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Shipwreck points to 18th-century race to colonize New Zealand

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Vessel buried off North Island coast sank more than 50 years before James Cook's discovery expedition.

Wood planks, recovered in the 1980s, belonged to a Dutch ship that may have been on a secret mission to try to colonize New Zealand. Credit: Dargaville Museum/ref1

Scraps of wood salvaged off New Zealand’s coast probably come from a Dutch ship built in the early 1700s, a study based on carbon dating, tree rings and historical research reports. The recovered vessel is the country’s oldest-known shipwreck — dating more than 50 years before Captain James Cook’s landing — and hints at a 'space race' among colonial powers to reach the remote isles.

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“It was a period of European expansion and exploration, and there were many countries that were competing against each other, particularly for resources,” says lead author Jonathan Palmer, a climate scientist who studies tree rings at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. The research has been published in the current issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science1.

Dutch explorer Abel Tasman put New Zealand on the map in 1642, but he never landed on the isles and Cook is credited being the first European to land there, in 1769. “There’s nothing written about that intervening time period, and that to me has always been a bit of a mystery,” says Palmer. “Why hadn’t anybody gone in the intervening 130 years? Maybe there were some efforts and maybe this was an example of one that didn’t return home.”

His team analysed wood recovered in 1983 by Noel Hilliam, an employee at a local maritime museum, who was alerted by a fisherman who had noticed a mussel-laden structure jutting out of the treacherous waters near the North Island’s Kaipara Head (see Report on unidentified shipwreck remains ). Following the fisherman’s directions, Hilliam and his team found a 25-metre-long, 7-metre-wide ship and recovered two pieces of wood from it. Hilliam applied for a permit to salvage the rest, but the government turned him down. Storms later reburied the ship in sand underwater, making further exploration all but impossible.

Palmer heard about the wreck a few years ago, when he contacted Hilliam about different wood samples from a bog on Hilliam’s farm. Most of the salvaged wood had been lost over the last 30 years, but Palmer and Hilliam located two samples at the museum that had inherited the timbers and kept them in storage.

Earlier voyages

Their team identified different kinds of wood: teak and Lagerstroemia, another tropical species. Combined carbon dating and tree-ring analysis suggested that the outermost layer of the Lagerstroemia wood grew between 1663 and 1672. Palmer’s team estimates that the ship was built in the early 1700s, on account of the time it would have taken to build the ship and of the fact that the wood's youngest layer — the outer ring, known as sapwood — was missing.

The ship is most likely to be Dutch, Palmer and his team conclude. The tropical woods come from Southeast Asia, where the Dutch East India Company operated throughout the 17th century. Mention of copper sheathing in Hilliam’s initial report on the wreck also point to a Dutch origin, the researchers say, as copper protection was common on Dutch vessels as early as the 1670s, but not used by the British Royal Navy until the mid-to-late18th century.

There are no records of a Dutch expedition to New Zealand in the late 17th or early 18th century, but Palmer suggests that competition among naval powers might have meant that many voyages were kept secret. In fact, years after his voyage, Cook claimed that native Maori told him that they had killed and eaten other Europeans who had preceded him.

Excavating the wreck would be the only way to determine the vessel’s identity, says Palmer, whose team pinpointed the location of the ship underwater using magnetic instruments and report these coordinates in their manuscript. They hope to entice an underwater archaeologist to do a proper excavation — before someone else gets to it. “Any cowboy could go in with a digger and get at some of the wreck,” Palmer says. “The worry is that you get these people who see gold or seek something and they just go in and raid the area.”

Brendan Foley, an underwater archaeologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, doubts that the ship holds much in the way of buried treasure. Accessing the ship would require shoring up large volumes of sand, but its shallow depth means that an excavation would be feasible. “They might be able to do it for some tens of thousands of dollars rather than hundreds of thousands or millions.”

Change history

  • 08 January 2014

    An earlier version of this article stated that Captain Cook made his claim concerning the Maori's contact with Europeans decades after his 1769 discovery of New Zealand, but in fact he did so as early as 1777.


  1. Palmer, J. et al. J. Archaeol. Sci. 42, 435-441 (2014).

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Callaway, E. Shipwreck points to 18th-century race to colonize New Zealand. Nature (2014).

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