The fires seen by Tasman’s expedition

Tasman’s expedition is reported to have seen fires or smoke at least three times between the landfall west of Punakaiki on Dec 13th and Dec 26th when its two ships sailed north again from their anchorage east of D’Urville Island.

On the 15th, just north of Cape Foulwind, Tasman’s Journal mentions the lack of any smoke: “did not see any human beings nor any Smoke whatsoever nor are they likely to have any boats here since we did not see any trace of boats”.

However after this there are three mentions of fires onshore, two in Tasman’s Journal and one in the first-hand Haelbos account published in 1671. They are as follows:

Tasman’s Journal, Dec 17th –  “In the morning at sunrise we were about a mile away from the coast. Saw at various places Smoke ascending from fires made by the Natives. The wind then being South and from the land we turned Eastward again.”

Tasman’s Journal, Dec 18th – “In the Evening about one Hour after Sunset we saw many Lights on the Land and four boats close inshore two of which came towards us upon which our two boats returned”.

Haelbos account: – Dec 19th – Jan 5th – “Tasman named the harbour, because of the cruel treatment, the Murderers Bay: found himself then surrounded by land: was tossed at anchor by hard storm, before a coast, where we saw much smoke rise: and sailed further along the coast till the 5th of January of the year 1643.”

So lets consider these three references one at a time:

The figure 16 on the Huijdecoper chart should mark the noon position of the expedition on December 16th, and it appears just west of what is labeled Steyle Hoeck, now identified as Steep Point, 15km southwest of Kahurangi Point. The journal tells us that through the night of the 16th, having observed at sunset how the coastline had begun to veer to the northeast the Dutch sailed east northeast to stay abreast of it. By sunrise they could well have been off Kaihoka Lakes, a section of that coast likely to have been more heavily populated, which could explain the many fires seen that day.

Why were such fires lit? Perhaps as signals; columns of smoke thick and heavy enough to be visible some way out to sea don’t sound like woodsmoke from cooking fires. It seems  quite plausible that Whanganui Inlet and Kaihoka Lakes residents had seen the vessels of the Dutch and lit such smokey fires to warn relatives and friends in Golden Bay of the approach of likely enemies.

Another explanation could be that large fires were already burning across Golden Bay, since an attack by Maori enemies was already in progress. The hills between Kaihoka, to the west, and Pakawau, to the east, are low. large fires, whether burning villages, scrub fires lit to drive out fugitives or both, could have been burning through the night, and smoke from these could have come into view as Heemskerck and Zeehaen approached Kaihoka around sunrise on the 17th.

And other evidence supports the idea of a strong war party from elsewhere already making waves in Golden Bay: first, December was a likely time for waka taua to be on the move; second, Golden Bay was a likely target for a strong taua travelling between Te Wai Pounamu and Te Ika a Maui, the North Island, for greenstone; third, Tasman’s lookouts would two days later count 22 double hulled ocean-going waka off Wharawharangi Beach, meaning perhaps 600 warriors  and over 300 Maori may have been in the 11 that pursued the Dutch on the 19th – no one has yet explained how reinforcing waka could have reached Golden Bay between the 17th and the 19th without the Dutch observing them; and lastly, the Maori who encountered Tasman’s ships in Golden Bay were unresponsive to Dutch friendly overtures and unexpectedly attacked at the first opportunity. If this was a taua already dedicted to Tu, the atua of war, all this makes sense.

The second reference is apparently to fires seen from the ships at dusk on the 18th, presumably in the vicinity of Taupo Point and Wharawharangi, since these are the closest points to the anchorage: “many Lights on the Land and four boats close inshore two of which came towards us” these suggest camp fires along the coast, perhaps for warriors, and an unknown number of waka, at least two of which then approached and possibly challenged the visitors, departing only after cannons were fired over their heads, and even then having the last word with what may possibly have been a haka and a final warning trumpet blast. As Haelbos remembers this, “Tasman could see no sign on account of darkness: he only heard horrid noise of harsh voices and a shrill sound, not unlike a trumpet. The Dutch sailors called out to them: blew on trumpets: and finally fired off a cannon. Then the South-landers began to rave terribly: blew on a horn: and returned to land.”

So much for fires seen on the 17th and 18th. The situation then in Golden Bay seems to have been highly combustible. The final reference is apparently to warning fires seen along the D’urville Island coast  south of the anchorage on the 21st, which appears from the description given in Tasman’s journal to have been in the lee of Rangitoto Island, about one degree south of the figure 26 on the Huijdecoper chart.

Stephens Island, a little further north than the likely anchorage east of D’Urville, is at the same latitude as the anchorage in Golden Bay, and evidently south southeast of this was ‘Abel Tasman’s Roadstead’, the anchorage marked on Dutch charts. While anchored there they were apparently observed by Maori on the nearby coast, “a coast, where we saw much smoke rise”. In this case the fires are  likely to have been warning fires, signalling the passing by of these mysterious visitors.

In any case, no further waka or Maori warriors were seen until the expedition reached Three Kings Islands, and Tasman’s men were able to enjoy roast Christmas pork and extra wine in Abel Tasman’s Roadstead on that Christmas Day of 1642 in peace and goodwill.


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