Rain was falling and the shores were wrapped in darkening gloom as two Russian ships tacked boldly into the entrance of Queen Charlotte Sound. For 19 days they had battled early winter storms to cross the Tasman Sea, and only now, on the evening of May 27, 1820, had the wind finally dropped.
In the lead ship, Vostok, Commander Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen studied the chart drawn by Captain James Cook 50 years earlier, and chose an anchorage in the lee of Motuara Island to wait for the lagging Mirnyy. A pair of green parrots flew out from the mainland, amusing the crew with their antics in the rigging, while a school of porpoises leaped and dived in the ship’s wake.
“We were now surrounded by high, steep hills, covered in forest,” Bellingshausen wrote in his journal. “On the western side, we noted a fenced-in place that appeared to be inhabited.”
The following morning, two large canoes containing 39 men paddled out to meet them. The Russian crew were apprehensive; they had heard vivid accounts of the “perfidious” nature of these New Zealanders—that they were “a dangerous and fickle people” given to “dark cannibalistic treachery.” In particular, they knew of the slaughter of ten men in the crew of Captain Tobias Furneaux, who had been on this very anchorage with Cook during his second voyage of discovery in 1773, and of the unfortunate French Captain Marion du Fresne and 17 of his crew, butchered a year earlier in the Bay of Islands
“One of them stood up in the canoe,” wrote Bellingshausen, “and delivered a speech in a sonorous voice, gesticulating: we understood nothing of what he said, so I responded with gestures of peace and friendship common to all peoples, producing a white handkerchief and beckoning them towards me. The islanders, having taken counsel among themselves, promptly approached the ship. I invited the old man, who had delivered the speech and who was evidently the Chief, to come aboard, which he did, trembling with nervousness and almost beside himself.”
So ‘began one of the most unusual encounters in this country’s history: an exchange not of hostility, but of cautious goodwill between two cultures a world apart, with no underlying design for sovereignty, possession or economic advancement. Such encounters, alas, are rare in the pages of colonial history.
The Russian expedition was, in part, Cook’s legacy. The great navigator, commander and explorer had transformed the business of discovery into a science. By the early 19th century, it was no longer fashionable to merely roam the world; expeditions were expected to collect and classify botanical or zoological specimens, to observe celestial phenomena or, at the very least, to demonstrate cartographic ability and produce a few new charts.
Even so, the aims of empire were never far behind the pursuits of science. Knowledge was power, and nowhere was this more evident than in the quest for new trade routes and untapped caches of natural resources.
At this time Britannia very definitely ruled the waves, her influence skirting France and Spain and stretching all the way to the Imperial Court in St Petersburg. As “top gun,” she could afford to be a little magnanimous: a Russian-English naval entente saw the most promising Russian naval officers (Bellingshausen was one) serving in the English fleet to gain valuable experience in ocean voyaging, just as a reciprocal arrangement saw English and Scots become a familiar sight in the Baltic Fleet.
However, Tsar Alexander I’s victory over Napoleon in 1812 was a clear demonstration of Russia’s growing military strength, and by 1817 her expanding navy was causing some concern in London, provoking an intensification of efforts to find a navigable northwest trade passage that would connect Europe to the Orient. Sir John Barrow, secretary of the Admiralty Board, pleaded with the House of Commons that “it would be somewhat mortifying if a naval power of but yesterday were to complete a discovery in the 19th century which was so happily commenced by Englishmen in the 16th.” A large reward was offered to find the passage, spurring the age of British Arctic exploration.
In a response that was almost certainly born of pride, the Tsar ordered not only a polar expedition northwards, but a simultaneous exploration of the southern icecap. The southern voyage was to be under the command of a young officer by the name of Fabian von Bellingshausen.
Bellingshausen (also called Thaddeus after the Russian version of his name Faddey Faddeyevich Bellingshausen) was born in Estonia to a distinguished Baltic family in September 1778, just one year before Cook was speared to death in Hawaii. On the boy’s tenth birthday, his parents proudly enrolled him in the Imperial naval corps at Kronstadt. Much like the great English navigator, the young lad was soon recognised for an outstanding grasp of hydrography and nautical astronomy, and at the age of 25 he accompanied the great Russian commander Kruzenshtern on the first Russian expedition around the globe (1803-1806).
