Though titled ‘War Dance’ by the expedition’s artist Pavel Mikhaylov, the haka he sketched was more ceremonial. The Maori at Totaranui (Queen Charlotte Sound) were traders, not warriors, and their greeting, ‘Ki nga reko, ki nga reko, to wai kiri nei ropa’ (For the whites, for the whites, your sweat for this company) was a welcome to the strangers, not a threat.

COLUMN: Most Kiwis have never heard about the 1820 Russian expedition to New Zealand, exactly 200 years ago this week.

Even John Macnaughtan, who was appointed Russia’s Hon Consul in Auckland in 1994, was surprised when he first heard of this early historical encounter.

Over the past 26 years, he has made a point of spreading the word about this peaceful and articulately recorded encounter, even made sure President Putin knew about it, Yeltsin and Gorbachev before him too.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 sunk Russian hopes of importing a celebration, including a visit from their training tall ship Nadezhda. So it’s been up to Auckland-based (for 25 years) Sergey Permitin, Chairman of the Russia New Zealand Chamber of Commerce, to keep the flag flying for the Mirnyi Vostok 200 celebrations.

Over the next week he will produce on location in Queen Charlotte Sound some Russian language visual podcasts which will detail the day-to-day events of that original expedition to keep the record going. And no doubt they will be well received in Russia.

The Russian Antarctic expedition of 1819-21, which also took in Queen Charlotte Sound, was hugely significant in the annals of modern exploration. It set forth on the 4 July, 1819, from the port of Kronstadt, near St Petersburg. Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen had charge of the 900-ton Vostok (East), while Mikhail Lazarev captained the smaller 531-ton Mirnyi (Peaceful).


Ice floes on the river Neva flow past the Academy of Sciences at St Petersburg, where many of the artefacts collected by the Russian expedition survive.

Both were roomy transports compared to Cook’s vessels (the Endeavor was only 370 tons), making them ideally suited to the collection of “enthnographica’. No longer was it fashionable to just roam the world, there had to be some sort of scientific purpose.

The expedition’s instructions, although roughly defining the route and schedule, were surprisingly sweeping, to “pass over nothing new, useful, or curious that you may have a chance to see…as may widen any area of human knowledge.”

Bellingshausen was well aware of the value of tradable items for the securing of artefacts, and his ships were loaded with the largest non-essential cargo ever seen; crates and boxes containing the likes of axes, knives, saws, chisels, copper and iron wire, beads, mirrors, steel flints, candles, tumblers, belts, even rolls of red flannette and ticking material, along with a large quantity of broken iron, nails and buttons.

A naval entente existed between Britain and Russia at that time, and after a final briefing with the now venerable Sir Joseph Banks in Portsmouth, the ships left Europe for their expected two year voyage. In Rio de Janeiro they loaded on their last fresh killed meat and wine before heading south to Antarctica, getting to within 30km of what is now Princess Martha Land, charting everything as they went.

John Macnaughtan, Russia’s Hon Consul in Auckland from 1994-present.

Sailing westward fully one quarter of the globe, the two ships then struck up to spend a month at Port Jackson in Australia, before setting course for the Tuamotu Archipelago in the Society Islands. Day after day they battled in vain, the Tasman storms pushing them further and further eastwards down to New Zealand. On May 18, 1820, facing a heightening gale, the Vostok signalled her companion to abandon tack and rendezvous in Queen Charlotte Sound.

The choice of Queen Charlotte Sound was no accident. Cook’s favourite anchorage featured prominently in Purdy’s 1816 cruising guide The Oriental Navigator. Most importantly it was a place of known Maori habitation.

On arrival the Russians let off some rockets ‘to announce our arrival to the native living in the interior. I thought it probable that they would assemble from various localities to visit us.” . But unlike Cook, who recorded 400 Maori living in the area bounded by Motuara Island, Ship Cove, and Little Waikawa Bay, the Russians would find a much-reduced population of, only about 80.

The comprehensive Russian accounts, sketches and collections from their 1820 visit to Totaranui, as the Maori called this part of Queen Charlotte Sound, are particularly important as the Maori tribal group who inhabited this nexus of trade and movement between the two main islands (namely Rangitane, Ngati Tara, Ngati Apa, Ngati Tahu, Ngati Kuia and Ngati Tumatakokiri) were slaughtered by Te Rauparaha’s musket-wielding Ngati Toa and Te Ati Awa allies only seven years after the Russian visit

According to some historians, these raids were close to genocide, there being a complete break in traditional regional history around this time. In effect, the Russian accounts are a cameo insight into a traditional trading culture already tinged by European contact, that would have otherwise faded into obscurity.

Bellinshausen’s insistence from the outset that both sides observe respectful good conduct was almost certainly the contributing factor that made this expedition one of the most successful ever to come here. He forbade his crew any sexual contact with Maori, and insisted that no gospel be preached. For the visiting Russians, it was all about maintaining respect for a proud people. The Mirnyi carried an obligatory priest, but not once during the two year voyage did he even get a mention in Bellinshausen’s 12 volumes of journals.

In the same league as Cook, Commander Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen was a skilled navigator, astronomer, hydrographer and an enthusiastic explorer.

Ivan Simonov, the expedition’s astronomer and keen ethnographer, oversaw the bartering with Maori, who began visiting the ships in increasing numbers. They brought all manner of tradeable items; fresh fish and crayfish immediately featured but soon museum-grade artefacts, two of each type, were making their way into the Russian holds.

Some superb examples were a female tekoteko or ridge carving from a chief’s house, ornamental paddles, wooden fish hooks and adzes, a stylised carving of a face and numerous garments, some in stages of construction to show how they were made. Two tattooed heads were also obtained. To be continued.


By Gerard Hindmarsh