Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 14, 1881
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Some of the more prevalent Beliefs of the Maoris concerning the Introduction of the Kumara into New Zealand.

These vary considerably in detail with almost every great tribe, or people, of New Zealand,—as to the time when, the persons by whom, the name of the “canoe” (waka), and the name of the sort, or kind, of kumara brought; also, its having been purposely sought or fetched from

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abroad; or casually brought into New Zealand. And here I should mention (lest it might be considered to be a matter of small moment), that with the Maoris, the name or names of the persons (chiefs) engaged,—including their wives, their canoes, their paddles, and their balers; and also the name of the plantation first planted, and even of their wooden digging-spades used,—is almost everything! Many of them are said to be still preserved in their legends, and with them (the Maoris) their possession is unanswerable!


According to the Maoris of the East Coast (Table Cape to Cape Runaway), especially the large Ngatiporou tribe,—a New Zealand chief named Kahukura went in his canoe from New Zealand to “Hawaiki” to fetch the kumara for planting. Arriving there, he found the kumara-crop had been already harvested; but he turned-to and cut down a portion of the cliff where the kumara grew spontaneously; when, aided by his powerful spells, the kumara fell, and soon filled his canoe, which was called Horouta. This done, he again laid his spells on that spot, to stop the kumara from falling down the cliff, and then brought the kumara with him to New Zealand. On returning to the East Coast, he first landed at Cape Runaway, where he first planted some of his kumara; thence he carried them, coasting south, to Waiapu (East Cape), to Poverty Bay, to Table Cape, to Hawke's Bay (south side), and across the straits to the coast between Cape Campbell and Kaikoura:—“all this distribution of the kumara to those several places, was done by that one person Kahukura.” This statement, however, is stoutly denied by other Maori tribes, especially by those residing on the West Coast, and at the Thames. Here the names of both the chief and his canoe should be noted; that of the chief being one of the Maori names for the rainbow, and that of the canoe meaning, (The)-falling-down-(of-the)-mainland (cliff). Also, a statement which is firmly believed by the Maoris, and which I have often heard from several of them, who asserted they had themselves seen it, namely,—that at Cape Runaway the kumara grows indigenously,*—that is, without annual planting; the scattered small tubers left in the ground in the cultivations invariably spring the following season, which they never do anywhere else, and this, they say, is another proof of the first imported kumara having been planted there. From the very favourable position, however, of the sea-side lands inside Cape Runaway, lying so far to the east and so protected from the south, such may very well be accounted for naturally.


According to the Maoris of the West Coast, the kumara was first brought by their progenitor, Turi, in his canoe named Aotea, on his emigrating from “Hawaiki;” when he came to New Zealand, and landed

[Footnote] * See this alluded to, in Grey's “Polynesian Mythology,” p. 143.

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and remained there at Patea on the West Coast. He also, they say, brought with him on that occasion, the other cultivated edible root, the taro (Caladium esculentum), and the karaka (Corynocarpus lævigata), also the swamp-bird, pukeko (Porphyrio melanotus), some green parrots (Platycercus pacificus, and P. auriceps), the Maori rat, “and many other good things for food.”* Unfortunately, however, for them, nature is against them, for the karaka-tree is believed to be purely endemic; so also are the two green parrots, and the blue rail, pukeko.


The Thames Maoris deny all the preceding, and assert that the kumara was first brought from “Hawaiki” by the chiefs Hotunui and Hoturoa, in their canoe called Tainui, which they say was also the first canoe of emigrants thence to New Zealand. Or, as some others say, the kumara was brought by the lady-wives of those two chiefs, named Marama and Whakaotirangi, together with the hue (Cucurbita sp.), the aute (Broussonetia papyrifera), and the para (Marattia salicina),—and, also, the karaka; but this last plant grew accidentally, as it were, the timber having been shipped merely as skids to be used for drawing up their canoe on their landing. Those identical poles, or skids, planted by them, and now grown into trees, are still shown at Manukau! (A suitable match for Dr. Hector's newly-discovered plant at Kawhia—Pomaderris tainui,—of which a similar legend is told.) A portion of this story is so good that it deserves to be fully translated. I therefore, give it.

“When the canoe, Tainui, had been dragged across the portage at Tamaki (near the head of the Hauraki Gulf), and reached Manukau (on the West Coast), they coasted south to Kawhia; landing there, those two ladies (Marama and Whakaotirangi) proceeded to plant the various roots they had brought with them from ‘Hawaiki.’ This they did in two separate plantations, at a place called Te Papa-o-karewa in Kawhia; but when those several roots sprung and grew up, they all turned out differently. Of those planted by Marama, the kumara produced a pohue (Convolvulus sepium), the hue produced a mawhai (Sicyos angulatus), the aute produced a whau (Entelea arborescens), and the para produced a horokio. All the plantings of Marama grew wrong

[Footnote] * See Grey's “Polynesian Mythology,” p. 212, for this in part.

[Footnote] † See “Trans. N.Z. Inst.,” Vol. XI., p. 428.

