Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Discovery of New Zealand

1 — The Polynesians

page 1

The Polynesians

Kupe or Maui: which was it who, first of heroes, came breasting in his canoe the surge of the deep Pacific, riding for many days the dark waves of ocean—Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, the great ocean of Kiwa—till on the horizon, beyond the thin veil of spray as it drove before the wind, he saw faintly rising the line of Aotearoa, the Long White Cloud, which men today call New Zealand? Who, as he neared the breaking line of surf and knew once more the smell of friendly earth, first saw the crimson blaze of pohutukawa which Tane the god had set for a signal to voyagers from afar? Who, after refreshment of clear running stream and food of the forest, first coasted that shore, marking beach and headland, rock and river, green plain and the vast front of trees that trod like great chiefs to the sea; and descried inland, rising high into heaven, Hine-tu-maunga, the mountain-ranges with their tresses of water, their pure and shining garb of snow? Skilled seaman he was, we know, familiar with distance and solitude, star and wind, master of sail and paddle, wanderer on greater journeys than blind poet ever sang, inured to peril and meeting it with trained and tautened mind; but who he was we do not know.

For Polynesian history is not, like ours, evidenced by parchment roll, it is not recorded in charter and chronicle and letter-book, in memoir and portrait; it is not built before our eyes in the stable stone of castle and cathedral. It has been carried in legend and genealogy, spoken and heard for a thousand years, and at last written down, with what accuracy we do not know, by men of an alien race. The borderline between god and hero is hard to discern; the interpretation of statement is surrounded by doubt. Was Maui god or hero?—he who dragged up from the boiling depths, with bait of his own blood, that gigantic page 2fish Te Ika a Maui—the sting-ray, our North Island? Was he but the embodiment of Polynesian discovery, which 'fished up' so many islands from the ocean, as the race spread from its original homeland, the first and great Hawaiki; or did a later Maui, as it has been argued, come down from that undetermined homeland Mataora, perhaps twelve hundred years or more ago in his canoe Maahunui, to add first South and then North Island to Maori knowledge? Polynesian scholarship inclines to regard Maui's discovery as myth. Kupe was a discoverer whom, it appears, there is no gainsaying; Kupe may stand with the other great voyagers of history; Kupe for his race is Columbus or Magellan or Cook; for us he is to be deliberately admired like them. Not that among his race he stands alone—great sailor as he was, he was bred from sailors, sailors were his companions and his posterity. His own ancestors had pushed eastward from Indonesia, eastward and south through the centuries, from island-group to island-group, to the Society Islands, to Tahiti and Raiatea, that Hawaiki of the men of New Zealand. Thence they sent forth their greatest expeditions—to Hawaii in the north; through the Tuamotu archipelago to the Marquesas in the north-east and Easter Island in the south-east; to New Zealand in the south-west; and also, if straining hard we are to believe tradition, south into the wastes of the Antarctic Ocean. It may have been about our year 750 that the astonishing Hui-te-Rangiora, in his canoe Te Iwi-o-Atea, sailed from Rarotonga on a voyage of wonders in that direction; he saw the bare white cliffs that towered into the sky from out the monstrous seas, the long and trailing locks of the woman that dwelt therein, which waved about under the waters and on their surface, the frozen sea covered with pia or arrowroot, the deceitful animal that dived to great depths—'a foggy, misty and dark place not shone on by the sun'.1 Icebergs, the fifty-foot leaves of the bull-kelp, the elephant seal, the snowy ice-fields of a clime very different from Hui-te-Rangiora's own warm islands—all these he had seen; and a century later one Te Aru-tanga-nuku sailed down to see them for himself. If such as these were early Polynesian voyages of curiosity, why should Kupe fear the unknown?

