Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 38, 1905
This text is also available in PDF
(288 KB) Opens in new window
– 127 –

Art. XX.—The Winged Pilot of Hawaiki.

Many centuries before Columbus made his adventurous voyage across the Atlantic, or Vasco de Gama battled his way round the Cape of Good Hope, the Polynesian navigators were sailing backwards and forwards among the countless islands of the Pacific, their operations gradually extending eastward, northward, and southward from their original home in the west until they reached from the New Hebrides to Easter Island, from Honolulu to New Zealand, and covered an area five thousand miles long by four thousand broad. Besides these voyages, it is known that they occasionally found their way back to “Avaiki,” traversing a far greater distance; and there is more than one record of an expedition to the Antarctic.

Mr. S. Percy Smith, F.R.G.S., President of the Polynesian Society, in his recent work, “Hawaiki: the Original Home of the Maori,” gives an account of many of these voyages, which he has compiled by a comparison of the independent traditions of various branches of the race that have been cut off from mutual intercourse for hundreds of years, and which may therefore be considered as authentic history in all essential details. He also relates how the hardy adventurers managed to keep their course by day and night without the aid of those instruments which are considered indispensable by modern navigators when making even a short trip out of sight of land. He states that it is well known that the Polynesians had a very complete knowledge of the movements of the heavenly bodies, and refers to a statement of the late Mr. John White, that the teaching of astronomy formed a special feature of the old Maori whare-kura, or house of learning (“Hawaiki,” p. 137). They had also, he adds, in some instances a kind of rude substitute for a chart, formed of strings stretched on a frame, which showed the position of the islands as well as the direction of the ocean-currents and the regular roll of the seas before the trade-wind. A sketch of one of these charts is given on page 139. Following up the subject, Mr. Percy Smith gives a graphic description (p. 138) of how

– 128 –

they managed to pick up the land. “When making voyages to a high island or a large one,” he says, “the difficulty of a landfall is not great. But it is different in the case of the atolls, of which there are so many in the central Pacific. The system which was adopted in such cases was this: The people generally voyaged in fleets, for mutual help and company, and when they expected to make the land … the fleet spread out in the form of a crescent, the chief's canoe in the centre, to distances of about five miles apart on each side, so as to extend their view; whichever crew saw the land first signalled their neighbours, who passed the signal on, till the whole fleet was enabled to steer for the expected land. A fleet of ten canoes would thus have a view of over fifty miles on their front.”

Taking these facts into consideration, one can readily understand how these bold and resourceful navigators managed to reach their destination once the direction of their objective and the distance to be travelled were approximately known; but it is not always easy to conceive how the objective came to be determined on. What, for instance, would suggest the idea that there might be land in a particular direction some thousands of miles off, such as that of New Zealand or Honolulu, which might repay a voyage of exploration? Mr. Percy Smith says (“Hawaiki,” p. 131) that “in passing onward by way of New Guinea, the Solomons, and New Hebrides to the Fiji Group, the idea must have forced itself into the minds of the people that the whole eastern world was covered with islands, and that they had only to move onward into the unknown to find more lands on which to settle.” This was very likely the case in a large number of instances, and it is probable that many of the islands and scattered groups within a certain limit were reached in this way. One can readily understand that in a strong weatherly vessel like their large double or outrigger sailing canoes, which could beat to windward with any topsail schooner, and in which, therefore, they would have no difficulty in making their way back in any direction, they might put out on a voyage of discovery which in the tropical and subtropical belt would be almost sure to be attended with success; but that any party should have been sufficiently hardly and persevering as to systematically sweep the empty vastnesses of the northern and southern Pacific on the off-chance of finding land for settlement is scarcely within the bounds of credibility.

