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Legends of the Maori

Chapter V. From Island unto Island. — The Story of Polynesian Rovings

page 28

Chapter V. From Island unto Island.

The Story of Polynesian Rovings.

Wherever the remote cradle of the Maori-Polynesian people may have been, the progenitors of our brown Argonauts of the Pacific must at some very early period have become a sea-using and sea-loving race. It is a popular belief among many students of the Maori that the original Hawaiki was somewhere on the plains of India, perhaps the foothills of the Himalayas. I am inclined to place the first stepping-off place of the Polynesian’s ancestors much farther to the West, on the coasts of Arabia, and the shores of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. A mass of evidence, anthropological and philological, supports this view. In this non-scientific sketch of the proto-Polynesian’s marvellous rovings over thousands upon thousands of miles, it would be out of place to enter into an analysis of the evidence; it is sufficient here to advance the theory that our Maori had in the far past a part Arabian origin.

To-day, after so many centuries of travel and race-mixture, the Maori strongly retains some of the characteristic features of the Arab, with, in some tribes, a distinctly Semitic blend.

“By the cut of his jib I knew him,” said an old friend of mine, a profoundly learned student of the Maori-Polynesian*, “when I first came to New Zealand. When I saw a fishing party of Maori drying their haul in the sun, and when I observed the types of the people, the women with their tattooed chins, the pattern of their nets, and many other details, I could have imagined myself back once more on the south-west coast of Arabia, among those true sailormen, the sea-Arabs.”

It is extremely likely that it was these Arab mariners who gave the first people that burst into the “silent sea” of the Pacific their nautical page 29 bent, made them daring ocean sailors and navigators. A mingling of these adventurers with other peoples on the coasts of India and in Indonesia was the next phase in the eastward migration, which began probably several thousands of years ago. It may be that the Indian Aryan element predominated, as is indicated by the study of language; but it was the Arabs, no doubt, who gave the composite race its sea-roving bent and shaped its inclination for far travel.

In the beginning, on the shores of the Red Sea, there would be inevitably a mingling with the people of Egypt, and in this way an assimilation of certain Egyptian traits, physical and mental. The Polynesian, blend as he was of the most enterprising and intelligent of all ancient races, developed into the most skilful long-distance sailing seaman in the primitive world. As to physical likenesses, no straining of the imagination is required to see in many a Maori, especially the tall, lean, athletic old warriors we used to know, a resemblance to the bold Arab type.

In the course of century after century of gradual eastward progress, in their sailing craft, which were evolved from the original Arab dhow type, and adapted according to the materials at their disposal, our ocean rovers covered the whole vast expanse of the Pacific. From south-eastern Asia to the farthest bounds of the skyline—te taha patu o te rangi, as the Maori has it—their long, narrow Viking ships sailed, using the seasons of the trades, raising new island after island, always working towards the rising of the sun, until at last Indonesia and Central and South America were linked by their migrations.

An investigator who has given many years of his life to Polynesian research, Mr. F. W. Christian, is of opinion that the ruined temples and cities of Central America indicate a civilisation introduced by immigrants via the Pacific from Java and Indo-China and particularly from Cambodia. The great race movement, with the Pacific currents and winds, was from west to east, bridging the vast island-strewn gulf between Asia and America. Language, customs, archaelogical remains and some food plants, all supply evidence in support of this conclusion. Professor Macmillan Brown, too, who has voyaged the Pacific more than any other investigator, has reached a somewhat similar conclusion, though he is inclined to place some of the eastward-making streams of immigration further to the north, reaching Alaska from North Asia.

Thus the descendants of the ancient sea-Arabs, hereditary fearless sailors, sailing onward from Fiji, Samoa and Tahiti, discovering Easter Island on their way, at last reached the western seaboard of South America. No doubt, also, some navigators set out again from South and Central America for the Pacific Islands. Oceanic voyaging was in their blood. In page 30 this way arts and customs, and such food plants as the kumara or sweet potato, became distributed over many thousands of miles from Asia to Peru.

The Maori has many Hawaikis or traditional homelands. We know that some of these way-places on his sea travels after entering the Pacific were the Tonga Archipelago, Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti and the Cook Islands. We have the names of dozens of tropic islands which were at one time or another discovered and colonised by these land-seekers and sea-explorers, bound ever eastward ho! There are records of many voyages, embracing the whole range of the ocean from the Equator southward to New Zealand and northward to Hawaii. There is also a story, in a Rarotongan tradition, of southward voyagers who came to an icy ocean, and saw the walrus, or sea-elephant, and the sea-lion, or creatures like them. Some imaginative people have accepted this as meaning that a Polynesian chief penetrated as far south as Antarctica; one writer, indeed, declared, in his ignorance of geography, that this venturesome sailor reached the great ice barrier of Antarctica. This, of course, was an absurd deduction. Icebergs from the Antarctic have been known to strand within sight of the Chatham Islands, and the Government steamer Hinemoa, about thirty years ago, encountered large bergs near the Bounty and the Antipodes Islets. Stray canoes blown far south out of their course may thus have seen ice, but it is extremely unlikely that any penetrated further than 50 degrees south latitude. The olden navigator would see sea-lions and sea-elephants in plenty on New Zealand’s offshore islands.

