Brian Hooker

New Zealand


The problem of North Cape,

New Zealand




Brian Hooker

[© The text that follows is copyright. This article was first published in New Zealand Map Society Journal,  Number 15, 2002, pp. 47-49. Copyright is held by The New Zealand Map Society.]


depicted on present-day maps as the eastern point of Murimotu  Island, in the northern-most part of New Zealand, North Cape was placed in  this position  in error by early cartographers. James  Cook encountered the area he was to name “North Cape,” in December 1769 as the Endeavour   proceeded north off the east coast of the North Island. Cook first sighted the cape on 10 December but he did not name it until 19 December. An entry in Cook’s journal for Tuesday 19 December 1769 records:

It forms the north point of Sandy Bay and is a Peninsula juting out ne about 2 Miles and terminates in a bluff head which is flat at top; the Isthmus which joins the head to the Main land is very low on which account the land of the Cape from several situations make[s] like an Island.  It appears still more remarkable when to the southward of it by the appearance of a high round Island at the se point of the Cape, but this is likewise a deception being a round hill join’d to the Cape by a low narrow neck of land. (Beaglehole 1968, 225)

In a footnote Beaglehole explains that the “low narrow neck of land” is submerged at high tide

Cook’s journal entry fails to link in any way with the location of North Cape on present-day maps from Land Information New Zealand but it fits neatly as a description of Muriwhenua Peninsula, on  the accompanying map.

If modern maps are in error, is there a case for moving the name to the place that Cook intended?

In a 1963 article, Milligan and Dunmore discuss the naming of the peninsula and explain that the French explorer Jean de Surville, sailing east in the St Jean Baptiste, sighted and named the peninsula on 15 December; after Cook discovered it but before he named it. The French name – “Cap Surville” appears in early French charts and might qualify if the peninsula is named. However, as Milligan and Dunmore point out there is no recognised  “right by prior naming.” In any case in 1965 de Surville’s name was given to the cliffs of the northernmost part of New Zealand (see the accompanying map - top left and click); de Surville actually discovered this bluff a few days before Cook.

French explorers played a major role in early surveys in New Zealand waters and it is appropriate that this important feature honours the name of the first French navigator to reach New Zealand shores.

Most likely in 1965, when geographers moved Kerr Point, in maps, to its present location to make way for Surville Cliffs, they considered the problem of North Cape. Probably they reasoned that the easiest way out of the difficulty was to leave North Cape alone; it is an important reference point for navigators.

Perhaps a further name could be added in maps to help tidy up the overall situation. It is likely that Cook would  have agreed with this suggestion; certainly the nineteenth-century French explorer Dumont d’Urville would have agreed with this suggestion; d’Urville went to some trouble to preserve and use Maori names in his charts. Milligan and Dunmore set out the proposal in their article:

… The name Muriwhenua might well be lettered across the peninsula itself, as a gesture to the inhabitants of the ‘Heppa’ [i.e. pa] that Cook records seeing on the cape on the morning of the 19th. [December 1769]. (p. 181) □





Beaglehole,  J. C. ed., The journals of Captain James Cook Vol 1, The voyage of the ‘Endeavour’ 1768-1771, 2nd ed., Extra series, no. 34. Cambridge: Published for the Hakluyt Society at the Cambridge University Press.


Milligan, R. R. D. and J. Dunmore, 1963. The misnaming of North Cape. New Zealand Geographer 19 (2): 178-81.