The fact is quite authenticated that long before the great migration to New Zealand—i.e., the advent of the “Arawa,” the “Tainui,” the “Aotea,” the “Mataatua,” and other canoes —which is generally placed in the fourteenth century—many vessels found their way backwards and forwards between this

– 129 –

country and Hawaiki (probably Tahiti or Rarotonga). An account of several of these expeditions is given by Mr. Elsdon Best in the “Transactions of the New Zealand Institute” (vol. xxxvii, art. ii), but I believe there is no tradition extant as to how the first navigators managed to find their way here, and so were able to give the course to those who followed.

It is related that Ui-te-rangiora, who lived in Fiji about A.D. 650, after making many voyages of discovery and founding colonies in different parts of the Pacific, found his way to the Southern Ocean; and that another celebrated navigator, desiring to behold the wonderful things described by his predecessor, actually penetrated to the frozen seas of the Antarctic—“a foggy, misty, and dark place, not seen by the sun” (“Hawaiki,” pp. 128, 129). But beyond the Island of Rapa, or Opara, in 28° S., about eleven hundred miles south-east of Rarotonga, at one time thickly inhabited by Polynesians, there is, I believe, no mention of any land seen on these voyages. In any case it is quite clear that New Zealand was not visited, or the fact would surely have been mentioned in the circumstantial accounts that have been preserved.

We are therefore left to speculate as to how the original discovery of these islands was made. It may, of course, have been that a party were driven out of their course by wind and weather, and arrived here simply as castaways; but it is far more likely that they had something to go upon in fixing their objective.

As already stated, there is, I believe, no tradition that will throw any light on the subject. If a Maori of the present day is asked how the first immigrants found their way to the country, he will either answer that he does not know or that he has never heard, or else he relegates the whole matter to the domain of the supernatural. It was perhaps a taniwha that showed them the course—a fabulous monster often credited with more than human powers and intelligence; or it might have been one of their atuas or ancestral deities, who, under the form of a shark, a cormorant, or even of a blow-fly, either swam or flew ahead of the canoe, and so led the navigators to their destination.

A theory advanced by the Rev. Wiki te Paa, of Northern Wairoa, inclines one to believe that a core of truth may be contained in this strange myth. It was the annual migration of the kuaka, or godwit (Limosa novæ-zealandiæ), Mr. Te Paa thinks, that led the Hawaikians to believe that lands existed in the direction of New Zealand, and furnished them with a guide on their voyage; and an examination of the life-history of that wonderful little bird at least gives an air of probability to the idea.

– 130 –

A very complete and graphic account of the kuaka's habits is given by Sir Walter Buller in his monumental work on New Zealand birds (vol. ii, p. 40), from information supplied by Captain G. Mair. The learned doctor describes the extraordinary migration it performs every year. Starting in large organized parties from near the North Cape of New Zealand in the end of March or the beginning of April, it makes its way northward, passing along by China, Japan, and Manchuria, until it reaches Eastern Siberia, where it remains for several months and rears its young; the rest of the year being spent in its alternate home in the Malay Archipelago, Polynesia, Australia, and New Zealand—the New Zealand contingent returning in straggling flocks from September to Christmas.

The flight of birds has often helped the navigator in locating a country. In his account of the discovery of Bass Strait in 1798 Flinders describes the continuous stream of sooty petrels or mutton-birds heading in a certain direction, which he took to be an indication “that there must be in the large bight one or more inhabited islands,” which eventually proved to be the Furneaux Group. Similar instances are recorded in the history of other voyages of discovery; and it seems to me that an observant and adventurous people like the Polynesians could not have failed to observe the annual migrations of the kuaka to and fro between known spots, and that a party of them, driven by some tribal quarrel, or by some urgent necessity to seek a new home, would not have hesitated to trust themselves to the guidance of the winged pilot over the wide seas that separated them from New Zealand. The large number of birds would indicate a considerable tract of country, while the fact that on their southern journey they went in “straggling flocks” extending over several weeks would enable the travellers to check their course from day to day.

A careful observation of the routes travelled by the birds would doubtless throw some light on this theory.