page 3

The Polynesian peoples, indeed, in their long migration, had perforce to be voyagers, from island to visible island, or striking out across the open ocean, following the flight of birds, snaring in their sails of matting the favourable trade-wind, or paddling with the united vigour of men to sea-labour born. Thus, while European sailors, with prayers and invocations, plied across the Mediterranean, or crept from headland to headland of their Atlantic coast in galley or cumbrous carrack; long before the Portuguese invented their three-masted ocean-going ship and pushed gradually down the coast of Africa to the Tormented Cape, before Cabot or Columbus, before even the voyages to Labrador of the Vikings of the north—without compass or cross-staff, the Maori had loosed himself against Hine-moana, the forces of ocean, and ridden out the worst of her storms. Prayers and invocations he had, but they were to different gods; and his gods served him well. What served him best was his mastery of his hundred-foot double canoe, or the outrigger canoe which was in some respects better, as it could not split asunder at the height of the storm; and the seamanship which at that period he shared with the masters of Arab dhow and Chinese junk. But they were traders: he was an explorer. Their ocean-ways were known; he ploughed his as he went. The Maori captain in the Maori canoe, at the height of Maori seamanship, before the land claimed him for its own—this was the perfect matching of element and man. Nor was the canoe a negligible factor. The length, possibly, of Cook's Endeavour; strong in its simplicity of hollowed tree-trunk and built-up sides of adzed and closely fitted planks, lashed firm with sennet and shaped to meet the waves; handsome with carved ornament; snug amidst the sprays with its cover of matting drawn tight over stout framework; with forty-foot mast and tough bellying sail; manned by perhaps three score paddlers and guided by the two great steering oars—the ocean-going canoe took men, women and children over many a thousand-mile stretch of sea. The light outrigger, or the twin canoe, gave it stability, the lines gave speed; and more than one eighteenth-century European navigator recorded his admiration for the pace and handling of the Polynesian vessels, late as that period was in island seamanship. Nor did the canoe sail without provision: dried foods, fish and shell-fish, cooked paste of bread-fruit, kumara and yam and page 4taro, coconuts; water stored in containers of gourd, bamboo or seaweed. With such equipment did Kupe sail on the voyage that made Aotearoa known to his people.

Kupe's home, it is likely, was on Raiatea, one of the Society group; but according to legend he was at the island of Raro-tonga when in a dream he saw the supreme god Io, who told him how to find the new land. More probably he was persuaded of its existence and direction from the yearly flight of the kohoperoa, the long-tailed cuckoo, coming always from the southwest to winter in the warm islands of the central Pacific. Kupe left directions for his successors: 'In sailing from Rarotonga to New Zealand, let the course be to the right hand of the setting sun, moon, or Venus, in the month of February'; and that was presumably the month in which he came, about the year 950. His canoe was called Matahorua, and with him came a companion-chief Ngahue—who captained Tawiri-rangi—and his wife and children, and a crew of sixty men. They made a landfall near the North Cape and replenished their stores with birds and fish; thence they sailed down the east coast of the North Island to Palliser Bay in Cook Strait. Here they stopped a while to refit before moving to Port Nicholson, where they encamped somewhere on the Miramar peninsula. The islands in the harbour Kupe named after his daughters Matiu and Makaro. Then he tarried some time at Te Rimurapa or Sinclair Head collecting dried fish, turning afterwards north to Porirua harbour and the island of Mana. From Mana he crossed the strait, to follow down the west coast of the South Island. At Arahura, the chief Ngahue is said to have killed a moa, that giant bird; here also was discovered greenstone, blocks of which were taken home. Round the south of the island went Kupe, through Foveaux Strait, and so northward through Cook Strait again and up the west coast of the North Island. Behind him he left Aropawa, on the southern shore of the strait, and he sailed inside the off-lying isles, whence it is sung,

'I will sing, I will sing of my ancestor Kupe!
He it was who severed the land,
So that Kapiti, Mana and Aropawa
Were divided off and stood apart.'

At Porirua Kupe left one of his anchors, named Maungaroa, page 5and after calling at Wanganui and Patea departed finally for Rarotonga and Raiatea again from Hokianga Harbour. To the new country he had discovered he gave the name Aotearoa, a word used by his wife when she first saw the land, lying like a cloud far off on the horizon. Many people wished at once to sail and people it, but to these, when they asked Kupe to lead a new expedition, he answered always, 'E hoki Kupe?'—'Will Kupe return?' He would not; Kupe, we must suppose, had done with roving; but to his people he left this traditional form of words for refusal, and the sailing directions which were handed down by the priests to a generation that might need them. Kupe had secured his fame.

