The Mystery of the Tamil Bell in New Zealand

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A Tamil Bell, located in a Maori village in 1837 by the British missionary William Colenso, caused speculation about who the first Europeans in New Zealand really were.

There is speculation from time to time that the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and British Captain James Cook were not the first Europeans to reach New Zealand. Researchers devote a lifetime to proving their theories. Often these theories are very believable, but because of length of time involved, the truth will never be known.

Maori people questioned through Cook’s Tahitian interpreter, were consistent in their belief that no white men had been seen in the country before the Endeavour’s arrival. If this is so, how does one explain the existence of the ancient Tamil bell?

Missionary William Colenso

In 1837 the British missionary, William Colenso, visited a remote inland Maori village in the north, near Whangarei. To his surprise he found the local Maori people were using an old upturned ship bell as a cooking utensil. When questioned as to where the bell had come from, they gave an interesting reply.

The bell had been discovered hidden in the roots of an old tree uprooted in a storm. Other than that they had no idea about what the bell was or how it had arrived there. There was nothing similar in their culture with which to compare it.

Colenso managed to exchange the bell for a large iron cooking pot and kept the bell, hoping to find out more about it. The bell was donated to the Dominion Museum in 1890 and now belongs to the New Zealand national museum, Te Papa.

The Inscription on the Tamil Bell

The Tamil bell is made of bronze, approximately 166 mm high and 153 mm in diameter. The inscription has been identified as being in ancient Tamil characters. The Tamils were an ancient seafaring people, from Tamiland in south east India.

Experts have studied the 24 letters of the inscription, which seem to make up six or seven words and appears to date from the period 1400 to 1500, making the bell, at the time of Colenso’s discovery of it, already four hundred years old.

The closest translation of the inscription suggests the bell was from a ship, reading “Bell of the Ship of Mohaideen Bakhsh”. How the bell came to New Zealand is completely unknown.

Theories about the Tamil Bell

There are several theories about the arrival of the Tamil Bell in New Zealand. One suggests the ship the bell was from was overcome in a storm and its crew washed overboard or abandoning the ship for another. It was common in the days of Tamil seafaring to leave an abandoned ship to drift in the ocean, eventually breaking up and sinking or becoming shipwrecked on distant shores.

Another theory suggests the bell was taken by Spanish traders, later being carried on board a caravel that was eventually shipwrecked in the Pacific. This theory would link it with an ancient Spanish helmet discovered in New Zealand’s Wellington Harbour.

The Mystery of the Tamil Bell

How the bell came to be in New Zealand will remain a mystery forever. Researchers have linked it with the Tamils in south east India, but cannot establish with any certainty how it came to be in New Zealand.

The debate on who the first Europeans to reach New Zealand were, continues to be a subject of speculation.

More about the discovery of New Zealand:

Captain James Cook: First Landfall in New Zealand

Captain James Cook: Ship Cove, New Zealand







Posted on Apr 5, 2011
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Posted on May 21, 2010