The scholarly and anglophiled commander proved a strong influence on the young lieutenant. Kruzenshtern insisted that all his crew follow the successful precedents established by Cook: stringent shipboard hygiene, a balanced diet, no theft or sexual familiarities with native peoples leading to pointless complications, and no retribution by the gun. It was a code of ethics that would exemplify the Russian expedition to New Zealand a decade and a half later.
Largely as a result of Kruzenshtern’s urgings, the southern expedition had a strong ethnographic flavour. Not since Cook’s last expedition in 1777 had any major exploration been completed in the southern oceans, yet a lively interest in its indigenous peoples, especially the Maori, had quietly captured the imaginations of the well-read Russian people. Kruzenshtern saw the southern voyage as a means of pursuing Cook’s unfinished ethnographic legacy through a Russian perspective.
Bellingshausen’s orders, while outlining a definite route and schedule, were surprisingly sweeping and imprecise on the matter of the expedition’s scientific aims. He was required to offer every assistance to two German botanists, Mertens and Kunze, who were to join the expedition in Copenhagen, but otherwise his instructions were simply to “pass over nothing new, useful, or curious that you may have a chance to see . . . as may widen any area of human knowledge.”
As it turned out, Mertens and Kunze failed to rendezvous with the ships, and Bellingshausen was left largely free to follow his own devices
On july 4, 1819, the expedition set sail from the port of Kronstadt, near St Petersburg. Bellingshausen had charge of the 900-ton Vostok (East), while Mikhail Lazarev captained the smaller 531-ton Mirnyy (Peaceful). Both were roomy transports compared to Cook’s vessels (the Endeavour was only 370 tons), making them ideally suited to the collection of “ethnographica.”
Bellingshausen was well aware of the value of tradable items when attempting to secure artefacts, and had loaded the largest nonessential cargo ever seen. “In order to induce the natives to treat us amiably,” he wrote, “and to allow us to obtain from them, by barter, fresh provisions, and various hand made articles . . . we loaded things as were calculated to please peoples who were still in an almost primitive state of nature, viz.:
Knives, miscellaneous 400
Knives, garden size 20
Saws, one man 10
Saws, cross 10
Rasps and files 100
Flints, steel 30
Small belts, whistles 185
Fringes, various shades 60 arshins
(1 arshin = approx. 70 cm)
Striped ticking material 100 arshins
Wire, copper 100 lbs
Wire, iron 80 lbs
Horn combs 250
Needles (various) 5000
Garnets 5 strings
Beads, little and large 20 strings
Wax candles 1000
Mirrors (various) 1000
Red flannelette 218 arshins
along with large quantities of broken iron, nails and buttons, all cheaply obtained.”
The two ships stopped in Portsmouth, where sextants, telescopes, chronometers, charts and tinned pea soup were purchased. A meeting with the now venerable Sir Joseph Banks served as a final briefing before the expedition left Europe for its expected two-year voyage. In Rio de Janeiro, fresh-killed meat and wine were taken on board before the ships headed south towards Antarctica. Despite superb charting, Bellingshausen mistook the folded icecap of the continent for a series of vast icebergs, not realising he was within 30 kilometres of what is now called Princess Martha Land.
The ships proceeded eastwards, remaining south of 60 degrees latitude for a full quarter of the globe before striking north to arrive at Port Jackson in New South Wales on April 10, 1820.
The arrival of two Russian naval ships in the English colony created quite a stir. Commander Lazarev, who had visited the colony six years earlier, acted as interpreter as the colonists came from near and far to admire the two vessels. The 39.5 metre Vostok, with all its 28 polished guns displayed, would have been a magnificent sight beside the slightly shorter 20-gun Mirnyy.
After a month in the Australian port, the expedition set a northerly course for the Tuamotu Archipelago (Society Islands), planning to spend the winter in warm latitudes. Day after day they battled in vain, for the Tasman storms drove them further and further eastwards towards New Zealand. On May 18, as sailors climbed the rigging to reef down in the heightening gale, Vostok signalled her companion to abandon tack and rendezvous in Queen Charlotte Sound.
