Story: Waka – canoes

Page 1. Pacific origins

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Traditional importance

The significance of waka (canoes) for Māori has its roots in times past, when voyaging waka forged the links between the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki and New Zealand, the cradle of Māori culture. Māui, a god-like ancestor, travelled by waka into the southern ocean and fished up the North Island, known as Te Ika-ā-Māui (the fish of Māui). His waka became the South Island, Te Waka-ā-Māui (Māui’s canoe). A human ancestor, Kupe, is said to have later discovered New Zealand on a waka voyage. His wife Kuramārōtini is credited with naming it Aotearoa (long white cloud) – the Māori name now used for New Zealand.

Various tribes recall in many stories the subsequent arrival of their ancestors on numerous waka, at landing places which are important sites. Today, Māori trace descent from ancestors on these voyaging waka, and from founding ancestors of iwi and hapū.

Early design and construction

The exact details of the voyaging waka are unknown, but traditional Pacific canoes provide some clues. Their design and construction were determined by the type and availability of resources, and the purpose of the waka. On many islands the trees were small, and construction methods were gradually refined and developed. Over centuries, simple dugout logs evolved into vessels with outrigger floats for stability. Planks of wood were attached to the gunwales (the upper edges along each side) to raise them higher above the waterline, making for greater seaworthiness.

Sails and double hulls

The addition of sails enabled canoes to travel further and faster in the right conditions. Later, two hulls were lashed together to form double-hulled vessels that could carry reasonably large numbers of people and cargo over long ocean corridors.

Double-hulled waka in New Zealand

It is probable that the ancestral voyaging canoes from the Pacific could be sailed as well as rowed, and that they held sufficient food and water for a month or more, as well as accommodating people. Modern-day experiments have shown that sailing from Rarotonga to Aotearoa (New Zealand) could take anything from two to three weeks. Māori ancestral waka were most likely large outrigger canoes or double-hulled vessels.

The double-hulled waka had been observed on Abel Tasman’s voyage to New Zealand in 1642. Sydney Parkinson, an artist on James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand in 1769, and the German scientist Johann Reinhold Forster, who sailed with Cook in 1773, described waka fitted with outriggers (ama, amatiatia or kōrewa). However, there is limited information on Māori outrigger canoes.

Although 19th-century ethnographers recorded double-hulled canoes being used as fishing platforms, there is no account of these vessels making long journeys or expeditions. Even in Cook’s time double hulls were scarce in the North Island, although still relatively numerous in the South Island. Double-hulled canoes eventually fell out of use during the 19th century – this happened first in the North Island. The last examples seem to have been single-hulled vessels temporarily lashed together, rather than the purpose-built double hull. It was not until the early 1990s that the double hull was revived with the building of Te Aurere of Te Tai Tokerau (Northland), along with the replication of ancient voyaging methods and technologies.

How to cite this page:

Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, 'Waka – canoes - Pacific origins', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, published 12 Jun 2006