In recent days I have been doing a lot of work on nineteenth-century New Zealand. You will guess that this was my job, not my research, and the germ of it is the fact that the Museum where I work holds one of the 23 New Zealand Crosses that were ever awarded, and several bits of the recipient’s family have been in touch with us about it and supplied material that is going to be part of an online exhibition about it that yours truly is building. So far so simple. What is not simple, however, is summarising nineteenth-century New Zealand history. It has become clear that there is not just one official line but several to take note of, and for each an unofficial line wandering somewhere between critique and conspiracy theory. Currently, for example, the New Zealand government’s official stance about the past eviction of the Maori from their lands is conciliatory, but of course it was not ever thus, and there are people in the islands who feel that the granting of public land in compensation, not usually directly relevant land, is wrong, either because it diminishes public resources for all in favour of some and is therefore only another kind of expropriation, or because it is not the land in question, which is of course now hallowed by a fair few generations of settler occupation as well as the few centuries of Maori occupation before that. People’s livelihoods depend on the interpretation of the past, so it’s a very politically dangerous and morally questionable field in which to be trying to find out what really happened.1
Now this makes the archæology of any settlement or occupation prior to the Maori arrival, usually dated to 950X1150, problematic. Many people would say that it’s problematic because there isn’t any, but of course there are those on the Internet who argue otherwise, and indeed who argue that evidence of such settlement has been suppressed, by a pro-Maori conciliatory government terrified by the Maori majority in the New Zealand Armed Forces in extreme cases. And then there are those who may just be having a laugh. I found plenty of the latter in my websearching for images, and one of these theories is actually period-wise more or less on topic for here, which is a bit alarming. The guy behind this site has collected a bunch of ‘radical’ theories as well as giving European and Maori versions of the islands’ history. Well, one can put as many wild theories on the Internet as one likes but occasionally someone who knows the period turns up and then, I think, it’s that person’s duty to at least look around quickly and then put something up on the Internet himself, saying what he thinks. And when I say ‘he’ I mean me. So I will.
The short version of this theory goes like this. Please note that these are not my own beliefs but my summary of others’s assertions; we’ll get to my input in a minute. The Geography of al-Idrisi reports a voyage in the time of Caliph Harun al-Rashid of Baghdad that found a new mountainous land south-east of what is now New Guinea. This can only have been New Zealand. Furthermore, a rock carving at Mount Tauhara appears to show an Arab dhow. Also, the Seven Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor, well known from the Arabian Nights story cycle and also set in the time of Harun al-Rashid, feature a land and fauna that could easily be identified with locations in New Zealand and its erstwhile giant birds, like the Moa (Sindbad reports a Seemoah), hunted to death by the settlers, or the New Zealand Giant Eagle, apparently hunted out earlier by the Maori. Furthermore, an artefact known as the Korotangi, a sculpture of a bird carved from green serpentine that only occurs in China or Indonesia, must have come along a trade route from Jakarta which was then an Arab-held trading port. So there.
My on-the-spot reaction to this was pretty good, actually. The Sindbad stuff is pretty stretched, but we know from recent finds that actually there was Arab-type shipping in the general China Sea area from only slightly later than that period, at least from before al-Idrisi was writing, and so it doesn’t seem to me a priori impossible that Muslim sailors in that part of the world knew of New Zealand, though that’s a long way from saying they settled there even by accident. At which rate, well, it could feature in stories, however distorted, and get wrapped into the Sindbad cycle, though I know almost nothing about that I freely admit. So I thought it was worth checking a bit.
And oh dear. Let’s start at the end, with the Korotangi. The site I started with is startling in being the only place on the web I can locate with an image of this sculpture, and yes, it’s not very like the Maori stuff I agree. If that’s it. Any kind of publication of this find seems to be lacking.2 One website claims that the object is now in the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, and I’m not saying it’s not but I can’t find it in their online catalogue. (Obviously suppressed!!1!) So we seem to have only hearsay about this thing’s discovery and even if that were accurate it’s not clear to me that it proves anything about Arab connections rather than Indonesian ones. So though it’s a beautiful thing, I’m going to dismiss it.
