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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 5, October 1985

Captain James Cook's D'urville Island Anchorage

Captain James Cook's D'urville Island Anchorage

page 34

On the 16 February 1985 the last of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust plaques marking James Cook's New Zealand landing places was unveiled at Whareatea Bay on the east coast of D'Urville Island.

The unveiling party were welcomed ashore by the tangata whenua, members of Ngati Koata, with full Maori ceremony. This was followed by a brief unveiling ceremony led by Dr Neil Begg, Chairman of the Board of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

The plaque reads:

"James Cook sailed the Endeavour
from this bay on 31 March 1770
leaving New Zealand and steering
west on his long homeward voyage".

Cook's visit to D'Urville Island came at the close of his first visit to New Zealand. It was to be his only landing in what was much later to become the Nelson Land District. The following is one brief attempt to look at the historical evidence of that visit and place it in an historical perspective.

The Historical Record

James Cook and the bark Endeavour had sailed from England in August 1768 and after rounding the Horn had visited Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus, one of the principal objectives of this voyage. The other principal objective was to assess the coastline charted by Tasman (New Zealand) and determine whether or not it had any connection with the hypothetical 'Great Southern Continent'.

Endeavour" arrived off the New Zealand coast in October 1769 and spent six months carefully circumnavigating the country. Thus by the time the circumnavigation of what he was later to call Stephen's Island was completed Cook and his men had been away almost three years. It was time to consider the return voyage to England and to replenish the ship's supplies of wood and water.

"…knowing that there is a Bay between the abovementioned island (Stephens Island) and Queen Charlotte Sound, wherein no doubt there is anchorage and convenient watering places. Accordingly in the P.M. we hauled round the island and into the bay (Admiralty Bay) leaving three more islands (Rangitoto Islands) on our starboard hand which lay close under the west shore 3 or 4 miles within the entrance. As we run in we kept the lead going and had from 40 to 12 fathoms. At 6 o'clock we anchored in 11 fathoms of water. A muddy bottom under the west shore in the second cove within the forementioned islands. At daylight A.M. I took a boat and went to look for a watering place, and a proper birth to moor the ship in, both of which I found convenient enough. After the ship was moored I sent an officer ashore to superintend the watering, and the carpenter and his crew to cut wood, while the long-boat was employed carrying ashore empty casks". (Beaglehole 1955, vol. 1:271).

page 35

The journal records that they encountered strong westerly winds and rain on the 27, 28, 29 March but despite this the replenishing of supplies of wood and water continued.

On 30 March the wind had swung to the south-east and the weather cleared. The shore parties finished their work and Cook took the opportunity to go exploring in the pinnace.

"I landed upon a point of land on the west side, where from an eminency, I could see this western arm of the bay run in S.W.B.W. about 5 leagues farther yet did not see the head of it". (ibid:272).

Cook's vantage point is generally supposed to be what was later called the D'Urville Peninsula on the northern side of Catherine Cove. Cook could clearly see down through French Pass (note the reef marked in Fig. 1) but could not distinguish that he was standing on an island. Cook noted the rugged nature of the land covered with "wood, shrubs, ferns, etc., which renders travelling both difficult and fatiguing" (ibid:272).

He also remarks that no inhabitants were seen although several huts were found "all of which appeared to have been at least twelve months deserted (ibid:272).

Joseph Banks also spent time ashore botanising. He too noted the difficulty of walking in high fern and saw the several deserted whare. His scientific interests were satisfied by finding three plants that neither he or Solander had seen before. He also noted the mineral content of rocks on the beach although not of a metallic nature. (Beaglehole, 1962:475, 476).

On the evening of the 30 March all being ready for departure, Cook held one of the few recorded conferences with his offices to determine their homeward course.

"To return by way of Cape Horn was what I most wish'd, because by this route we should have been able to prove the existence or non-existence of a southern continent which yet remains doubtful; but in order to ascertain this we must have kept in a high latitude in the very depth of winter, but the condition of the ship in every respect, was not thought sufficient for such an undertaking. For the same reason the thoughts of proceding directly to the Cape of Good Hope was laid aside as no discovery of any moment could be hoped for in that route. It was therefore resolved to return by way of the East Indies by the following route: upon leaving this coast to steer to the westward until we fall in with the east coast of New Holland, and then follow the direction it may take until we arrive at its northern extremity; and if this should be found impractical, than to endeavour to fall in with the lands or islands discovered by Quiros" (New Hebrides) (Beaglehole 1955, vol. 1:272, 3).

