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The Coming of the Maori

The Passing of the Canoes

The Passing of the Canoes

In olden days, canoes were a necessity. The war canoes transported war parties on expeditions along the coast, up and down the larger rivers, and across lakes, thereby saving tedious journeys on foot. The fishing canoes were used for line fishing on the established grounds, hauling seine nets, trolling for kahawai, and setting crayfish pots. The river canoes took the place of bridges and people were able to cultivate the fertile flats on the opposite side of the river. In Polynesia, women did not use canoes but in New Zealand, women paddled the family canoes across the river to attend to the weeding of cultivations and gathering such things as the woods provided. Small canoes were used to set traps and haul nets in lakes and rivers and for transport to nearby villages situated on a common water-way. Without canoes, Maori culture could not have reached the rounded fullness that it did.

The growth of western culture did away with the canoe as a necessity. The acceptance of Christianity by warring tribes made the building of war canoes unnecessary and those that existed were converted to peaceful transport for a while and then rotted through disuse or found their way into museums. The introduction of beef, mutton, and pork and the changes in occupation led to less need and time for fishing and the seagoing fishing canoes also ceased to be made. The construction of roads and bridges throughout the country and the availability of horses and horse-drawn vehicles reduced the value of the canoe as a means of transport. Canoes survived longer on the larger rivers and inland lakes but the advent of river and lake steamers steadily diminished the number of those who had hitherto travelled by canoe.

The people of the up-river tribes on the Whanganui were noted canoe men and thought nothing of paddling many miles down stream to visit the town of Whanganui and poling back home against the current. However, the establishment of a regular service by river steamer came to pass and the descendants of canoe men soon found that paying a steamer fare was preferable to the arduous paddling and poling in which their parents page 210had once taken pride. On the Waikato River, the institution of an annual regatta at Ngaruawahia, with canoe races forming the main attraction, helped to perpetuate the life of the canoe in that district. Though the regatta was abandoned during World War II, its subsequent revival necessitated the building of new canoes by a younger generation to replace the old canoes which had fallen into decay. Hence it is likely that the canoe will make its last stand on the Waikato River.

It was inevitable that as the canoe ceased to be a necessity in the changing life of the people, its production should also decrease until it reached the stage when the skilled canoe builders had no further call for their work. The craftsmen laid aside their steel-bladed adzes or turned them to more gainful use. The direct transmission of craftsmanship was broken, for the experts had no heart or incentive to teach their children a dead craft. After all its wonderful record in conquering the great expanse of ocean from the coast of Asia to the uttermost isles of the Pacific, the canoe is fast becoming a historical memory in New Zealand. Even so, the memory is worth cherishing.