This first explorer, like later ones, spoke well of the high and misty land, which seems—though on this point tradition varies —to have been uninhabited. But whatever the truth of the matter in Kupe's time, when two hundred years later men again sailed of set purpose to New Zealand and remained there, they found many inhabitants. The origin of these is unknown; we have once more tradition, that their ancestors had been driven in three canoes from their home-country, a warm one, by a westerly storm, and that the waves had cast them finally on the shore of Taranaki. Perhaps they were voyaging from island to island in the Pacific when the storm fell on them. They were a dark-skinned people, tall and slim, with flat noses and restless eyes and upstanding hair; lazy, little skilled in the arts of living. From Taranaki, where they settled, they spread to many parts of the North Island, in particular north to Tamaki, and across the island to the Bay of Plenty and Hawke's Bay. These were the tangata-whenua, 'the people of the land', who were found by Toi, when he came from Tahiti about 1150, and who were taken in marriage or fought and slain by the sons of Toi.

Toi was an elder of Tahiti, and one day he sat on the hillside with other elders watching the young men at their canoe-races in the lagoon called Pikopiko-i-whiti. Among the contenders were Toi's grandson, Whatonga, and his friend Tu Rakui. Excited and jubilant, these two sailed their canoe outside the reef to the open sea; a fog came down, the wind blew off the land, and they were lost to all sight. Full of grief, Toi waited long for his grandson to come back; and then manned his ownpage 6canoe to search for him. He sailed to Samoa, he sailed to Raro-tonga, in vain; he resolved to sail farther still. And saying to the people of Rarotonga: 'I go to seek my child in strange lands, in the moist land discovered by Kupe, and I will greet the land-head at Aotearoa or be engulfed in the stomach of Hine-moana,' he put to sea. He steered according to the directions of Kupe, but he missed Aotearoa, and the first land he sighted was the Chatham Islands. These could not be Kupe's islands; Toi took thought and put again to sea, ranging westward till he could coast the North Island. No Whatonga did he find, and in despair he settled at Whakatane. Whatonga nevertheless was not lost; he had found safety on another island from which in due time he returned to Tahiti, and now it was for him to go in search of his grandfather. So fitting out Kurahaupo, famous among canoes, and manning it with his strong crew, he sailed also to Rarotonga, and hearing of Toi's words, set out himself across the southern ocean. His landfall was the Tongaporutu river on the west coast; he followed round the North Cape and down the eastern coast, and at Whakatane did Toi and Whatonga, the old man and the young, at last meet again. Whatonga, like Toi, decided to remain. Neither had come intentionally to settle down. Neither had brought roots to cultivate or seeds of edible plants; nor had the people of the land any. Thus it was that Toi to future generations became Toi-kai-rakau, Toi the eater of wood, who roasted fern-root and steamed cabbage tree bole to join to his fish and his fowl. Canoes went back for kumara; the progeny of Toi and Whatonga learnt more of the geography of New Zealand. Other immigrants seem to have come from the eastern Pacific; there was intermarriage and the emergence of mixed tribes. Between these tribes, allied with the unmixed children of Toi, and those who sprang from the earlier inhabitants, quarrels arose and bloodshed, wars that lasted until, it is said, the last of the tangata-whenua fled in seven canoes upon the sea, no more unmerciful than their persecutors, in search of the Chatham Islands. There they lived for many generations, into our modern time.

The Maori in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it is clear, was increasingly familiar with the North Island; but little could have been added to Kupe's general knowledge of the outline of the country. It was left to a later immigration to page 7populate more fully, and so to know more fully, its coastline as well as its inward parts. This immigration was that of the group of canoes known as the Fleet, coming from Tahiti about the year 1350, together with three other canoes of great fame, which set out singly. The coming of the Fleet is a principal event in Maori history, and from it is traced, with little exception, all honourable descent. It is important because from that date every ingredient of the Maori population of New Zealand was present, three hundred years before the discovery of the Maori himself by people who, starting as ocean navigators so much later, carried their technical mastery so much farther; it is important because after that date, also, there seems to have been only one voyage back to Hawaiki—and that in the generation in which the Fleet arrived. The greatest voyages of the Polynesians were over—the Maori in the south, like the Hawaiian in the north, who also came from Tahiti, ceased to be familiar with the paths of ocean.

