The “Great Fleet” Myths
At present the circumstances attending the prehistoric settlement of New Zealand are matters of learned controversy and three rival theories are being debated. The older school, which bases its view on the canon of Polynesian tradition, asserts that Tahitian explorers discovered New Zealand and that they or their descendants later decided to emigrate there. Another group accepts this but insists that these explorers and settlers found aboriginal inhabitants whom they killed or enslaved. The third school holds that New Zealand was settled solely as the result of accidental one-way voyages of people who were blown off course during local canoe journeys.
Recent research appears to confirm that the “Great Fleet” of Maori tradition is a myth coined by European Maori-phils in the generation after the Maori Wars. The myth, which arose out of popular scholastic attempts to systematise conflicting tribal arrival-traditions, gained wide acceptance owing to the belief that European contact had doomed the Maori race to rapid extinction. In any case, the Maori-phil image of the Maori as the classical “noble savage” called for a historical background of similarly heroic proportions. Thus certain interested Europeans interpreted the “Canoe” traditions to fit their own preconceived notions, with the result that a specious theory was gradually accepted by other Europeans, and many Maoris, as being historically accurate. In fact, because few of the early Maori-phils were trained scholars, they often misunderstood, glossed over, or suppressed, inconsistencies in the traditions, references to earlier inhabitants in some versions being a case in point. Present-day historians, while not doubting that the legendary canoes arrived in New Zealand, believe that such arrivals were the result of accidental voyages rather than of organised attempts to migrate and colonise. A re-examination of the legends shows that, far from there having been a large fleet of canoes, those which reached New Zealand came at irregular intervals during the 300 or so years following Kupe. The legends also show that only Tainui and Arawa came together.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.