The GREAT NEW ZEALAND discovery puzzle: Could you help re-write history?


Map on the wall of the Madrid Naval Museum, Spain, celebrating the voyage of Juan Fernandez to New Zealand in 1574


Dive Pacific is calling on divers and other adventurers to begin exploring for further evidence to prove that Spanish and/or Portuguese sailors were the first Europeans to land in New Zealand and Australia. The evidence uncovered thus far is compelling, as Winston Cowie (right) writes in this feature. More artefacts would clinch the case. So Dive Pacific is promoting this call for action to find it.

There are prizes to be won! Not for the treasure but for your ideas on how we/you should proceed to find the treasure.

Juan Fernandez

  • What do you think would be the most prospective way to advance this cause?
  • What could or should be done to find more evidence?
  • What plans could be started?
  • What technology should be harnessed to find the treasure?
  • We’re convinced it exists, but how do we uncover it and where?

Dive Pacific has several copies of Winston Cowie’s book, Conquistador Puzzle Trail, up for grabs. They’ll go to the best ideas on how to advance the search for buried Spanish/Portuguese treasure.

In Part 1 Winston Cowie, master diver and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, outlined the evidence mustered so far including expert views of old Portuguese and Spanish maps. In this issue we delve into what today’s map experts say and what has been recorded in New Zealand’s oral tradition by both Maori and early European settlers in Northland’s remote coast.

Welcome to the Conquistador Puzzle and The Great New Zealand Treasure Hunt! Were the Portuguese and Spanish the first Europeans to discover New Zealand and Australia?

The iron helmet likely dredged from Wellington Harbour in the early 1900s, dating to 1560-1580. (c) Museum of New Zealand.Te Papa Tongarewa.

There has been a fair bit of smoke billowing around this subject for a while now and, from the outset I wanted to take a different approach to the subject. Rather than saying ‘this definitely happened’, as others have, I wanted to present this historical mystery as a puzzle. I set out to highlight the antiquities that have been found and put them forward only as potential evidence of a discovery by Spanish or Portuguese explorers. These antiquities include maps, shipwrecks and artefacts; they’re the pieces of a puzzle, and I put them forward as arguments, for and against, to encourage you to consider which part of the Conquistador Puzzle each piece might form.

This theory has been around for a long time. Two hundred years ago a person looked at a map created in the 1540s, and seeing the similarities in the coastline to a continent, coupled with Portuguese names, drew the conclusion that Australia and New Zealand were probably discovered by the Portuguese or Spanish. Voila. We can do the same today. It appears that human perception hasn’t changed much in this time.

Australian Pearl fishermen with a Portuguese swivel cannon found in Napier Broome Bay, northern Australia, 1918

Top historians and geographers of their day proposed it. They include important people holding important positions: William Faden, the Royal Geographer to King George III, and also the Chart Committee of the British Admiralty in 1803; two of New Zealand’s most famous historians, Dr Thomas Hocken and Dr Robert McNab, in the late nineteenth century, amongst others.

So what do today’s experts say?

Recently the likes of Australians Kenneth McIntyre and Peter Trickett expressed views similar to those made back in the 19th century.

So what does the most recent expert to review the maps say? In the 1980s, this was Dr Helen Wallis. Like the others she was top of her field and president of both the British and International cartographical and mapping societies. She was awarded an OBE in 1986. After reviewing the maps she said “the balance of evidence was in favour of a Portuguese discovery.”

Maori lady’s tale of a Spanish landing and massacre near Dargaville

Matthew Flinders, the second man to circumnavigate Australia in 1802-1803, did so with a copy of a sixteenth century Portuguese map in his hands – donated by none other than Captain Cook’s companion Joseph Banks to the British Library following their ‘mapping’ of New Zealand in 1790. His view, that of a practical navigator, was that the coastline on the map was too close to the truth to have been made by conjecture alone. His conclusion was that Australia appears to have been mapped before Abel Tasman.

Film Directors David Sims and Winston Cowie working on the documentary ‘Mystery at Midge Bay: Discovering New Zealand’s earliest shipwreck.’

Why have these experts been ignored?

I think it must come down to the mood of society at the time, and politics. In the 1980s in New Zealand when Wallis came to her conclusion, there were claims of all sorts of random discoverers of New Zealand from Phoenicians to Celts, to all sorts. The water supporting the Portuguese and Spanish claims was muddied, and put in the same boat as the others. This was also when the Treaty of Waitangi land claims were in full swing. The political mood was sensitive. Simply put, the 1980s wasn’t the time for this debate, despite a Portuguese or Spanish discovery of Aotearoa/New Zealand making no difference whatsoever to ahi kaa and tangata whenua.

The recovery of a benteak plank at Midge Bay, Pouto Peninsula in the 1980s

But…what about that buried treasure?

I’ll tell you what I have found. Then it’s your turn to get fired up. I headed to one of the most isolated parts of New Zealand, Northland’s rugged Pouto Peninsula, where the smoke from these Spanish and Portuguese stories was coming from. My aim was to speak to elderly people there to find out more. With David Sims, formerly of the NZ National Film Unit, we captured a generation of oral tradition on camera, interviewing elderly Maori and Pakeha, many of whom have since passed, may peace be with them.

