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Pioneering Reminiscences of Old Wairoa

Maori Canoe-Builders

page 161

Maori Canoe-Builders.

One of the greatest attractions in the Auckland Museum is a very fine example of a Maori war-canoe, and without a doubt the finest specimen in existence of a Maori war-vessel. The fact that she was built in the Wairoa district should call up the interest of all my readers. Her builder was a Wairoa man, Waaka Tarakau, a chief of Ngati-Matawhaiti, a hapu of the Ngati-Kahungunu, that lived at the eastern end of the Whakaki lake, long the food storehouse of the Maori people, for it was always famous for the number, size and succulence of the tuna. The tree (a totara, of course) from which the canoe was fashioned grew at the back of the present-day Clydebank special settlement, and it was cut there in the laborious manner of the Maoris before the days of the axe and the saw. It was hauled down to the coast, so the late Sir James Carroll informed the writer, by thousands of men in relays, to the inspiring incantations and songs of the old tohungas.

When the log reached Matawhaiti many hundreds of men were engaged in fashioning the craft, but the chief builder and architect was Tarakau, and he named the vessel "Te-Toki-a-Tapiri" (the axe of Tapiri), after one of his ancestors. The canoe was eighty-four feet long and had a beam of six feet. The ruawa, or topsides, were added by Tamati Parangi and Paratene Te Pohoi, and the canoe was presented by the builder to Te Waaka Perohuka, of the Rongo-whaka-ata tribe at Poverty Bay, and he received in return, as was the custom of the page 162Maoris, a celebrated historical garment called "Karamaene." The carving of the canoe was carried out at Te Angaparera, on the left bank of the Waiporoa river, nearly opposite the Orakaiapu pa. The principal tohungas engaged in the work were Te Waaka Perohuka, Timoti Rangitotohuihura, Wiremu Te Keteiwi, Patorounu Pakapaka, Natanahira, Taumata, and Mahumahu.

In 1853, Perohuka presented the vessel to the great northern chief, Tamati Waaka Nēnē, and his brother, Patuone, who sent to Perohuka a pie-bald stallion called "Taika" (Tiger). The horse was later given to Tarakau, the builder of the famous canoe.

After the arrival of the canoe in Auckland waters, where she appeared among the fleet surrounding the Pandora, she was sold for £400 to chiefs of the Ngati-te-ata tribe (Waiuku) and taken to Manukau. The price in reality was £600. In 1863 the Native Minister, Sir Francis Dillon Bell (as he was later) ordered that all Maori canoes in the Manukau should be seized, and Te Toki-a-Tapiri was taken, without any opposition, and later sent to Onehunga. While lying on the beach a meddlesome midshipman of H.M.S. Harrier attempted to blow up the canoe and so damaged it that the Government had to pay the £600 claimed as her value.

During the visit of the Duke of Edinburgh the canoe was hauled over the isthmus and took part in a war-canoe race on the waters of the Waitemata. Subsequently she was placed in charge of Paora Tuhaere, at Orakei Bay, and was presented to the museum in 1885. The figurehead page 163of this fine vessel was taken to England by the Duke, and is supposed to have been lost.

There is a story current among the Wairoa Maoris, and it seems not improbable, that the great chief Te Wera, of Mahia, rode the horse "Taika" from Nuhaka to Wairoa, and as it was the first animal of the kind the Wairoa Maoris had seen, Te Wera was acclaimed as a god astride a taniwha. It was to mark this event that the Right Hon. J. G. Coates, when Public Works Minister, was induced to name the first iron-horse to traverse this route "Taika," which name the Public Works Department's engine still bears. Wairoa has need to be proud of this fine craft. In the Dunedin museum there is a canoe of which the people there are very proud also, but it is a very poor craft compared with Te Toki-a-Tapiri, and has no historical associations connected with it so far as I have been able to learn.

Some time ago when the staff of men working at Mr. W. Clark's metal dump, nearly opposite Hurumua, below the Wairoa railway bridge, were hauling metal out of the river bed they unearthed a fine specimen of a Maori war-canoe. The craft was in fair state of preservation though not quite finished. It is seventy feet long with a beam of six feet and quite capable of carrying 100 men. So far its history has not been ascertained, a fact which leads to the belief that the craft is a very ancient one, and in the lapse of years her history has been lost—a very unusual thing for the Maori. In early days the up-river Natives had some very fine canoes, and one of them was sent down to the Heads in 1828 to succour the people there page 164when attacked by the Waikato. One canoe on that occasion was the means of relieving the enemy pressure on Ahipaniki pa at the foot of Rangihoua (the present pilot station) by feinting to attack Rangihoua from the sea and then it suddenly dashed back over the bar and re-occupied Ahipaniki. The vessel recently found is, however, much older than that, and the writer is inclined to believe the suggestion of another Maori, that during the raiding days of Te Rauparaha, of the Tuwharetoa, the unfinished canoe was purposely buried under the bank on the foreshore to prevent her capture, and she was then forgotten.