The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 1 (April 1, 1940)
The Fascinating Legend Of — “Takitimu”
It is said, with truth, that if a number of old Maoris, each equally well-versed in ancient Maori history and legend, is asked to tell a certain story, each will give a different version. Each narrator will no doubt have some historical basis in his narrative, but each will colour it with his own imagination and imagery.
I have found this true in regard to the story of the great canoe Takitimu which is reputed to have brought to New Zealand the ancestors of the North Island East Coast tribes of Ngati-Kahungunu. I have had several versions told to me, and have read several others. But none has impressed me so much as that related to me by a fine old chieftainess of Hawke's Bay.
She is a valued acquaintance of mine and has given me much joy with her tales from the store-house of her wide knowledge of Maori tradition.
We were talking one day of Tamatea, the ancestor of the great chief Kahungunu from whom the East Coast Maoris take their tribal name. The thick tattooed lips of my old friend broke into a smile and into her kindly brown eyes crept a hint of sparkling reminiscence.
“I shall tell you, my friend, the story of Tamatea and how he brought the great canoe Takitimu to Aotearoa from far Hawaiki,” she went on. “One day, on the island of Hawaiki, Tamatea's grandmother was out for a walk when she heard in the forest strange sounds of hammering. When she went to investigate she found Tamatea and his warriors building a huge canoe.
“She went forward and asked, ‘What is this, my grandson?’ Tamatea grinned at her—ah, he was a merry youth, that one!—and he said, ‘I am going to sail my canoe away across the ocean with the other great canoes which are leaving next week.’ He had suddenly made up his mind to do this, for the other canoes were all nearly ready to leave. ‘You'll do no such thing,’ declared his grandmother, ‘You're only a great big boy, with no sense in your thick head!’
“Tamatea laughed. Although he was young, he was a noble warrior and a fine navigator, but he knew he was not clever. ‘Don't you worry, grandmother,’ he said. ‘I know I'm not very brainy, but my crew will be! I am going to take with me all the tohungas and learned chiefs I can find.’ The old woman tried to argue with him but he only laughed at her and went on building his canoe.
“The great migration began before he was ready. Arawa, Tainui, and the other canoes left two days before Takitimu was finished. ‘No matter,’ said Tamatea, ‘we'll soon catch up to them.’ His grandmother went down to the beach to see him off. ‘You're mad,’ she sighed. ‘Even though you had all the tohungas and wise men on earth with you you'd still get into mischief. I know you! But take this with you.’
“She handed Tamatea a battle-axe. ‘When you are in trouble with the gods,’ she said, ‘wave the handle. When you are in trouble with men you know well enough what to do with the other end!’ Tamatea laughed and said she could trust him to do that!
“So away from Hawaiki sailed the great canoe Takitimu, bringing my ancestors to New Zealand. For many days they journeyed to the south but no sign did they see of the rest of the fleet until they reached the equator. There a mighty storm was raging. Arawa, Tainui, Matatua, Kurahaupo, Tokomaru—they were all there; but none of the canoes was game to cross. The waters of the equator were rising up threateningly, terrifying them and making them afraid to attempt to go further.
“But what did Tamatea do when he arrived? Ah, he was a cunning one, that! He grabbed up the axe his grandmother had given him, and waved the handle over the ocean. Immediately the sea became tranquil and allowed all the great canoes to sail on to Aotearoa, our Land of the Long White Cloud.
“Takitimu, manned by such brave and strong sailors, sped away from the other canoes of the fleet, But the voyage was taking longer than they had expected and soon their supplies of food ran out. Tamatea—that wild one!—with hunger gnawing at his stomach, began to utter angry incantations.
“So fierce was his expression and so menacing his manner that the crew knew he was debating which one of page 31 them should be killed for food. They trembled like mighty kauris in a storm as his voice thundered. Suddenly Tamatea raised his hand towards one of the tohungas and shouted, ‘You!’ The crew shook with fear.
“But the selected man was a very wise tohunga. He did not want to die so he used some of his own art. Waving his arms over the waters he chanted a supplication to the gods. They answered his prayer, for immediately a huge number of fish sprang out of the ocean into the canoe. So, for the time, everybody had plenty to eat.
“Soon, however, all the fish were eaten and the crew began to starve again. Once more Tamatea grew angry and ordered another of the tohungas to get food for them all, or else die. This priest prayed to the gods of the air. They heard him and sent hundreds of sea-birds fluttering down into the canoe. These were soon killed and gobbled up.
“Then it was another tohunga's turn to be frightened into providing food. This one also prayed to the gods of the sea and this time they sent shell-fish floating to the surface of the ocean. And so on did the crew of the great canoe Takitimu wend their way across the Pacific Ocean—sometimes hungry, sometimes afraid, but always trusting in the navigation and courage of noble Tamatea.
“At last, one day the look-out cried, ‘Aotearoa!’ The crew, weary and famished, stood up in their places, gazed eagerly towards the horizon, and soon were echoing the cry ‘Aotearoa!’ They were happy. At long last they had reached the Land of the Long White Cloud.”
My old Maori friend paused for breath. All through her narration she had seemed to live it, acting the part, and illustrating every episode with appropriate gesture, facial expression and modulation of voice. Now, she flung out her arm in a last dramatic gesture and then brought it slowly in to rest softly on her breast.
“Thus,” she whispered gently, “did my forefathers come to New Zealand hundreds of years ago.”
Her version of the legend is by no means the same as others. But it is a beautiful legend and, as told to me, almost every word is impressed on my memory. And probably it is as true as any other version. Who knows exactly what happened away back in the mists of early history when no written records were preserved?
What happened to Tamatea and his canoe Takitimu is also shrouded in fancy and guess-work. Some say that after founding, on the East Coast, the great tribe that was to be called Ngati-Kahungunu, Tamatea's roving spirit again called him. It is claimed that he and his warriors made a great overland journey in from Hawke's Bay, carrying with them Takatimu. Then, navigating the Waikato River, the canoe was hurtled over the Huka Falls and wrecked. There, some claim, it can be seen lying to this day.
Others say that the Falls were successfully negotiated, that Tamatea drove the canoe down the Waikato and finally out to sea and down to the South Island. These people claim that Takitimu is still in the South Island. We can only accept the legends for what they are worth—part of the tradition and culture of a noble race.page break page break