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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day


A war-canoe, hewn from a great forest tree, decorated with carved figurehead and sternpost, painted and plumed and fully equipped, was the most beautiful of all the products of Maori handicraft and technical skill. It was in the waka-taua that the native New Zealander gave fullest expression to his industry, perseverance, and mastery of line and form and artistic design. With its long and narrow hull, its gracefully sheering lines, and its high and warlike prow, the war-canoe of our Maoris is not unlike the pictures we have of the ancient Viking ships of the Norsemen. The river-canoes of to-day, and the few war-canoes preserved in museums, are very different from the fitted-together sailing-craft of the Pacific Islands. It was in New Zealand that the Polynesian sailor found far larger timbers than any he had seen in the tropic isles, and he was able to use kauri and totara trees of huge size for his waka. The British Columbia and Alaska Indians had large pines from which they carved dug-out canoes, and good sea-going craft some of these were. When the Maori ceased his deep-sea voyages he abandoned the use of the outrigger, which was not needed so much when the canoe-travelling could be done along the coast in fine weather, or on the many long rivers. The double canoe (waka-taurua) persisted longer on coast expeditions, and sometimes in the work of laying and drawing great fishing nets two large canoes were lashed together and temporarily decked across amidships, thus making a waka-taurua.

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The principal districts in which canoes of the original type, dubbed out of whole trees, are still in use on the rivers are the Waikato, Mokau, Wanganui, Whakatane, Waitotara, Waitara and Patea Rivers, besides several lakes—Rotorua, Rotoiti, Waikare on the Waikato, and Waikaremoana. But except on the Waikato and the Wanganui new canoes are very seldom built, and those used are sometimes venerable craft dating back forty or fifty years. The usual type seen now is the waka-tiwai, the ordinary canoe chopped and adzed out of a totara or rimu or kahikatea tree, just a skilfully hollowed long log, without topsides or bow or stern adornments. Those on the Waikato, used in the annual river races at Ngaruawahia and occasionally lower down, are often of great length, slim slender craft with little freeboard. I have travelled on the Waikato in canoes of 70 and 80 feet in length, and 4 to 6 feet beam. Canoes built specially for racing have their hulls fined down, for lightness, but the ordinary canoe is thick and very solid. Four of us, two pakehas and two Maoris, once took a 30-ft. canoe from the sea up to the head of navigation on the Mokau river, a four days' paddling and poling and rapid-climbing journey. No pakeha-built craft would have stood that rough usage on the rapids and among the snags and shoals, but our strong and solid and rather heavy waka was just the thing for such an expedition along an uncleared bush waterway.

The finest specimen of an old-time war-canoe in existence is the waka-taua known as “Te-Toki-a-Tapiri” (“Tapiri's Axe”), now in the Auckland War Memorial Museum on the Domain hill. This perfectly finished canoe, nearly a century old, is 82 feet in length, with an extreme beam of 6 feet. The hull, topsides and carvings are all of totara timber page 152 The “Axe” would carry fully a hundred men; in fact it often carried that number of paddlers and fighting men in the days when it was in very truth a war-canoe of the Maori. The “Axe” was built by the Ngati-Kahungunu tribe, on the east coast between Napier and Gisborne, about the year 1835. It afterwards became the property of the Ngati-Teata tribe, on the Manukau Harbour, and it was seized and taken to Onehunga in 1863 by the Colonial forces which scoured the Manukau creeks for hostile war-canoes.

Briefly told, this was the ancient mode of constructing a canoe. A tree having been selected to form the hull, it was cut down by relays of men armed with stone axes, and with fires set in openings in the trunk. The trunk was then cleared of its branches, and hollowed out, partly with fire, and partly by dubbing it down with stone axes. The hull having been completed, the topsides or rauawa had to be cut from two trees very nearly as large as that from which the hull was made. The shaping of these, and the fitting of them to the hull, was always a tedious work, especially if they were carved from end to end, as is the case with the “Toki-a-Tapiri.” Next, the holes had to be bored through the topsides and hull to admit the lashings which bind them together. This had to be done with a wooden drill armed with a sharp piece of quartz. Then came the carving of the figurehead and sternpost. As these were carved out of solid pieces of totara timber, and as only a small portion could be done at one time, lest the wood should split, years were often consumed before they were completed. The taumanu, or thwarts, had also to be prepared and lashed to the gunwale on each side, and the topsides and carvings had to be lashed firmly to the hull.

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Parade of canoes at a Maori Regatta, Ngaruawahia, Waikato. [L. Hinge, photo

Parade of canoes at a Maori Regatta, Ngaruawahia, Waikato. [L. Hinge, photo

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Modern steel tools have enormously expedited the work, but canoe-making is a craft in which hereditary skill in obtaining a perfect evenness and balance plays a large part. This native art is a branch of industry which calls for perpetuation; and perhaps the best way nowadays of encouraging the ancient handicraft of tarai-waka lies in keeping the fine sport of canoe-racing going, just as the art of handling small sailing craft is chiefly fostered nowadays by the popularity of yacht-racing.

