First encounters - the Russians in Te Tau Ihu


On 8 June 1820 (29 May in the Russian calendar), Russian captain Fabian Gottlieb Benjamin von Bellingshausen (in Russian: Фаддей Фаддеевич Беллинсгаузен; Faddey Faddeyevich Bellinsgauzen) entered Queen Charlotte Sound in the ships Vostớk and Mirnyy.  He was in command of the second Russian expedition to circumnavigate the globe.  During this expedition Bellingshausen became the first person to see the continent of Antarctica. 

The Russians had no plans of claiming lands or bringing harm to the indigenous peoples. Their purpose was scientific, with only good intentions to trade and collect taonga (treasures) from different cultures. Relations between the Maori and the Russian visitors remained good throughout the visit.

Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. 19th Century portrait
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A commemorative coin of the Bank of Russia, dedicated to the first Russian Expedition.
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They had no interpreter with them, but had the records of Captain James Cook’s explorations, also a copy of Cook’s Māori word list.  The ships were welcomed and escorted in by a fleet of Māori canoes.

Bellingshausen and his company made detailed descriptions of local people and customs, and traded for a considerable collection of Māori artefacts which are now in Russian museums.  In return, the Māori residents supplied the ships with fresh fish.  They also explored about 21 km up the Sound (roughly just past Dieffenbach Point). The astronomer, Ivan M. Simonov, kept a journal which described in great detail everything he observed.  There is also an account written by Midshipman P.M. Novosil’sky, and drawings made by artist Pavel N. Mikhaylov, now in the State Russian Museum.

An excellent account of the visit and its importance in providing information about Māori life of the time, both pictorial and documentary, can be found in Hilary & John Mitchell's book, Te Tau ihu o te waka, vol. 1, pp. 200-207.

This article was originally written for the Picton Seaport News, 2010. Updated May 2020

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  • Abel Tasman worked for an establishment bent on annexation and world domination, had an uppity attitude, responded to the sounding of a conch horn with canon fire, waved knives at approaching waka as a 'sign of good will' and wound up leaving Mohua calling it "Murderers Bay", Cook came with the same mission (annexation)and attitude and had similar experiences. Von Bellingshausen on the other hand came with humility and an inquiry based mindset and enjoyed completely different experiences with Maori and in so doing made completely different observations of Maori culture. Go figure.

    Posted by Gertrude Poindexter, 04/01/2018 3:42pm (6 years ago)

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Further sources - First encounters - the Russians in Te Tau Ihu


  • The Russian Expedition, 1820. In Mitchell. H.& J. (2004) Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: A History of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough, Vol 1 Wellington, N.Z. : Huia Publishers in association with the Wakatū Incorporation, pp.200-207
  • Barratt, G. (1979) Bellingshausen, a visit to New Zealand. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press
  • Debenham, F., ed. (1945) The voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic seas, 1819-1821. 2 vols. London: printed for The Hakluyt Society.



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