Was NZ the setting for Sinbad’s Voyages?

The Lost Explorers of NZ

Was NZ the setting for Sinbad’s Voyages after Arab sailors landed here 200 years before Kupe? Did the Portuguese discover New Zealand 150 years before Tasman? A new book, Sixteenth Century Portuguese Down Under asks the questions and offers tantalizing new evidence in this extract:


The list of secret, alleged, pre-1769 non-Polynesian visitors is a surprisingly long one. If all or some of the visits did occur, there is no way of telling what nationality the strangers were. They could have been Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch or French. Except perhaps in one particular case. But even then, there is a fair amount of speculation involved.

In his book Kei Puta te Wairau, W.J. Elvy recorded an ancient piece of pre-Cook folklore which is quite fascinating. It concerns the sudden arrival of a non-Polynesian ship at the top of the South Island manned by sailors ‘of fair complexion,’ (Europeans), with a few present who were ‘darker than the Maori,’ (Negro). Many ships involved in early exploration work in the Pacific usually always had one or two Negro aboard – they were even present on some of Cook’s ships – and it’s interesting to see the fact preserved like this in centuries-old tradition.

A landing party came ashore from the ship looking for fresh food and water and for a time all went well. But after enjoying the hospitality of Maori a quarrel erupted when the sailors tried to take some of the local women back to the ship. Maori objected strongly, and fighting broke out. Men were killed on both sides, the sailors beat a hasty retreat, and the ship sailed away into apparent oblivion.

The most interesting feature of the account, however, is the Maori description of the battle itself. We are told that the newcomers were wearing ‘shiny coats that could turn off the Maori stone weapons,’ and that they were well armed with ‘spears,’ and ‘battle axes.’ It seems obvious from this that the European intruders were wearing battle armour, and that they were armed with pikes, cutlasses, and possibly muskets.

When Cook asked Maori in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1770, “have you ever seen or heard of a ship such as ours on this coast before?” one particular answer he received could be relevant to this study. Cook’s Maori informant told him that according to his ancestors ‘two ships much larger than ours’ had once come to that part of the world and that four of the strangers were killed upon their landing. The consensus among speculators is that this must be applying to Tasman in 1642. He was voyaging in two ships, and he lost four men. But according to the written record, Tasman never once set foot on New Zealand soil. And it might be a good idea to keep this in mind as we travel through this story, because we have a long way to go yet.

There is something troubling me though before we go any further. As far as I can ascertain, the Dutch explorers didn’t wear full body armour in the 17th century. By the time Tasman got to New Zealand the practice had all but faded out. The only ones to come ashore on to the beach of a newly-discovered country wearing full body armour were the Portuguese and Spanish in the 15th and 16th centuries. But there is more to this story yet. Not so much from a Maori traditional tale, but from a living descendant of the original Maori occupants of the area. The story concerns an engine driver by the name of Frank Robertson who, together with his two sons, moved to Wainui in the Nelson Province and leased from Maori most of the flat land there. At Wainui, Robertson senior became very friendly with a Maori known as Paramena with whom he shared many a confidence, and endless hours discussing old times. The friendship blossomed to the extent that secrets were shared, and when one day a message reached Robertson that Paramena was dying, and wanted to see him quickly, Robertson hastened to the bedside of his old friend.

Paramena disclosed that he was the last member of the Tumata-kokiri tribe and that there was ancient information he wished to pass on before he died. He explained that when members of his tribe attacked the crew of a visiting European ship – which he supposed was that of the Tasman expedition – but which in fact may not have necessarily been that of the Tasman expedition – Maori prevailed to the extent that they were able to capture a quantity of arms which had been in the possession of the slain sailors. The victorious war party took the arms back to Wainui Pa where a dispute arose among the chiefs as to who should own them. The matter was referred to the tohunga who, Solomon-like, decided that nobody should. He placed a tapu on them and ordered that they be buried instead. Paramena knew where the burial had taken place and he explained to Robertson in great detail the exact location of the spot. But when Robertson arrived back home and discussed the matter with his family they all concluded that Paramena must have been delirious and had talked nonsense. And so the matter may have rested indefinitely. But some years later the paddock mentioned as the burial place was stumped and ploughed and to everyone’s surprise two musket barrels were ploughed up by Frank’s son Morris at the spot indicated. It was a great surprise.

