Tag Archives: Polynesian


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The boulder bar at the mouth of the Wairau river.

The boulder bar at the mouth of the Wairau river.

It’s not much to look at, but Wairau is probably the most important archaeological site in New Zealand.

It is the location of the oldest known settlement, and also the location of the oldest human remains yet discovered.

Interest in the site originated in 1939 when schoolboy Jim Eyles found some old bones. He had come across an ‘Urupa’, or burial ground. He discovered more in 1942, and this attracted academic interest. In 1942, Roger Duff began what would be a prolonged series of investigations on the Wairau Bar. In his excavations, 2000 items were removed to the Canterbury, including more than 40 skeletons.

The Wairau bar occupation site

The Wairau bar occupation site

The site, now a long boulder spit, used to be an island, and was home to a significant village. The Urupa was separated from the dwellings by about 60m. The site comprises; building footprints, ovens, waste pits, and adze work sites, and covers about 11 hectares (≈3 acres). More than 60 grave sites have been exposed, containing precious items as well as the individuals’ remains.

Of the 2,000 items catalogued, three are of particular interest; tattoo chisels, a shell tool, and argillite adze heads.

The tattoo chisels demonstrate that this was a settlement with ordered society, not just a place of occasional repose occupied during seasonal food gathering. Tattoo tools meant that there were people there of various ages, young and older, and that they observed religious and customary practises. This was a centre of settlement, not a food gathering outpost.

The shell tool is made from ‘Acus crenulatus’. This a gastropod species found in Polynesia, but exotic to New Zealand; it had been carried to the Wairau Bar from Polynesia. One edge of the shell is sharpened for cutting. It is not known if it was carried by the original owner, or by a close descendant, but the former is quite likely; as such tools have a limited useful lifespan.

The Wairau Bar site was established; either by original Polynesian immigrants, or their very close descendants.

The Argillite adze heads are interesting in several respects; there are so many of them, there is no argillite source within 100 km; and the style of the adze head is Polynesian, not the evolved Maori form.

Carbon dating of the human remains confidently ages them at 1290 AD +/- 10 years. This is the earliest secure dating of any New Zealand colonisation.


The skeletons of a kiwi, ostritch and moa

The locality, at the mouth of the Wairau River provided the population with a wide variety of food. Immediately to hand there was fur seal, fish, shellfish, eels and water fowl. The Wairau river also gave them access to the interior of the South Island, where the flightless giant moa roamed in abundance.

Moa bones and eggs were also found within some of the grave sites. The moa became extinct within about a century of human arrival, so their presence in the graves suggests that these graves are either those of a founding population, or one that was only descended a very few generations from the founding population.

The other evidence suggesting that this settlement was Polynesian, or immediately following, comes from DNA analysis of the remains. The complete genome of four individuals was extracted. It shows that three of the four individuals had no common recent maternal ancestor.

These individuals were only distantly related. If they were the offspring of a local population, then they would be very closely related. This further suggests that the occupants of the voyaging waka’s were deliberately selected from diverse family groups.

Adze head mounted on a contemporary shaft

An adze head mounted on a contemporary shaft

69 adzes were found at the Wairau Bar site. The huge number of stone chips suggests that adze making was an industry, not simply manufacture for their own use. It is estimated that about 12,000 adze heads were made there; astonishingly, most were made from stone from distant sources.

Most adzes were made from Argillite. The closest sources for this are the eastern side of D’Urville island, up the Wairau River, near Lake Rotorua. Three of the adzes were made of Greenstone from the West Coast of the South Island, and one was of Tahanga basalt, from the Coromandel. There were also Chert chips from Kaikoura.

This indicates that either the Wairau Bar population travelled extensively around both the North and South Islands, or that stone was brought to them and traded. Either way, even though the total population was very small, large distances were routinely travelled to acquire or trade significant resources.

Adzes were essential for shaping wood, and for the making of boats. They were also required for Moa hunting. The rubbish pits contained the remains of over 4,000 moa.

The Wairau Bar location is an extraordinary source of information about New Zealand’s first settlers, and how they lived. What has been learned about archaic settlement could not have been achieved without the extraordinary assistance of the local tribe; Rangitāne o Wairau.

Maori hold their ‘tupuna’, their ancestors, in the highest regard, and their remains and relics are revered and most sacred. They are not normally given up to be poked and prodded by curious Europeans.
The Rangitāne o Wairau however, gave permission for some of these relics to be forensically examined… even though this would require their partial destruction. From this we have learned an enormous range of detail about where these people came from, what they ate, and what their lives were like. It was a most remarkable gift.

In 2009 the remains of 41 individuals were returned to the Rangitane o Wairau after many years at the Canterbury Museum. The Rangitane o Wairau recognised them as ‘tupuna’, ancestors, , and re-interred them with utmost reverence.

The tribe ‘Rangitane o Wairau ‘ takes its name from Rangitane, the grandson of Whatonga. The Rangitane occupied the area in the 1500’s; prior to that it was occupied by Ngati Mamoe, and Ngai Tara.

All three tribes descend from the occupants of the Kurahaupo.

Wairau location map

Wairau location map

The Wairau river, and surrounding plains were within easy reach of any population in the Wellington area. From the Harbour, ‘Te Whanganui a Tara’, you followed the coast west, then cut across the narrowest part of Cook Strait ( just 22km) to Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds. Then, you followed the coast South until you met the river mouth. The Wairau is the first major river you meet, and this gives access to the interior of the South Island, and to the moa.