[Footnote] ‡ Here, the correct natural discrimination of the old Maoris, in according plants of a similar appearance and manner of growth to those planted, as their simulated substitutes in mockery, is very apparent, and is worthy of a brief passing notice. Indeed, the first two counterfeits belong severally and botanically to the same natural order (and one of them to just the very same genus) as the two plants which had been planted and failed. The third counterfeit, Entelea arborescens, though far separated botanically, has been often planted by Europeans in the early Napier gardens as being the real aute (Broussonetia papyrifera), and called, also, by its name, “Paper Mulberry;” there being a great common superficial likeness in the leaf, bark, size, etc., of the two shrubs. While the fourth counterfeit is evidently a fern, and very likely one of the large common tufted thick-growing coalescent ferns,—e.g., Polypodium pennigerum, Lomaria discolor, or L. gigantea, the smaller Dicksoniæ, etc. The Maori name of Horokio is now variously given by different tribes to different plants.

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and strangely, and that was owing to her having transgressed with one of her male slaves. But the plantings of Whakaotirangi all came up true to their various sorts, and from them the whole island was subsequently supplied. Hence, too, arose the proverb, which has been handed down to us,—‘Greatly blessed (or gladdened) art thou, O food-basket of Whakaotirangi!’* So let all Maoris know, that from the canoe Tainui came her kumaras, her hues, her autes, and her paras, and her karakas (which last, sprang from the used skids which her crew had brought away in her), and, also, her kiores (rats).”


Another still more strange and far-fetched tale, concerning the introduction of the kumara into New Zealand, is also related by the Maoris of Hawke's Bay (south), which may also be briefly mentioned here, if only for its singularity. A chief of old, named Pourangahua, was getting his canoe ready to go to sea, to seek some better-relished food for his infant son, Kahukura; the child having rejected with fearfully loud noises its own mother's milk, also the soft liver of the fish kahawai (Arripis salar), with which it had been fed. (From that liver, however, so rejected by him, sprang the flying-fish.) The canoe being dragged down and all ready, the chief, Pourangahua, returned to his house for something forgotten, and while absent his four brothers-in-law (Kanoae, Paeaki, Rongoiamoa, and Taikamatua), embarked in the canoe and sailed away. Pourangahua, nothing daunted, went after them on a canoe (or float) made of a duck's feather; a squall, however, coming on, he was soon sent to the bottom! Emerging to the surface, he swam and battled away against the seas, and finally got on to a whale's back, on which he managed to keep himself by means of his powerful spells. Afterwards, he met his own canoe with his brothers-in-law returning, he joined them, and on reaching the shore, and calling the kumara which they had brought by its own proper and special name of Kakau§ (to which the kumara itself answered, by asking, “Who he was that had spoken—or divulged—its name?” etc.), he obtained from

[Footnote] * This circumstance, however, is very differently related in Grey's “Polynesian Mythology,” p. 142.

[Footnote] † Same name as under (a.) supra.

[Footnote] § Curiously enough, this is the same special name that is given to the kind of kumara said to have been brought from “Hawaiki” by Turi in his canoe (b., supra). See Grey's “Polynesian Mythology,” p. 212.

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them two roots of kumara, which he planted with the proper charms and ceremonies, and from these the whole country was in course of time supplied, so that both his own son, Kahukura, and all besides were amply fed with this good vegetable food.


A still more romantic version of this last story is the one held by the Urewera tribes living in the mountainous interior, which would be hardly worth relating were it not for their isolated situation, shut up far away from other tribes among the mountains and forests, and for the fact of its containing several of the very special names of the prized varieties of kumara formerly cultivated by the Maoris, both North and South: those very varieties, too, belonging to the widely different sorts—showing their antiquity. They say,—“that Pourangahua went after his brothers-in-law to ‘Hawaiki;’ that his canoe being gone, he went thither on two pet birds, named Tiurangi and Harorangi, the property of a chief named Ruakapanga, who lent them to him for the occasion. That Pourangahua brought away thence from two cliffs, called Pari-nui-te-ra, and Pari-nui-te-rangi,* the following seven varieties of kumara, viz., Kawakawatawhiti, Toroamahoe, te Tutaanga, te Kiokiorangi, te Tutaetara, te Monenehu, and te Anutai. That the roots brought to New Zealand by Pourangahua lived and flourished; but that those which had been brought by his brothers-in-law did not grow.”

I remember well, when first travelling in those parts in the interior, 43 years back, (being the first European visitor among them), the many questions respecting the kumara and its first introducers which were put to me by the tohungas, “as posers to test my knowledge,” (as they subsequently informed me), and their great earnestness respecting them.

[Footnote] * Great-cliff-(of-the)-sun, and Great-cliff-(of-the)-sky. The name of a high cliff on the East Coast, between Tolaga Bay and Poverty Bay, is Pari-nui-te-ra; this is, also, Cook's Gable-end-foreland.

[Footnote] † See “Trans. N.Z. Inst.,” Vol. XIII., pp. 34, 35. In the list there given, however, there is Anurangi for Anutai; but the root-meaning of both words is the same.