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

Melanesian Element in Polynesia

Melanesian Element in Polynesia.

The natives seen by Beechey at Bow Island in the “twenties” of last century are described by him as being of a repulsive type. “Their noses were broad and flat, their eyes dull and sunken, page 50 their lips thick … long bushy hair well saturated with dirt and vermin … their limbs bony, their muscles flaccid.” And this is said of the people of the Paumotu Group, in eastern Polynesia.

Bougainville believed in the existence of two races at Tahiti, one of a tall people with European-like features, the other a people of middling stature, with coarse curling hair, and resembling mulattoes in complexion and feature.

Of the natives of the Disappointment Isles, in the far north-east of the Paumotu Group, Wilkes wrete: “Since we have seen all the different Polynesian groups, these appear, however extraordinary it may be, to resemble the Fijians more than any other.”

Cook noted that the natives of Moorea appeared to be of lower stature, and darker-skinned, than the Fahitians, and in nowise so good-looking.

Hale remarks on the peculiar foreign element in the language of the Paumotu Group. This fact, taken in conjunction with their manner of sailing canoes either end foremost—a custom obtaining among the Tongans, Fijians, and Micronesians, but not among other Polynesians—as also some evidence in regard to a curious foreign ethnic mixture in the far-eastern isles, as noted by early voyagers, and apparently preserved in Maori tradition at New Zealand, presents to us an interesting problem. Where did this foreign element come from? If the non-Polynesian words found in Paumotuan dialect were borrowed from some western tongue. Melanesian or Indonesian, how is it that they have not been recognized, now that we are acquainted with so many of the oceanic vocabularies? Again, who were the negroid-like people of Maori tradition spoken of as dwelling on various isles of eastern Polynesia thirty generations ago? If Melanesian, were they a remnant of an original population of those isles, or were they new-comers? If the latter, how is it that we see nothing in tradition pointing to Melanesian navigation of wide seas at that period?

Cook remarked that the natives of Ra'iatea (Rangiatea) seemed in ‘general smaller and blacker than those of the neighbouring islands.

Dieffenbach noted the two racial types among the Maori of New Zealand, and states that the darker race “has undoubtedly a different origin. This is proved by their less-regularly-shaped cranium, which is rather more compressed from the sides; by their full and large features, prominent cheek bones, full lips, small ears curly and coarse although not woolly hair, and a much deeper colour of the skin, and a short and rather ill-proportioned figure. This race, which is mixed in insensible gradations with the other, is far less numerous; it does not predominate in any one part of the Island, nor does it occupy any particular station in a tribe, and there is no difference made between the two races among themselves; but I must observe that I never met any man of consequence belonging to this race, and that, although free men, they occupy the lower grades.”

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The above writer errs in speaking of two races as though they had remained distinct in some cases, whereas what we have in the Maori is the blending of the two races. No Maori in these isles is free from the aboriginal Mouriuri blood, though some show it to a marked degree, others scarcely at all.

In a paper on “The Osteology of the Aborigines of New Zealand and of the Chatham Islands,” by Professor J. H. Scott, published in Volume 26 of the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, occurs the following passage: “We know the Maori to be a mixed race, the result of the mingling of a Polynesian and Melanesian strain. The crania already examined leave no room for doubt on this point.” Further on he says: “The Melanesian characters are therefore more accentuated in the North than amongst the natives of the South Island.” The more extended researches of Dr. P. Buck in the field of Maori somatology will assuredly cast much light on this question of a Polynesian-Melanesian admixture in New Zealand.

In Volume 14 of the Journal of the Polynesian Society is a short paper by Mr. G. Graham containing particulars of a strange people, probably castaways, who settled on the east coast at some unknown period in the past. These folk, called “Ngutu-au” by the Maori, arrived at Whare-kahika many generations ago in a canoe of remarkable construction. They possessed peculiarities of speech and manners. They settled at Matakawa, where they cultivated the kumara and remained for some time. Owing to some trouble with the local tribe of Ngati-Porou, these folk launched their canoe one night and set forth to return to their distant home across the occan. Three of them remained behind for some reason, one of whom was named Mou-te-rangi. From another source we have a tradition that a man of that name left that district long ago in order to cross the ocean to Hawaiki—that is, to the isles of Polynesia.

