Early observations of Māori recorded in the journals and images of the first European explorers in the Pacific, provide a rich source of documentary information through which to understand the Māori world when first Tasman (1642) and then Cook (1768-71, 1772-75, 1776-80) encountered Aotearoa New Zealand in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In particular for this study, such observations provide valuable historical context into the evolution of Māori waka (canoes) over time and therefore the utilisation of sails. When Tasman first encountered Māori in 1642 waka hourua (double hulled canoes), some that utilised a sail were still in common use. (See figure 1.) Tasman’s journal entry observing Māori at Mohua (Golden Bay) in 1642 states that:
“Their boats consisted of two long
narrow prows side by side, over which a number of planks or other seats were
placed in such a way that those above can look through [to] the water
underneath the vessels; their paddles are upward of a fathom in length, narrow
and pointed at the end: with these vessels they could make considerable speed” (Tasman,
December 19th, 1642; p.131).
One hundred and twenty-seven years later in 1769 the waka hourua had rapidly transitioned to the single hulled waka taua (war canoe). During Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand in 1769-1770 the absence of double hulled sailing waka was noted. Only one observation of a waka hourua with a sail was made off the coast of Whakatane in the North Island, though they continued to be observed in the South Island.
“At seven, I was close under the first, from which a large double canoe, or rather two canoes lashed together at the distance of about a foot, and covered with boards so as make a deck, put off, and made sail for the ship: this was the first vessel of the kind that we had seen since we left the South Sea islands. When she came near, the people on board entered very freely into conversation with Tupia, and we thought showed a friendly disposition; but when it was just dark, they ran their canoe close to the ship’s side, and threw in a volley of stones, after which they paddled ashore” (Banks, 1769, in South Seas Online Voyaging Accounts).
Further to this, the use of sails was observed in the following journal entry:
“We very seldom saw them make use of Sails and indeed never unless when they were to go right before the wind. They were made of mat and instead of a mast were hoisted upon two sticks which were fastned one to each side, so that they requird two ropes which answerd the purpose of sheets and were fastned to the tops of these sticks; in this clumsey manner they saild with a good deal of swiftness and were steerd by two men who sat in the stern with each a paddle in his hand” (Hawkesworth, 1769, in South Seas Online Voyaging Accounts).
In 1773, while in Queen Charlotte Sound three waka utilsing sails were observed:
“Sails are but seldom seen among them. The sail consisted of a large triangular mat, and was fixed to a mast and a boom, joining them at an acute angle, which could be struck with the greatest facilty. The upper edge or broadest part of the sail had five tufts of brown feathers on its extremity.” (Forster, 1773, in South Seas Online Voyaging Accounts).
Observations of waka by Cook and others who voyaged on the three expeditions to Aotearoa New Zealand were often of waka taua with richly carved tauihu (prow) and taurapa (stern post). (See Fig. 4) This transition from waka hourua and waka utilising sails, can be understood as a response over time to a new environment and a changing Māori world. The presence of timber of immense girth from virgin forests made the building of large single hulled waka possible, in turn these sizable war canoes capable of carrying large numbers of warriors, served to demonstrate the fighting prowess of the tribe under the mana of the rangatira (chief) reflecting the socio-economic and political reality of the Māori world.
During Cook’s three Pacific exploration voyages (1768-71, 1772-75, 1776-80) a number of prestige items were acquired while in New Zealand that were clearly regarded as highly valued taonga by those who gave them (in addition to items the shipmen traded for or simply took). The European curiosity for objects acquired in the first voyage raised the awareness of collecting amongst sailors and others onboard and considerably more objects were obtained on each successive voyage. The result being that one of the richest collections of Polynesian voyaging technology is now held in European Museums. It was this eighteenth-century museum world into which Te Rā was deposited. A world where taonga, the building blocks of an indigenous knowledge system, were relegated into classified objects of science and curiosity. This shift transformed taonga from being understood as material beings, alive with meaning, embedded and interconnected within the Māori world, to static things; their meanings dissolved into broader systems of classification and abstractions of the culture of ‘other’.
 Tasman’s journal was lost for over 200 years, when it was found it was published in its entirety and translated into English in 1860. The journal was read by Dr. T. M. Hocken before the Otago Institute, 10th September 1895 and published in the Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
By Jeanette Wikaira.
Ngāti Pukenga, Ngāti Tamaterā, Ngāpuhi.
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Starzeka, D. C., Neich, R. and Prendergrast, M. (2010). Taonga Māori in the British Museum. Wellington: Te Papa Press. p.31.
Tasman, (1642). Abel Tasman and his Journal. In Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 1868-1961. Vol 28, 1895. Retrieved online] http://rsnz.natlib.govt.nz/image/rsnz_28/rsnz_28_00_0140_0117_ac_01.html [Retrieved on 08/07/18].
Gilsemans, Isaac: A view of the Murderers’ Bay, as you are at anchor here in 15 fathom , drawings and print collection, PUBL-0086-021. Alexander Turnbull Library. https://natlib.govt.nz/records/23220299
A New Zealand war canoe. From a Collection of Drawings made in the Countries visited by Captain Cook in his First Voyage. 1768-1771. November 2, 1769. Herman Diedrich Sporing. British Library.
Add.Ms 23920f.48 Rec: C3117-07.
New Zealander’s fishing in Queen Charlotte Sound. From a Collection of Drawings made in the Countries visited by Captain Cook in his First Voyage. 1768-1771. January 1770. Sydney Parkinson, British Library. Ref: Add. Ms.23920 F44 Rec: 19006.
A War Canoe of New Zealand. From a Collection of Drawings made in the Countries visited by Captain Cook in his First Voyage. 1768-1771. c.1770. Sydney Parkinson, British Library. Ref: Add.Ms 23920f.46. Rec: 19700.