The Coromandel offers a unique opportunity to experience the area for the first time, as the great navigator, Captain James Cook did, in November 1769. Captain Cook’s exploration of The Coromandel took him to places we now know as Mercury Bay, Cape Colville, Thames and the Waihou River. Evidence of Cook’s Coromandel expedition remains today, with places named in his honour and historic memorial sites commemorating his extraordinary journey.
James Cook’s Coromandel explorations were undertaken midway through his First Great Voyage to New Zealand (1768-1771) aboard the ship, HMS Endeavour. According to his journals, Cook journeyed The Coromandel (Thames Coromandel and Hauraki) area between November 4th and November 24th, 1769. He came to The Coromandel seeking a suitable place to observe and chart the transit of Mercury, under orders from the British Council of the Royal Society.
During his exploration to The Coromandel, Cook discovered so much more than a suitable place to observe the transit of Mercury, which he successfully achieved on November 9, 1769. Cook named Mercury Bay in honour of his observation and Cooks Beach was also given its name at this time. The following day, James Cook, botanist Joseph Banks and their ship’s company explored the river flowing into the bay on which is now known as Whitianga.
On November 12, 1769, Cook, Banks, Dr Daniel Solander and translator Tupaia visited Wharetaewa Pa; Ngati Hei’s fortified pa at Wharekaho Beach (just north of Whitianga). It was the first known visit by Europeans to a Maori pa and the site of the first sanctioned powhiri between European and Maori. It was here that Cook, Banks and his compatriots first traded with local Maori and made the first official exchanges of gifts.
The Endeavour left Mercury Bay early on the morning of 15 November, heading toward the headland at the top of The Coromandel. Cook named this area Cape Colville. Strong south westerlies forced the ship to remain offshore for four days, as the Endeavour slowly rounded Cape Colville and sailed south. On the 19th November, the ship anchored at Waiomu Bay, 9 miles north of present-day Thames, in about 18 metres of water.
The following day, November 20th, Cook made his historic journey up the Waihou river in two longboats, leaving The Endeavour anchored in the bay. The first European crafts to enter the Waihou River had onboard 22 men, including Tupaia, Banks and Solander. Cook and his men made the 14 mile journey up river, in search of timber suitable for masts and spars for the Admiralty. It was the longest trip Cook ever took away from his ship The Endeavour.
Cook’s journal describes the journey up the Waihou river:
"The boats not having found above three feet more water than we were now in, I determined to go no further with the ship but to examine the head of the bay in boats. At daybreak, therefore, I set out in the pinnace and long-boat, accompanied by Mr Banks and Dr Solander. We found the inlet ended in a river about nine miles from the ship. Into this river we entered with the first of the flood tide and within three miles we found the water perfectly fresh.”
According to Dr Hawkesworth’s volume “Captain Cook’s Three voyages Round the World”, compiled about 1800, Cook expressed the following observation, describing a village on their journey toward the river:
"Before we had proceeded more than one-third of that distance we found an Indian town, which was built upon a small bank of dry sand, but entirely surrounded by deep mud, which possibly the inhabitants might consider as a defence. These people, as soon as they saw us, thronged to the banks and invited us on shore. We accepted the invitation and made them a visit, notwithstanding the mud . . . .”
They journeyed up river for 12 nautical miles before Cook made a landing on the western riverbank. On shore, he was able to view on closer inspection the magnificent thicket of Kahikatea trees bordering the river, towering above the swampy Raupo, Flax and Rushes below. Upon measuring one tree, Cook observed it to be approximately 30 metres to the first branch, with a girth of almost 7 metres.
When ashore, Cooked described the trees “of being of great height and as straight as an arrow” and referred to the area as a good place to settle. As well as trading with local Maori, a 4 inch sample from a Matai Tree was taken by the botanists, together with many other specimens. Less than 25 years later, his description brought other ships there, and influenced eventual pioneer settlement of the Hauraki area.
Cook named the river the Thames, as it reminded him of the river Thames in Greenwich, England. Today, none of the Kahikatea remain along the riverbank, as dairy farming replaced most of the forest. The river now has stopbanks and the plain surrounding it has been extensively drained. The river kept its name Thames until 1928 when it was changed back to Waihou. Cook’s journey into the Waihou river was the most inland he travelled and charted in New Zealand.
On their return journey to the anchored Endeavour, the two long boats and their crew were challenged by strong winds. It took until 7am the next morning to arrive and reboard the
Endeavour. Later that same morning, further strong winds halted Endeavour’s progress, causing the vessel to be weather-bound for two more days.
On 24 November, 1769, Captain Cook and his crew members left The Coromandel, sailing north around Waiheke Island towards Northland.
Today, the Captain Cook Memorial and Picnic Area on the Waihou riverbank in Netherton, provides an opportunity to imagine the sheer immensity of Cook’s Coromandel, Hauraki journey. The three tonne steel anchor (donated by the Royal Navy of New Zealand) is a symbol of commemoration for Captain Cook's venture, with information panels recording the story of Cook’s Landing on the Waihou (Thames). Although the exact place Cook landed cannot be precisely identified, the journals of Cook and Banks indicate it was in close proximity to the site.
Nearer to Thames, in Kopu, a bronze plaque on a commemorative rock obelisk reads: “NEAR THIS SPOT JAMES COOK WITH THE NATURALISTS JOSEPH BANKS & DANIEL SOLANDER LANDED WHILE EXPLORING THE RIVER THAMES IN THE SHIP’S BOATS
OF H.M.S. ENDEAVOUR 20 NOVEMBER 1769.
The marking of these historic spots provides an opportunity for residents and visitors to The Coromandel to remember and appreciate the significant contribution made to New Zealand by the foremost British navigator, Captain James Cook.
Visit The Treasury for more about Cook’s journey to The Coromandel.