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Maori and Polynesian: their origin, history and culture

Evidences of Stratification in Canoe-building

Evidences of Stratification in Canoe-building

(13) There is a similar variety of culture revealed by the canoes and maritime habits. There is first of all the singular anomaly of a people so daring and skilful in navigating the Pacific, the greatest ocean in the world, and so capable as builders of large ocean-going canoes, adhering to the primitive method of propulsion by paddles. Even the Esquimaux, though keeping to the double paddle in their one-passenger skin canoes, use the oar in their large open-sea cargo and women's canoes. That the primeval substitute for and copy of the arm nd outspread palm should be kept to the last by the builders and sailers of ships hundreds of feet long and capable of carrying hundreds of people, is not the least strange of the contradictions in the life of the Polynesian.

(14) And yet we have evidence of the fixed leverage, the rowlock, having existed in New Zealand. The Morioris, primitive though they were in the sailless raft-canoes, and in their adherence to the paddle, used the latter like an oar, turning their backs to the bow, and pressing the handle against a thole-pin. So the Easter Islanders, poor though they are in canoe timber and canoes, use the paddle by way of a scull. It is clear, in short, that one of the pre-Polynesian peoples had advanced as far as the principle of the oar. But they were of an unobtrusive, unwarlike type, and their advance in the maritime art was shouldered aside by the energy and push of the new-comers from Indonesia with their outriggers. The outrigger was a bar to any development of oarage, and it evidently came with the immigrants from page 158the south of Asia. The double canoe, belonging only to Polynesia and probably developed there, was as unsuited to the oar. And when the conquerors in New Zealand came to discard both of these and adopt the single dugouts of the conquered, the habits of the art were too deeply rooted in conservatism and religion to allow the abandonment of the paddle for the oar.

(15) Canoe-building and canoe-management were ever in New Zealand aristocratic employments, and it is these that most resist the modern spirit, where there is no rising urban or commercial plutocracy to break down the old convention; and the conquerors would scorn the methods of the conquered. These were not in the sphere of woman; the Maori war-canoes were too sacred, like the chiefs, to have the steam of cooking near them; even the fishing canoes had parts that were sacred from cooking and women; whilst in the Marquesas no woman was allowed to approach or touch any part of a canoe. Thus the arts of navigation were not modified by the conquered, as the household arts were. It was doubtless the abandonment of far-voyaging and the predominance of river and inland navigation in New Zealand that led to the ultimate substitution of the single canoe for the double and outrigger. Yet they clung to these sporadically up into the nineteenth century. So, probably, the great trees so common in the New Zealand forests, along with the frequent and heavy storms and seas on the New Zealand coast, may have led to the abandonment of the South Sea plank-sewn canoe for the huge dugout with its one-plank gunwale.

(16) There are, however, survivals of much more primitive seacraft in many districts of the country. Polack saw, early in the nineteenth century, between Kaipara and Hokianga, a canoe of bulrushes sixty feet long. It is just such a canoe that is described in the legend of Kahukura as belonging to the Patupaiarehe, or fairy fishers. On the east coast open-page 159seamed rafts made of poles lashed together were frequently used in deep-sea fishing, whilst the Morioris, of the Chatham Islands, made their canoes of flax-flower stems, that floated like rafts on sea-kelp bladders, the deck level with the water; but they had the high bow and stern of the Maori canoe, and could sometimes hold sixty fishermen, even out on the ocean. And some of the early voyagers saw the double log with cross-pieces and a platform, probably the origin of the double canoe, used off the coasts of New Zealand.

(17) One curious instance of the localisation of customs as revealing differences of stock is the black colour that the natives of the north of the North Island give their canoes in contrast to the rest of New Zealand. If this is placed alongside the fact that the Patupaiarehe, or fairies, that represent fair-skinned European-like aborigines, belonged to this northern region, and the other that they abhorred kokowai, or the red ochre of the Maoris, we see an explanation of the localisation in differences of aboriginal race or tribe.

(18) But these primitive craft were the relics of an earlier stratum of population, though even these must have been able to navigate wide spaces of ocean in order to reach New Zealand. Not only the South Asiatic immigrants, but their predecessors, must have been bold navigators; for Polynesia was a region of widely scattered islets from before the period of the evolution of the mammals. None except a bat is indigenous to either New Zealand or the islands, and wings and a partial land-bridge would account for its presence. Never since the appearance of man has there been any unbroken promontory of land thrust out into the Pacific from either Asia or America. Indonesia may have been less broken up than it is; but to the east of that there were nothing but widely intervalled islands. No race could ever, therefore, have found its way into this region that was not expert in navigation.

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(19) And we find amongst the Polynesians, as contrasted with the Melanesians and Papuasians, a good working knowledge of the stars, such as was absolutely necessary to the inhabitants of so vast an oceanic archipelago. They were keen astronomers, and knew minutely the relative positions of the stars and the heavenly bodies, and even their changes and phases. So, too, did they know the set of the currents and winds; nor did they fail to have, to some extent, a knowledge of the periodicity of the weather. They had even maps of the geography of the region, rudely made of small twigs and sticks.

(20) All this meant a true art of navigation. And yet in the New Zealand wharekura, or advanced institution for technical teaching, there was no school for this art. There was the school of mythology, history, and theology, confined to the consecrated class. There was also a school devoted to the practical arts of lifeagriculture, astronomy for use in agriculture, the making of weapons for war and implements for hunting and fishing; and to this women were admitted a fact that shows the secrets of these arts common to both conquered and conquerors, aboriginals and aristocratic immigrants. But there was no school for navigation, such as one would expect amongst so far-voyaging a race. Clearly all the constituents of the people were maritime in every sense of the word, expert fishermen and sailors. And the cessation of intercourse with the islands, caused evidently by intense absorption in domestic politics and war, would allow the knowledge of oceanic navigation to sink into desuetude, and ultimate oblivion. It failed to become a part of their knowledge handed on from generation to generation; and coastal sailing and management of canoes became an instinct. Every boy, from the time he was able to walk, took to the water, both as a swimmer and paddler. His whole environment taught him canoe-craft.