The natives of the Bay of Plenty district have preserved a tradition of a vessel having reached Whakatane many generations ago the crew of which was composed of a very-dark-skinned people. These immigrants, probably castaways from a drift voyage, are said to have settled at Omeheu, on the Rangitaiki River.

In the following old Maori song we note allusions to the voyages of olden days from Tahiti to Aotea-roa, or New Zealand. It calls upon the addressed one to ascend the peaks of Hikurangi and Aorangi, which are names of two peaks at Tahiti—“names given by your ancestors.” It proceeds: “Turn and face Para-weranui and Tahu-makaka-nui [personified forms of south and west—i.e., face the south-west], the way by which your ancestors were brought hither by ocean monsters, when Harua-tai broke out the sea path and the ocean surges were charmed, while the path of Kahukura marked the way to land, and the fair land was concealed by the Mist Maid. Then was the course held by aid of the Moon Maidens, as firmly they resolved to win the great land so fitly named Aotea-roa, and so achievement brought relief and satisfaction.

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Haramai, e tama
E piki ki runga o Hikurangi, o Aorangi
He ingoa tapaia na o kau.
E huri to aroaro ki Para-weranui, ki Tahu-makaka-nui.
Ko re ara tena i whakaterea mai ai o tipun
E te kauika Tangaroa, te urunga tapu o Paikea.
Ka takoto te ara moana ko Haruatai
Ka tupea ki muri a tai whakahuka
Ka takoto te ara o Kahukurn ki uta.
Ka tupatia ki a Hine-makohu-rangi
Ka takiritia te takapan whakahaere
Ka takoto i runga i a Hine-korito, i a Hine-kotea, i a Hine-makehu
Ka whakapau te ngakau ki te tuawhenua
Ka rawe i te ingoa ko Aotea-roa
Ka tangi te mapu waiora i konei, e tama … e.”

Herein we see allusions to old and firm beliefs of the Maori—namely, that the voyagers of yore were assisted by the gods, by ocean monsters, and by powers of magic import in all their wanderings on far-spread seas. Nothing could shake this belief, and over the Maori held that, so long as nothing was done to alienate the gods, then a vessel placed under their care could not possibly come to harm. This conviction had a very important effect on the demeanour of our Polynesian deep-sea voyager, for it endowed him with the confidence that was so necessary a quality in such undertakings. Priestly experts placed a vessel under tapu and so under the care of the gods. They were also ready to meet any crisis that arose during a voyage with charm, or rite, or magic spell. But can any one who knows the Maori imagine him going down on his knees to whine to man-made saints in times of danger or uncertainty? The troubles that harassed Columbus when his men feared to fall over the edge of the world would not affect the Polynesian voyager.

Harua-tai was the name of ocean monster that is said to have assisted in guiding the “Takitumu” vessel from Tahiti to New Zealand. Kahukura (personified form of the rainbow) was another such guide: his duties were to show himself ahead of the vessel in daytime, and the prow of “Takitumu” was held on his gleaming form. As night approached he retired, and his duties were taken over by the Moon Maidens, the fairhaired progeny of Tangaroa. Such quaint beliefs as these are ever observed in native accounts of ocean voyaging. Even so, in Maori belief, the vessels of their forbears were protected by the gods, escorted and upborne by ocean monsters, guided by natural phenomena, and so rode safely safely down seven hundred leagues of rolling sea roads to Aotea-roa.

Apparently the above song was composed in New Zealand, possibly on the east coast, where stand the two great hills of Hikurangi and Aorangi, named in memory of the former home. To mention the south-west as the line of voyaging is peculiar, though it would be correct if the speaker were at Tahiti, where the above mountain names are also localized.