Conditions did not abate until the ships sailed into Cook Strait nine days later.The choice of Queen Charlotte Sound was no accident. Cook’s favourite anchorage listed prominently in Purdy’s 1816 cruising guide The Oriental Navigator, but, most importantly, it was a place of known Maori habitation.
After their initial encounter with the two canoes, the Russians let off a few rockets “to announce our arrival to the natives living in the interior . . . I thought it probable that the following morning they would assemble to visit us from various localities and in large numbers.” But, unlike Cook, who estimated some 400 Maori living in the area bounded by Motuara Island, Ship Cove and Little Waikawa Bay, the Russians were to find a depleted population, probably no more than 80.
Totaranui, as the Maori called Queen Charlotte Sound, had long been a natural gateway between the two main islands: a nexus for trade that involved some 15 tribes bordering Raukawa (Cook Strait). With a natural flow and ebb in the population characteristic of a border people, it is quite possible that the Maori who greeted Bellingshausen were not even the same people Cook had described.
Ngai Tahu spokesman Sir Tipene O’Regan describes the Totaranui area as a “Maori railway station” which experienced a high throughput of tribal associations—in particular Ngai Tara, Rangitane, Ngati Apa, Ngai Tahu, Ngati Kuia and Ngati Tumatakokiri—rather than a long and stable occupation by a single tribe
While the specific tribal grouping of the time of Bellingshausen’s visit may be uncertain, one thing is sure: Maori who inhabited Queen Charlotte Sound were slaughtered by Te Rauparaha’s musket-wielding Ngati Toa and Te Ati Awa allies seven years after the Russian expedition had come and gone. According to some historians, the raid bordered on genocide, for there is an almost complete break in traditional regional history from the area around this time.
The Russian accounts, sketches and collections of artefacts from Queen Charlotte Sound in 1820 are particularly valuable in light of these later events. They provide a cameo insight into a traditional trading culture, already tinged by European contact, that would otherwise have faded into obscurity
Luckily, five different written versions exist. The Russian Naval Ministry required key members of the expedition to keep a journal, and as well as Bellingshausen’s account, those of Ivan Simonov, the expedition’s astronomer, and three other officers give insight into Maori life of the time.
“These New Zealanders were of middling height and solid build, with swarthy expressive faces on which we observed various designs,” wrote Simonov. “They showed much animation and a fire full of martial spirit shone in their eyes. With us, however, they proved to be well behaved and even quiet, recognising the superiority of our force and knowing the effectiveness of our armament.”
Bellingshausen’s insistence on good conduct on both sides, right from the outset, was undoubtedly an important factor in the expedition’s success. Simonov’s description of Maori “pointing to the cannon, uttering the word ‘Poo’ with some fear,” indicates they were already conversant with European fire-power from the sealers and whalers that followed Cook. Despite the language barrier, communication was quickly established using a few key words gleaned from a handy copy of Cook’s Voyages. The natives were obviously delighted at the Russian desire for trade, visiting the ships in increasing numbers and proving seasoned barterers. The decks assumed a market atmosphere as a handful of authorised officers conducted the barter for fresh fish, crayfish, garments, weapons, carvings and ornamental objects
The first meetings produced all the expected displays of wonderment and humour. “I invited the Chief into our cabin to dine with us,” wrote Bellingshausen. “We seated him in the place of honour between Lazarev and myself. He picked up and examined with astonishment all the table utensils .. . then, carefully, awkwardly, he put food in his mouth with his fork. We continued to assure one another of mutual friendship by various signs and means of a few native words that I knew. But when later, wishing to give him more convincing proof of my goodwill, I made him a present of a beautiful, well polished axe, he jumped up from the table for joy and rushed up to the deck towards his countrymen, having embraced me, joyfully repeating, ‘Toki! Toki!’ (Axe! Axe!). We regaled the other New Zealanders with biscuits, fat, thin gruel and rum. They ate everything heartily, but one cup of rum sufficed for them all: Such sobriety on their part serves as proof that they can only rarely have been visited by the enlightened Europeans, who wherever they settle, teach the natives to drink spirits and to smoke and chew tobacco.”
