The Great New Zealand Treasure Hunt is On!


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 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.

  • What do you think would be the most prospective way 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 the following article (followed by Part II in the next issue of Dive Pacific) Winston Cowie, master diver and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society outlines the evidence for the treasure mustered so far, with clues on where to look next.

Desliens Chart (1566), Dieppe, France

There is other buried treasure to find. Spanish and Portuguese treasure. You may not know about it. Why would you? I didn’t. We weren’t taught interesting stuff like that school. Let’s hope with New Zealand history becoming compulsory by 2022, we will be better prepared to challenge the existing paradigms.

In seeking and finding Spanish or Portuguese treasure you would rewrite New Zealand history by conclusively proving the first Europeans to locate and map New Zealand were not the Dutch or British at all, but Portuguese or Spanish.

Francisco Pizzaro, Spanish conquistador, conquered the Inca Empire, Peru, 1532

We all know that eastern Polynesians, perhaps from the ‘Society’ or ‘Cook’ Islands were the first to discover New Zealand. Kiwa, Hotu Matua, Maui and Kupe are part of our folklore. But here we are talking about the European wave of voyagers.

Piecing together a puzzle

There has been a fair bit of smoke billowing around the Portuguese and Spanish in the region 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.

Each item discussed is presented on its own merits. I explain how I came across it, what, or who was the source of it, and you can decide where it fits into the theoretical framework. If a piece doesn’t fit the puzzle, it doesn’t fit. I don’t try to twist any piece to fit the theory. These pieces of the puzzle are fascinating. You have heard about some of them: 16th century maps of New Zealand and Australia well before Abel Tasman; shipwrecks; oral folklore of white voyagers coming ashore in New Zealand wearing armour; their massacre by natives; cannon, helmets, a ship’s bell, ruins, stone crosses and other enigmatic artefacts found centuries later; red-haired and fair skinned Maori noted by the next wave of settlers to New Zealand; buried treasure; pohutukawa trees on the far side of the world; lost caravels.

Let’s back up 500 years

The 15th and 16th centuries were the golden age of Spanish and Portuguese exploration. Pope Alexander VI drew a line of demarcation down the middle of the Atlantic and decreed all lands to the east were available for Portuguese exploration (including Africa and India) while all lands to the west were open for Spanish exploration, including the Americas and the Pacific.

Spanish and Portuguese Discoveries and Trade Routes. 1581

Alfonso de Albuquerque, Portuguese conquistador, captured Ormuz at the head of the Arabian Gulf in 1507, conquered Goa, India in 1510, and Malacca, Malaysia in 1511

By the 1520s Magellan had gone around the world for the first time and on the other side of the world, in the Spice Islands, today’s Indonesia, he met another seafaring nation sailing in the opposite direction, from east to west.


At this time, so the chronicles say, one Christopher Mendonca, a Portuguese captain, was given a secret mission by the Portuguese King Manuel I, to find the great southern land of gold of Marco Polo fame. Through Google, yes modern day Google, I sourced an official record from the Lisbon Archives referencing this very expedition. I can even tell you Mendonca had four ships in his fleet, and the names of their captains.

A reproduction of the continent “Big Java” of the Dauphin Chart, (circa 1547), Dieppe, France

Between 1520 and 1524 Mendonca, following the instructions of his King, discovered the Great Southern Land that, in later years it was claimed, nothing was known about: the Terra Australia Incognita. We know from a postal stone in Cape Town that Mendonca passed through there in May of 1524, then there is ‘radio’ silence in respect of the rest of his expedition. (Funnily enough, he ended up in my neck of the woods, not five hours drive from where I am writing this, in Ormuz at the head of the Arabian Gulf.)

