Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Early Polynesian Voyages to and from New Zealand and across Pacific

Vaka - photo courtesy Te Ara - Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise, Muri Rarotonga,  2017

When at school, I was taught the" great fleet scenario " It was enshrined in the learning culture  at school and throughout New Zealand. Great pictures were conjured up in my child's mind of canoes, filled with paddlers, frantically paddling to reach distant shores, thousands of kilometres away.. Never did I dare to question what other methods of navigation, did these people of the  eight canoes use. I puzzled and puzzled, where this place Hawaiki was ( modern scholars are now of the thought that Hawaiki might just be Tahiti).

My education on the " Great fleet scenario" was on the cusp of change, when there was another " great migration" taking place in New Zealand  - when rural communities were seeing their communities  experience, their people moving to the cities and the large housing areas, for work in the cities. Even a song was written about it and can be seen on John Archer's " the New Zealand  Folk Song"

 It was not until going on to University, out to work and finally in later years travel across Asia and the Pacific, that it was suddenly realised the myth of the " great fleet scenario" Now in 2018 it is a generation of genealogy, finding one's roots and the answers in DNA for everything. During travel across and around the Pacific and hearing stories from many different peoples of their ancestors journeys across the seas and from continents way, way back in time.   Visiting the new Te Ara -Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise at Muri, Rarotonga  in 2017, suddenly there came, a eureka moment.

Sign at Muri Te Ara - Cook Islands Museum Cultural Enterprises - photo Chris Ball 2017

There was not one " great fleet scenario" coming to New Zealand. There were in fact a number of visits of canoe to and from New Zealand  by people who knew what they were doing with navigation. Their stories were passed down verbally and in whakapapa or genealogy.  Yes there were some historical facts in the stories, including that of Kupe said to have visited about  925 AD. Kupe is said to be a Chief of Hawaiki ( Tahiti)  whose father was from Rarotonga, and whose mother was from  Raiatea   There is an island in Tahiti said to be called  Raiatea. Kupe is said to have voyaged to New Zealand aboard the double canoe, Matahourua. Kupe is attributed within stories passed down among Iwi for generations, with having visited  the south Wairarapa, Cook Strait, Northland regions, Arahura on the South Island’s West Coast, and to the Coromandel Peninsula -  Taputapuātea and Te Whitianga-o-Kupe  ( Kupe's crossing place).

North end of Buffalo Beach, Whitianga not far from Taputapuātea Stream and looking out toward cliffs where Captain Cook observed transit of Mercury - photo August 2015 courtesy Chris Ball


Today in 2018,  we know this place - Te Whitianga-o-Kupe on the Coromandel Peninsula ( Te Tara-o-te-Ika a Maui )  as Whitianga.  Taputapuātea Stream  flows into the Northern End of what is known as Buffalo Beach. On the island of Raiatea there is Taputapuatea marae - "tapu" meaning sacred and "atea" faraway. This marae was a special place for polynesian voyagers for it was a place of learning. Navigators from all over the Pacific would gather to share their knowledge of the genealogical origins of the universe, and of deep-ocean navigation. Note on map below that "Havaii" was the ancient name for the island of Raiatea.

In Handy, E.S. Craighill. 1892. History and culture in the Society islands. Honolulu: Bernice P Bishop Museum no.79 1930. Hathi Trust


Even  Captain Cook of the HMS Endeavour,  when he visited  Te Whitianga-o-Kupe in 1769 to observe the Transit of Mercury at  Te Whanganui A Hei, (the Great Bay of Hei) was to bring a link to this place in forward years -  in the person of Tupaia.  Also from  Raiatea  Tupaia - navigator and map maker -who encouraged by Joseph Banks, joined Endeavour in July 1769. Banks was appointed to a joint Royal Navy/Royal Society scientific expedition , on HMS Endeavour. Tupaia it is said, proved to be of great value, despite being overlooked and with little to say by Captain Cook. Able to understand and speak the language of Maori met, Tupaia was able to act both as an interpreter along with a mediator role, helping to avert what may have proved disastrous for Captain Cook and the  crew of the HMS  Endeavour.

 Cook recorded in his log about  the first map of Aotearoa being  drawn on the deck of Endeavour by Ngati Hei ancestor Toawaka. Ngati Hei are said to be descended from Hei - a navigator aboard the canoe Te Arawa.The tribe took its name in the 13th Century from Hei, the elder brother of Tama Te Kapua, Captain of the Arawa canoe.



Purangi Estuary off Cooks Beach - photo courtesy ASB 2012


Other stories and histories have been passed down of  other canoe and people arriving in New Zealand. Debate amongst scholars continues over the exact date that Maori arrived in New Zealand  with varying opinions. It is said that between  1000–1100 AD, the Polynesian explorer Toi arrived in New Zealand. Also from Tahiti as Kupe was, Toi is said to have  met the tangata-whenua in  the Hauraki Gulf. Intermarriage took place and Toi finally settled at Whakatane in the Bay of Plenty.


