The Story of Aotearoa

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The discovery of Aotearoa

The Māori people’s Polynesian ancestors are thought to have discovered and settled in New Zealand as early as 950AD, while the first European explorer to discover New Zealand was Abel Tasman in 1642.

The Māori people’s Polynesian ancestors sailed the length and breadth of the great Pacific Ocean using traditional navigational knowledge and skills to understand the natural environment – the tides, winds, stars, sun and migratory birds and sea animals. The vessels they sailed on were large, double-hull sailing waka (canoes).

The last of the islands to be discovered aboard these Polynesian vessels was Aotearoa – New Zealand.  It is said that the wife of the great explorer Kupe first sighted the long clouds above the land, thus giving Aotearoa its name: “He Ao, he Aotea, he Aotearoa – It is a cloud, it is a white cloud, it is a long white cloud.”

Founding of New Zealand

Europeans first laid eyes on New Zealand on 13 December 1642, when the great Dutch explorer Abel Tasman caught sight of the west coast of the South Island.

After a skirmish with local Māori he sailed on, never setting foot on land, however his ‘footprint’ still lies in the name he gave Aotearoa – New Zealand.

The next Europeans to visit Aotearoa – New Zealand came under the stewardship of the famous English mariner Captain James Cook, who in 1769 visited the South Pacific in order to study the passage of Venus across the disc of the sun.

News of Cook’s ‘discovery’ spread fast and in the ensuing years early settlers began arriving in New Zealand in search of timber, flax for ropes, and whales for the production of oil. These early visitors, who sometimes settled, brought with them western materials such as tools and muskets, as well as alcohol and disease. Of all these imports, disease and muskets were the two that had the most devastating effect on the indigenous Māori population. However it was confusion and miscommunication over land ownership that was to have the biggest and most wide ranging effect on the traditional Māori way of life.

The Treaty of Waitangi

It was not until after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed with Māori in 1840 that significant numbers of Europeans arrived in what is now modern day Auckland.

Apihai Te Kawau, by then paramount chief of Ngati Whatua and Tamaki (Auckland), could see the advantages in welcoming the colonial government to the area. Attracting the British Crown’s representatives meant many things: trade opportunities, access to valuable new technologies, as well as protection from the muskets of the tribe’s rivals, Nga Puhi.

So in 1840, Apihai Te Kawau sent a group of representatives to Kororareka (New Zealand’s first capital, later renamed Russell) to invite the governor, Captain William Hobson, to establish his colonial administration in Tamaki.

A 3000-acre wedge-shaped block of land stretching from modern day Cox’s Creek to the summit of Maungawhau (Mount Eden) and out to Point Britomart was offered by Ngati Whatua as a gesture of goodwill, with the promise of an additional 8000 acres if Hobson did indeed relocate to Tamaki.

It is here that misunderstandings between Māori and the settlers (Pakeha) began. Hobson wished to ‘buy’ the land by the giving of goods and money he had. For Māori, the concept of ‘buying’ land was unknown, as were the ideas of land titles and individual ownership. For Māori, as for many indigenous peoples around the world, people were part of the land and it was not a commodity that could be bought or sold. In Māori minds, people could not possess land, land possessed them – it was the means of building and maintaining relationships. Ngati Whatua saw the giving of the goods and money as gifts (koha), tokens of good faith.

The Planting of the Flag

On 18 September 1840, Captain Hobson and a government party of 12 planted the British flag and celebrated the founding of the new town that Hobson named Auckland.

Sarah Mathew, wife of the chief surveyor Felton Mathew, spoke of the flag planting ceremony in her diary: Once the Ngati Whatua chiefs had signed the provisional deed of sale, the “ceremony of taking formal possession in the name of Her Majesty was duly performed”. This was followed by a 21 gun royal salute. At this point, “Her Majesty’s health was most rapturously drunk” and the toast was accompanied by three hearty cheers.

The spot where the flag was raised was named Point Britomart. It was located at roughly the site where today Anzac Avenue meets Custom Street. Perhaps it says something about Auckland that within 40 years the area was excavated and the earth used in reclamation work at the bottom of modern day Queen Street.

Misunderstandings between Māori and the settlers continued, and it was not until the 1970s that they were revisited and the reconciliation process began. These issues continue to be addressed today.