Having spent two days establishing a trustworthy relationship from the relative safety of their ships, the Russians now accepted invitations to come ashore, “. . . and in order to increase our wish to do so, [the New Zealanders] indicated by gestures that we should be entertained by the fair sex.”
Bellingshausen reminded his ocean-weary men that on no account were they to engage in any sexual familiarities with Maori women, an order motivated by fear of complication rather than any moral imperative. Although a Lutheran, Bellingshausen made no attempt to preach the Gospel in New Zealand. The Mirnyy carried an obligatory priest, but not once in the two-year voyage did he rate a mention in Bellingshausen’s ten-volume journals, so little value did he place upon his work.
Bellingshausen writes, “May 31. In the morning I invited Messrs Mikhaylov and Simonov and certain of the officers of the Vostok, together with Mr Lazarev and officers of the Mirnyy, to call on the islanders. We set out in two cutters, both mounting a swivel-gun, and all took a firearm. Besides all this, some of us had pairs of pistols. With such armament we had no cause to fear any treachery by the natives.”
Their precautions were understandable, as they were headed for the tiny settlement at Cannibal Cove where Cook had witnessed a feast of human flesh. They were reassured, however, when the villagers scattered on their arrival. “One man only met us, and he with the greatest timidity. But when we showed him kindness, all the others came out to us. I made a few presents to the Chief and his wife, and to the daughter, since she was not unattractive, I gave a mirror, so she could compare herself with the other women to her own advantage. They at once presented me with a piece of cloth made of New Zealand flax, with a patterned border. The Chief’s wife suggested the barter, and I agreed.”
Further north, they came to a small pa belonging to the old rangatira who had greeted them on their arrival in Queen Charlotte Sound. “[He] now wished to show me equal hospitality . . . With that object, he selected a reasonably young woman, but one whose face was pretty repulsive, and offered me her as a temporary wife. I declined the offer, patting the old man on the shoulder. Very likely Europeans who had visited the place before us . . . have encouraged them in the pursuit of such shameful trafficking.”
Simonov, who shared Bellingshausen’s interest in ethnology, wasted no time in bartering, exercising considerable discrimination in the acquisition of Maori artefacts. Wherever possible, he collected two examples of each type, including an exquisite range of winter garments, not only completed, but in various stages of manufacture. Only Simonov appreciated the fact that an unfinished specimen of weaving often reveals more than a finished article. Apart from one ornate feather cloak, all the woven garments were made solely from flax, some “pounded as fine as silk.”
The ship’s artist, Pavel Mikhaylov, whose job it was to “sketch all noteworthy places visited, and portray native peoples and their dress and games,” was kept particularly busy as he accompanied the shore parties on these excursions. Although a skilled artist, he followed a trend typical of the day, giving European facial features to indigenous peoples.
Simonov fell into the same Eurocentric trap in his journal, writing, “Some of them reminded me of ancient Romans I had seen in prints, especially when the New Zealand mantle hung from their shoulders and feathers fluttered on their heads. Of course, their regular and pleasing countenances were spoiled by certain wildness, as by the tattoos with which they carefully covered various parts of their body.”
Although the women were considered generally unattractive by Russian standards, their general condition, like that of the men, was judged “adequately nourished.” The Maori showed themselves to be expert fishermen, on one occasion delivering over 100 kilograms of fish to the Vostok, and putting to shame the efforts of the Russian seamen with a seine net.
The Russians made particular note of many “different kinds of wooden fish hooks and fishing lines,” each plainly designed for catching a particular species. The largest was a 24 cm-long shark hook most likely fashioned from a specially trained branch. Large sharks were desirable catches, with the teeth valuable items of trade as chisel and implement tips.
Some of the journal entries are refreshingly down to earth. Midshipman P. M. Novosil’sky (who waited 33 years before he anonymously published his account) wrote, “New Zealanders observe no order in their division of time, but eat and sleep when moved to do so. They love to hear tales about battles. Women take part in their feasts. Slaves carry round empty pumpkins full of pure water. They sleep in their huts anyhow, quite without clothing in summer, covered with material in winter. Young people marry between the ages of 20 and 24.”
