First light

Abel Tasman banner

On the Morning of December 19th 1642, Abel Tasman and the Ngati Tumatakokiri had their first close look at each other.

The events of that day are recorded in Tasman’s journal, the Sailors Journal and the Surgeon-barbers account.

We also have this remarkable drawing by Isaac Gilsemans.

Gilsemans' drawing of the events of December 19th

Gilsemans’ drawing of the events of December 19th

It is captioned “A view of the Moordenaers Bay, as you are at anchor there in 15 fathom”, and is a collage of six independent illustrations that each depicts a different part of the day.

The legend at the upper right describes the individual parts of the drawing as below:

A. Our ships.
B. The prows which came alongside of us.
C. The cock-boat of the Zeehaen, which came paddling towards our ship, and was overpowered by the natives, who afterwards left it again owing to our firing; when we saw that they had left the cock-boat, our skipper fetched it back with our pinnace.
D. A view of a native prow with the appearance of the people.
E. Our ships putting off to sea.
F. Our pinnace bringing back the cock-boat.

This drawing is from the journal held at the National Archives, the Hague. A high resolution and zoomable scanned version of the original document can be found here:

Abel Tasman was sitting at anchor in Golden Bay. They had entered the Bay in the late morning and moved towards the shore before becoming becalmed, and lowering their anchors.

Gilsemans' drawing of the events of December 19th

Gilsemans’ drawing of the events of December 19th showing the position of the ships at anchor in Golden Bay

The illustration shows the ships, with land behind. The view is looking to the south-west. The headland on the left hand side is the promontory forming the Eastern end of Golden Bay, culminating at Separation Point. It is now the Abel Tasman National Park.

The Heemskerck is on the left, closer to the headland and the Zeehaen on the right, further towards the centre of Golden Bay.

With the last of the light the night before, Tasman had had visitors from the land; two boats full of warriors, but they had not managed to communicate in any useful way.

At first light, the south-landers were back. This time the south-landers came much closer, and this time in full daylight. It was the first time both parties had a good look at each other. The accounts of the Sailor and the Surgeon-barber are briefer that Tasman’s account, and this first visit of the day is only recorded in Tasman’s journal.

“Early in the morning a boat manned with 13 natives approached to about a stone’s cast from our ships; they called out several times but we did not understand them, their speech not bearing any resemblance to the vocabulary given us by the Honourable Governor-General and Councillors of India, which is hardly to be wondered at, seeing that it contains the language of the Salomonis islands, etc.”

One of the things supplied to Tasman for his voyage was a lexicon of words from the Salomon Islands. They tried some of these words, but found them of no use, “which is hardly to be wondered at”; they were after all from a country 3,500 km away.

In his journal entry for 19th December, 1642 Tasman made the first recorded description of the Maori:

“As far as we could observe these people were of ordinary height; they had rough voices and strong bones, the colour of their skin being brown and yellow; they wore tufts of black hair right upon the top of their heads, tied fast in the manner of the Japanese at the back of their heads, but somewhat longer and thicker, and surmounted by a large, thick white feather…”

“…For clothing, as it seemed to us, some of them wore mats, others cotton stuffs; almost all of them were naked from the shoulders to the waist.”

This description shows us that the waka had come very close indeed; close enough to see the top knots on the heads of the natives.

Gilsemans' drawing of the events of December 19th

Detail of the ‘South-landers’ and their boats

The waka depicted was not a drawing of the boat that visited first thing in the morning. That boat had 13 occupants; the one drawn has 11. It is not an illustration of a single boat, but representative of the people and boats they saw that day.

The illustration shows everyone bare chested, except the man standing, and that is what we would expect. The man standing would be the chief, and only the chief might own something as prestigious as a cloak.

Tasman recorded that their hair was tied up in a knot on top of their heads, and Gilsemans drew exactly this. Gilsemans however did not draw feathers in the hair, and most surprisingly there is no allusion in either the accounts, or drawing to any of the south-landers having tattoos.

The illustration doesn’t offer any detail of what the men were wearing, but the journal described the clothes as ‘mats’ or ‘cotton stuffs’.

The clothes would all have been woven flax or other fibre, and of varying fineness, but the Maori had no cotton. The Maori did have a type of cloth, called ‘tapa’, but it was rare and very highly prized indeed. Only a few examples of Tapa cloaks remain.