Ceremonies that are a survival of the ancient reverence for the God of the Woods are still in part observed. It was not right, in the eyes of the old-fashioned Maori, to cut down a fine forest tree, such as a totara—the best of all timbers for canoe-building and for carving—without some ceremonial to propitiate the spirit of the bush. As Tane-Mahuta is the father of the trees of the forest and author and guardian of all the birds that live in the trees, so it is well to appease him before laying axe to the feet of his tall children.

Among those who have described to me the canoe-making ceremonial rites was Kimble Bent, the pakeha-Maori. On several occasions Bent witnessed the ancient ritual of the tohunga precedent to canoe-building. A large totara tree was felled on the Waitara River, North Taranaki, in the Seventies for the purpose of being dubbed into a canoe for Aperahama Ngatawa: it stood in the forest on the northern side of the Waitara, near the Taramouku Range. A tohunga, learned in forest-lore, superintended the work, and recited the prayers over the tree and over the axes used to fell it. When the first chip flew from the tree it was burned in a sacred fire which the tohunga kindled a short distance away. A kumara or sweet potato was then roasted, and after being karakia'd over by the page 155 priest, it was taken to the tree and placed in the scarf from which the first chip had been cut. The purpose of this was to whakanoa or remove the tapu, the sacredness, from the tree, which now being made “common” or noa, was free to the axe of the canoe-men. The roasted kumara, now considered to to be permeated with the tapu of Tane's sacred tree, was taken to a hollow tree on the outskirts of the forest and placed within the tree, and no man could
Taurapa, sternpost of war-canoe.

Taurapa, sternpost of war-canoe.

Taurapa, sternpost, of superior carving design.

Taurapa, sternpost, of superior carving design.

page 156 approach that place until the felling of the totara and the working of the canoe had been accomplished.

In the Waikato district somewhat similar customs were observed in former days. It was usual also to place fern fronds on the stump after the tree was felled, to cover the naked wounds of Tane.

In explaining some of the expressions in an ancient canoe-chant, an old Ngati-Porou man who was an expert in those matters told me that the term “whakamatautau te waka” is used to signify the first trial of a new canoe, when the tohungas scan her to see whether she sits true on the water. “Tupare kaukau,” literally to spread out the arms in swimming, is applied to the canoe at sea, parting the waves before it like a swimmer. The canoe is considered as Tane, the deity of the forest, personified, just as a carved house is. It is Tane the Sea-Rider. The threatening-looking figure on the bow, with staring eyes and arms braced stiffly back, is Tane dividing the sea before him.

Some of the beautifully carved sternposts or taurapa are from six to ten feet in height. The sternpost was much higher than the figurehead, tauihu, and it stood up at nearly right angles to the hull. Many war-canoe carvings of this kind, rich with scrolled and spiralled pitau design, like very solid fretwork, are preserved in the Auckland Museum and several other Museums in the Dominion.

In the Auckland district, especially around the Hauraki Gulf, the kauri pine gave the Maoris trees of immense size for their war-canoes. Hare Hongi (Mr. H. M. Stowell) says: “In the Seventies I saw on the beach near the township at Shortland, Thames, a very big canoe, the largest I have ever seen. It must have been a hundred feet in length, the beam amidships was about ten feet. It was made page 157 of two great sections of kauri. Where the two halves were dovetailed together midway, the junction was caulked with hune, down or pollen of the raupo. When I saw it, it had no rauawa (washboards or topsides) and no bow or stern carvings. The waka would carry four men abreast in the middle part. It was very solid; the sides were nearly six inches thick on the upper part, and the hull would be thicker than that underneath. Such a canoe would have been very heavy to paddle; it would need sails to move it with any speed.”

Hare Hongi was with the Ngati-Whatua people of the Waitemata and Kaipara, when they built the large war-canoe “Taheretikitiki” near Riverhead, on the upper waters of Auckland Harbour, more than forty years ago. This graceful waka taua was for many years the treasure of the tribe, and was kept in a raupo shed on the foreshore at Orakei, old Paul Tuhaere's pretty village, and several times it was paddled to victory in races with men-of-war cutters and with Ngapuhi and other canoes on the Waitemata. The work of carving out the kauri canoe—which is in three sections—occupied several months. Two skilled men, Paora Kawharu and another, watched the work, one for each side of the waka. These tohunga, squinting along the canoe, would say to the adze-men, “Take a little bit off here,” and so on, until the adze work was completed to their satisfaction. When at last the canoe was launched it floated as evenly and gracefully as a swan in the water. It was perfectly balanced. The making of such a canoe is expensive. Although the workers were not paid wages for their labour, the carving and fitting out of “Taheretikitiki” (“the chieftain's topknot, or crest”) cost about £1,200, expended chiefly on food for those engaged on the work. The war-canoe was given by Paora Tuhaere page 158 and his people to King Tawhiao at the beginning of the Nineties, and for many years it was used as a kind of royal barge on the Waikato; it was often manned to convey distinguished visitors down the river to the Kingite headquarters village at Waahi.

