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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Modern Portuguese and Spanish Viewpoints

Modern Portuguese and Spanish Viewpoints

No other latter-day historical expert is more uncompromisingly critical of the sixteenth century “French-Portuguese charts” than Professor G. C. Henderson (Research Professor of History at the University of Sydney). Writing to the compiler of these records (18/5/1938), he pointed out, inter alia, that de la Rochette was one of the controversialists who, after Cook's return from his first voyage, proclaimed (as he no doubt believed) that the Portuguese had been the real discoverers of the east coast of Australia. But, by 1803, it was, he continues, no longer possible page 14 for any rational being to believe that the southern part of the east coast of Jave la Grande could have any meaning as applied to the southern part of the east coast of Australia. Before that date, as his own map plainly shows, Bass Strait was known, the coasts of Tasmania had been fairly well surveyed, and the coast of New South Wales had been drawn almost as it should have been….

“But,” he adds, “de la Rochette's resources (such as they were) were not yet completely exhausted. He knew that the latitude and longitude of Cabo da Fermoso on the French-Portuguese charts would place it far to the east of Australia. So, in 1803, he places ‘Cabo da Fermoso 1550’ on the coast of New Zealand where Cook in 1769 had written ‘East Cape.’ Having decided on this, it was easy to find another Portuguese legend for Cook Strait and he wrote ‘Gulf of the Portuguese’ and gave the date 1550. Lastly, in order to make everything clear to students of his map, he tells them that, though Tasman ‘discovered’ the west coast of New Zealand in 1642, the eastern coast ‘was known’ to the Portuguese ‘about the year 1550.’ Evidently, he was what we would call nowadays a ‘die-hard,’ and the unscrupulous ingenuity displayed in this last attempt to save his face will help any reader to understand something of the temper of the men who, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, were determined to put this young upstart Cook in his proper place!”

Inquiries made by the author reveal that lively interest continues to be taken by research workers in Portugal on the subject of early exploration in the South-west Pacific.

From the British Consulate at Lisbon, under date 15 November, 1939, there came to hand the modern Portuguese viewpoint, gathered from members of the Lisbon Geographical Society.

“It seems certain,” Admiral Gago Coutinho stated, “that the west coast of Australia was visited by the Portuguese before 1550. But New Zealand was so far outside of the meridian of Tordesilhas [the line of demarcation between the Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence in the Pacific] that it is unlikely that the Portuguese went so far to the eastward as New Zealand.”
Admiral Freitas Ribeiro emphasized the point that there exist but very scanty records of the discoveries made by the Portuguese in what was once known as the “Spanish Pacific.” He continues: “The earliest information about Australia is of Portuguese origin, as can clearly be seen from the first maps of Australia, which are preserved in England and France…. However, the Portuguese refrained from publicizing their discoveries, since the meridian of Tordesilhas divided Great Java (Australia) into two parts—the Portuguese and the Spanish—and it was not politic to aggravate with new details the irritating issue of the Moluccas then being disputed between the governments of Madrid and Lisbon. Moreover, the new land (Australia) hardly seemed to be a Land of Promise. As regards Tasmania, it is almost certain that, long before Tasman, the Portuguese had reached there. This is shown by the name ‘Pedra Blanca,’ preserved by Tasman in 1642 for the point now known as ‘Eddystone,’ and which may well be identified with the Cabo da Fermoso of the Dauphin's map. The name naturally came from the Portuguese maps page 15 taken to Holland. With reference to New Zealand, it is probable that the Portuguese visited that land also, but I know of no documents proving the priority of any discoveries on our part. If the Portuguese did reach New Zealand (in the sixteenth century) they did not take the trouble to make the fact known, since it was situated well within the Spanish hemisphere.”
Dr. Armando Cortezao, in his reply, stated: “As for New Zealand, it is very likely that the Portuguese went there before 1642, but I have no positive knowledge. I have a note of a vague reference which might lead to a theory to this effect, but I have never had the time to follow up the trail. I trust that I may, some day, be able to do so.”

The modern Spanish viewpoint on the subject is also of considerable interest. Under date 5 March, 1940, Professor Balles-teros, of the Spanish Academy of History, Madrid, informed the writer that he had come to the tentative conclusion that Juan Fernandez, the Spanish navigator (1536–1603), might have been the first European discoverer of New Zealand. He referred to a work published by Ricardo Beltran y Rozpide in 1918, entitled Juan Fernandez and the Discovery of Australia, in which the narrative of Dr. Juan Luis Arias is quoted, and added:

“The opinion held for many years that the land which he visited was Easter Island must be discarded. An island with a circumference of only 35 kilometres, and with an area of only 118 square kilometres could not be said to possess a coastline of considerable length. Nor does the latitude of the island, which is in 27 deg. S., agree with that given by the navigator's chronicler. Furthermore, between 30 deg. and 50 deg. S. latitude there are in the Pacific no large islands or territories outside New Zealand and the southern parts of Australia. From the foregoing, it will be seen that there are fairly solid grounds for the belief now held by certain Spanish historical students that New Zealand must be included within the range of Fernandez's discoveries and further research in this direction might bring to light facts that will convert this belief into a certainty.”

Commenting on earlier claims made on behalf of Fernandez, Professor Henderson, of Sydney, is both brief and caustic:

“I have,” he says, “read a fair amount about phantom islands and lands in the Pacific, and have always been disposed to put Fernandez's alleged discovery of New Zealand on the list. The South Pacific has been fully explored since his day, and where is the land which will answer to his description? As for New Zealand, it is, as Burney points out, 100 deg. of longitude from the coast of South America—not 40 deg.”

Startling revelations are now not likely to result from more intense research in England. Edward Lynam, secretary to the Hakluyt Society, carried out an investigation on behalf of the writer and informed him (20 April, 1939):

“I can find no recorded evidence in England that either the Arabs or the Portuguese or the Spaniards ever got near New Zealand before the days of Tasman, although the Portuguese seem to have had knowledge of northern and north-west Australia at the beginning of the sixteenth century.”