We all have Discretionary Memories, remembering what we want to and conveniently forgetting the rest. The “good old days” always seem to become “gooder” the further away they are, such is the power of our individual discretionary memories.
Our collective memory is endlessly creative. Our written history tells us that Columbus, from Spain, was the first European to land on the shores of America, in 1492. I’m not sure of the benefit of us holding onto this untruth, but we do.
Leif Eriksson (son of Ivan the Red and sometimes called Ivan the Innocent), a Viking from Denmark, arrived at the shores of America in 1001, in a vessel hired from the Norwegian merchant, Bjarni Herjolfsson, with a crew of 25. Leif named the northern part Helluland (Flat Rock Land), the next, Markland (Forest Land) and the third and southernmost, Vinland, (Wine Land). Leif sailed back to Greenland the next spring and his fellow Norsemen took up the challenge. Thorvald reached Vinland but died in a fight with Indians, whom the Norsemen called Skraelings. However, Thorvald’s followers spent two years ashore before retracing their journey. About 1006 Thorfinn Karlsefini took people and cattle, meaning to colonise Vinland. Thorfinn’s wife bore a son – the first recorded European child to start life in the New World.
Then the Welshman, Prince Madoc, set forth with about 30 men, in 1170, in his ‘magic unsinkable ship’, Gwennan Gorn, which had a lodestone as a compass and horn nails to avoid false compass readings. Willem the Minstrel tells of Madoc discovering a ‘treacherous garden in the sea’ – the great weedy tract now called the Sargasso Sea. A Welsh clergyman, travelling overland from Carolina to Virginia in 1666, related that he was captured by Welsh-speaking Indians. Later came various reports of Indians claiming Welsh ancestry. Then explorers discovered white-skinned, fair-haired Indians deep inside America. These were the Mandans of the Missouri area and they made Welsh-type coracles and their words for coracle, paddle and many other objects resembled the Welsh equivalents. In 1837 smallpox effectively destroyed the tribe and its traditions were lost.
In 1962 the Russian geographer Samuel Varshavsky suggested that the adventurous Carmelite friar, Nicholas of Lynne, arrived in America soon after 1360. In the late 1970s, study of the old Bristol customs records revealed that ships from this west British port may have been secretly fishing off Newfoundland and even trading with the local Indians as early as 1479 – 13 years before Columbus ‘discovered’ the Bahamas.
Perhaps there was someone there before Leif Eriksson – perhaps we should ask the people who do not write books (the indigenous people) and we should not be surprised if their verbal stories include other races amongst them, before the Spaniards … and even before the Danes.
What would most surprise us is the historians and teachers immediately changing their texts and lessons – our “authorities”, people who know things, are the last to align their discretionary memories to revised truth.
Like the Americans, we New Zealanders have a very convenient collective discretionary memory. Our written and taught history tells us that the first European person to set foot on New Zealand’s shore was Abel Tasman, from Holland, in 1642. I’m not sure of the benefit of us holding onto this untruth, but we do.
Juan Fernandez, from Spain, arrived at the shores of New Zealand in 1576. Despite the evidence, our scholars persist in embarrassing themselves by refusing to accept this “new” truth, over 400 years later.
According to Josio Toribio Medina’s book, El Pilitio Juan Fernandez (The Navigator Juan Fernandez) Fernandez left Concepcion, Chile and arrived at Easter Island in September 1576.
He left there and, according to the 1911 account of Mohu Terei of the Ngati Porou (the Maori tribe which lives on New Zealand’s easterly-most point), it was just before full moon that the Maori were out fishing on their usual fishing grounds near East Cape when they sighted the ‘Spanish’ ship. The Ngati Porou account spoke of their sighting of the Spanish vessel during the nights of Tangaroa (23rd to 26th nights of the moon) on the night called Whatatitiri Papaa. This day was 1st December 1576 and accords with 63 days since leaving Easter Island.
Another English author, Burney, in his chapter entitled Accounts concerning the discovery of the Southern Continent, gives the date of 1576 and says, ‘At the time attributed to Fernandez, it was a discovery of utmost importance, but the information known about it is brief and obscure …’
A Historical Dictionary of 1830 contained an article by Vicuna MacKenna which says, ‘Stimulated by the success of his discoveries, Fernandez departed from the coast of Chile in 1576, and discovered at approximately 40 degrees west and southwest a coastline with all the appearances of a continent …’
Fernandez then sailed down the east coast and, according to Captain Cook’s diary of his third voyage to NZ in 1777, Tairooa (his ‘native’ guide) told him, “the ship put into the NE coast of Terrawitte, which is now known as Wellington Harbour”. While in the harbour, in seven fathoms of water, he left his 24-year-old son in charge of the ship for several hours while he and his three most senior men rowed to the shore in search for food and water. The crew, bitter at not being allowed to leave the ship and at the favouritism afforded Frenandez’s son, killed him and threw him overboard. His helmet, sword and other personal belongings have since been found in the Wellington harbour.
Along with the iron helmet, the Wellington museum recorded that ‘1 telescope case, 1 idol, 1 carved paddle, 1 carved club, 1 short sword and 2 Feejee clubs were found’. These are currently stored in the basement of the Wellington museum.
Captain Cook related that Tairooa told him, “long ago the captain of a ship came into Queen Charlotte Sound. During the stay in the sounds, the captain took a Maori woman (the chief’s daughter) to be his wife and she gave birth to their son.” The Spanish sailors stayed with the Waitaha people at Waikawa village for 11½ months, before leaving in late November or early December to arrive at Concepcion in Chile, after a record time of 30-40 days, on 7th January 1578. Fernandez was known as “The Wizard of the Pacific”.
Captain Cook was quite taken aback when he saw so much complete human desolation inflicted upon the Maoris of the Marlborough Sounds (of which Queen Charlotte Sound is one), brought about by venereal disease – a disease presumably “imported” from Europe.
Soon after Fernandez left New Zealand, the Waitaha people sent potted birds and dried fish as presents to the Ngatimamoe people across the strait, in the Wellington area. The Ngatimamoe then crossed the strait to investigate the source of this wonderful food and they eventually attacked and killed all the Waitaha people, except for a few they kept as slaves – thus the stories of the white people found their way to the Maori people. Thus, also, the stories of the peaceful Waitaha people were able to be obliterated from oral history. Very few of the Waitaha people survive today and most of them live on the remote Chatham Islands. Their prior claim as Tangata Whenua (original people of the land) has been ignored as history is only ever written by the victors.
And so, in America, the Spaniards are acknowledged for a feat they didn’t accomplish and, in New Zealand, they are not acknowledged for one they did – it all seems very fair if you don’t actually care about the truth.
This story is one of 53 stories in 53 Moments With Fables, due to be published soon.