Other observations by this officer reveal the benefit of the author’s subsequent research and reflection: “Politically, the New Zealanders are divided into various groups reminiscent of the ancient clans of Scotland. Each group has its chief, who is chosen from amongst the rangatiras, or nobles. These noble savages readily understood our system of naval rank, immediately comparing those of captain, lieutenant, and midshipman with corresponding ones on shore.”
During their stay, the Russians were treated to numerous hakas and much singing, which the Maori seemingly performed at every opportunity. Bellingshausen records one such occasion as some Maori visitors to the Mirnyy eagerly assisted the crew in lifting casks from the hold. “The New Zealanders . . . pulled on ropes and uttered loud, fairly harmonious shouts to keep in time. When a rope chanced to part and they all suddenly fell as a result, they burst into loud laughter. Then leaping up, they performed a dance, consisting of various grimaces accompanied by loud singing, stamping of the feet, and waving of the arms. So horribly did they distort their faces that it was unpleasant to look at, as their eyes rolled up under their foreheads. The dance seemed to be a war dance, expressing contempt for the enemy and victory over him.”
But it wasn’t only the singing of the Maori that caused the Russians to comment. As with Cook—indeed, with virtually all the early explorers to the Sounds—the native birdsong created an enormous impression. Simonov writes, “. . . this beautiful singing of landbirds re-echoed like a piano accompanied by flutes. Certainly we have long been deprived of such a pleasure, nor do I recall having heard such a harmonious choir of songbirds anywhere in the five remaining parts of the earth.”
On another excursion, the Russians landed to investigate some cultivated ground high on a headland. “There we found . . . a long row of baskets containing potatoes, just dug up. We took a few with us; on boiling them, we found them very tasty and not inferior to English potato.” Noted Simonov: “European vegetables, both culinary roots and greens introduced into New Zealand by Cook, Furneaux and Foster, all thrive, though only the potato has been used as a food by the natives.”
Following Cook’s example, the Russians gave Maori seeds of turnips, swedes, carrots, pumpkins, broad beans and peas, and instructed them in their sowing. “The natives understood me well, were well pleased, and promised to plant the seeds in their plots,” wrote Bellingshausen, who in turn collected flax seed for planting in the Bellingshausen Southern Crimea, which shared similar soil and climate. “I hoped to benefit both the natives of the region and the fatherland,” he noted. This was indeed an enlightened age!
On june 2 the barometer plummeted. Bellingshausen feared the worst as huge waves crashed against the ship, causing it to drag its anchor and necessitating the dropping of a second. “All that day was a troubled one, rainy and tempestuous,” wrote Bellingshausen. “Lightning flashed, thunder echoed in the mountains, and re-echoed.”
Two days later, with little improvement in sight, Bellingshausen ordered the anchors weighed. Simonov records the emotional farewell. “The New Zealanders were on board our ship for the last time. Both by word sand by signs, their Chief expressed his sincere regret on seeing our preparations for a prompt departure. There were even some natives among them who would readily have agreed to sail with us to Europe; but the Chief watched very carefully to make sure that nobody remained with us. One particular young New Zealander entreated us to take him along, and promised to work diligently on the sloop. With the Captain’s permission, we gave him to understand that the decision to remain with us was his to make. Our consent delighted him; but his desire had not remained hidden from the elders, who almost forcibly obliged their enterprising fellow-tribesman to return to shore. With vexation and sadness, he placed his nose against mine and slowly went down into his family’s canoe. We weighed anchor, the sails filled, and we moved out into Cook Strait, while a flotilla of many New Zealand craft made for shore. We had scarcely reached the open Sound before the sky was covered with clouds and the waves began to roar . . . .”