At Entrance to Whakatane  November 2015 photo courtesy Chris Ball


At Tairua on the Coromandel's Eastern Seaboard, a fishing lure was found in an Archaeological site  in 1964. The significance of this fishing lure made from th black lipped oyster shell is that it is thought to have been bought to New Zealand by  Polynesian arrivals to this shore.  The lure thought to be around to be around 1250 - 1300 A,D  gives support to the theories which tell of migrations from the islands of the Pacific to New Zealand.


Tairua Harbour  - where the tree Tutuaki is said to be standing guard over the place where the pearl shell fishing lure was found - photo 2018 courtesy Chris Ball


Not far from Te Ara Museum at Muri, Rarotonga is a place marking the spot,  said to be where seven vaka ( canoe) left in about 1250 -   1350 A.D from the bay of  Ngatangiia. This was a favoured location for there is a gap in the reef which fringes the widest part of the island's lagoon. It is said these vaka  voyaged to Aotearoa ( New Zealand)


   In the Bay of Ngatangiia, Muri , Rarotonga - photo 2017 courtesy Chris Ball


The seven vaka leaving  the Bay of Ngatangiia, were Takitumu, Te Arawa, Mataatua, Aotea, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru and Tainui.  Whether these seven left at the same time or over a period of time  is still a point of conjecture and debate amongst scholars of  polynesian migrations.



Modern Day Vaka anchored in the Bay of Ngatangiia - photo 2017 courtesy Chris Ball


After visiting the Te Ara museum at Muri, Rarotonga, another " eureka moment" gave realisation that these early polynesian voyagers to New Zealand were in fact great navigators. It was not paddle, paddle, paddle.  A  vast knowledge about currents, winds, seasonal weather changes and the stars enabled these  navigators to move across the vast Pacific Ocean (  Te Moananui-a-Kiwa ). Te Moanui - a-kiwa said to be 70 million square miles of ocean.



The stars - photo courtesy Andy Holmes


On the Coromandel Peninsula of New Zealand those stars that helped guide those early navigators. Guiding their  canoe to the coastal places of the Coromandel Peninsula: Te Tara-o-te-Ika a Māui (the jagged barb of Māui's fish), It is in the Maori place names of the Coromandel Peninsula and oral stories and song passed down thorough Iwi and whanau that is found those of ancestor navigators who came and travelled back home in many waka ( canoe) over several hundred years. Or settled in place enjoying the bounty of land and sea.

Many of those stories are now being written and recorded - a very relevant part of the past New Zealand history that marks a long history of many canoe rather than one great fleet coming to the shores of New Zealand.


                            Tairua / Pauanui shores looking out to Whakahau - photo 2015 courtesy Chris Ball 

Reference Sources:
  • Best, Elsdon. 1934. The Maori As He Was : A Brief Account of Life as it Was in Pre-European Days. Wellington: Dominion Museum.
  • Hiroa, Te Rangi.( Sir Peter Buck) 1949. The Coming of the Maori . Wellington: Māori Purposes Fund Board.
  • Smith, S Percy. 1904. Hawaiki: The Original Home of the Maori, With a Sketch of Polynesian History. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs Limited
  • Howe, K. R. The quest for origins: who first discovered and settled New Zealand and the Pacific islands? Auckland: Penguin, 2003.
  • Reed, A. W. Treasury of Maori exploration. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1977.
  • Simmons, D. R. 1976. The great New Zealand myth : a study of the discovery and origin traditions of the Maori. Wellington,NZ: A.H and A.V Reed.
  • Sorrenson, M. P. K. Maori origins and migrations. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1979.
  • Rushforth, David. 2015. "The Lures of Tairua." In True Tales of the Coromandel's Eastern Seaboard, by Anne Stewart Ball Compiler /coordinator for TCHT, pp 8 - 11. TCHT The Coromandel Heritage Trust.
  • Best, Elsden. 1915. "Art. XLVII.—Maori Voyagers and their Vessels: How the Maori explored the Pacific Ocean, and laid down the Sea Roads for all Time." Transactions & Proceedings New Zealand Institute, November 8thKupe Te Matorohanga, recorded by H.T. Whatahoro, and translated by S. Percy Smith; from the Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 4, 1913,http://archive.hokulea.com/ike/moolelo/kupe.html
  • KUPE The Polynesian Navigator and Explorer by T. V. Saunders - in Te Ao hou The Maori Magazine No. 66 (March 1969)
http://teaohou.natlib.govt.nz/journals/teaohou/issue/Mao66TeA/c13.html


  • In Handy, E.S. Craighill. 1892. History and culture in the Society islands. Honolulu: Bernice P Bishop Museum no.79 1930. Hathi Trust