Robertson junior then remembered that Paramena had made specific reference to a ‘cutlass,’ and on digging around the area he found that also. The bronze handle and guard were in excellent repair but the steel blade was badly corroded and in trying to extract it from the ground the ancient relic broke in two.

So what do you do with two musket barrels and a cutlass you know are quite likely associated with Abel Tasman – or even some earlier navigator? Today you would rush them straight to a museum, realizing their potential research value. But in 1910 when the event occurred the items were looked upon as little more than curios. Morris put the relics in the corner of his cow shed but shortly afterwards they disappeared.

He suspected that a college drawing master by the name of Huddleston, who was camping nearby, had ‘souvenired’ them for the school museum which was being formed about that time. And so it proved to be. Enquiries revealed the following entry in the museum register: 1910: Presented by Mr. F.C. Huddleston. Two musket barrels and a sword, said to have been dug up near Takaka. A later search failed to find the items in the museum and a possible reason is that at one stage the museum room was required for a classroom and the exhibits stored in cases and transferred to back sheds where they were unprotected, and many were lost.

Padroe – Portuguese stone columns

The Portuguese word “padroe” is the plural form of the word “padrao.” It refers exclusively to the stone columns all Portuguese navigators were required by King John in the 1480s to carry, and to set up on capes and headlands of all lands newly discovered. But these columns didn’t signify a Portuguese takeover of the territory concerned, or an intention to do so at a later date. They merely claimed the new land for the Christian God. A padrao planted in foreign soil told the world that Portugal would be doing its utmost to Christianize that particular area just as soon as men and ships could be spared for the purpose.

At first the stone padroe were made with great care in Lisbon from local marble, and often featured a cross on top with inscriptions underneath stating the name of the king, the date, and other brief but relevant information. Most ships leaving Portugal had four on board – sometimes six – but inevitably in the latter stages of the Golden Age of Discovery supplies ran out before the voyage ended, in which case the captains were under orders to improvise, and to make padroe from any suitable rock that could be found locally. This was often limestone, but these makeshift models were nowhere near as impressive to look at as those originally from Lisbon, as Portuguese specialist Ron Watkins told me. He’d seen a few of them in the Indonesian region and they were not at all ‘becoming.’ Mostly they were just a simple column roughly hewn, varying in length from a metre and a half up to two and a half metres.

But their significance remained intact. They still gave out the same message. And the fact that every ship leaving Portugal was required to carry them – not only in the earlier stages of the discoveries, but right through, means that many hundreds of them are still scattered not only around Brazilian shores, but African and Indian beaches as well, on through what is now Indonesia, ever pushing further east until reaching western New Guinea and Timor. And who knows where after that. Their geographical distribution wasn’t restricted in any way at all, and we know this for certain because of what the Portuguese chronicler Joao de Barros wrote in 1540. “The Portuguese arms and pillars placed in Africa and Asia and in countless isles beyond the bounds of the three continents, are material things, and time may destroy them …”

Countless isles? Beyond the bounds of the three continents? What exactly do these statements mean? If we did find one on a lonely beach somewhere in this part of the world, what condition would it be in after almost 500 years? Would we recognize it for what it was? An African experience might help us understand.