In fair conditions this could be achieved in a single day’s sailing.

Even before settling on the Bar, there would had been regular expeditions up the Wairau River by the Wellington population, to exploit the moa resource.

We do not know, but it is perfectly possible that the Wairau bar was occupied by people that had travelled with Tara from Heretaunga to Mirimar. Among them could have been ‘originals’ that had voyaged from Ra-iatea, on the Kurahaupo.

The Great and misty land

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Kurahaupo progress

The Kurahaupo’s progress across the Pacific Ocean

The people of the Kurahaupo had traveled 3,000 km from Raiatea. With their boat repaired, they set sail again from Rangitahua, on the final ocean leg of their voyage.

The closest land is the North Cape of New Zealand…. 1,000 km to the West-South-West. If their course was good, and the weather fair, they would make that distance in about 10 days.

Diary: The ‘Great and misty land’

”We had been on the ocean over a week when we first saw the land sign. Land was still far off, beyond the horizon, but we could see the signs. In the direction we were sailing there should be nothing… nothing that is except Kupe’s ‘Great and Misty Land’… and now, we were approaching it.”

The next afternoon we saw it… what excitement there was. Ahead and to our right we could see the green of hills… green!. As we sailed the land grew slowly higher. What we could see wasn’t a huge land, like we were expecting, but it was definitely at least a big island. We carried on until dusk, and then lowered our sail. We didn’t want to be cast ashore in the night. We were carried on now only by the current and our wind drift.

The excitement kept us from anything but fitful sleep, but soon we were all wide awake.

We weren’t sure at first, but then it came clearer. We could hear breakers!

The current had carried us far and fast towards the shore… but in the dark we couldn’t see it. Finally we could just make out the faint blur of foam on a beach, and the men jumped to their thwarts, paddles in hand. Working to Pōhurihanga’s commands they turned the prow to the beach, but the current was strong. We were carried along the beach and came to a sudden, cracking stop.

Tom Bowling Bay

Te Huka Bay, with Tom Bowling Bay in the distance. The ‘Kurahaupo Rocks’ are the low lying rocks at the end of the beach.”

We had hit rocks.

We could now see the foam of the surf, it was very close, and very loud. We were nearly in it. A couple of men jumped in the water… they could stand! Then it was all action as we rushed to unload our treasures to the shore.

In the darkness we realised that there were others with us, helping us rescue our possessions from the sea; there were unfamiliar voices among us… strangers.

We stayed there on the beach and huddled for warmth until dawn, and with the light of day we met our rescuers. They are the people of the Te Ngake, and they live here.

We owe a lot to these people who came to our aid. Their sentry above the beach at Tomokanga had raised the alarm, and the villagers had come out in the night… and they had helped us.

We had arrived uninvited and in the darkness, yet they had helped us. We had made no courtesies or introductions, yet they still came to our aid. They had every right to cut us down on the beach as we landed… but they had not.

The Te Ngake made us welcome among them, and we have learned much from them. They have been here a long time, their ancestor Ruatāmore arrived on the waka Taikoria over twenty generations ago. They call this area ‘Te Hiku o Te Ika’, and it is the very northernmost part of the land. Pōhurihanga was correct to call it ‘muriwhenua’. They tell us there is much, more land to the South.

The Kurahaupo is in pieces again, but the men say it can be repaired. The Te Ngake have helped us drag her from the rocks, and up the stream to their village here. The stream is called Waitangi. The men will work on her here.

It is hard to believe that we are here… we have made it. We have finally reached Kupe’s ‘great and misty land’. What has become of those that went on the Aotea and the Mata-atua we do not know, but the rest of us have made it here, and we are all well.

May the Gods be praised.

[ Tom Bowling Bay photograph citation: Rāwiri Taonui. ‘Canoe traditions – Canoes of the northern tide’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 15 Nov-12 URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/photograph/2304/takapaukura-tom-bowling-bay ]

Kurahaupo landfall

The Kurahaupo’s landfall at Tom Bowling Bay

As the people of the Kurahaupo reached New Zealand they again met with misadventure, this time hitting rocks in the dark. But their good fortune held, in the darkness they had come ashore on a beach, missing the cliffs arrayed to their left and right. They had hit rocks, but were within wading distance of the shore, and people had come to their aid. On landing, Pōhurihanga declared that they had reached ‘muriwhenua’, ‘the end of the land’.

They were helped by the local tribe, the ‘Te Ngake’, with whom they stayed until the Kurahaupo was repaired, and they were able to move on again. There were already people living where the Kurahaupo made landfall, and these people had been there for 23 generations.

Diary: South

The men have worked well on the Kurahaupo and she can sail again. The binding are again made anew. This time we made the rope from a strong flax that we were shown, it grows in abundance near here.

The people here have been very good to us, but we must move on. We cannot continue to take their food when we can go elsewhere and find our own.

Not all of us are leaving. Pōhurihanga, and some of the others are staying; Pōhurihanga has fallen for a local girl Maieke.

>We are told that there is much, much more land to the south, and that the best way is to follow the Eastern coastline, there is no need for any more ocean passage. They say you can go down the West coast too, but it is stormy and a more dangerous shoreline. So we are going South, by the Eastern coast, to find our new home.

Popoto will lead us now that Pōhurihanga has left the boat.

