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Legends of the Maori

Chapter VII. The Voyage to New Zealand

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Chapter VII. The Voyage to New Zealand.

The Polynesian ancestor of the Maori was a thoroughly skilled seaman and navigator by the time the first of the migrations from the north and north-east to New Zealand began, considerably more than a thousand years ago. He was an astronomer in his way, and by long observation he was able to turn his star-lore to practical account in his navigation problems. The set of the ocean currents, the temperature of the water, the flight of migratory birds, were aids and guides in his deep-sea voyaging. The seasons, with their changes of wind, were studied, and voyages were planned to take advantage of the long period of generally steady trade winds.

The sailing craft in which long expeditions were taken were the development of much experimenting with the materials at hand, and considering the primitive stage of South Sea Maoridom, were admirably adapted to the purposes. Skilfully handled, those long, narrow outrigger vessels most favoured by Pacific seamen could ride out many a gale. We have numerous traditions of double canoes used in the Pacific migrations, but there is no doubt that the single canoe with an outrigger was the more seaworthy vessel. The great double canoe was the more convenient for inter-island passages; for long voyages, such as those from Tahiti and Rarotonga to New Zealand, the outrigger waka was the more dependable and also the faster.

The first settlers of these islands of New Zealand were, in my belief, crews of canoes which came, not from the far-away north-east islands, but from the nearer groups of the New Hebrides and the Loyalty Islands, with possibly some migrants from New Caledonia. How long ago that was we cannot say with any exactness, but it was probably nearer two thousand years than one. These first human beings in the great lone islands were probably a mixture of Melanesians and Polynesians, in the era when the black races were gradually forcing the brown farther and farther to the east, until Fiji became the permanent frontier and mingling place of the two peoples. Maori traditions show that they were darker of complexion and more frizzy of hair than the Maori-Polynesians.

It is reasonable to suppose that these people were fairly numerous in the land when the first Maori exploring canoes arrived from the Eastern Pacific. In both cases the explorers made the land by the accident of adventure, and it is probable that the annual southward flight of three far- page 39 flying birds led the sharply observant islanders to the belief that a new, unknown land lay somewhere to the south, far over the rolling leagues of sea. The first of these was likely enough the kuaka, or godwit, which arrives on our northern shores from the far north in the month of August, and departs again in March on its marvellous return flight. The kuaka, says a Maori, arrives by day or night in flocks, occupying the whole of August in doing so. The line of flight is past the shores of New Caledonia and the New Hebrides, and it would be an unmistakable guide for southward making vessels. As for the Eastern Polynesians, they would have the long-tailed cuckoo, the kohoperoa, as a guide, for it comes to us from the Society Islands and neighbouring parts of the Pacific. The shining cuckoo, the pipiwharauroa, comes from the western and north-western countries; canoe migrants from Papua and Torres Strait and the coast of north-east Australia would be likely to observe its flight.

Some traditions say that the later Maori canoes reached here in the midsummer season, because the pohutukawa trees on the northern and eastern coasts of New Zealand were in blossom when the crews arrived. It is probable, however, that most of the deliberately-planned expeditions made the voyage somewhat earlier, thus avoiding the Island hurricane season, which begins in November. The variation of the winds also determined the period of setting out on these long and venturesome voyages. For the greater part of the year the S.E. trade wind blows. In the summer, December to the end of March, there are generally N.W. winds, veering one way or the other a good deal, but usually giving the southward-bound sailor a fair wind. The voyagers setting out in November or December would be able, as a rule, to run right before the wind until they had reached the latitude of North New Zealand. Most of the canoes in the later migrations, whether from Tahiti or other eastern islands, made Rarotonga their point of departure. If the S.E. trades were blowing, they could depend on a leading wind for the greater part of the voyage. It is likely enough that the Maori navigation methods, once the position of New Zealand became known from the reports of pioneer sea explorers, would correspond approximately to the procedure of our modern pakeha sailors in the Pacific Islands trade.

In the days when a numerous fleet of schooners was engaged in the trade between Auckland and the Cook Islands, this was an experienced captain’s summary of sailing directions:

“From Auckland to Rarotonga make the easting south of 30 degrees S. lat. till near the meridian of the Islands. Returning to Auckland from the group, keep northward of 30 degrees S. until westing is made; but in the summer a straight course for the Great Barrier Island may be made.”

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The position given, 30 degrees South, is the latitude of the Ker-madec Islands. Navigators of schooners bound from Rarotonga to Auckland would usually sight that group. The ancient Maori mariner seeking these shores did exactly the same thing. Sunday Island, the largest of the Kermadecs, was well known to the Polynesian, under the name of Rangitahua; it was a way-mark and a navigational check and refreshment place on the voyage to New Zealand. From Sunday Island the brown sailors would run due south, and make the coast somewhere between the North Cape (34.25 South) and the East Cape (37.40 South).

Without compass or other exact navigation instruments, with only a kind of dead-reckoning, these old-time sailors made marvellously accurate sailing. Their canoes would make considerable leeway, they had so little hold in the water, but they would, by experience, learn to allow for this. No doubt some vessels overran their course; no doubt many were lost; we only hear of the successful voyagers. But that they could make accurate landfalls, given favourable conditions, and that not alone on the far-stretching high coast of New Zealand, but on the return voyages to small islands, is a fact that arouses a profound respect for the sailoring genius of our Maori’s forefathers.

It must have needed stout hearts and the true adventurous spirit to sail thus far out of the way of inter-island voyagings, keeping southward for a colder land and a land where the spontaneously growing foods of the tropics did not exist. Close-hauled to the strong pouring Trades, they held dauntlessly on their way across the vast expanse of blue, a two-thousand-miles voyage, keeping watch and watch like any pakeha crew of to-day. They saw many a wonderful sight of the deep—the phosphorescent sea, where everything seemed on fire; the play of lightning about them in the thunder-squalls; menacing waterspouts that joined sea and cloud. They saw the creatures of the ocean as only the sailing-craft man sees them.

“The great whale went majestically by
Plunging along his mighty course alone
Into the watery waste unknown.”

Water and food were problems that required much forethought and preparation. Water was carried in taha or calabashes of the hue gourd. The seed of this vegetable was sown in New Zealand, and we have seen the taha, or kiaka, in use in back country villages even up to a few years ago. Coconuts in generous quantity were also stowed aboard for food as well as drink. Sometimes, when long spells of calms afflicted the voyagers, food ran short, and slaves were killed for the sustenance of their owners. But, as a rule, it may be taken that sufficient sea-stock was laid in to last the voyagers the usual duration of a voyage, about a month.