Landfall in Unknown Seas

Some poems capture my attention because they have the twin virtues of being grounded in historical reality and yet reach for and succeed in suggesting a grander and future vision.

This poem is about the arrival of the first Europeans in New Zealand. It’s about a bloody encounter and the clash of cultures. It’s a poem of heroic celebration but without the hollow bombast of jingoism and the tunnel vision of narrow nationalism. It’s also about leadership, vision and courage.

The poem tells the story of Abel Tasman’s voyage in “the nameless waters of the world”. He also relates the story from the point of view of those already there – the Māori, whose own voyages of discovery had brought them from Polynesia in the 14th century. This dual perspective allows for a more inclusive vision for the future, one that encompasses and moves past the troubled colonial history and with the potential for a new future to created out of the past now that there are no more islands to be found .

Always to islanders danger
Is what comes over the sea;

The day of that first encounter is “marred with murder” and “The stain of blood that writes an island story.” Curnow is not blind either to the contrast between the adventurous spirit of the pioneers and their profit calculations. New landfalls are wondrous adventures that enlarge the world for — exploitation. 

O you had estimated all the chances
Of business in those waters, the world’s waters
Yet unexploited.

It’s a long poem but stay with it.

Landfall in Unknown Seas


Simply by sailing in a new direction
You could enlarge the world
You picked your captain,
Keen on discoveries, tough enough to make them,
Whatever vessels could be spared from other
More urgent service for a year’s adventure;
Took stock of the more probable conjectures
About the Unknown to be traversed, all
Guesses at golden coasts and tales of monsters
To be digested into plain instructions
For likely and unlikely situations.

All this resolved and done, you launched the whole
On a fine morning, the best time of year,
Skies widening and the oceanic furies
Subdued by summer illumination; time
To go and to be gazed at going
On a fine morning, in the Name of God
Into the nameless waters of the world.

O you had estimated all the chances
Of business in those waters, the world’s waters
Yet unexploited.
But more than the sea-empire’s
Cannon, the dogs of bronze and iron barking
From Timor to the Straits, backed up the challenge.
Between you and the South an older enmity
Lodged in the searching mind, that would not tolerate
So huge a hegemony of ignorance.
There, where your Indies had already sprinkled
Their tribes like ocean rains, you aimed your voyage;
Like them invoked your God, gave seas to history
And islands to new hazardous tomorrows.


Suddenly exhilaration
Went off like a gun, the whole
Horizon, the long chase done,
Hove to. There was the seascape
Crammed with coast, surprising
As new lands will, the sailor
Moving on the face of the waters
Watching the earth take shape
Round the unearthly summits, brighter
Than its emerging colour.

Yet this, no far fool’s errand,
Was less than the heart desired,
In its old Indian dream
The glittering gulfs ascending
Past palaces and mountains
Making one archtiecture.
Here the uplifted structure,
Peak and pillar of cloud –
O splendour of desolation – reared
Tall from the pit of the swell,
With a shadow, a finger of wind, forbade
Hopes of a lucky landing.

Always to islanders danger
Is what comes over the sea;
Over the yellow sands and the clear
Shallows, the dull filament
Flickers, the blood of strangers:
Death discovered the Sailor
O in a flash, in a flat calm,
A clash of boats in the bay
And the day marred with murder.
The dead required no further
Warning to keep their distance;
The rest, noting the failure,
Pushed on with a reconnaissance
To the north; and sailed away.


Well, home is the Sailor, and that is a chapter
In a schoolbook, a relevant yesterday
We thought we knew all about, being much apter
To profit, sure of our ground,
No murderers mooring in our Golden Bay.

But now there are no more islands to be found
And the eye scans risky horizons of its own
In unsettled weather, and murmurs of the drowned
Haunt their familiar beaches –
Who navigates us toward what unknown

But not improbable provinces? Who reaches
A future down for us from the high shelf
Of spiritual daring? Not those speeches
Pinning on the Past like a decoration
For merit that congratulates itself,

O not the self-important celebration
Or most painstaking history, can release
The current of a discoverer’s elation
And silence the voices saying,
“Here is the world’s end where wonders cease.”

Only by a more faithful memory, laying
On him the half-light of a diffident glory,
The Sailor lives, and stands beside us, paying
Out into our time’s wave
The stain of blood that writes an island story.

On December 18th 1642, two Māori canoes went to inspect Abel Tasman’s ships moored in the bay. The Māori called out to the Dutch crew and blew on a pukaea—a long wooden trumpet. The Europeans responded with one of their trumpets. The Māori had issued a challenge to fight and it seemed to them that their challenge had been accepted. The Europeans thought they had conducted a congenial exchange of greetings.

The fight happened the next day and four Europeans and one Māori were killed. Tasman called the place Murderers’ Bay. Two hundred years later, the settlers renamed it Golden Bay.

Landfall in Unknown Seas  was commissioned in 1942 for the tercentenary of Abel Tasman’s arrival in New Zealand. Curnow’s friend Douglas Lilburn composed three passages to accompany the public recital of the poem. This joint work has been something of a cultural staple in new Zealand every since. You can listen to the music and the poem at this link:

Simply by sailing in a new direction
You could enlarge the world

So the first of the poem’s three sections with a description of voyages of exploration.

Section II is about the arrival, the impact and the clash of civilizations. The voyage is done, the new world found, exhilaration went off like a gun and so did the hostility of the resident people: Always to islanders danger in what comes over the sea.

What is notable in the poem is that Curnow tells the story from the perspective of the Europeans and the Māori, something that enables a commonality to emerge from that initial murderous shock of contact.

In the last section, the poet thinks of a world now totally discovered physically and he asks for more discoveries, in a different realm. Who reaches A future for us down from the high shelf Of spiritual daring?

Who indeed?

How can we sail in a new direction and enlarge the world when there are no islands left to discover? What is the high shelf of spiritual daring and who can help us reach for it?

Robyn Kahukiwa born 1940
Tihe Mauri Ora

Emily Karaka, Settlement 2014

Abel Tasman Coast, Peter Copp

Kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park (2014) Jennifer Cook-Battersby

Tracey Tawhiao, Māori artist and poet. Part of the Māori art revival movement in New Zealand

Featured image from: Maurice Forester, Abel Tasman New Zealand Landfall. 1984

Post a Comment

* (will not be published)

CommentLuv badge

Random Posts

%d bloggers like this: