Story: Ideas about Māori origins

Page 3. 1840s–early 20th century: Māori tradition and the Great Fleet

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Māori oral tradition

From 1840 there were many collectors of Māori oral traditions, but these accounts did not agree on a date of arrival, who arrived, the number of vessels, or the exact point of departure in Polynesia.

However, there were some points of agreement. Many of the collected traditions traced Māori arrivals to specific canoe landings, and certain canoe names commonly recurred in certain regions. The landings were thought to have happened some hundreds of years earlier, rather than thousands. And there was considerable speculation that an inferior pre-Māori population was overrun by arriving Māori.

Hawaiki – the homeland

Māori told early Europeans that their ancestors had sailed to New Zealand from Hawaiki, their ancestral home. They placed this somewhere to the north-east of New Zealand. Today it is believed that the most likely region from which Polynesians came to New Zealand is the Southern Cook and Society islands.

A new interpreter: S. Percy Smith

Towards the end of the 19th century, questions about Polynesian origins and the coming of the Māori helped to foster an emergent sense of New Zealand identity. This required a heroic account of the country’s past, its likely triumphant destiny, and a way of interpreting the colonial encounter with Māori.

The man who gave New Zealand such a history was S. Percy Smith, surveyor-general and co-founder and co-editor (with Edward Tregear) of the Polynesian Society and its journal. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Smith ‘tidied’ Māori oral tradition into a simple, coherent narrative.

The story of the Great Fleet

Smith’s account went as follows. In 750 CE the Polynesian explorer Kupe discovered an uninhabited New Zealand. Then in 1000–1100 CE, the Polynesian explorers Toi and Whātonga visited New Zealand, and found it inhabited by a primitive, nomadic people known as the Moriori. Finally, in 1350 CE a ‘great fleet’ of seven canoes – Aotea, Kurahaupō, Mataatua, Tainui, Tokomaru, Te Arawa and Tākitimu – all departed from the Tahitian region at the same time, bringing the people now known as Māori to New Zealand. These were advanced, warlike, agricultural tribes who destroyed the Moriori.

How to cite this page:

K. R. Howe, 'Ideas about Māori origins - 1840s–early 20th century: Māori tradition and the Great Fleet', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 August 2022)

Story by K. R. Howe, published 8 Feb 2005