We who have experienced something of the native canoe life, and who have known the thrill of watching a bow-and-bow struggle between rival canoe crews in a great race, know that there is nothing to beat that thrill unless it is a desperately fought-out horse race won by a short neck. The grand Waikato and the Waitemata have seen many a splendidly exciting finish between war-canoes, all plumed and painted, with fifty paddles apiece, “tearing through the tortured water.” Canoes and crews are smaller now, but something of the olden excitement is often revived.

The olden canoe-building art is one that calls for New Zealanders' support, in such places as the Waikato and Rotorua above all others. It has a background of history, poetry, and romance; it has its high artistic value; it preserves a useful river life, and its greatest value of all, perhaps, is its healthful exercise. The canoe-paddler on the Waikato, the Wanganui, and the Mokau and other waters where the waka Maori is still in use, certainly develops his shoulder and arm muscles—there is no exercise its superior, excepting only that of the oarsman on a sliding seat.

Flotillas of dug-out canoes of all sizes once enlivened the Waikato from its lower reaches up to Ngaruawahia. The Waipa, too, had its scores of wakas; and from the Puniu, its historic tributary, there was canoe communication with the sea a hundred miles away. From an olden canoe landing on the Puniu, near Kihikihi township, cargoes of wheat and flour were shipped all the way to Auckland via the page 159
Mahutu te Toko. This Waikato chief and warrior was a cousin of King Tawhiao, whom he somewhat resembled in features. He fought against the British troops in the Taranaki and Waikato wars, 1860–64. He was noted especially as an expert in all the work and lore of canoe-making.

Mahutu te Toko.
This Waikato chief and warrior was a cousin of King Tawhiao, whom he somewhat resembled in features. He fought against the British troops in the Taranaki and Waikato wars, 1860–64. He was noted especially as an expert in all the work and lore of canoe-making.

page 160 Awaroa portage, Waiuku and Onehunga, in the days before the war, and it is said that canoe-carried bags of flour from Orakau and Kihikihi and Rangiaowhia villages of Maori agriculturists and millers were shipped as far away as California in the early Fifties. Indeed, the canoe was all-important on the Waikato right up to the day when the first paddle-steamer of the pakeha startled the riverside camps and drew the fire of Maori snipers on the Meremere ridges.

Long after the war the Maori canoe was a river vehicle for pakeha travellers on special occasions. Premiers, Native Ministers and other men of importance in state affairs went up the Waipa fifty years ago in war-canoes, manned by Waikato crews, to the great meetings with King Tawhiao and his followers at Te Kopua, above the township of Alexandra, or Pirongia, as it is now. And when the son of Tawhiao and the son of Wiremu Tamehana, the King-maker, wished to do honour to Sir John Gorst when he revisited the Waikato twenty-three years ago, they brought him down from Ngaruawahia to Waahi, opposite Huntly, in a 70-ft. canoe called the “Tangi-te-Kiwi,” the canoe captain chanting the old war-time songs.

Vivid before the mind's eye to-day is the picture of my old acquaintances Katipa and Te Paki, the most expert “kai-hautu” of Waikato, as they balanced themselves with perfect grace amidships in their canoes, swaying this way and that, beating time for the paddles, and urging their men to tremendous efforts, in the “Paparata,” the “Wao-nui-a-Tane,” or some other long, slim river-craft hewn out of a single tree. Those time-songs they chanted, wild, high, splendidly rhythmic “ngeri-waka” songs, are down in my notebooks, with many another boat-chant of the Maori, from the Mokau to Waikare- page 161 moana, but it will be hard to reproduce in description the lilt, the fire, the wild, fierce excitement of the waka captain's calls to his crew as the great canoes surged up to the finish of a long race.

The old canoe architects, such as Te Aho-o-te-Rangi Wharepu, grim, black-tattooed war-hawk of Waikato; old Mahutu te Toko; Ahuriri, of Rangiriri, and others of their like, have gone. Ahuriri I last saw busy with his caulking mallet and oakum, making water-tight the seams of that graceful craft the “Tahere-tikitiki.” He was a capital authority on everything connected with canoe-making, from the felling of the tree—totara, rimu or kahikatea—to the axe and adze work in the hollowing out and trimming, and, finally, steering the craft with forty
Te Rauparaha, Chief of Ngati-Toa, who made several great war-canoe expeditions to the South Island from Kapiti Island after his famous conquering march from the North. This sketch shows him in naval officer's uniform when he was a prisoner in the British frigate Calliope. [From a drawing by John Bambridge at St. John's College, Tamaki, Auckland, in 1847

Te Rauparaha, Chief of Ngati-Toa, who made several great war-canoe expeditions to the South Island from Kapiti Island after his famous conquering march from the North. This sketch shows him in naval officer's uniform when he was a prisoner in the British frigate Calliope.
[From a drawing by John Bambridge at St. John's College, Tamaki, Auckland, in 1847

page 162 or fifty paddles going. Much knowledge passed from ken with those experts who learned their trade in pre-steamer times. But much is preserved, and it will be quite possible to revive much of the olden skill and to construct and man shapely and beautiful specimens of the waka-taua of old.