How do we know that Mendonca likely went on this expedition? Because in the 1540s beautiful world maps started appearing originating in Dieppe, France, where the top cartographers and mapmakers congregated in the 1540s to 1560s. On these maps were located modern day Australia and New Zealand with landmasses that match in part what they look like today. On the most detailed map, the Vallard Atlas of 1547, there are over 120 detailed Portuguese place names descriptive of physical features there today. Many of these old Portuguese words match up in some places. For example, the Great Barrier Reef is located where the map says ‘Costa Dangeroza’; there is a prawn fishery where it says prawns; and pumice deposits where it says pomezita, to cite just a few. So why aren’t these maps viewed as a Portuguese discovery of Australia and New Zealand?

Owner Martin Taylor and the ‘Manukau Helmet’ a Dutch pikeman’s pot (or war hat) dated to 1630-40. Dredged out of the Manukau Harbour in the 1960s

De La Rochette, L S. Chart of the Indian Ocean. 1817, Second edition engraved by J Bothren. London. W.Faden. geographer to the King and to HRH the Prince Regent.
The wording in this map under the words ‘New
Zeeland’ reads as follows: “New Zeeland: Discovered
and named by Tasman, 1642 but whose Eastern Coast was
known to the Portuguese, about the year 1550” (over 100 years earlier)


The San Lesmes

Furthermore on the Spanish side there are two possibilities: One is that New Zealand is where the fabled caravel, the San Lesmes of the 1525 Loaisa Expedition was wrecked, accounting for the shipwreck (more on that next time), and the red haired and fair skinned Maori on the northern New Zealand coastline, along with the oral tradition of Spanish helmets and buried treasure.

An example of an ancient map as drawn by cartographers in the 16th century.

Juan Fernandez

The second is there may have been a voyage by a Spanish captain Juan Fernandez from Concepcion in Chile to New Zealand between 1576 and 1578 which accounts for, among other pieces of the puzzle, the skull of a European woman found here in a date range within 41 years of that voyage (1619). This woman was likely to have been between 40 and 45 years old when she died . Indeed a painting on the wall of the Madrid Naval Museum celebrates the great Spanish voyages of exploration with Juan Fernandez’ voyage to New Zealand included. The voyage is celebrated at the Spanish end; it’s time we acknowledged it at the New Zealand end.

Juan Sebastián Elcano, a Spanish conquistador and below Ferdinand Magellan from Portugal who sailed
around the world for the first time circa 1519-1522

More on the maps

But what else do we know about the ancient maps. Sir Joseph Banks, Cook’s botanist, donated one of them to the British Library in 1790, 19 years after he had voyaged on Cook’s 1769 expedition. This fact raises the question: Did Cook and Banks have these Portuguese charts when they ‘mapped’ New Zealand for the first time? The story goes that Banks purchased the map from Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford, one of the principal earls of the admiralty. And it’s a fact he gifted one of them to the British Library in 1790. Why did he have it?

In 1803, William Faden, who was the Royal Geographer to King George III and also the Chart Committee of the British Admiralty, was reassessing what was known of the world. On the chart of the Indian Ocean he wrote next to New Zealand: “New Zeeland (Discovered and named by Tasman 1642 but where eastern coast was known to the Portuguese, about the year 1550).” We are talking about the Geographer to the King here. 250 years ago he was the global expert on geography.

Similarly in 1894, two of New Zealand’s most famous historians, Dr Thomas Hocken and Dr Robert McNab, theorised that further research might reveal the true story of the discovery of New Zealand. They wrote: “Doubtless before Tasman, there were voyagers who had visited New Zealand. We are justified in thinking that there are buried in the old archives of Portugal and of Spain journals … [that would prove this].”


Conquistador Trail Puzzles 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, we sent over 350 free copies to schools and universities in New Zealand. Getting people to read these theories is the only way to encourage debate and move knowledge forward. (eg Excellent exam question: Were the Portuguese or Spanish the first Europeans to discover New Zealand?) 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.

In our next issue we’ll reveal what today’s experts have to say about the ancient maps, who got here first, and what about that buried treasure?

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