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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

Chapter III. — Maori-Polynesian Ships and Sailors

page 40

Chapter III.
Maori-Polynesian Ships and Sailors.

Float lightly, float lightly, my sailing-canoe,
Like a bird of the air, with thy soft-flapping wings—
We'll anchor ere long on far-distant shores;
Thy spouse is Ariki-tapu, the Sea.
Soon shall we drink of Whakatau's waters.
Avaunt all ye dangers, death rocks in the ocean;
Ye clouds of dread gloom, may our prayer-charms dispel ye!
O Tane, Tree-Lord, let us peacefully glide!

Ancient Chant for the Canoe Takitimu when leaving Hawaiki for New Zealand.

The Maori has forgotten the art of building the form of sea-going craft in which his ancestors reached the shores of New Zealand from the islands of the Central and Eastern Pacific. We sometimes hear the question: “How could Maori canoes make a long ocean voyage?” But the ordinary river-canoe of to-day is a very different vessel from the ocean sailing-canoe of Polynesia. The craft in which the progenitors of our Maori made such extraordinary voyages were large double or outrigger canoes, built with great care, and navigated with a skill that, considering the primitive state of the Polynesian civilization, is nothing short of wonderful.

Maori traditions tell us very little about the build and rig of these vessels. In only one instance is any such description recorded; this is the story of the Arawa, which tradition says was a large double canoe—some say the largest that came to these islands—and had three masts. Many large craft were probably double canoes, that is two fastened together by cross-beams and a deck; but page 41 some were no doubt outrigger canoes. Tainui was most probably an outrigger vessel. A large strong sailing-canoe fitted with an outrigger would be safer and more seaworthy on a long voyage than a double canoe, which would be liable to disaster in bad weather; the two canoes would be apt to work apart in a rough seaway.

It is from the observations of European navigators in the South Seas that we are able to form an exact idea of the kind of craft the old Polynesian sailors used in their daring voyages of discovery and colonization. Captain Cook and the missionary Ellis give us some interesting notes. Cook, when at Tahiti in 1769, on his first voyage round the world, took note, as any sailor would, of the excellent seagoing canoes or pa'i (pahi) which the natives used. One pa'i or double canoe he measured was 51 feet in length, carrying a lofty mat-sail shaped something like what pakeha sailors call a leg-of-mutton sail, running to a point at the head. These canoes were most eleverly constructed. The keel-part consisted of a hollowed-out log—like our ordinary Maori dubbed-out canoes. Above this the vessel was built up with hewn planks sewn together with sinnet, the planks being very carefully smoothed and fitted together, and supported by wooden stanchions; the sinnet or coco-nut fibre plaited cords were passed several times through holes bored in the planks with a bone gouge or auger; above again were topsides curved inwards, hewn out of a solid log. The fitting together of the planks was so carefully done, Cook says, that caulking was unnecessary; but such a craft was sure to leak in a seaway, and the seams and holes must have been caulked with some Polynesian substitute for oakum and tar. An illustration of some of the Tahitian canoes in Cook's “Voyages” shows one with a page 42 single mast stepped right amidships, and stayed on each side to the end of a plank outrigger projecting from the hull; another canoe has two masts and her rig is at first glance not unlike that of a modern fore-and-aft schooner, except that her sails have neither boom nor gaff, and there are no head-sails.

Another type of large sea-going canoe, such as probably voyaged for great distances in ancient times, is a Friendly Islands craft, depicted in the frontispiece to the portfolio of “Pacific Views” by James Webber, who was the draughtsman with Captain Cook in the Resolution, 1776–1780. This is a large double canoe, with not quite so much “sheer” fore-and-aft as that of the Tahitian pa'i; there is a single mast and a large lateen sail. The head of the sail is cut out in a deep curve such as we see in pictures of New Guinea canoes. The two canoes are joined by a platform, with a low rail running round its sides; on this platform there is a thatched structure, a kind of deck-house; and on top of the house, which is just clear of the sail, figures are seated. On first seeing this picture I was at once reminded of the Maori account of the Arawa canoe and her voyage to New Zealand. The Arawa, we are told, was a double canoe, with a house built on her deck. These Tonga (Friendly Islands) canoes were beautiful sailing machines. Cook says that he went on board one of them when it was under sail, and by several trials with the ship's log found that the canoe travelled at the rate of seven knots in an hour, close-hauled in a “gentle gale”. “From this I judge,” he wrote in his “Journal,” “that they will sail on a medium with such breezes as generally blow on their sea, about seven or eight miles an hour.” “In their longer voyages,” Cook says, in describing the brown navigators of Tahiti, “they steer by the sun in the day, and in the night by page 43 the stars, all of which they distinguish separately by name, and know in what part of the heavens they will appear in any of the months in which they are visible in their horizon; they also know the time of their annual appearing and disappearing with more precision than will easily be believed by a European astronomer.”

Picture, then, several of these ancient Polynesian sailing-craft taking their departure from Tahiti or other tropic islands, for the far-away Long Bright World, or the Land of Long-lingering Dayligh—the Maori name of New Zealand will bear both these interpretations.

Tonga Sailing Canoe. [From a sketch by James Webber, draughtsman with Captain Cook.

Tonga Sailing Canoe.
[From a sketch by James Webber, draughtsman with Captain Cook.

The great canoes, some double, some outrigger, are launched down the white coral beaches, and ride on the calm waters of the lagoon. The shore is crowded with the Island people, farewelling their departing relatives and friends with many cries and many tears. The emigrants climb aboard, men, page 44 women, and children, and complete the lading of their sea-homes with their household treasures. The canoes are already stored with their sea-provisions, securely stowed from damage by salt water—coconuts for both meat and drink, calabashes of water, bread-fruit, the staple vegetables hué, kumara, and taro, preserved birds, and other foods of the plantation and forest. The priests or tohunga are there, reciting their final invocations, placatory and propitiatory, for the safety of the ships and crews. Every important part of the canoes' equipment has been appropriately karakia'd over—“blessed”—for the great voyage. Paddles, sails, bailers, all are consecrated for their duties; and are given the name of ancestral heroes, names the very recital whereof is in itself a prayer. The canoes have already been consecrated, in the ritual of the Whai-kawa, for their passage across the whare-hukahuka-a-Tangaroa, the “Sea-god's foamy dwelling.” The awa-moana, the sea-smoothing chants, in strange rhythmic time, with, their frequent repetitions, have been recited. To the priest of each canoe have been entrusted the sacred carven images, in wood and stone, of the ancestral deities, and those thrice-tapu treasures, the whatu-kura, which are to be borne to the new homes of the tribe as talismanic relics of fertility. There is a carved figure-head to each canoe—not, however, worked in the elaborate Maori patterns we now see; the figure is the image of a deified ancestor; he looks out with fierce staring eyes at the ocean he is; to ride over and conquer. The canoe is Tané, the God of Forests, the Father of Man; Tané the Sea-rider.

In the stern is the whakarei, the sacred seat for the high priest of the canoe. The stern-piece is dressed with plumes of feathers; the upper plumes, page 45 or puhi-kai-ariki, are dedicated to the divinities of the sky; the lower plumes, the puhi-moana-ariki, dipping in the sea, are for the spirits of the ocean.

The last food-loads and the last passenger are on board; the lofty mat-sails are hoisted, the sinnet halliards and sheets belayed, and with the brisk trade wind catching the sails, the fleet begins to move. There is a great wail of voices; the voices of the shore-people and the loud cries of the emigrants. “Haere atu ra, haere ra!” “Farewell, depart, depart!” the Islanders cry. The swishing heads of the palm trees that lean around the shores of the lagoon bend, too, as in farewell.

Out across the sheltered lagoon they sail, one after the other, straight for the reef passage, where the natural breakwater of coral opens in a channel to the sea. Gliding into this, the ocean swell heaves them giddily aloft and down again, and the sails take a tenser curve. The thundering surf breaks white and fearful on either side, but now they are safe in the deep water outside the reef, and sails are trimmed for the far sou'west. Away they slide over the long easy swell, fairly started on their voyage of two thousand miles or more. The watchers on the shore stand, still waving their garments and green branches, and crying their poroporoaki of farewell; but soon the trade-wind whisks the lofty-winged children of Tané the Tree-god down into the sunset, and the last brown matsail fades away into the dancing blue. They are alone on the vast moana-uliuli, the dark tropic sea.

It will be their home for many days, perhaps many weeks, that sea of mystery, and many a time will the sea-worn, brine-sore, hungry and thirsty emigrants long for the shady groves and delicious fruits and cool waters of their old Island homes.