Nextly the ship carvings, as I don’t see any way of evaluating the Sindbad stuff that isn’t completely subjective or based on the other evidence (though we can at least refute the Seemoah, which is a Persian word, `Simurgh’, and doesn’t have to relate to anything outside Arabia). These carvings have also not been published. Various websites, all of which except this one hold that they are Phoenician (an origin which our writer maintains for some of them), say that one Perry Fletcher discovered them, but his standing doesn’t seem to be professional and he has not published it. He is however cited as a contributor to a government report on early land use in the area of the finds, and that completely fails to mention anything pre-Maori. Out of their remit? Out of their comfort zone? or actually not Perry’s idea at all? Who knows? However, some NZ sceptics have been to look for these carvings and not found them discernible without very selective highlighting, or at least so they say. And, something that they allege that is beyond question, there is no good way to date these carvings whatever they depict. So that too looks like evidence bent to fit a theory rather than anything that suggests an inherent answer, and I’m going to dismiss this too.
So that basically leaves the texts. Well, al-Idrisi is well enough known, though it seems that there were problems getting hold of a text in New Zealand when this story started. Our source website here says:
Augustus Hamilton, Director of the Museum of NZ in the early 1900′s had written an article on the “Early Mention of New Zealand in a Geographical Treatise of the 12th Century” (Journal of the Ploynesian Society [sic], 1886, Vol 4), and the 12th century document was Al-Idrisi’s. Translated into French in 1840 by Monsieur Jaubert, and published as “Recueil des Voyages” by the Geographical Society of France.
The passage at top is from Volume 6, where Al-Idrisi described an exploration by Arab explorers around 790 AD of the Southern Ocean, and their discovery of a large, mountainous land-mass. South-east of New Guinea is nothing but ocean – and New Zealand.
A bit of work located the Hamilton article, whose more cautious title is actually “Notes on a supposed early Mention of New Zealand in a Geographical Treatise of the 12th Century” and is actually in Journal of the Polynesian Society Vol. 4 (Auckland 1895), at p. 206: it’s only a note, and it goes:
In the account of the Proceedings of the Otago Institute, at a meeting held March 16, 1870, (Trans. N. Z. Institute, vol. iii, part i, Proceedings, p. 65), it appears that the Vice-President, Mr A. Eccles, read a paper “On the Discovery of New Zealand.” He suggested that New Zealand had been visited before Tasman’s time, giving the following as his grounds for so doing:–”The editor of the English Mechanic, (December 3rd, 1869, p. 279), states, in answer to a correspondent, ‘Urban,’ that various Arabic geographical works of the 13th and 14th centuries, many of which, having been translated, as ‘El Ideesee,’ by M. Jaubert, are to be found in the fine libraries of Vienna and Paris, as well as in the various Asiatic Ethnological Societies, both English and foreign, describe New Zealand as a large and very mountainous country in the farthest Southern Ocean, beyond and far south-east of both Ray (Borneo) and Bartalie (New Guinea), and as being uninhabited by man, and containing nothing but gigantic birds known as the ‘Seêmoah.’” Mr Eccles then gave the names of several foreign publications in which passages of the works are to be found translated. I have several times tried to get to the source of the information given above, but have always been unsuccessful. Within the last three months I wrote to the Librarian of the great library at Paris, enclosing the paragraph and asking for his assistance, but have as not yet heard from him. I have, however, just discovered the key to it, and by the insertion of this note in the Polynesian Journal I trust that we may soon have the passage supposed to apply to New Zealand published. The paragraph, after the words “13th and 14th centuries,” should read, “many of which have been translated, as those of El Edrisi by M. Jaubert, and are,” &c. El Edrisi is a well-known geographer of the 12th century, and his writings have been translated by M. Jaubert into French in 1840, as vols. 5 and 6 of the Recueil des Voyages issued by the Société de Géographic [sic] of France. It seems that in 1861 a number of oriental scholars arranged to undertake a new translation, each taking a separate division. According to the last edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Central and Eastern Asia (which I suppose would be the section in which we are interested) was allotted to Defrémery. One portion appeared in 1866, but I cannot ascertain if any other part has since been issued. Perhaps some foreign members of the Polynesian Society may be in a position to forward a translation of that part of the work which is supposed to apply to New Zealand, and also that part in particular anent the “Seêmoah.” Possibly this may be our friend the “Simurgh” again—the “Roc” of the Arabian story-tellers. From the account given in the Encyclopedia, the general map of El Edrisi’s work is published by Dr. Vincent in his Periplus of the Erythræan Sea. This is probably inaccessible in the colonies, but a sketch of the Australasian area would be of interest to us. The Bodleian contains a MS. of the work dated about 1500, which would give probably what is required. The University of Jena has a MS. with a Latin translation by Velochius, not published. Although further research may possibly prove that there is nothing in the work relating to New Zealand, the investigation will be the means of settling a matter which has been an open question for a quarter of a century.—A. Hamilton.