The detailed drawing shows the boat’s construction as well as the people, and some important details are recorded. Of immediate note is that the boat is double hulled; this was new to the Dutch. There is a horizontal lath drawn running the length of the hulls, and it appears lashed in place. This is a construction detail that would be unfamiliar to the Dutch. The lower part is the bottom of the hull, and is made from a single trunk; above the lath are separate long planks. These are tied together to deepen the hull, and the join is covered by the lath. This technique is still used in contemporary waka’s.

The sterns of the hulls are shown raised, and there is an indication of some sort of carving on them. An odd thing about the drawing is the position of the steersman; he is shown at the bow. The steersman would normally stay of the back of the boat, except on an ocean waka, when he might move to the front during tacking.

Unfortunately, Gilsemans recorded no detail of how the hulls were joined together, but Tasman provided this description.

“Their boats consisted of two long narrow prows side by side, over which a number of planks or other seats were placed in such a way that those above can look through the water underneath the vessel: their paddles are upwards of a fathom in length, narrow and pointed at the end; with these vessels they could make considerable speed.”
Gilsemans' drawing of the events of December 19th

Facing west from the lookout at Taupo Pa. Tasman’s ships were anchored in the centre of the view

From their position on the deck of the Heemskerck, the waka must have passed nearly almost directly beneath them, as Tasman noted that the paddlers could “look through the water underneath”.

They had showed the south-landers some of the trading goods they had on board, but it seems there was no interest in them. “We repeatedly made signs for them to come on board of us, showing them white linen and some knives that formed part of our cargo.“

Onboard the Heemskerck and the Zeehaen they had a bewildering array of goods to trade; these are some of them:

4 pieces of coloured cloth
5 pieces of silk patholen
4 pieces of Guinea linen
500 Chinese small mirrors
50 catties of Chinese coral
50 ordinary knives
19 pounds of Elephants teeth
2 packets of Tinsel
200 pounds of ironmongery
3/4 reals weight of gold
50 pounds of Dutch steel
1 picol of sugar
25 pounds of tin
50 pounds of pewter
25 pieces of assorted iron pots
20 pounds of cloves
200 small Chinese wooden combs
50 small hatchets
4 pounds of tortoise shell
50 pounds of lead
50 Chinese needles
4 broad Surate chintzes
10 pounds of mace
3/4 reals weight of silver
20 pounds of nutmegs
50 pounds of various brass wares
50 pounds of ebony
100 assorted pieces of porcelain
1 large brass basin
3 pearls

Both the night before, and on this morning, Tasman recorded that the waka’s approached, and then the men on board had called out. But they hadn’t understood what was said.

James Cook however was able to understand what was said;he had a translator, Tupaia.

In his Journal under the heading “War Practises of New Zealanders”, Cook recorded the manner in which they were usually approached by the Maori if their arrival was un-heralded.

“Whenever we were Visited by any number of them that had never heard or seen anything of us before they generally came off in the largest Canoe they had, some of which will carry 60, 80, or 100 people. They always brought their best Cloaths along with them, which they put on as soon as they came near the Ship. In each Canoe were generally an old Man, in some 2 or 3; these used always to direct the others, were better Cloathed, and generally carried a Halbard or Battle Axe in their hands, or some such like thing that distinguished them from the others.”

As soon as they came within about a Stone’s throw of the Ship they would there lay, and call out, “Haromoi harenta a patoo ago!” that is, “Come here, come ashore with us, and we will kill you with our patoo patoos!” and at the same time would shake them at us.

At times they would dance the War dance, and other times they would trade with and talk to us, and Answer such Questions as were put to them with all the Calmness imaginable, and then again begin the War Dance, shaking their Paddles, Patoo patoos, etc., and make strange contortions at the same time.”

Tasman reported the same behaviour that Cook described; that the waka would approach to about a stone’s throw, and then the natives would shout out to them.

Tasman thought they were being friendly.

Cook however understood the warning he was being given… Do not approach us, or come ashore, or we will kill you.

On the morning of December 13th Tasman wrote that the natives visited and then paddled away back to the beach. “They did not come nearer, however, but at last paddled back to shore“

But they weren’t gone for long.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *