History made and lost

When you look at the pomp and mythology around Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of America, it's strange that we don't do more to celebrate Abel Janszoon Tasman.

Columbus departed Spain on August 3, 1492, bumping into the Bahamas a few months later. Almost exactly 150 years later, Tasman left Batavia in August 1642, on the hunt for the great southern continent. He found us instead.

Land rose from the east on December 13, and Tasman named us Staten Landt, believing us to be connected to South America. Ship artist Isaac Gilsemans' first drawings, of strips of new mountain ranges jagged like a shark's teeth, are reproduced in an exhibition at the Nelson Provincial Museum.

Why don't we do more to recognise this date? Perhaps it's because we don't tell ourselves great nation-building stories like the Americans do. We've swallowed theirs instead - many of us know more about the American Civil War than the New Zealand Wars; more about Martin Luther King than Dame Whina Cooper.

Or perhaps because the encounter was so brief and bloody. After sighting the West Coast, Tasman headed north and east, mooring off a rich horticultural shore in what is now Golden Bay, having noted the glow of fires along the coast.

A skirmish with Ngati Tumatakokiri locals saw four of his men and several Maori killed, and he weighed anchor immediately, dubbing the area Murderers Bay. And so Europe learned of New Zealand; there is no earlier written record, no earlier known meeting.

Last month, a group of keen locals finally recognised the 370th anniversary of Tasman's visit. It was marked quietly but robustly in Nelson with a seminar, an exhibition, and a meeting-of-cultures concert featuring the lovely voices of the Koata whanau, a family of music lovers.

They sang old favourites in Hawaiian dresses, and as a warm finale brought "Auntie Shirl" up on stage to serenade her, sitting her on a chair and draping lei after lei around her neck as her cheeks streamed with tears.

The seminar itself was the first meeting of all sorts of minds. Though participants may have left with more questions than answers, it was a wonderful start to pooling knowledge.

But the most interesting thing about the whole story for me is that Tasman might not have been the first European to sight us - just the first to make it back alive.

"These people were extravagant ly fond of nails above every other thing," Captain Cook wrote in his diary on November 2, 1773, bobbing about in Queen Charlotte Sound. Three years earlier, when he'd first encountered Maori in the sound, they'd asked for whau, or spike nails - a commodity so valuable that it has its own index entry in Hilary and John Mitchell's stunning local history, Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka.

How did Maori know to trade for nails with the first Europeans to make their acquaintance? What other explorers or seafarers had met them before, but failed to return with the news? What other secrets lie buried at sea?

In the Netherlands, it was pointed out during the commemoration, people think you're referring to a pretty walk in New Zealand when you mention Abel Tasman. The threads of history are so delicate, it's no wonder that his story is little known.

In his presentation notes for that seminar, John Mitchell writes of a tenuous Maori link with Tasman's visit.

The story had been passed down through half a dozen generations by the 1850s, when native agent James Mackay heard a tale from a slave about the slave's grandfather, Te Koheta, whose canoe was blown away from the Taranaki coast during a monstrous storm and drifted ashore at what may have been Pakawau, with its occupant barely alive.

A Ngati Tumatakokiri woman took Te Koheta to a fire, brought him back to life, and married him.

Hundreds of years later, their grandson told Mackay that there were still a few Ngati Tumatakokiri people at Croisilles Harbour. On a later visit to Croisilles, Mackay asked them if they'd heard of or seen white men in former days. They told him that their ancestors had, and that they killed some of them who came in a ship to what is now Whariwharangi, near Separation Point.

Through such tricks of luck and time are histories made - and, alas, lost.


"You're just lazy and disorganised," writes one reader of my June 30 column on pointless loyalty cards. "It doesn't take much to think about where you're shopping and take advantage of [discounts]."

True; but luckily Kenn of Nelson is sympathetic. "Always wondered why my FlyBuys were ALWAYs so miserable – now I know," he says. "Supermarkets must hate me, aye – I only buy their specials."

And Paul McDonald, director of Card Solutions Limited, writes that he "loved your article on loyalty", which I doubt. "I'd like to email you when we launch a new loyalty programme. We have developed a multi wallet loyalty solution . . . would you be interested in reviewing this?" he continues. It's one card that runs every single loyalty programme you're signed up to, and should be ready in a couple of months. All my troubles rolled into one? I'd definitely be loyal to that.