Mr Hamilton, I have not answered your request. Nor, as far as I can tell, has anyone else, but, I have at least gone back to Jaubert’s translation. The fact that our source website names Vol. 6 bothers me slightly, in as much as the full citation is Amédée Jaubert (transl.), La Géographie d’Edrisi. Traduit de l’arabe en français d’après deux manuscrits de la Bibliothèque du roi et accompagnée de notes, Recueil de voyages et de mémoires publié par la Société de géographie, Paris, 5-6 (Paris 1836-40), but the China Seas are in the first volume, the relevant parts being part IX & X of the 1st Climate. Now. I may have missed it. I did spend a short while looking, but it might be out of logical sequence: al-Idrisi detailed each climate west to east, though, so it’s fairly easy to be sure. He covers India, what is now Burma, Malaya, Sumatra and Java (the last three more or less under those names) and a myriad of smaller islands, but that seems to be it. I can’t find the text that our website quotes, anything that could be the source of the passage known to Hamilton, or anything about Seemoahs anywhere in there. I don’t think it is there, unless Jaubert dropped it from the translation; but our source seems to believe that it’s in Jaubert. Well, if he wants to provide a cite I’ll look again, but till then, damn, there is nothing in this at all except hearsay and guesswork!
Well, not quite nothing. Al-Idrisi didn’t just write about the world’s geography, he also tried to draw it. The geography itself contains a stylish world map which makes him seem quite confused about what he drew as the top left, since his projection had the south at the top, but he produced a much larger version of his worldview for King Roger II of Sicily in 1154, called the Tabula Rogeriana, which is also on Wikimedia Commons in a scholarly glossed version but which you’d far better consult in an online version of that gloss at the Library of Congress, which is zoomable and navigable and lots of other good stuff. And if you look at the top left on that, you get this:
And if you zoom in on that interesting pair of islands just to the left and above the grid intersection, you find that they share a name, uākuāk:
and that, to me, starts to look relevant. This appearance rapidly dissipates, however, when you realise that he is naming the islands by their supposed kings and that the same king rules not just those but the extensive and urbanised southern continent which seems to want to be Antarctica.3
I’m not quite prepared to dismiss this yet, though this would make the next island along, Sabarma, I don’t know, Tasmania? and the huge long Kamar Australia, whereas he says its people are white (he was very interested in skin colour and what the women wear, uncovered female hair gets him all of a twitter). So the quote still doesn’t fit al-Idrisi’s actual texts, neither, apparently, does his own map, and I’m not sure how much more reliable his knowledge of this area was than the Sindbad stories. Without him, too, Sindbad is really the only evidence for early Arab knowledge of New Zealand. And when your only evidence is in the Arabian Nights, it may be time to rethink your position…
1. If you want an actual academic in the field talking about these issues, you could do worse than consult Jane Lydon, “Pacific Encounters, or Beyond the Islands of History” in Martin Hall & Stephen W. Silliman (edd.), Historical Archaeology, Blackwell Guides to Global Archaeology 9 (Oxford 2006), pp. 293-312 at pp. 297-298, which I read by complete coincidence.
2. It’s not quite true to say it’s unpublished, as it seems to get a mention in a pamphlet by one Matthew Eru Wepa called Great Mysteries of the Mäori World (Rotorua 2004) which I haven’t seen, but as that’s self-published I’m not sure whether it really counts; I doubt it went through review…
3. The glosses on the map are Roman transliterations of al-Idrisi’s Arabic and come from Konrad Miller, Weltkarte des Idrisi vom Jahr 1154 n. Ch., Charta Rogeriana (Stuttgart 1928), which is still, it seems, fairly current about his understanding, at least this far off the Eurocentric area…