Making a leading wind of the South-east Trade, page 46 the sailing canoes would carry steadily on until they had covered the greater part of the ocean journey. For day after day they would need to shift neither tack nor sheet—or their Polynesian equivalents—with the splendid and regular trade singing aloft. Before their bows would dart schools of flying-fish, their little wet wings shining in the sun as they whirred from wave to wave, in terror of their ocean-enemies. Around them played swift and arrowy porpoises, Tritons of the deep; and sometimes huge Tohora, or Paikea, the whale, would rise majestically, and spout beside them, and the people would say, low and with wide eyes, “Behold our god, the Taniwha!”

Night after night the stars came out to cheer and guide them; Maahu-tonga, the Southern Cross, broad on their weather bow; red-eyed Rehua and all the twinkling gods of the sky; and in the mystic dawn the men on watch chanted their songs to Tawera and Tariao, the bright morning stars.

Sometimes, down would shriek a tropic rainsquall, and it would be down sail and hold her head to wind until the puff passed; then out shone the rainbow in the path of the sun, and looking on it the sailors would say one to the other:-

“See, Uenuku, the god who dwells in the Rainbow, shows himself to us—our guardian on the sea.”

So they sail on and on, sou'west, until some daydawn a long high coast-line breaks on their eyes, and they see with delight, as they sail nearer, the groves of red-flowered pohutukawa crowning the white cliffs, and the clear and sparkling waterfalls quivering in the sun as they leap to the sea, or the wider streams that, flowing in powerful volume into the tide-way, tell of a vast land beyond, a land where there is room and to spare for all the Islanders of the Great-Ocean-of-Kiwa.

page 47

There was much danger on the deep for those ancient sailormen, putting to sea in what were practically long open boats, such as most white mariners would now hesitate to make a coasting voyage in. They had no compass*; their guides were the sun by day, the stars by night, the steady trade wind and the regular run of the easy Pacific swell; perhaps also the flight of certain birds, the migrant kuaka (godwit) and pipiwharauroa (shining cuckoo). The ocean was for them full of wonders and strange enchantments, for it was the domain of Tangaroa and his myriad satellites, the taniwha and the marakihau, who sometimes rose and destroyed whole fleets.

The south-east trade would carry the canoes on until they were about in the position of the Kermadec Islands; then they would perhaps pick up the north-east wind, the marangai, one of the prevailing winds on the northern coasts of New Zealand, and this would carry them down to the long-stretching shores of Aotea-roa. Most of the canoes made the coast between Doubtless Bay and the East Cape.

Many a canoe must have been lost, and many must have drifted away to other islands than those for which they set out. Such accidents happen now in the Pacific. Native canoes and boats voyaging from island to island are frequently blown away to strange lands, sometimes many hundreds of miles away from their homes. It was no doubt in this way that many South Sea islands and atolls were first peopled.

As for the speed of these long-ago ocean-cruising craft, I am inclined to believe that they were quite as fast as the average schooner which carried page 48 on most of the South Sea Island trade a generation or so ago. One of the fastest little vessels in the trade between Auckland and Rarotonga some thirty years ago, the schooner Torea, took from 14 to 21 days on her fruit-running passages from the Cook Islands; three to four weeks was a good average passage from Tahiti. A strong outrigger canoe such as the Tainui was would probably have taken about the same time to make the New Zealand coast.

It is very probable that in the days when the great Polynesian navigators flourished there were in existence islands which have since disappeared. Traditions tell of islands which are now unknown, and there is the well-known story of Tuanaki Island, south of Rarotonga, which vanished during last century. It appears to me quite likely that the Beveridge Reef was once an inhabited island and a calling place for ocean canoes. This reef is a large submerged atoll, one of the myriad “drowned islands” in the Pacific; it lies twenty degrees south of the Equator and in 167.49 west longitude, between the Cook Islands and Tonga and in a practically direct line between New Zealand and the atolls of Pukapuka (Danger Island), Manahiki and Penrhyn; all peopled by Maoris. Such islands and atolls would be way-places for sea-stock and necessary repairs on the ocean voyages, and of value to the navigator as an indication of his progress across the unmapped sea.

* There is a story from Hawaii about a so-called magic calabash, said to have been used to ascertain the latitude. The theory concerning this “combined sextant and compass,” as it has been described, is not convincing, and it must be regarded with doubt.