Thus at daylight on 31 March Endeavour was got under sail and with a strong south easterly behind her set out on her homeward voyage. She returned to England in June 1771.

page 36
Cook's Map 1770.

Cook's Map 1770.

Department Lands & Survey Map 1983.

Department Lands & Survey Map 1983.

page 37

The Evidence for Whareatea Bay as the Anchorage

Although earlier Nelson historians A. N. Field (1942) and Ruth Allan (1965) have discussed Cook's visit they have made no attempt to define which bay on D'Urville Island's east coast was used by Cook. Beaglehole places the anchorage in more definite terms as "off D'Urville Island just south of Old Mans Point" (1955 vol. 1:271).

However, more recently it has become generally accepted that Whareatea Bay was the anchorage although often little argument has been given in support.

Cook's statement that he anchored in "the second cove within the fore mentioned islands" (ibid:271) seems to clearly indicate the second bay below the Rangitoto Islands. A careful study of a map of the east coast of D'Urville Island suggests that this is likely to be Whareatea Bay given that the two coves are those formed by Sampson Point bisecting the coast between Old Man's Point in the north and Halfway Point in the south. There is little doubt that Whareatea offers the most protected anchorage on this coast north of Catherine Cove. It also offers a suitable beach and landing at the northern end under Simpson Point and several good fresh water streams flow into the bay.

However the clearest evidence that Whareatea was the anchorage is found in the 'Chart of Cook's Straights' drawn by James Cook from surveys made at the time of his visit (Skelton, 1955: xviii). A tracing from this is shown in Fig. 1.

On this chart Cook has marked his D'Urville Island anchorage in 12 fathoms. When a comparison is made with the modern map of the coastline in Fig. 2 there can be no mistake that the bay is Whareatea with its distinctively square outline.

The Historical Significance of Cook's Visit to Whareatea Bay

In terms of New Zealand history Cook's visit to Whareatea had little practical impact. For him it was simply the closest suitable anchorage to restore the ship's supplies of wood and water and to consider his future course. His work in New Zealand on the first voyage was complete. In a geographical sense he had already defined New Zealand's coastline in his circumnavigation. His visit provided little new evidence about the ountry. He made no contact with the maori occupants of the area who were presumably in other parts at the time. The Whareatea anchorage, although fulfilling a need and despite the fact that Tasman had also anchored in the area in 1642 (just off the Rangitoto Islands), did not have the qualities of the important secure anchorages such as Ship Cove or Dusky Bay which would be used in successive visits by Cook.

It can in fact be argued that Cook's visit to Whareatea Bay has a greater significance to Australian history than New Zealand's. Having made the decision to avoid the Cape Horn route and return instead via the Dutch East Indies Cook was able to chart the east coast of New Holland (Australia) and complete the outline of that continent, one of the great achievements of his first voyage.

page 38

While it is important that we recognise the achievement of James Cook in the fields of navigation, surveying and natural history, and note with interest his brief stop on our part of the New Zealand coastline, it is also important to remember in placing his and his predecessor Tasman's visit in perspective that they were not the first to undertake such exploration in Nelson. That honour lies with the Polynesian navigators who had settled in the area at least 600 years previously.


Allan, R.M. 1965. Nelson, A History of Early Settlement. A. H. & A. W. Reed.

Beaglehole, J. C. 1955. The Journals of Captain James Cook. Vol. 1. The Voyage of the Endeavour, 1768–1771. Cambridge University Press, Hakluyt Society.

Beaglehole, J. C. 1962. The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks 1768–1771. Vols. I & II. Angus & Robertson.

Field, A. N. 1942. Nelson Province 1642–1842. From Discovery to Colonisation. A. G. Betts & Son.

Skelton, R. A. 1955. Charts and Views – Drawn by Cook and His Officers and Reproduced from the Original Manuscripts. Cambridge University Press, Hakluyt Society.