Departure course

The Kurahaupo’s course from Tom Bowling Bay

When the Kurahupo left, Pōhurihanga stayed in Te Hiku o Te Ika. He married Maieke who was a chiefly duaghter, and became their chief. They had a daughter ‘Muriwhenua’ who later moved south and married Rongokako from the Tākitimu canoe.

‘Muriwhenua’ is still used as the collective name for the six tribes of the Far North: Ngāti Kurī, Ngāi Takoto, Te Pātū, Ngāti Kahu, Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa.

When Pōhurihanga and Maieke married, and he became chief and two ancestral lines joined. Because of this, the Te Ngake history, and that of the Kurahaupo’s are both remembered. In time the Te Ngake became known as Ngati Kuri, but the account of the Kurahaupo’s arrival was not forgotten due to the link through Pōhurihanga.

The Ngati Kuri remember that the Kurahaupo was damaged at sea, and that it stopped for repairs at ‘Rangitahua’, ‘fire in the sky’. The Te Ngake obviously knew that Raoul Island was volcanic. In the Ngati Kuri account, the Kurahaupo stayed on Rangitahua for some time, and during that time some of the crew joined other vessels. Pōhurihanga fishing net and seal skins were used to repair the damage to the Kurahaupo, after which they were able to sail on.

The Kurahaupo finally made landfall at Te Huka Bay, the beach at the West end of Tom Bowling Bay, thereby completing a total ocean voyage of 4,000 km from Raiatea to New Zealand. They had achieved this without loss of life, in a vessel constructed using entirely stone tools.

Kurahaupo rocks

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The arrival and wreck of the Kurahaupo is not only remembered in the Tribal history of the Ngati Kuri… the Kurahaupo’s presence at North Cape is recorded to this day on New Zealand’s Topographic maps.


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Raoul Island

The Kermadec Islands are somewhat grandly named.

Raoul, 8 km across at its broadest point, is by far the largest in the chain; and the only one with water. It is mostly rugged and steep. It has rocky beaches facing North and South-West, but no safe anchorage. Anyone visiting in a sailing boat would not choose to linger.

The next largest is Macauley Island. It is 100km to the South-South-West, just over a kilometre across, and barren. There are no trees there, and no water.

The remainder of ‘islands’ in the chain are just rocks; the largest being 100 metres across.

The people of the Kurahaupo had managed to find Rangitahua, Raoul to us, a tiny speck 2,000 km’s away from their point of departure. They had found the only piece of ground that could sustain them between Rarotonga and New Zealand.

Here they could rest, recuperate… and work out what to do next.

Diary: Rangitahua

Land. May the Gods be praised.

There was a wild scramble as we hit the shore. This island is a hard place to land, the coast is mostly cliffs, but we managed to find a broad rough beach on it’s North end.

Though the men tried hard with both sail and paddle, they had little control of the Kurahaupo; she was too heavy to turn, and mostly moved at the will of the waves. We landed roughly, but it was the best we could do. Everyone rushed to save what we could, racing in and out of the tide with load after load. Much of what we have was completely soaked, but we managed to get everything off her.

With everything we owned on the shore the Kurahaupo sat a little higher. We dragged her above the tide line, and took stock of where we were.

There is plenty of good water here. We all drank our fill and washed the sweat and salt from our bodies. It was good to be clean again after so long on the ocean.

Whilst there is water here, the land gives us little more; the birds are small, and the men have found no sign of any other animals. Inshore it is mountainous and hard. The sea however is bountiful, with plenty of shellfish, crabs, fish and seals. The island might be small, but we will not starve here… at least while we are few. However, pleasant as this island is, it cannot sustain many people.

The men have built some shelters (it’s a lot colder here than at home), and inspected the Kurahaupo. There is damage to the hulls, but they can replace the smashed parts. She also needs re-binding on all the hull pieces. At sea we couldn’t do anything about the shifting haumi, we had nothing spare to bind them with, and we still don’t. To complete the repairs we need rope. We are hoping that somewhere here we will find a source of good fibre, and then we can set about making new cord.

For the moment we are all well. But we are also stranded. Our destination lies far to the South-West, but for now, we have no means of reaching it.

The people of the Kurahaupo settled in at Raoul, ‘Rangitahua’ as they called it. The vessel seemed repairable, and they had with them the same tools and skills as they used to build her. They could make her seaworthy again but only if they could find suitable resources locally.

The critical item for them was rope. The bindings on the haumi had come loose. Perhaps they had worked loose, or had frayed, we don’t know. Either way, they needed replacing and strengthening.

When Cook was in Tahiti he noted how rope was made:

“This Island produceth 2 or 3 sorts of plants, of which they make the rope they use in rigging their Canoes, etc.; the finest sort, such as fishing lines, saine twine, etc., is made of the Bark of a Tree, and some from the Kind of Silk grass.”

Whether or not the people of the Kurahaoupo found “silk grass” or the right sort of tree to take the bark from isn’t known. Perhaps they had to improvise and use a local substitute for fibre. What is known, is that after a remarkable occurrence, the Kurahaupo was subsequently repaired, re-floated, and continued her voyage.

Diary: Visitors!.

In the last few days we have had the greatest of surprises; visitors!

Two big wakas; the Aotea and the Mataatua are sitting at anchor off the beach. They too are on their way to Kupe’s land, and have stopped here for water.

They came ashore, built altars, and made their oblations. Then we showed them what we knew of the island; where to find the best water and fish were to be had.

They understood out predicament, and have said they can take a few of our people onward with them.

We were greatly divided about who should go and who should stay.

It was finally decided.

Te Moungaroa, Akuramatapu, Tukapua, Turn and their women joined the Mataatua, and Hatonga, Haupipi and their women joined the Aotea.

“After the Aotea and the Mataatua sailed we found good fibre, and we could make rope from it. The men worked on the bindings as fast as we could weave the cord.

Repairs to the Kurahaupo went well, and the men say the she is seaworthy again… and this time the bindings will hold. We will soon be back on the ocean again; but our trepidation is now greatly diminished.

Diary: On the Ocean again.

We set out this time much reassured.

The other two boats were also on their way to Kupe’s land, and they too had come to Rangitahua on their way. We were at the right place, and on the right course. Not only were we on the right course… we had survived the most dangerous part of the voyage. We were over half way there.

The Gods, and Rangitahua, have been kind to us… may our fortune hold.”



And so they slipped away from Rangitahua, bound for New Zealand. Between them and their destination was another open expanse of ocean, 1,000 km across.

That is, it’s 1,000 km to the nearest land, and they still had to find it.

Wakas: Part 3

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Schouten waka

The vessel sighted mid-Pacific by Schouten in 1616

What do we know of the type of vessels used to first explore and settle New Zealand?

We can’t be entirely certain, but some things are well understood. We know the general size, appearance, and construction of these ocean-going vessels, but we do not know absolutely; the bow and stern shape of the hulls, or the type of sail rig.

They were large catamarans. The hulls were long and narrow and for ocean going a length of about 25 metres was preferred. The hulls were joined by spars, over which a deck was laid. The vessels could carry up to sixty people or more.

There is no written description of these vessels, and there are no contemporary pictures. By the time the European first recorded these Polynesian ocean going vessels, voyaging to new Zealand had been long ceased.

Tongan waka

The waka seen by Abel Tasman in Tonga, in 1643.

The first illustration is from Schouten’s journal, 1616. It was drawn somewhere mid-Pacific, to the North-West of the Society Islands. The next picture is from Abel Tasman’s journal, 1643, in Tonga.

From these pictures, and subsequent details recorded in the Journals of James Cook and Joseph Banks, we glean details of the Polynesian voyaging vessels that may allow us to re-construct their complete appearance.

These vessels were catamaran style (double hull) sailing boats, and they were steered from the back with two long and broad oars. A flat deck spanned the hulls for more than half of their length, and this deck protruded somewhat over the sides of the hulls. The hulls were covered to keep the water out, and the deck was constructed above these.

The larger vessels seen in the Society Islands were 30 metres or more long, but slightly shorter ones were preferred for open ocean work. Joseph Banks wasn’t specific when he described the length of the voyaging vessels, he only said “the middling sizd ones are said to be the best”. We do however, have more specific information regarding the length of the Tainui waka.

Maketu marker stones

The stone pillars marking the bow and stern of the Tainui

The Tainui waka sailed to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia, and ended up in Kawhia Harbour on the West Coast of the North Island. There it was separated into two hulls. The longer of the two (the hull named ‘Tainui’) was finally buried on a hillside at the harbour’s edge.

A marker stone was placed at the bow and stern, and they are still there today. The distance between the stones is “86 feet”, and since the Tainui lies “between” these pillars we might estimate its length to be about 22 metres.

There was some sort of shelter indicated on the deck of the voyaging boats as well as a fire. The two earliest illustrations (at the top) show thatch over a frame of bent timbers, and this appears to have been quite common. Others had timber huts on them, though this might not have been the norm. It is known that royalty had small houses on their boats. These huts would normally be used on land, but placed on the boats while the royals were travelling.

Of the shape of the hulls, we can be less certain. In the Society Islands, both Banks and Cook described vessels with very high bows. This was also shown in the measured drawing of the “War Canoe”. Yet neither of the earliest drawings of Schouten or Tasman show particularly raised ends, either bow or stern.

Maori waka seen by Tasman

A Maori double hulled boat seen by Abel Tasman, 1642

We are not much helped by the fact that there are very few eye witness accounts of double hulled vessels in New Zealand.

The settlers brought with them technical knowledge and practice as it existed in Eastern Polynesian at the time they left… about five hundred years before Cook visited the Society Islands. The only earlier illustration of Maori waka is one drawing by Isaac Gilsemans on Abel Tasman’s voyage. It is included in Tasman’s journal, and shows in close-up, a double hulled vessel. Unfortunately this waka was not equipped with sail… just paddlers.

This drawing however does not help us resolve the question of how the hulls were terminated. It clearly shows the left hand end of the boat (as we look at it) is raised higher than the other end, but this is not conclusive. There is a problem with this drawing… the steersman is facing the wrong way… When Gilsemans drew this, he showed the steersman forward of the rowers. This is incorrect, the steersmen were always on the stern. The question is, did he draw the steersman facing the wrong way, or the rowers? We can’t be certain in this drawing which is the bow, and which is the stern.

modern wakas

Waka’s assemble at Waitangi Day celebrations in Wellington

The Maori, unlike the Tahitians, raised the stern of their boats, not the prow. There are many engravings of large waka, from Cook’s visit onward, and they uniformly show the stern raised high. It remains the normal pattern to this day.

