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The most commonly accepted first visit by Europeans to New
Zealand was the visit by the Dutch explorer Abel Janszoon TASMAN in 1642 with
two ships the Zeehaen and the Heemskerk
and approximately 110 men.
However there have been a number of claims made that Portugese and/or Spanish explorers also visited New Zealand long before TASMAN. There are also claims that Chinese and Arabs also travelled as far as New Zealand even earlier than the 1500's. A reasonably detailed discussion of possible earlier visits can be found in "Historic Poverty Bay", written by J A MacKAY, 1949.
There are some unexplained 'mysteries' which could support these theories. Namely the discovery of a Spanish helmet in Wellington Harbour, a Tamil Bell found being used by a Maori tribe in Auckland area as a cooking pot and more recently speculation over the source of a tree growing in Spain which would appear to be a pohutakawa tree. A number of verbal histories of Maori also tell of visits by foreigners long before Able Tasman.
There have been claims that a Frenchman Bigot Paulmier de GONNEVILLE discovered NZ around 1503 and took two Maori back with him to France.
It is quite possible that the Portugese may have travelled as far as New Zealand in the 1500’s. Several books claim that the Portugese discovered NZ in 1521-2. ,  Early maps produced by the French and probably reproduced from original maps produced by Cristoval de Mendonca, a Portugese Explorer, who was searching for "El Dorado", would seem to prove that he travelled from Mallaca, and down the east coast of Australia and then circumnavigated the North Island of New Zealand. According to this account he entered Wellington Harbour, travelled up the east coast and also stopped in Tryphena Harbour on Great Barrier Island.
Another researcher has claimed that the Spanish explorer Juan FERNANDEZ visited New Zealand in 1576 . He also claims that Juan's son FERNANDEZ was murdered in Wellington Harbour.
There are also claims that there were Arab explorers in NZ pre Maori times around 790. 
There exists a Dutch map which pre dates TASMAN's visit which includes a vague outline of land which is named Zelandia Nova. (JC)
Another unexplained mystery has been the discovery of a skull in a river bed in the Wairararapa which has been identified as being that of a female European dated some 350 years ago. ( ie: circa 1650)
In 1769, Captain James COOK
arrived in NZ in the Endeavour. He was to
return again in 1773 in the Resolution accompanied
by Captain Tobias FURNEAUX in the Adventurer
and again in 1777 in the Resolution
accompanied by Captain Charles CLERKE in the Discovery.
For more information see: Captain
A French explorer, Jean Francois-Marie de
SURVILLE also arrived in New Zealand in the ship the St Jean-Baptiste on the 12
December 1769, some months after James COOK, and in
fact the two ships passed each other on the west coast of the North Island but
neither ship saw the other.
de SURVILLE anchored for 14 days in Doubtless Bay and possibly visited the Bay
de SURVILLE anchored for 14 days in Doubtless Bay and possibly visited the Bay of Iislands.
In 1772 Captain MARION-DUFRESNE in the Mascarin accompanied by M du CLESMEUR in the Marquis de Castries visited the Bay of Islands. Du FRESNE and 26 of his crew were massacred in Te Hue Bay (Assassination Cove), Bay of Islands.
In 1791 another British expedition under the command of George VANCOUVER, stopped at Dusky Sound. He had two ships, the Discovery and the Chatham.
In 1792 the HMS Gorgon under the command of Captain John PARKER sailed close to North Cape but never landed in NZ.
In 1793 a French expedition led by Joseph-Antoine Bruni d’ENTRECASTEAUX with two ships the Recherche and Esperance sailed from Tasmania and on the 10th March stopped close to the North Cape of New Zealand for the night and traded with Maori. The next day the ships continued on towards Tahiti.
In 1793 a Spanish expedition under the command
of the Italian Alejandro MALASPINA visited the south of New Zealand during an
extended exploration of the Pacific in two vessels, the Descubierta
and the Atrevida
In 1820 a Russian expedition with two ships, the Vostok and the Mirnyy led by Fabian BELLINGHAUSEN spent from 28th May to 9th June 1820 in Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand.
In 1824 a French expedition under the command of
Louis DUPERREY in the ship Coquille arrived
in New Zealand (arrived Bay of Islands 20 March 1824). The second in command was Jules D’URVILLE who was to return
again in 1826 and 1840, both times as Captain of the Astrolabe (the same Coquille
but re-named as the Astrolabe) and in
1840 he had a second ship the Zelee under
the command of Captain Charles-Hector JACQUINOT .
A final French
adventurer arrived in 1830. This was Cyrille LAPLACE in command of the ship La
In 1840 The US Exploring Expedition under the command of Charles WILKES visited NZ.
In 1841 James C ROSS and Francis CROZIER spent 3 months in New Zealand enroute to the Antartica with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
The Daedulus with an agent Lt. HANSON visited Bay of Islands in early 1793 and kidnapped two young Maori and took them to Sydney and they then were transported to Norfolk Island, arriving April 1793, in the belief that they could provide instructions on how to prepare flax. Governeor KING took these two back to New Zealand in the Britannia in November 1793.
John SAVAGE visiting the
Bay of Islands in September and October 1805 and wrote a journal  . He was probably the first European
to spend some time in this area.
John Liddiard NICHOLAS visited the Bay of
Islands arriving 22nd December 1814 on the Active and leaving
again in February 1815 on the Active.
In 1826 Allan CUNNINGHAM, the government botanist from Sydney arrived in the Bay of Islands.(returned again 1838)
In 1827 Augustus EARLE, artist spent 9 months in NZ 
In 1835 Charles DARWIN, aboard the Beagle spent a short period in New Zealand whilst on his famous around the world voyage.