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