An Oxford-educated researcher is investigating whether Spanish sailors visited New Zealand 116 years before Abel Tasman. Historians generally accept that Tasman, a Dutchman, first sighted the Southern Alps on December 13, 1642.
But Qatar-based researcher Winston Cowie, who spent part of his childhood in Dargaville, is investigating whether the Spanish visited New Zealand as early as the start of the 16th century.
A sighting of a caravel wreck near Aranga on Northland's west coast by Dargaville's shipwreck explorer Noel Hilliam 25 years ago was the catalyst for Mr Cowie's project. Sketches suggested the caravel is the San Lesmes, which disappeared in the Pacific in 1526.
Mr Hilliam says 22 of the 53 crew listed on the 80-tonne caravel came from a Spanish town called Aranga - the same as the Northland area close to the wreck. Mr Hilliam said in June this year Mr Cowie had spent a month in the northwest Spanish town where the main street was called "Rua Tui" - a Maori name.
Mr Cowie found what he believes are two ancient pohutakawa trees at La Coruna, not far from Aranga. Mr Hilliam says that in June next year, a Lincoln University scientist, Dr Jonathan Palmer, will take a core samples to determine the age of the Spanish trees.
Further speculation of the Spanish visitors arises from a number of local Maori surnames that also have Spanish derivatives.