In 1482 the navigator Diogo Cao made exploratory voyages down the west coast of Africa and among other things, discovered the mouth of the mighty Congo river. Here he marked the occasion by erecting a padrao at nearby Shark Point, and down the coast a little, three more. In recent years, Portuguese authorities have been on a mission to seek out all these ancient artefacts and set them up in various museums as valued icons of the past. When they sought out Cao’s four pillars they found them all in situ except that the one at Shark Point had crumbled into fragments. The other three however, were recovered intact and are now set up in the museum of the Lisbon Geographical Society. Others around the world have also been recovered and are now safe.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The idea of researching the columns as a possible aid in determining whether Portuguese navigators came to this part of the world in the 16th century is one that evolved slowly while I was researching something entirely different. And I think the story is worth telling. It began in London in the year 2000 with a public talk delivered by Dr. Honor Frost, the world expert on ancient Arab anchors. She disclosed during her address that the early Arab seafarers never left their home ports without up to a dozen anchors on board their ships. These objects were hewn from stone and on the voyage were jettisoned on the slightest pretext. Apparently it was easier to cut them adrift and leave them lying on the sea floor than to try hauling them back on board again. With the result that marine archaeologists today can trace old Arab trade routes and the like simply by the sheer numbers of anchors they are able to locate.

Present at the talk was a Professor from the University of London by the name of David Bivar who was attached to the School of African and Asian Studies. One of his passions just happened to be the study of traditional Arab literature from which over a period of years he had begun formulating a theory. His idea was that the Roc bird of Arab traditional tales might have been New Zealand’s giant extinct eagle Harpagornis which would mean, if true, that Arabs had been to New Zealand up to 700 years ago at the time Muslim missionaries were busy scouring the Pacific for converts. But he needed solid evidence to back up the idea, and by attending Dr. Frost’s lecture he hoped to pick up something that might help. Which he did, after hearing what Dr. Frost had to say about the peculiar habit of old-time Arab mariners of jettisoning so many anchors. He reasoned that if the Arabs had been to New Zealand long ago there would still be numbers of abandoned anchors lying around the New Zealand coastline in shallow water.

So he wrote to a retired naval commander in New Zealand explaining his theory and asking if he had ever heard of man-made stone pillars or columns being found anywhere in our shallow coastal waters. And if so, the Professor would be very grateful for photographs and details of such finds. Now some people make good researchers. Some don’t. And before long the Commander found himself struggling to make any progress. Which is why he began looking around for someone with the necessary expertise to carry on with the project, so that the Professor in London would not be let down. Someone with an avid interest in New Zealand’s past, someone he could pass it all on to and still retain a clear conscience. Eventually he settled on forensic anthropologist Dr. Robin Watt as the person he was looking for and handed over to him all the correspondence that had accumulated to date on the matter. But there was a problem. Dr. Watt found himself snowed under with other commitments and now he in turn was faced with finding someone to take it all on. And that someone was me.

“See what you can do with it,” were his words.

I relished the prospect and wrote to Dr. Frost in London telling her what had happened and asking for any possible drawings or photographs of old Arab anchors she might have on hand so that I’d know what I was looking for. As it happened, she had recently written a paper on the subject complete with illustrations and this she sent.

But I quickly found that the written record in this part of the world is quite devoid of any reference to Arab stone anchors so it would be a case of reverting to Plan “B”. Which was writing to all my contacts looking for a lead. Among these people I found two who were collaborating on a project which involved cataloguing all the “stones of significance” in New Zealand, whether man-made or not, so I wrote to them asking whether either of them had any photographs of their finds.

Researcher Antony Thorpe just happened to have such a photographic record and was kind enough to send me images of what the pair had been studying to date. And what a goldmine. Most of the stone objects involved were of Maori origin, but there were several which were difficult to identify. One or two had the appearance of being Arab stone anchors so I sent copies of these to Dr. Frost for a possible identification, but none measured up in the manner required. Which meant I would have to find alternative explanations for those columns and slabs discovered thus far which didn’t easily fit in with other Maori cultural artefacts of that type. One in particular really puzzled me. It didn’t fit the mould somehow. It didn’t match any other local pillar.

