. Later that day Endeavour crewmen attempted to seize the occupants of fishing waka, with the intention of taking them on board and gaining their friendship. Further Māori deaths occurred during this incident and three youths were taken captive; they were later returned to shore.

The replica of Cook’s Endeavour and the waka Te Awatea Hou

The Picton Historical Society.

The replica of Cook’s Endeavour and the waka Te Awatea Hou – a waka taua built in 1990 – meet in Meretoto/Ship Cove in 1996, where Cook spent time on each of his journeys to New Zealand


During the first difficult days in Gisborne, another important moment of encounter took place, when the Tahitian tahua (priest) Tupaia came ashore from the Endeavour. Tupaia had been taken on board by Cook while in Tahiti and had proved himself a useful mediator between the Tahitians and the crew. Joseph Banks proposed that Tupaia and his servant Taiata come with them to England, and offered to pay for their passage.

Painting of Joseph Banks by Tupaia

British Library. Ref: ADD MS 15508, folio 12

Tupaia drew this image of Joseph Banks bartering with a Māori for a lobster during his journey around New Zealand on the Endeavour in 1769/70.

After the Endeavour’s arrival in New Zealand the decision to take Tuipaia on board proved to have been an inspired one when it became clear that he could communicate with Māori. Because the Māori language belonged to the Polynesian sub-family of languages, Tupaia, who had learnt some English, was able to translate spoken exchanges between European and Māori. He also recognised Māori customs and could discuss complex subjects with local people.

Video courtesy of Island Productions Aotearoa Ltd.

Watch a depiction of the events of 8 October 1769, after the landing of James Cook, and later the Tahitian priest Tupaia, at the beach of Turanganui-a-Kiwa, and learn more about the Tahitian priest Tupaia and his apprentice and their interactions with Māori.

The Endeavour would afterwards be remembered by Māori as ‘Tupaia’s ship’. The Tahitian priest was to have more influence on the local people – who regarded him as a tohunga from Hawaiki – than Cook or any other individual on board.

As his biographer says:

in recognition of his prestige as a Tahitian tahua, Tupaia was greeted as an honoured guest, enfolded in valuable cloaks and entrusted with ancient treasures. Disassociated from the homeland for perhaps 500 years, elders, priests, chiefs and their people welcomed this heaven-sent chance to reclaim their ancient past.

Hundreds gathered to hear Tupaia preach, while priests engaged him in religious discussions. As the ship sailed north to the Bay of Islands, Tupaia was welcomed and feted: he was a valued interpreter and mediator for the Māori people, as well as for the Europeans.

Cook relied on Tupaia’s diplomacy to smooth relations with Māori. At Uawa (Tolaga Bay) the Tahitian conversed at length with a local tohunga and also sketched and painted.

Video courtesy of Island Productions Aotearoa Ltd.

Watch the events that followed the murder by Cook’s crew of two men at Turanganui-a-Kiwa, including the kidnap of the three young Māori boys, who were comforted on board by Tupaia.

Inauspicious beginnings

Despite Tupaia’s mediation and translation skills, Māori understanding of Cook’s arrival and its significance was inevitably limited, although there was certainly some exchange of information between Māori and Cook’s men. If Europeans viewed Cook’s discoveries as momentous, for many Māori the visit must have seemed only a brief interlude in the normal course of life. Once their initial astonishment had passed, Māori dealt with the newcomers much as they dealt with Māori of other tribal groups.

Cook had been instructed to cultivate friendship and form alliances with the inhabitants of any new land he discovered. He is often credited with showing forbearance, restraint and understanding. Even so, his record is ambivalent: while he made every effort to avoid bloodshed, Māori were killed on both his first and second voyages to New Zealand. After the violence at Tūranganui-a-Kiwa, Cook sought to avoid conflict with local Māori as he travelled along the coast, and Tupaia played an increasingly important role as a cultural go-between. But misunderstandings over trade and protocol were common; two more Māori were killed in confrontations at Mercury Bay and the Cavalli Islands.

Drawing of Māori family

Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: C-051-031

A Māori family in Dusky Sound, Fiordland, from a drawing made by William Hodges (1744–97) during James Cook’s second visit to New Zealand in the mid-1770s.