In the Maori oral tradition there is little to inform us about the precise shape of the vessels sailed by their ancestors, but there is one very clear reference. When the Tainui was being built, an old seer gave the advice “look at the new moon, and build the waka in its likeness, with a raised stern and bow”. She was recommending the shape of a thin crescent.

Maori canoe with sail

Maori waka with sail

This drawing by Miss E Richardson, a wonderful chronicler of South Sea’s boat construction, shows a waka with sail in the Marlborough Sounds. By the position of the sail (forward of the mid-point of the boat) we know that it is the stern that is raised.

There are extremely few references to sails on waka. Most of the instances of waka under sail take the form illustrated above by Miss Richardson; a single upright sail on a single hull. This type of sail has only one use on a waka; it can only aid the vessel downwind. No waka is ever depicted with an outrigger, and waka have no keel. If a sail like this were to be used on a waka in any way except directly downwind, then the boat would be overturned. This is not the type of rig, or vessel that was used to cross the Pacific.

When Cook first visited New Zealand, he recorded sighting double hulled canoes only three times. Off the coast of the Bay of Plenty, on Nov 2nd 1642, he was followed by one and noted “At 7 was close under the first Island, from whence a large double Canoe full of People came off to us. This was the first double Canoe we had seen in this Country.”

He had been on the coast of New Zealand for over three weeks, yet despite seeing canoes most days, this was the first time he had seen a double canoe.

Cook saw the same boat the next day… “The double Canoe which we saw last night follow’d us to-day under Sail, and keept abreast of the Ship near an hour talking to Tupia, but at last they began to pelt us with stones”

Unfortunately, Cook did not describe the nature of the sails. However, we learn from this account that the waka did not have a permanent mast rigged; rather that the sail arrangement could be added or removed.

Cook circumnavigated both the main islands of New Zealand, yet he saw double hulled canoes only once more here. He did not record another instance of a double canoe with sail. By the time Cook had arrived in New Zealand, there were clearly few double hulled vessels in use.

There is one account however that pre-dates Cook’s, and that was from Abel Tasman’s visit, 127 years earlier.

On December 19th 1642, after an altercation with the locals, Abel Tasman made off and was chased by a number of boats. He fired on them to discourage their pursuit. This is a line from his journal entry for that day.

“As soon as they had got this shot they returned to shore with great speed two of them hoisting a sort of tingang sails”

Sail detail from murderers bay engraving

Sail detail blow-up from the Gilsemans drawing, 19th December, 1642

Isaac Gilsemans drew a picture describing the events of that day, and in one tiny part of that drawing he showed a native boat with a sail on it.

The boat illustrated had a sail, but no mast. The sail is shown propped up by a forked spar. The journal mention of “tingang” refers to a type of small boat that Tasman was familiar with from Java.

The Maori inherited the sailing technology that was brought from Eastern Polynesia. By the time Tasman visited in 1642 they had been in New Zealand about 300 years, and had adapted their vessels and sailing techniques to suit local conditions.

There was no sighting of any very large or ocean-capable vessels during Tasman’s voyage, and only two boats were mentioned under sail. However, the type of sail they carried was the same type seen by Schouten in 1616, this detail was captured in Gilsemans’ drawing.

It is therefore suggested that the voyaging Polynesians brought this sail technology to New Zealand, not the later Tahitian style rig described by Joseph Banks.

Model Polynesian voyaging vessel

Model Polynesian voyaging vessel, styled on the Schouten engraving

We can’t know for certain exactly what those voyaging vessels looked like, but based on the information available, this model built by Alex Kennedy, is most likely representative of a smaller ocean vessel.

The Polynesian vessels used to settle New Zealand were very like this, but longer. This is a rugged vessel, able to survive the demands of ocean sailing. It carried a big sail, and would be fast in comparison to European square rigged vessels. The form of the sail and the way it is mounted allowed this vessel to sail in most directions to the wind; far outperforming European capability. The cross bar mounted on top of the deck allowed the sail and the prop to be secured firmly, and at various angles; close, wide and high. The sail could be lowered completely in bad weather, and for landing (when the vessel was maneuvered by paddle).


As pictured here, the sail is trimmed to head upwind on a starboard tack. To change to the other tack, the sail would be lowered to the deck, lifted over the hut, and re-positioned with the sail foot on the opposite hull. The prop would be used to raise the sail, and the ropes drawn tight to secure the prop and sail. To sail off the wind, the windward ropes securing the prop and boom would be eased to allow the sail to swing wider. To sail downwind, the sail would be secured in a more upright position.

From about 1250 onward, many vessels like this journeyed to New Zealand; a few made the return trip. Then, these Pacific crossings stopped.

It is most likely that the Maori simply lost the skills required to navigate safely across huge ocean expanses. In New Zealand, the maritime skills required were those of coastal navigation. Rarely was there ever a need to be out of sight of land for long. Thus, the Maori had no need for the ocean navigation skills and therefore lacked practice in them. The skills were lost, and New Zealand lay in isolation from the rest of the world until the arrival of the Europeans.

And New Zealand then remained in isolation until the arrival of the Europeans.


Wakas: Part 2

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Tahitian sail types

Society Islands sails, 1770’s

During Cooks first Pacific voyage in 1769, Joseph Banks recorded in detail an ocean-going vessel he saw. In particular he noted the raised bow and high stern, and also the nature of the sail arrangement. In this description he distinguished between boats used for fishing – ‘ivahas’ and those used for ocean travel or fighting – ‘Paheis’.

