Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Polynesian Voyagers. The Maori as a Deep-sea Navigator, Explorer, and Colonizer

Vessels and Methods

Vessels and Methods.

We have scant information as to the size of trees suitable for canoe-making in the various islands of the Pacific. Ellis mentions a tree called by him the apape, used in canoe-making by Tahitians, that produced a branchless trunk of 40 ft. to 50 ft. in length and 2 ft. or 3 ft. in diameter. Given a log 50 ft. in length, 3 ft. in diameter at the smaller end, no doubt a fair-sized hull might be hewn from it. This writer states that the Tahitians made the keels of their larger canoes of the tamanu tree, the trunk of which was often 4 ft. in diameter, while the purau furnished timber for planks and paddles. The breadfruit-tree page 36 is also used in canoe-making. We also know that these natives constructed canoes having small, low sided hulls to which a series of side boards or starkes were attached. Thus a comparatively small tree might furnish the hull-piece for a large canoe.

“We have good evidence.” says John Williams, “that formerly the Society-Islanders had canoes far superior to those now in use, in which they performed some extraordinary voyages; and a traditionary account states that one of their ancestors visited all the Friendly Islands, and even Rotuna, which is about two thousand miles west of Tahiti.” Again, he writes: “I have traditions of the natives upon almost every subject, especially of their former navigators, wherein every island which has subsequently been discovered within two thousand miles is named.” In his paper on “The Geographical Knowledge of the Polynesians” Mr. Percy Smith gives much interesting information concerning Polynesian navigation of former times. In speaking of the long voyages made by Polynesians in long-past centuries he remarks: “We are too apt to forget that in former times they had a class of canoe, in most islands called a pahi, which was immensely superior to those of the present day, and capable of containing a large number of people and abundant provisions. The great double canoe with its platform extending from vessel to vessel, on which was erected a house, was also suitable for performing long voyages. It was in canoes such as these that the Maoris made the long voyage from the Pacific islands to New Zealand… The Maori traditions make special mention of these double canoes, and further state that one, the ‘Arawa,’ has three masts… The canoe in which Karika, of Rarotonga, made his several voyages of discovery is said to have had two masts, and to have been able to carry one hundred and seventy men … he made eight different voyages between Samoa, Rarotonga, and other islands.”

In a work entitled Revings in the Pacific from 1837 to 1849. published at London in 1851, occurs some account of a sojourn at Rotuma, a small island north of Fiji. The natives of this isle were formely noted as daring voyagers, and the writer of the above work explains that, owing to the small size of the island, the surplus population was compelled periodically to seek new homes across seas. In most cases such parties were never again heard of; some, doubtless, would succeed in their quest, while others would perish at sea or at the hands of hostile peoples of some land reached by them. The description given of the vessels employed by Rotuma natives for deep-sea voyages is interesting. They were double canoes, the larger of which was from 80 ft. to 90 ft. in length, and the smaller one 50 ft. to 60 ft. The two hulls were about 6 ft. apart, and were connected by crossbeams, on which planks were secured so as to form a platform deck some 14 ft. to 16 ft. in width. The fact that both hulls were covered, with but small sliding hatchways, supports the statement that the crew lived in a house built on the platform deck, and that the hulls accommodated page 37 sea stores only. The sails used were of the common Polynesian form, triangular, and set with apex downward. They were made of a form of rush, and the author remarks that they resembled the canoe-sails seen at New Zealand.

Mr. Smith continues: “One of the captains of the Union Steamship Company told me that he had seen in Fiji a rude chart used in their nagvigation in which the constant movements of the seas driven before the trade-winds were shown by parallel strings stretched on a frame, and on these the positions of numbers of islands were indicated in their relative positions by little pieces of wood. The routes from island to island in many of the groups were well known, and the starting-points had characteristic names…. In the Sandwich Isles, on the little island of Kahoolawa, is a place called Ke-ala-i-Kahiki (The Road to Tahiti), from which the ancient voyagers started on their long journeys of 2,380 miles to the latter island. In a short paper written by S. M. Kamakau, a learned native historian of the Sandwich Islands, is a code of instructions for the study of the stars, from which I quote the following extract: ‘If you sail for Kahiki (Tahiti Island) vou will discover new constellations and strange stars over the deep ocean. When you arrive at the Piko-o-wakea (Equator) you will lose sight of Hoku-paa (the North Star), and Newe will be the southern guiding-star, and the constellation of Humu will stand as a guide above you.’ The well-authenticated voyages between the Sandwich Islands and Tahiti, a distance of 2,380 miles, as related by Fornander, show also the extent to which this people were masters of the sea.”

This writer also mentions the voyage of Tukuiho and his people of Rapa Island some twenty-four generations ago, who went to Easter Island against the trade-winds, a distance of about 2,520 miles, and there settled.

It is not clear as to why Fijians shouhl possess such a chart as that above mentioned, as they were not deep-sea voyagers, save occasionally when they made short trips to the Tongan Group, and then always in vessels managed by Tongans. As to the so-called chart, a well-known early missionary, the Rev. S. Ella, has cast doubts on its existence or use, but a similar contrivance was employed by Marshall-Islanders.

Mr. Smith speaks of the golden age of navigation and seamanship among Polynesians as having extended from about thirty to twenty generations ago. So far as we know, the voyages from Polynesia to New Zealand seem to have ceased about four or five hundred years ago, though several vessels left here for Polynesia long since that date. But there was a good deal of inter-island voyaging done throughout Polynesia down to late times. In like manner the backward limit of thirty generations takes us to a period when the Polynesians were pretty well all over the eastern Pacific Ocean, apparently, They were then occupying the various islands of the Society Group, and it was about that time that Toi made his famous voyage from that group to Samoa, and thence to Rarotonga and New Zealand, whither he was soon followed by the expeditions of Whatonga, Manaia, and Nukutamaroro. page 38 It seems to us that most of the voyages made by Polynesians twenty to thirty generations ago must necessarily have been made to islands and groups already known, and, in most cases, probably already occupied by members of the farspread Polynesian race. The true voyages of discovery of the Polynesians, the true golden age, must have commenced long prior to the thirty-generations limit. It must have been long before that time that Kupe braved the great open ocean of the south and discovered New Zealand, which was probably one of the later voyages of discovery. He is said to have found New Zealand uninhabited by man, whereas when Toi arrived here, some thirty generations ago, most of the North Island was occupied by the Mouriuri people, descendants of the crews of three canoes that had reached these shores since the arrival of Kupe. From my own point of view I would feel inclined to place the true golden age of Polynesian navigation at a period long prior to thirty generations ago, a period during which the ancestors of the Maori were doing true exploration work acorss vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean.

There is also another point to be considered—namely, that when Kupe, a resident of the Society Isles, came to New Zealand, the former group, as also the Cook Isles, were certainly in occupation of Polynesians, and that must have been some centuries prior to the time of Toi. We are told by Maori tradition that the particulars of the voyage of Kupe were preserved by the priests of the house of learning at Tahiti, and handed down from one generation to another. When in later times voyagers wished to make the voyage to these isles they obtained from the wise men of the house of learning the necessary directions as to the course to be taken, &c., as taught by Kupe on his return from the “mist-enshrouded land of Aotea-roa.”