An old pohutukawa in La Coruna Police Station Spain with the poenamo gifted to it by Cowie, donated by the late Master carver Kerry Strongman. No one knows how old the pohutukawa is with Cowie working on permission to get it dated.

Oral tradition

In the 1890s Gustav Shick, one of the first European settlers in the area, was told a story by an elderly red-haired Maori woman who was living on his farm. She told him that many, many years before a ship had been wrecked and men with armour had come ashore. The local Maori killed most of them but allowed some to live. She considered herself to be a descendent of one of them, given her red hair.

Gustav Schick who was told the story in the 1890s

Buried treasure

She said they had a chest of treasure that was buried in a cave on the peninsula. This story is corroborated by old Jim and Tom Pomare of Waikaretu Marae. One of them was going fishing one night out towards the Pouto lighthouse, and he came across skeletons and armour lying in the sand. He picked up a helmet which had a skull inside it, and buried the helmet nearby. He told the story to the local police constable Corbett. We interviewed him in detail – he has since passed away. Two different and independent accounts of the same story, both talking about physical artefacts. Get your metal detectors ready. It’s a long beach.

The Pouto Lighthouse – it has seen many a shipwreck, including the ‘caravel’ referred to as being Spanish in oral tradition

The Tower of Hercules. An old Roman Lighthouse at La Coruna Harbour where the Loaisa expedition, where the second attempt to circumnavigate the world after Magellan departed from in the 1520s. The fabled ‘lost’ caravel the San Lesmes, may have been wrecked on New Zealand’s coastline.

Cannon recovered from Amanu atoll in the Pacific as recorded in the late Robert Langdon’s book ‘The Lost caravel.’


The young Trevor Schick who took the helmet to school

Back on the Schick farm, Trevor Schick, Gutstav’s grandson, went into one of the caves on the peninsula and came across a helmet that was described as Spanish or Portuguese. He took it for morning talk to Te Kopuru School in the 1930s. We interviewed one of his neighbours, the elderly Louis Kneebone who has since passed away. Louis was at school with Trevor Schick and she remembered the day he brought the helmet to school. She said he got in trouble and was told to put the helmet back where he found it. It was said to have created a ‘real buzz around the playground.’

Mrs Louis Kneebone and her son Kevin. Mrs Kneebone recalled seeing Trevor Schick at primary school in the 1930s with the helmet

These are some of a number of different accounts by credible people, good honest country people, of physical artefacts that have been found and reburied in the shifting sands or caves of the peninsula. This is the same coast where a shipwreck resembling a caravel was also seen by two local farmers in the 1980s though covered over soon after. It’s likely still there, waiting for its secrets to be told. Those helmets, those skeletons with armour lying on the beach, that caravel and treasure, if found, will change New Zealand’s discovery history.

Baylys Beach looking towards the Maunganui Bluff
where the caravel wreck is said to be located

The Pouto Peninsula calls. It’s time to find New Zealand’s buried Spanish and Portuguese treasure, in both the physical and metaphorical sense. It’s there somewhere. It’s time to put to rest those 500 year old ghosts.

A magnetometer survey being completed on another shipwreck in Dargaville in the 1980s, the Rangiriri wreck near Hoanga

Magnetometer survey findings- Midge Bay, Pouto. The likely resting place of New Zealand’s earliest shipwreck – A Dutch vessel.

Send in your ideas and let’s get on the treasure hunt!!

Winston Cowie, an award winning environmental policy manager and New Zealand author works as the Marine Policy Manager for the Environment Agency of Abu Dhabi. As well as Conquistador Puzzle Trail Winston has written a New Zealand Land Wars historical fiction series.


“By working with the Spanish Embassy, who assisted in translating my book into Spanish, we have arrived at the point where perceptions have been changed in both New Zealand and Spain in respect of these Iberian explorations. They are now taken more seriously. Previously they weren’t even mentioned in New Zealand schools and universities. While there is not enough evidence yet to say that the Spanish and or Portuguese voyaged to and/ or discovered Australia and New Zealand, there is enough evidence to consider that on the balance of probabilities, in fact they did”

At the launch of Cowie’s Book ‘Conquistador Puzzle Trail’ at The Kumara Box in Dargaville. Representatives of Pouto Marae and local historian Logan Forrest

“With my book now available in both languages, I am sure that in my lifetime, with additional research, we will be able to say definitively this did happen. And there is still that buried treasure to find” – Winston Cowie

Tahu Kena and Kaumatua Paki Pomare Kena. Te Uri o Hau. Pouto Marae. Kaumatua Paki Pomare Kena said: ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if the Spanish came to New Zealand early on and I wouldn’t even argue with the fact that they were here.’

Conquistador Puzzle Trail has been translated into Spanish, and praised by the Spanish and Portuguese embassies in New Zealand and Australia. It’s also been added as a source to Te Ara, the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. And with the support of the Spanish Embassy to New Zealand, 350 free copies were sent to schools and universities in New Zealand.

Getting people to read these theories is the only way to encourage debate and move knowledge forward. (E.g., Excellent exam question: Were the Portuguese or Spanish the first Europeans to discover New Zealand?)

Pouto historian Logan Forrest standing next to an old olive tree

scroll to top