While describing these canoes he also said ‘when fitted for sailing’, implying that this could be a temporary arrangement; that the same vessels could be rigged both with, and without sails. It appears to have been normal practice that the hulls might be used singly for coastal work, but then paired for voyaging. When a hull was used singly, and with sail, then an outrigger was added for stability.

In this extract from ‘The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks’, under the heading ‘Manners and Customs of South Sea Islands’, he described the sail on a 10m long double canoe.

“When fitted for sailing they have either one or two Masts fitted to a frame which is above the canoe; they are made of a single stick; in one that I measurd of 32 feet in lengh the mast was 25 ft high which seems to me to be about the common proportion. To this is fastned a sail of about one third longer but narrow, of a triangular shape, pointed at the top and the outside curvd; it is borderd all round with a frame of wood and has no contrivance either for reefing or furling, so that in case of bad weather it must be intirely cut away, but I fancy in these moderate climates they are seldom brought to this necessity; the material of which it is made is universaly Matting. With these sails their Canoes go at a very good rate and lay very near the wind, probably on account of their sail being borderd with wood which makes them stand better than any bowlines could possible do. On the top of this sail they carry an ornament which in taste resembles much our Pennants, it is made of feathers and reaches down to the very water so that when blown out by the wind it makes no inconsiderable shew.”

Rig details

Details from various paintings showing the style of sail rig described by Joseph Banks

Tahitian sail photograph

Photograph of the Society Islands sail of the 1770’s in the British Museum

Tahitian sail rigging

1770’s society Islands sail rigging

Joseph Banks describes a rig that has an upright fixed mast. This is quite different to what Shouten and Tasman saw, and different to what Clevely painted in 1777. The illustrations in ‘Waka’s Pt 1’ showed no mast; instead, the sail was supported by a prop. The sail itself was a ‘lateen’; a triangular sail with spars along two of the three edges. The prop supported the uppermost sail spar. The point of the sail where the two spars were joined was the ‘leading edge’, or most upwind, part of the sail.

The alternate type of rig described above by Banks is also shown in many illustrations of the period. In addition to illustrations there exists a solitary example of one of these sails in the British Museum. The sail is 9.5 metres high, and is pictured here lying on the ground, looking away from the foot. The adjoining drawing shows the sail in its true shape, and how it was mounted.

Odd to our eyes, these sails were fixed to the mast at their trailing edge; as is shown in the engravings. These pictures clearly show the wind direction, identified by the direction in which the pennants are flying, and that the mast is behind the sail in terms of wind flow.

The leading edge of the sail was restrained in a bent wooden frame. Ropes from this frame allowed the sails to be trimmed to different angles. In the engravings above the ropes from the frame are shown secured to the front of the boat, and drawn tight. This would allow the boats to sail very close to the wind, as Banks mentioned. These sails will also tack very easily; the two steersmen would simply steer the boat through the eye of the wind to change from one tack to the other.

To sail downwind, the ropes securing the leading edge would be secured behind the mast, holding the sails perpendicular to the centreline of the boat.

Boats with this sail arrangement would be much easier to manoeuvre than the types drawn by Schouten and Tasman, and they would sail higher to the wind. Joseph Banks however makes an important additional observation, that this sail form has “no contrivance either for reefing or furling, so that in case of bad weather it must be intirely cut away”. This is a major hazard for ocean voyaging, where stormy conditions must be expected, and accommodated.

Regarding the hulls, both Cook and Banks give us detailed descriptions, which the engravings also support. This extract from Cook’s Journal describes the shape of the hulls on the voyaging vessels.

“They have some few other Canoes, Pahees as they call them, which differ from those above discribed, but of these I saw but 6 upon the whole Island, and was told they were not built here. “The 2 largest was each 76 feet long, and when they had been in use had been fastned together. These are built Sharp and Narrow at both Ends and broad in the Middle; the bottom is likewise Sharp, inclining to a Wedge, yet Buldges out very much and rounds in again very quick just below the Gunwale. They are built of several pieces of thick plank and put together as the others are, only these have timbers in the inside, which the others have not. They have high Curved Sterns, the head also Curves a little, and both are ornamented with the image of a man carved in wood, very little inferior work of the like kind done by common Ship Carvers in England.”

The ‘ivahas’, the working boats and inshore vessels have rounded bottoms, suited for repeated landing on beaches, however the ‘pahees’ come to a sharp edge along the bottom. This makes them less suited to being dragged up and down a beach every day, but have superior performance under sail. The sharp wedge shape running the whole length reduces leeway (sideways slippage through the water) acting just like the keel on Cooks ship, or the centre-board in a modern dingy.

Among the illustrations in Cooks Journal of his second voyage is this remarkable measured drawing of a “war canoe” from Tahiti. The legend on the drawing describes the vessel as being 33 metres long and having places for 168 rowers (though I can only see 84 plus the two steering oarsmen). A person standing beside this boat would have the top of their head level with the main deck. This drawing illustrates just how big these Polynesian vessels were.

