Story: Canoe traditions

Page 5. Te Arawa and Tainui

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Te Arawa

Te Arawa and its crew left Hawaiki after a conflict over food resources which pitted Houmaitawhiti and his sons Tamatekapua and Whakatūria against the chiefs Toi and Uenuku. When Whakatūria was killed, Tamatekapua departed on Te Arawa, having kidnapped Ngātoroirangi (Ngātoro) from the Tainui canoe to act as his navigator. He also abducted Whakaotirangi, the wife of Ruaeo, a prominent man of the village. While at sea Tamatekapua also tried to seduce Ngātoro’s wife. Ngātoro threatened to destroy the canoe in Te Korokoro-o-te-Parata (the whirlpool of Te Parata) but relented at the crew’s pleading. According to some accounts the canoe was saved by a mystical shark (arawa), for which the canoe was named.

When the canoe arrived at Whangaparāoa near East Cape, a chief named Taininihi, mistaking the flowers of the rātā or pōhutukawa tree on the shore for kura (red feathers), threw away his own red feather head-dress. Te Arawa explored the Bay of Plenty, Coromandel Peninsula and Tāmaki (Auckland) areas before making its final landfall at Maketū Harbour in Bay of Plenty.

Several ancestors from the Arawa canoe made long inland journeys. For example, Īhenga and Kahumatamomoe explored the Rotorua lakes district, the Waikato River, Whāingaroa (Raglan Harbour), Manukau and Kaipara harbours; they also looked at the Bay of Islands before returning to Maketū along the coast. Ngātoro and another ancestor, Tia, voyaged inland to Lake Taupō. Tia climbed Tītīraupenga in the Pureora Forest, while Ngātoroirangi climbed Mount Tongariro, where he nearly froze to death. He called for fire from Hawaiki, which was implanted in several locations between Whakaari (White Island) and Tongariro.

The descendants of Tama’s contemporary chiefs Hei, Tapuika and Waitaha occupied the country around Maketū. The offspring of Tama’s descendant Rangitihi occupied the Rotorua lake area. Ngātoro's progeny remained in the Taupō district and were eventually dominated by Ngāti Tūwharetoa.


The Tainui canoe, under the command of Hoturoa, landed at Whangaparāoa about the same time as Te Arawa. A whale was found stranded on the beach and the place was named Whangaparāoa (whale bay). The people of both canoes claimed ownership of the whale, whose flesh, bones and teeth were valuable for food, ornaments, tools and weapons. Various accounts say that one or both crews scorched flax over a fire to make their rope appear older, in order to prove that it had been tied to the whale first.

From Whangaparāoa Tainui sailed along the coast to Tōrere, Tauranga, the Coromandel and Tāmaki (Auckland). Different crew members settled at each place they visited. They landed at Te Haukapua (Torpedo Bay) near North Head in Tāmaki before going up the Tāmaki River to Ōtāhuhu, where they carried the canoe across Te Tō Waka into Manukau Harbour. Tainui sailed out through the Manukau Heads into the western sea and went south along the coast. Some of the crew disembarked near Whāingaroa and others at Mōkau before the canoe was interred at Te Ahurei in Kāwhia Harbour. Two upright stones mark its resting place.

Some accounts say that the priest Rakataura was left in Hawaiki and that he came to New Zealand on a taniwha (sea creature); others say that he walked under the ground. Whatever the case, there appear to have been several disputes between Rakataura and the captain, Hoturoa. One tradition says that Hoturoa resented Rakataura because he revealed that Hoturoa’s wife, Mārama, had had an affair with a commoner. Another says that Hoturoa tried to prevent his daughter, Kahurere, marrying Rakataura. Yet another account says that Rakataura’s son, Kōwhitinui, was killed and buried in the wooden chips of the canoe when it was being constructed.

Ngā Māhanga-a-Tuamatua

The canoe Ngā Māhanga-a-Tuamatua (the twins of Tuamatua) is sometimes considered to be an ancient reference to both Tainui and Te Arawa. The scholar Apirana Ngata suggested that the two canoes were in fact a double vessel, with one hull under the control of the captain Hoturoa and the other under Tamatekapua. Ngata thought that perhaps the boat was separated into two single-hulled canoes around the time it arrived in New Zealand. This idea is supported by a number of overlaps in the traditions. Tuamatua is a common ancestor of both Tamatekapua and Hoturoa. The priest Ngātoroirangi appears on both canoes, as does Whakaotirangi and her basket of kūmara. Te Arawa refer to her kūmara basket as ‘te kete-rokiroki-a-Whakaotirangi’ (the secure basket of Whakaotirangi). Tainui speak of ‘te kete-rukuruku-a-Whakaotirangi’ (the small basket of Whakaotirangi). The accounts of the whale at Whangaparāoa and the discarding of the red feathers are identical. The people of each canoe claim the honour of putting the birds Mumuhou and Tākeretou ashore at Rēpanga (Cuvier Island), and they share almost identical canoe-launching chants.

Tōtara-i-kāria and Aotearoa

The Tōtara-i-kāria canoe is said to have been taken by the priest Ngātoroirangi back to Hawaiki, where he fought a battle at Ihumotomotokia and Whatatiri against the chief Manaia. After defeating Manaia, he returned to his on Mōtītī Island in Bay of Plenty. However, the survivors of Manaia's tribe soon arrived in a fleet of canoes to seek revenge. Ngātoro chanted incantations, whipping up a storm that destroyed them. Aotearoa, captained by Mokotōrea, is an early canoe said to have landed in Aotea Harbour before Tainui.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Canoe traditions - Te Arawa and Tainui', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005