As the expedition sailed north through the Society Islands, Simonov continued to cram artefacts into every available space on board the two ships. Returning to St Petersburg in August 1821, the expedition unloaded its precious cargo of ethnographica, which orders required to be immediately handed over to the Naval Ministry. It seems unlikely that this was carried out to the letter, for Simonov no doubt realised the unsuitability of a military establishment being entrusted with the care and study of his priceless collection. Whatever his intentions at the time, Simonovis practice of acquiring duplicates served him well, for it seems that he simply walked off with a substantial part of the cargo. These items would later form the basis, of the Simonov Collection at the University of Kazan,(pf which he became rector.
For seven years, the main collection of Maori artefacts stayed in the navy’s keeping, before being transferred to what is now part of the St Petersburg ethnographic museum. However, there are discrepancies between the original expedition accounts and what is in the collections today. Lost somewhere in the intervening period were specimens of Maori weaving, “javelins,” bone needles and a flute or pipe. The accounts state that several “bludgeons made of green-stone” were collected, yet there is only one mere made of nephrite in the museum. Simonov is known to have brought two mummified heads back from New Zealand; these have both disappeared.
It is almost certain that all the missing objects are still in Russia. The demand for such artefacts was so strong that even items collected by Cook had made their way into that country.
As for Bellingshausen, his career suffered a setback when one of his crew was arrested for taking part in the 1825 Decembrist uprising. The fact that Bellingshausen had named an island after this “traitor” came to Tsar Nicholas I’s attention, and the publication of his journals was put on hold for a decade. It was only on the urging of the chief of naval staff, who pointed out that Bellingshausen’s discoveries might “bring honour not to Russians but to foreigners” if they were not published, that the Tsar relented, and 600 copies were printed in 1831.
I never written fairly. In New Zealand’s case, it would be true to say that it has been (understandably) slanted towards our dominant colonial influence: Britain. The keen Russian interest in this country, which can be traced back to the time of Cook, has never been reciprocated. Indeed, a mere 30 years after Bellingshausen’s visit, Russia was being regarded in the colonies as a predatory bogey, her warships supposedly patrolling the Pacific and threatening the free world. This attitude—based more on British propaganda than actual observation—has prevailed until the present decade.
New Zealanders remained virtually unaware of the Bellingshausen expedition until Robert McNab made reference to it in the book Murihiku and the Southern Islands (1907), and subsequently published an English translation of the New Zealand section of Bellingshausen’s journal in 1909. The fact that Russia is still the repository of one of the most significant collections of Maori treasures outside of this country has, admittedly by dint of tribal complexity and obliteration of ancestry, gone largely unnoticed even by the Maori people themselves.
Yet an appraisal of what the Russians achieved does them proud. As well as the collation and cataloguing of the artefacts, and the subsequent raising of New Zealand’s profile in Russia, the exploration heralded a new era of South Pacific interest in that country’s naval circles. When pioneer ethnologist N.N. Miklukho-Maklay became last century’s equivalent of Indiana Jones in the forests of New Guinea, he was actively supported by the Pacific Naval Squadron. By the 1860s, the official Russian naval journal, Morskoy sbomik, was publishing articles like “New Zealand Wood” and “The Danger of Entry into Manuko” (sic).
Russian enthusiasm for New Zealand was not restricted to geography. By the turn of the century, some Russian writers were describing New Zealand as a socialist utopia and a workers’ paradise—”The Foremost Democracy of the Modern World: the English Colony New Zealand,” was the title of a book published in 1901. Such accolades challenged the more traditional view which equated the term “New Zealander” with “cannibal,” and warned that travelers to this country were in constant danger of capture, torture and horrific death.
The antipodal response to the Russian Bear’s overtures remained cautious, and has continued to do so until recent times. With the collapse of Soviet Russia and subsequent nostalgia in that country for a noble Tsarist past, it is only coincidental that Bellingshausen has lately been recalled in New Zealand consciousness. Our recognition of a tenuous link to a once glorious empire has been as fickle as international opinion.
It was on the highest point of Motuara Island in Queen Charlotte Sound that Cook claimed New Zealand for the King, and the Sound for his Queen. Cook’s enthusiasm was evident when he exceeded his orders to simply raise the “Union flag,” and the British government was careful to exclude New Zealand from the published list of its territories until well after the Russian visit.Bellingshausen may have followed Cook, but they came as equals.