Why was it not till four hundred years after Kupe that Kupe's work was completed by the migration of a great company to the land he had discovered? Principally, it appears, because it was not till then that there was a decisive pressure of population. Hawaiki—Tahiti, Raiatea—was a limited area, highly fertile it is true, but still unable to support an indefinitely increasing number of inhabitants. Food fell short, there was no longer enough bread-fruit; for this, no doubt for other reasons as well, there was bitter fighting and the weaker side preferred emigration to destruction. Kupe's land was known; it was large, there was room for all; and there was a related people there already. There was also the pounamu, the supply of much-desired greenstone. The great canoes were made ready for sea, outriggers strengthened, stores packed on board; and some time in November or December, the months of the fair wind, the Fleet set sail—Tainui, Te Arawa, Mata-atua, Kurahaupo and Tokomaru, with their men, women and children, their chiefs and their priests. So also did the independent canoes, Aotea, Horouta, Takitimu bearing its sacred freight of gods. They steered by the sun and the moon or by Venus, as Kupe had directed, their learned men or tohunga navigating and invoking with chants the favourable gods; and so, with paddles leaping and thrusting in unison, the canoes, in a fortnight or less, would page 8make their landfall. Aotea came to the west coast of the North Island, and its people settled at the Patea river in south Tara-naki. The others arrived on the east coast, the Fleet at or near Whangaparaoa not far from Cape Runaway. From there they dispersed. Mata-atua sailed to the Whakatane river, to people that district and the Bay of Plenty. Arawa ended its voyage at Maketu, whence its people spread inland, some to Rotorua, some to Taupo. Tainui went north, was portaged across the Auckland peninsula to Manukau and sailed down to Kawhia, where two stones now mark its length; its people founded the Waikato and Hauraki tribes. Tokomaru sailed round the north of the island to the Mohakatino river, south of Mokau; its crew peopled north Taranaki. Of Kurahaupo we know nothing certain. Possibly it was wrecked and its people transferred to Aotea, and the legend that it was petrified into a reef on the north-east coast may be a more comforting way of saying this: at any rate its people were scattered from the north down to Lake Horo-whenua. Horouta, like Aotea, seems to have arrived before the Fleet; its people settled part of the east coast and perhaps part of the South Island. Takitimu with its honourable cargo arrived on the east coast about the same time as the Fleet, sailed south from Gisborne dropping settlers on the way, in Wairoa, Hawke's Bay and Wairarapa, at Port Nicholson, and finally Otago, where it was converted into a range of mountains. So came the canoes to their new, and last, homes.

'Drag hither—the canoe!
Draw hither—the canoe!
To its resting place—the canoe!
To its abiding place—the canoe!
To the resting place where shall rest—the canoe!'

And their people became an isolated folk, a people of the land, or of coastal voyages, the paddles plunged no more in the far ocean. The carved prows no more followed the great sea-road of Kupe; their owners were wanderers and discoverers no more. They spread over the country, and multiplied, naming valley and hill; and those who had known so well the lagoons, the palms and yellow hibiscus on the beaches of smaller islands, who had fished on the reef at night and feasted on coconut and bread-fruit, were to adapt themselves to a different and harder page 9life—in pattern not unlike the old, but woven with rougher threads. It was a life that owed more to the forest, and to digging of ground with sweat of the brow; a fife more concentrated, more communal, physically protected by the fortress pa, a thing these islanders had not known before. But they remained a brave and poetic people, mindful of their history and of their great forebears; they told tales of the ancient homeland, of Hawaiki. They remained the craftsmen who had built the canoes, and great canoes continued to be built, of swift lines and strong decoration, carved cunningly at prow and stern, for the constant traffic of peace and war. Nevertheless, it was the land, its mountains and waters, that came to be the centre of the tribal being, the land fought for and loved, the land which took on legend and became suffused with all emotion; and it was a land so made part of the lives and minds of men which lay waiting in its green solitude for the sails of far other discoverers.

1 S. Percy Smith, Hawaiki, pp. 175-6. The strain upon us now is harder than it was upon Smith.