Interpretations by early scholars
When European scholars began to investigate tribal traditions in depth, some were taken by stories concerning Hawaiki. Given the ubiquity of Hawaiki in tribal traditions – all describe Hawaiki as some kind of originating point – some Europeans attempted to understand more.
One scholar was S. Percy Smith, the founding president of the Polynesian Society and author of numerous texts on tribal history and traditions. In his book Hawaiki, the original homeland of the Maori (1904), Smith advanced his theories as to the physical location of Hawaiki. He suggested that islands such as Savai‘i in Samoa, Hawaii and even Java near Indonesia were actually Hawaiki in localised forms. His method was to develop a view on the origins of the Māori people by analysing the traditions held by Māori in his time. This method had widespread acceptance and many scholars, both Māori and Pākehā, were excited by his conclusions.
Other theories about the origin of Māori
Smith’s book led to a proliferation of texts and discussions that attempted to draw a picture of ancient Polynesian migrations moving in an easterly direction from Asia. These analyses, based on interpretation of Māori traditions in New Zealand, gave rise to theories such as the notion of a ‘great fleet’ arriving from central Polynesia. Some writers went further, arguing that Māori origins could be found in India and even Mesopotamia, the ancient region of present-day Iraq. Alfred K. Newman’s Who are the Maoris? (1912) is an example of a work that argues for the Indian origins of Māori people.
Criticisms of Smith’s methodology are numerous, but two presented by Margaret Orbell in Hawaiki: a new approach to Māori tradition (1985) are particularly telling. First, she suggests that it is inappropriate to view iwi (tribal) traditions as historical; in other words, they should not be read literally as a record of actual events. She argues that by the time Europeans arrived in New Zealand, iwi traditions were on the whole mythical in character. In her view the ‘memory’ of a Polynesian homeland was transformed into myth over a long period. Therefore, it is more useful to interpret iwi traditions as symbolic of past events rather than as a literal representation. Second, she points out that Smith and others were too willing to explain away inconsistencies and to smooth over difficulties. Orbell writes: ‘Unfortunately they approached their material in such a wildly speculative and uncritical manner that the whole subject … is now in some disrepute.' 1