Cook’s discoveries helped forge New Zealand’s later links with Britain. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries a number of French explorers were active in the Pacific. Cook’s instructions from the British Admiralty authorised him to annex ‘convenient situations’ on any ‘great continent’ he might discover. At Mercury Bay on 15 November 1769, and at Queen Charlotte Sound on 30 January 1770, Cook made proclamations which helped ensure that Britain, and not another European power such as France, ultimately colonised New Zealand.

Encounters with other nations

At the same time as Cook was exploring New Zealand, and shortly after, other explorers were travelling around the coast of New Zealand and meeting with Māori. Many of these early encounters were disastrous – for example, the French captain Jean François Marie de Surville took savage reprisals on Māori who had found a small boat he had lost in storms at the end of 1769.

Soon after, in 1772, Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne spent five weeks in the Bay of Islands while undertaking extensive repairs. His initial encounters with Māori were friendly, and the expedition left an extensive record of Māori life. But du Fresne and two dozen of his crew were killed in mid-June, possibly for violating tapu or because Māori feared the establishment of a permanent settlement. In reprisal the French killed up to 250 people.

Marion Du Fresne

Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: G-824-3.

Marion du Fresne commanded the second French expedition to visit New Zealand, following Jean François Marie de Surville. Du Fresne anchored his ships in the Bay of Islands in May 1772. Relations with Māori deteriorated and du Fresne and others from his ships were killed. This is an image drawn by Charles Meryon in the 1840s.

Other French ships and ships from other nations, including Russia and Spain, followed.

Relevance for today

New Zealand’s comparatively recent history of discovery and settlement, and its dual Polynesian and European voyaging traditions, may have helped shape our place in the world and our modern identity as an open, outward-looking and ethnically diverse trading nation. Polynesian and European voyagers saw the sea not as a barrier but as a highway. Cook’s visits heralded the beginning, within a few decades, of sustained contact, trade and cultural exchange between Māori, Europeans and others. This helped ensure that despite these islands’ extreme physical remoteness, New Zealand has long been a global nation, culturally and economically connected to the wider world.

Further Information

Cultural Go-Betweens from NZ History.

European ideas about Māori from Te Ara: the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.

Artefact, Series 1 Episode 3, presented by Dame Anne Salmond, discusses a hoe (paddle) gifted by Māori on the East Coast to crew of the Endeavour in 1769. This exchange was the first peaceful encounter between Māori and Europeans in the early contact period.

Tupaia’s Endeavour – trailer for a film based on the three part documentary from Māori Television. The story of Tupaia, the Tahitian high priest and navigator who boarded the Endeavour.

How to cite this page

'Early meetings between peoples', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/encounters/early-meetings, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 17-Jul-2023

Community contributions

3 comments have been posted about Early meetings between peoples

What do you know?

Mark Peters

Posted: 15 Aug 2021

"Cook’s relationship with Māori got off to a disastrous start when a Ngāti Oneone leader, Te Maro, was shot and killed by one of Cook’s men. It seems likely that the local people were undertaking a ceremonial challenge, but the Europeans believed themselves to be under attack."
Appalling misinformation. The journals, and even the documentary Tupaia's Endeavour the writer has drawn on, clearly show Te Maro and three other men waited until Cook, his scientists and some Marines had crossed the river before they approached the boys left with a boat on the beach.
Te Maro brandished a taiaha above his head so the coxswain in another boat on the water assumed he was attacking the boys, fired a warning shot that went unheeded, then shot Te Maro through the heart.
We are given to understand now, Te Maro's gesture was a formal welcome by way of a ritual challenge. It seems odd though that he and his men waited until Cook and the Marines with their glittering weapons and uniforms were well out of sight before welcoming the boys.


Posted: 08 Nov 2020

I don't think your description of Cook's first meeting with Maori at Turanga Nui matches that described in the journals of Cook and Joseph Banks. According to the journals, Maori tried to steal a hanger (sword) from a sailor and was shot. Another was shot when he tried to throw a spear at a small boat and it's crew. Why is this version different, where did it come from?