Brittania War Canoe

Society Islands war canoe

This drawing, precise at it is, does not unfortunately tell us what the voyaging vessels looked like. This boat was a fighting boat. It carried no sail, and was always paddled. Also, the width that the deck extends beyond the hulls makes it unsuited to anything but relatively calm seas. Furthermore, an another reference, Joseph Banks stated that these longer boats were not used for voyaging… “the middling sizd ones are said to be the best and least liable to accidents in stormy weather”.

The striking point across all the illustrations of vessels of a suitable size for ocean-going, is that they were all different. Many had a hut of some sort on them, but they were variously constructed, and occurred in different places on the hulls; rear, front, centre, left and right. Some had masts and upright sails, some had lateen sails and props. Some had outriggers to stay the masts or props, but on others the stays were fastened to rails on the deck. Some were very ornate, others plain. Some had high sterns, others didn’t… and so on.

There was no set size, and no single design. The exact form of the vessel was decided by the individual that made it, to suit to his precise need, the resources that he had available and his personal preferences.

Wakas: Part 1

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Oxford English dictionary definition of ‘waka’:
Waka (n) A traditional Maori canoe.

Model Waka

Model waka.

The Maori use the word ‘waka’ to describe all types of boat. Whilst ‘canoe’ might be appropriate to describe most contemporary Maori boats, which are used for inshore purposes, it is very misleading when used to describe the type vessel employed to settle New Zealand. The boats the Polynesians arrived in were large catamarans, they had sails, and they could transport up to seventy people… none of this suggests ‘canoe’. The Polynesians did not paddle here.

The Polynesians settled the Islands of the Central and Eastern Pacific in quick succession from about 100 AD onwards. They had developed the navigational skills that allowed them to find their destinations from enormous distances, and they had boats that could carry significant numbers of people for weeks at a time. But what did these vessels actually look like?

We have no direct record of the nature of the vessels that the Polynesians traveled to New Zealand in. Polynesian and Maori alike had no written language, and left us no drawings. Also, in the times they were discovering the Eastern Pacific, and eventually New Zealand, there were no Europeans around to observe them. By the time Europeans entered the Pacific, the great Polynesian migration and expansion period had ended.

The first Europeans in the Pacific did not record much about the natives, and certainly did not dwell on the detail of the manner of their living. In 1521 Magellan crossed the Pacific from California to Guam, encountering nothing in between. He called Guam ‘the island of sails’, but left us no description of the vessels themselves.

Successive voyagers traversed the Pacific moving progressively southwards. In 1595 Mendana reached the Marquesas Islands, and while he recorded shooting over 200 natives, no description is given of the vessels he encountered.

However, in 1616 the Pacific was crossed for just the 7th time by Willem Schouten, and during that crossing something remarkable occurred… in the middle of the ocean, Schouten came across a boat full of people.

Schouten, in contravention of the Dutch Monopoly, was sailing to the Indies in search of great profits. Wanting to be un-detected, he avoided going past the Dutch Colony at the Cape of Good Hope, and instead took the route around Cape Horn. (The name Cape Horn comes from his voyage. He named it ‘Cap Hoorn’, after his home town).

Schouten Pacific course

Schouten’s chart and course overlaid on a Google map of the Pacific. The red dot indicates where the Polynesian vessel was sighted.

Schouten crossed the Pacific, East to West, at the Latitude of 15°S. This course took him through the Tuamoto Islands and to the North of the Society Islands. There, somewhere to the North West of the Society Islands he came across a boatful of Polynesians, and recorded the event in his journal. The text describing the event is rather lengthy, but contains so much of interest about the vessel and the people in it, that it is included here in full.

8th May, 1616.

“At noon, immediately after dinner, we saw a sail, which we took to be a barque, coming out of the south and running to the north across us. We at once headed for her, and when she got close to us we fired a shot from Our bows over her starboard to get her to haul down, but she would not do it, wherefore we fired another shot, but still she would not haul down. We therefore launched our shallop with ten musketeers to take her, and whilst these were rowing towards her we again-sent a shot abaft her, but all without intention of striking or damaging her, but still she would not haul down, seeking rather to outsail us as much as possible. She got to the luff of us, but the shallop, which was too smart for her, overtook her, and when our men were about half a musket shot off they fired four times with a musket.

When we approached her, and before our men boarded her, some of her crew sprang overboard from fright; amongst others there was one with an infant and another who was wounded, having three holes in his back, but not very deep, for they were caused by a grazing shot, and this man we got out of the water again. They also threw many things overboard, which were small mats, and amongst other things, three hens.

Our men sprang on board the little vessel and brought her alongside of us without the least resistance on the part of her crew, as indeed they had no arms. When she was alongside of us we took on board two men who had remained in her and these immediately fell down at our feet, kissing our feet and hands. One was a very old grey man, the other a young fellow, but we could not understand them, though we treated them well.

And the shallop immediately rowed back to the aforesaid men who had jumped overboard, in order to rescue them, but they got only two who were floating on one of their oars and who pointed with their hands to the bottom, wishing to say that the others were already drowned. One of these two, who was the wounded man, and whose wounds we bound up, had rather long yellow hair.

In the vessel were some eight women and three young children, still at the breast, as well as some who were perhaps nine or ten years old, so that we thought they must have been in all quite twenty-five strong; both men and women were entirely naked and wore only a bagatelle over their privy parts.