Islands, great and small, the voyagers would people as they moved in slow stages eastward from the shores of Torres Strait and breasted the blue expanses of the Pacific. The high volcanic, jungle-wooded islands of the Western Pacific held less attraction for them than the spacious lands now mapped as Polynesia. Possibly they moved on, too, because of the pressure of the black Melanesian race following them, a people who were almost as capable seamen as themselves. Tonga, with its numerous pleasant coral islands of abundant food, had room for many a tribe; so had Samoa, with its fruitful shore lands, its sheltered slopes, and, above all, its beautiful clear streams flowing from the central mountain ridges. Not many islands thus far were so bountifully watered as Upolu. Eastward, they came to other ideal homes for a sea-worn wandering race, lands of streams and cascades like Upolu, craggy and fertile Rarotonga, the cloud-capped mountain isles of Raiatea, Huahine and Tahiti, fantastic of skyline, incredibly rich of soil, lands where human beings might attain the height of comfort and pleasure and physical development with the minimum expenditure of labour. Then there were the atolls, the ring islands, inviting of page 31 appearance, but, on experience, less suitable for habitation, yet many and many a canoe peopled these low-set circles and triangles of coral enclosing great smooth lagoons.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of a Paumotu atoll (Taiaro) is typical of this class of Pacific map-dot: “… Lost in blue sea and sky; a ring of white beach, green underwood and tossing palms, gem-like in colour, of a fairy, of a heavenly prettiness. The surf ran all around it, white as snow, and broke at one point, far to seaward. There was no smoke, no sign of man.”

Some atolls were of a size fit to support hundreds of people; Penrhyn, or Tongarewa, as the Polynesians call it, is an example. There are many such in the Paumotu, or Tuamotu, Archipelago. To some of the islands on their course they introduced foods from the more fortunate lands; an example of these is Niue, that large raised coral island which Captain Cook named Savage Island. This island, according to tradition, was without the coconut palm until it was brought from Tutuila Island, Samoa, by two ancient canoe crews.

The eastward migration was accomplished by very gradual stages, and by a great many sailing craft. Easterly to south-east winds ruled and the east accordingly was spoken of as runga, up, or to windward, as opposed to raro, down, to leeward. West and north-west winds prevailed chiefly in the summer time, November to March, but this was the hurricane season, and voyaging then was attended with much risk. Many a canoe must have been lost; but those that survived found many a strange land. The first brown seamen who sighted the high-peaked Marquesas, with their dramatic contrasts of savage mountain gloom and extravagant growth of vegetation, must have thought them surely the most wonderful of all South Sea Islands.

Eastward still, the course of the explorers and new land-seekers was across the most lonely, most deserted of all the world’s oceans. Day after day, week after week, until they may have despaired of ever seeing solid land again.

“……..Every day
The blaze upon the waters to the east,
The blaze upon the waters to the west;
Then the great stars that globed themselves in heaven,
The hollower bellowing ocean, and again
The scarlet shafts of sunrise—but no sail.”

Voyagers south of the Line discovered that now mysterious island Rapanui, which Cook named Easter Island. It may be that anciently it formed the centre of a much greater expanse of land; it seems probable page 32 that the present Rapanui is but the tip of a large island which gradually vanished by subsidence. Thence to the coast of South America was the last great stretch of the exploring voyages.

It is on Rapanui, and in such far east groups as Mangareva, the Gambier Islands, that we find the pure form of the Maori tongue to-day, a tongue more closely resembling our New Zealand language than those of any intervening groups. It seems as if a branch of the very early migrants remained isolated on such places as Rapanui for many centuries. Very remarkable and significant is this likeness between the language and the place-names of far-away Easter Island, Rapanui, and those of New Zealand. These two homes of the Polynesian race, four thousand miles apart, have closer lingual affinities than many other islands of Polynesia a few hundred miles from each other. We find in the local traditions (vide the Mohican expedition report) a large number of personal names and names of places identical with names in our own country. One of the head chiefs of the island in ancient days was Mahuta Ariki: another was Haumoana. The following are the names of some of the marae or rock platforms on which the great stone carved statues were placed:—Ohau, Ahuroa, Maiki, Te Tonga, Vai-mangeo, Motu-ariki, Tongariki, Onetea, Kai, Kirikiriroa, Tutuira, Ue, Kope-iti. Kihikihi-raumea was one of the huge stone images. All these words are familiar to New Zealanders. Vai-mangeo, with the substitution of “W” for “V,” is the name of a stream at Rotorua. An islet at Easter Island is Marotiri, the name of the principal island in the Chickens Group, on the North Auckland coast.

As century after century went by, for probably two thousand years, the whole range of the Pacific became more or less familiar to the longdistance voyagers. Pressure of population and scarcity of cultivable land and of food often compelled tribes to equip their ocean-going canoes and sail away in search of new homes. There were wars by land and sea; stories have come down of true naval battles in which war-canoes grappled each other like the old Roman galleys or the Levantine corsairs. In Rarotongan, Tahitian and Maori traditions there are innumerable episodes that illustrate for us the warlike ways of the ancient Hawaikians. As an example of this class of Maori-Polynesian historical story, the legend of the Samoa hero, Whakatau (Fakatau), and the destruction by fire of his foes on Manono Island, is given in the next chapter.

* Mr. Charles E. Nelson, who settled at the Kaipara about 1860, after an adventurous sea life, and died at his home at Arorangi, Pukekohe Hill, in 1909. Nelson (anglicised from Neilsen) was the son of a Swedish professor of languages, and was a great philologist, with a knowledge of Arabic and Hebrew, besides many other languages. He made original investigations into the sources of the Maori-Polynesians at a time when the tohunga Maori was still possessed of much traditional knowledge, to supplement his own sea-travel observations.