It was at about this stage I became aware of Portuguese padroe, and their significance in tracing the movements of sixteenth century Portuguese navigators. And with that awareness came the sudden realization that if one of these people had visited New Zealand almost 500 years ago they would have left a padrao behind, because the captains of all Portuguese vessels were under royal orders to do this wherever they went. But such an object — if one were to be found here — wouldn’t have come from Portugal. Since the navigator was so far from home it would be an improvised version of the real thing, probably hewn from local limestone. Or Australian, if the ship was carrying a few spare slabs from either the Northern Territory, or the coast of Queensland.

Then I found a 50-year-old report written by an amateur archaeologist by the name of C.G. Hunt in the 1950s. Hunt had become fascinated by an unidentified shipwreck at Ruapuke Beach just north of Aotea Harbour, west of the city of Hamilton. He made it his business to ferret out all the information he could on it, and the results of his research were written up as Some Notes on the Mystery Wreck of Ruapuke Beach, and handed over to the Waikato Scientific Association.

Hunt had been scouring the surrounding landscape around Ruapuke Beach looking for anomalous objects which might conceivably have some association with the wreck, and it was during the course of this search he uncovered something of interest to us. He found two hewn limestone columns which just didn’t fit in with local history or culture. They were totally alien to both.

“At two deserted Maori pas, (old Maori villages),” he wrote, “quite close to the scene of the wreck, are columns of rock. The one situated at the old Manuaitu Pa to the south is now lying on its side, having been dug out by vandals in search of Maori curios … (It was the custom of old-time Maori when erecting any kind of a post or pillar to bury beneath it precious ornaments or artefacts to ward off evil spirits). The rock … is roughly squared and is about seven feet six inches long. (2.250m,) It is an average of 12 inches wide (30cm.) and six inches deep. (15cm.).

“The other stone column is on the site of the nearby Pepera Pa … it too is of limestone … Measuring about 8 feet in length (2.4m.) it is approximately 15 inches square… (37.5 cm.)”. This column was also vandalized by people looking for Maori artefacts beneath it and is now lying on its side in long grass on a hilltop.

The significant point about both these columns is the fact that they were both originally found by Maori set up on the nearby beach and were brought up the hillside and re-erected inside the two villages. Hunt wrapped up his study of the items by saying: “I have inspected hundreds of deserted Maori pas in the North Island and quite a number in the South Island but cannot recall ever having seen stone columns such as these within the boundaries of the old fortifications … Owing to their size they would have needed a large body of men to transport them from the beach where they apparently originated and erect them at the top of hills in the vicinity. Limestone is fairly plentiful through many parts of the Tainui (local Maori tribe) territory and I find it curious that, in the vicinity of the wreck, and in that vicinity only, such large stone columns should have been erected.”

In this last sentence of course, Hunt is hinting that the columns might have had a connection to the old wreck at Ruapuke Beach.

In the group of photographs sent to me by Antony I was fortunate enough to find images of both these objects, so spent some considerable time using them to push the whole matter forward. First I would try all the museums in the country. There are about 70 in New Zealand, although quite a number specialize in either one topic, or one type of item. Hence pioneer museums which concentrate solely on European pioneer artefacts. And others which concentrate on cars, or else some other type of technology. So that there are comparatively few who actually have a “Curator of Maori Artefacts” in residence. I tracked down those which did and sent them images of the two columns plus a request for some kind of an identification on them. Any information they could supply at all I would be grateful for, I told them.

About half the museums gave me a square- off. They would pass the letter on to a local specialist who “would get back to me.” (None ever did). The remaining half ignored me entirely. The only Curator who replied was from Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, and he was totally up-front. He simply didn’t know. And I suspect that was the reason no other museum got back to me. They had no answer. They’d seen nothing like this before. Then I wrote to the senior archaeologist for the Hamilton area within whose area of jurisdiction the columns lay. If anyone knew something about them, he should. But there was no reply either, which tells me that he too didn’t have an explanation. So I now began sending the images to Europe because it was time for some bold steps…

Footnote: John Tasker’s new book, Sixteenth Century Portuguese Down Under, is published and available from Kanuka Press, kanukapress@xtra.co.nz The full version of this story is available in the July 2011 edition of HIS/HERS, or the subscriber area of our Facebook pages