Fresh archaeological research from the University of Otago has found new evidence which finally provides a plausible explanation as to why local Māori, seemingly without provocation, famously attacked Abel Tasman’s Dutch crew in Golden Bay on 19 December 1642, killing three European sailors.
Until now, the Māori side of this first recorded European-Māori contact has been lost to history. Ngati Tumatakokiri, the iwi identified traditionally with the 1642 encounter, were effectviely destroyed as a collective between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by other invading iwi.
In examining archaeological materials and survey evidence from the area of the encounter, University of Otago Archaeologist Dr Ian Barber has established that Tasman’s two ships anchored near a rich and important area for food and gardening.
Dr Barber will present his research at a public lecture, entitled “Lost in Transition; new research into iconic, first-contact violence between Europeans and indigenous New Zealanders” as part of the University of Otago’s Winter Lecture Series in Wellington and Auckland today and tomorrow.
He has dated materials recovered from site excavations and an extensive survey throughout the Golden Bay area, identifying numerous archaeological features and layers from the seventeenth century, including evidence of “successful gardening strategies” associated with a local Māori community of some wealth and distinction.
This agricultural success is measured both by soil evidence of sustained gardening over time, and the associated constuction of large underground pits to store the harvested produce.
“The incident took place in the middle of the seasonal kumara growing season, which runs between October and April. The Dutch ships made a beeline for what was essentially the food basket of Golden Bay before they were attacked. After the Dutch anchored and sent two small boats inshore to explore the coastline, local people may well have seen Tasman and his potentially hungry crew as a threat to their food resources,” says Dr Barber.
“People would have been concerned for the impact of these visitors on their crops. Food, and the storage of food, was associated with community well-being as well as chiefly mana, power and politics. Everyone in the community had a vested interest in this.”
Dr Barber believes that the local gardens were probably considered tapu, consistent with widespread Māori custom, highlighting concerns over the unexpected Dutch visit.
The historical record as it stands does not give reasons for the surprise attack as the ships lay at anchor in the Bay – first named by Tasman as Moordenaers (Murderers) Bay. And Tasman himself recorded no act of provocation.
Historians have previously indicated the violent clash took place because, at a guess, the white people on the ships were strangers and so were “enemies” – writes the late New Zealand historian, Professor John Beaglehole. He also stated, in his book The Exploration of the Pacific, first published in 1934, that “summer was the season of war-parties.”
Dr Barber believes the fact that this was the season for food growing, and in particular kumara production, makes much more sense.
“There is something very unusual about Tasman’s visit. The most important thing is that they are not even allowed to land. When they do try to get close to the land they are in effect chased away. And even as the Dutch ships leave, they are followed out by a number of waka, two of which at least are carrying sails. This is quite extraordinary.”
“It is simply not sufficient to say that local Māori just didn’t like strangers. It doesn’t pass muster,” he says.
Dr Barber suggests that an examination of the archaeological context and record might improve our understanding of early violence in other New Zealand and Pacific encounters, such as first contact with the Moriori of the Chatham Islands in 1791.
Dr Barber’s lectures are tonight at 6pm in the Royal Society of NZ Science House lecture theatre in Thorndon, Wellington and tomorrow, Thursday, at 6pm at the University of Otago Auckland Centre in level 4, 385 Queens Street.