Towards the evening we put the men on board their vessel again; they received a hearty welcome from their wives, who kissed them. We gave them beads (which they hung around their neck) and some knives, and showed them every kindness, as they likewise did in turn to us, giving us two handsome finely-made mats and two coker nuts, for they had not many of them. This was all they had to eat and drink, indeed, they had already drunk the milk out of the nuts, so that they had nothing more to drink. We also saw them drink salt water from the sea, and give it, too, to their infants to drink, which we thought to be contrary to Nature. They had certain small cloths of curious colour, which they wore over their privy parts and also as a protection against the heat of the sun. They were red folk who smeared themselves with oil, and all the women had short hair like the men in Holland, whilst the men’s hair was long and painted very black.

Mid-Pacific Polynesians

Schouten’s depiction of finding a Polynesian vessel in mid-Pacific. The Legend for item “D” reads. “D. Is one of the ships of the savages which they know well how to handle.”

Their little vessel was in shape as it is depicted in the drawing herewith, very wonderful to behold. It consisted of two long handsome canoes, between which was a fairly good space. On each canoe, at about the middle, two very wide planks of bright red wood had been placed to keep out the water, and on these they had placed other planks, running from one canoe to the other and firmly bound together. Both fore and aft the canoes still protruded a good length, and this was closed in on top very tightly in order to keep out the water. In the forepart of one canoe, on the starboard side, a mast stood at the prow, having a forked branch supporting a rod with the mizzen sail. This was of matting, and from whatever quarter the wind blew they were nearly always ready to sail; they had no compasses or any nautical instruments, but plenty of fish-hooks, the top of which was of stone, the bottom part of black bone or tortoiseshell ; some hooks, too, were of mother-of-pearl. Their ropes were of bright colours and as thick as a cable, made of such material as the fish-baskets in Spain.

When they left us they shaped their course towards the South-East.”

This description and accompanying drawing is the earliest record we have of the ocean-going vessels used in Polynesia. At the end of the journal entry, Schouten notes that the Polynesians departed to the South East. That is the direction of the Society Islands.

A few days later Schouten came across more similar canoes, and recorded these extra details.

“These vessels were the same shape as has been mentioned above, are well provided with sails, and sail, too, so swiftly that there are few ships in Holland which would outdo them. They navigate them from the stern with two oars, a man standing aft upon each canoe, and sometimes they run forward, too, with their oars when they wish to turn; the canoe would also turn itself if they only took the oars out of the water and let it go, or only let the wind carry it along.”

The 1616 Schouten journal gives us a magnificent description of a voyaging Waka. What is even more remarkable is that by the time he saw it, New Zealand was completely settled.

Tasman in Tonga

Depiction of Tasman’s arrival in Tonga. The Legend for item ‘C’ reads “C. A sailing vessel consisting of two prows placed side by side, and united by a floor covering both of them”.

The next depiction of Polynesian boats comes from Abel Tasman. During his 1642 voyage he saw similar vessels in Tonga, and again we have a wonderful record in the form of an illustration.

These illustrations both depict a similar vessel. It is a vessel that is a double ended catamaran; indicating that the boat is sailed in both directions. The hulls are hollow with wooden covers to keep the water out. There is a simple triangular sail supported by a forked prop. The prop is stabilised by ropes attached to a cross spar amidships which, extends beyond the hulls. There are two steering oars, and a low, round roofed cabin. In the case of the Schouten report, we are also told that it was carrying 25 people. Those people included men and women, though they were mostly women, and young and old, both infant and elderly. They were also carrying domestic goods (mats and chickens). The people in this boat were not on the ocean on a fishing expedition; they were journeying purposefully from one distant island to another.

These illustrations, and Schouten’s additional note allow us to understand how the vessel was sailed.

The Pacific could only be explored and settled when the seafarers developed vessels that could sail upwind. The sailing manoeuvre ‘tacking’ is the key to this… sailing the boat as close towards the direction of the wind as it will go, and then turning so that the wind comes from the opposite side of the boat and again, sailing as close to the direction of the wind as you can. Upwind progress is achieved by alternating from one ‘tack’ to the other.

Schouten revealed how this manoeuvre was performed in these vessels. The boats would be turned directly to the direction of the wind, and the sail loosed so it it flapped aimlessly. The sail was lowered, the prop moved to the other side, and raised again. They would ‘row’ the front end of the boat around, until the sail again caught the wind. Once under way the boat was steered back up towards the direction of the wind. It is a cumbersome but effective technique. Modern windsurfers ‘tack’ in exactly the same way. To sail up towards the wind, the sail is tilted backwards. To sail downwind the sail is tilted upright.

Moving sail rig

Depiction of vessels in Matavai Bay, Tahiti, 1777

Little more exists by way of description or illustration until Cook’s Voyages, but from those we find a lot more detail. This picture, drawn in Tahiti on Cook’s third voyage, by James Clevely, gives us a more detailed picture of this type of vessel.

Was this the type of vessel that the Polynesians had sailed to New Zealand in? We can’t be certain.

Cook and his party were describing the vessels they saw fully three hundred years after the Polynesian migration to New Zealand had ended. We have no way of knowing what innovations had occurred between the end of that voyaging period, which ended in the 1400’s, and the time that Cook visited.

The other issue in this regard is that Cook and his party also described another, completely different, type of sail arrangement.

There was definitely a marked advance in sailing technology evident in some of the Cook era illustrations and texts. The sail configuration described in Joseph Bank’s Journal, and painted by William Hodge, indicates vessels of far superior performance to the ones drawn by Schouten, Tasman and Clevely.