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Worlds Collide

First Contact: Abel Tasman’s Arrival in Taitapu, 1642
by Anne Salmond (BWB Texts, e-book $4.99)
Reviewed by Judith Nathan

BWB TasmanThis work was my introduction to BWB short texts, described by BWB as “short books on big subjects by great New Zealand writers.” This work certainly fits that description though as BWB describes its texts as “commissioned digital-first works” I had assumed it would be Dame Anne’s latest thoughts on Abel Tasman’s voyage. It is in fact the Preface, Introduction and Chapter 3 of her prize winning book, Two Worlds: First Meetings between Maori and Europeans 1642–1772, first published nearly 25 years ago by Penguin Books.

Nevertheless, this well-written scholarly work deserves another airing, this time as an e-book instead of a large, comprehensive paperback; it will deservedly bring it to the attention of a wider audience. It benefits from Dame Anne’s deep understanding of Māori culture, a perspective that was not considered necessary by an earlier generation of historians. The preface to Two Worlds, reprinted in this work, explains her belief in the importance of approaching the encounters from both sides.

The fact that almost all that a 450 page book on first meetings between Māori and Europeans had to say about Abel Tasman could be reprinted in so few pages is a reminder of how little is known about this expedition, especially as, in keeping with her theme, some of these pages are providing fascinating background about seventeenth century Dutch and Māori societies, rather than describing the voyage itself. In Two Worlds the voyages of Surville and du Fresne, both less well known to New Zealanders than Tasman, get more space. But the Frenchmen had more prolonged contact with Māori than Tasman did. Tasman’s importance was, of course, that he was the first of the known European voyagers to New Zealand. (Dame Anne acknowledges that it has been “impossible to establish” whether Spanish or Portuguese ships had previously visited.)

What this readable story loses in its conversion to this format, and it is a sad loss, are the eight contemporary illustrations. This is disappointing as pictures could have been incorporated. References in the text to the sketches by crew member Isaack Gilsemans, whom I was not previously aware of, are frustrating when none can be seen. Similarly, we cannot see the navigation instruments described in the text.

So my recommendation is: get hold of the original book if you can; if not, make do with this.

(Other titles in the BWB Texts series are reviewed here.)