Ko te kai rapu, ko ia te kite – those who seek will find, by Hokimate Harwood


Figure 1. Te Rā  – Māori canoe sail. Oc,NZ.147.   ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

In January 2019, part of the team for the project: Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau! – Raise up again the billowing sail! travelled to London England to study Te Rā – the Māori canoe sail  (Oc,NZ.147) in the British Museum. The interdisciplinary group consisted of myself – tasked with identifying the feathers, renowned weavers Ranui Ngarimu (Ngāi Tahu, Kāti Mamoe, Ngāti Mutungā) and Donna Campbell (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Ruanui) to record the weaving techniques, and plant identification expert Dr Catherine Smith.   We seek to understand the mātauranga or knowledge from the tangible and intangible aspects of the impressive Te Rā held in England for over 200 years.  It is anticipated from this research, that the old ways of sailing and weaving pertaining to plant and feather use that has not been in use and seen on these shores for centuries can be recorded and returned to Aotearoa.


Figure 2.  Matairangi, pennant or streamer on Te Rā – Māori canoe sail with dark brown feathers.  Oc,NZ.147.   ©The Trustees of the British Museum. 

Te Rā is an oceanic sprit sail, and is unique and historic in that it is the only remaining evidence of Māori voyaging of its kind.  It was probably collected by Cook from an unknown location. [1]  A similar sail was recorded by George Forster (illustrator) on Cook’s second voyage.  On June 1 1773 in Queen Charlotte Sound, George writes of “Several canoes full of natives came on board…. Their canoes were of different sizes, and three of them had sails, which are but seldom seen among them. The sail consisted of a large triangular mat, and was fixed to a mast, and a boom joining below in an acute angle, which could both be struck with the greatest facility. The upper edge, or broadest part of the sail, had five tufts of brown feathers on its extremity.” [2] While George observed this canoe sail in the Sound, it is acknowledged that the crew and canoe could have come from another location in the North Island. [3]


Figure 3.  Top edge of Te Rā – Māori canoe sail with brown feathers.  Oc,NZ.147.   ©The Trustees of the British Museum. 

The journey to try and rediscover the many secrets including the feathers used on this enigmatic sail began when I saw Te Rā for the first time on January 14th 2019.  My initial observations were that the feathers were striking, but were smaller than what I had deduced from images of the sail.  Functionally, the feathers incorporated into the sail draw the observer’s attention to the presence and direction of the wind.  Whereas the species, feather types and in turn feather attachment likely represent their own symbolism for iwi Māori, in that the species likely exhibit a specific cultural or social importance.


Figure 4.  Notched and split feathers in Te Rā -Māori canoe sail with brown feathers.  Oc,NZ.147.   ©The Trustees of the British Museum. 


The majority of bunched feather shafts adorning the top and streamer were notched and split down the centre to provide volume, having aesthetic and functionality as the feathers were more likely to catch the wind and light with this technique.  Splitting the feathers and shafts also allows for bending and binding rigid feathers at the base.  The feathers are then tied and secured to a running cord along the length of the streamer or top of the sail.   The splitting and binding of feathers appears in Māori weaponry such as tewhawha (long handled fighting staff), and in bound red kākā feathers in taiaha kura (decorated long fighting staff).    Traditionally, splitting feathers is featured in Tahitian mourning cloaks (Ahu rupe or pigeon feather cloaks), and the binding along the running cord is similar to the feather attachment in the fine red feather mats of Sāmoa.  [4,5]


Figure 5.  Detail of orange underwing kākā (Nestor meridionalis ssp.) feathers adorning one of the rings along the side of Te Rā – Māori canoe sail.  Oc,NZ.147.   ©The Trustees of the British Museum. 

The methods of feather identification starts with a review of previous research or observations on the sail feathers.   To date, the orange feathers bound to the grommet style rings (loops) around the sail’s outer edges,  have been positively identified as kākā (bush parrot: Nestor meridionalis ssp.). [6]  On close inspection in January, these feathers are confirmed as the small underwing feathers of a kākā.  To date the larger brownish feathers of Te Rā are unverified.  However, William H Skinner’s initial observations of the sail in 1908 speculated the species along the sail top and matairangi (streamer) could be swamp harrier (kāhu: Circus approximans) and/or kererū (NZ pigeon: Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae). [7, 8]


Figure 6.  North Island kākā (Nestor meridionalis septentrionalis).   Collected by D Hume, September 1993, Aongatete, Bay of Plenty. Te Papa Tongarewa Museum OR.025025

To verify the brown sail feathers a robust scientific analysis of the feathers was initiated in January that consisted of detailed imaging, measurements and recording of macroscopic feather characteristics such as size, shape, colour and patterning in the shaft, downy (plumulaceous) barbs at the feather base, and feather vane (pennaceous barbs).  The second method of feather identification required the sampling or removal of microscopic sections of feather down from some of the feathers.  This feather down can categorically distinguish between different types of birds.  For example, taxonomically it can tell me whether the feather is from a pigeon, a parrot or a duck.  Finally, comparisons of the macroscopic and microscopic elements of the sail feathers to image reference databases of bird skins, feathers and feather down will assist in the identification of the sail feathers.  This technique has already been successful in the identification of Māori feather cloaks, taonga Māori and Pasifika collections and wildlife. [9]


Figure 7.  An example of the segmented nodes on a North Island kākā (Nestor meridionalis septentrionalis) red belly feather, mid down, barb and barbule base. 400x magnification. Te Papa Tongarewa Museum OR.028918. 

So far, this exciting journey of discovery and rediscovery has certainly been a highlight of my career.  The materials and techniques in Te Rā are reminiscent of a well-adorned Rangatira (chief) in his finest attire, Te ūpoko rite o Hawaiki.  It is indeed a privilege meeting Te Rā, and being part of such an amazing team of fellow re-searchers.  No reira, mātakitaki ma.


  1. Starzecka, D., R. Neich and M. Pendergrast. Taonga Māori in the British Museum. Wellington: Te Papa Press. 2010. p31.
  2. Best, E. The Maori Canoe. Dominion Museum Bulletin, No. 7; 1925. Wellington. p180.
  3. Thomas, N and Berghof, O. A Voyage round the world. Volume 1. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 2000,
  4. Hīroa, T.R. The feather cloak of Tahiti. Journal of the Polynesian Society, 1943, 52: 705-42.
  5. Hīroa, T.R. Samoan Material Culture. Bishop Museum Bulletin, No. 75; Honolulu, 1930.
  6. Starzecka, D., R. Neich and M. Pendergrast. 2010. p31.
  7. Best, E. The Maori Canoe. 1925, p187.
  8. Firth, R. (1930). Maori canoe-sail in the British Museum.  Journal of the Polyneisan Society. Vol. 40: 129-135.
  9. Harwood, H. P. Identification and description of feathers in Te Papa’s Māori cloaks. Tuhinga Records of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, 2011. 22: 125-147.
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