Tuesday, 07 April 2020


Of waka hourua, pahī, barques and barks

Events to mark the 250th anniversary of the arrival of His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour, under the command of Lieutenant James Cook, in Te Whanganui-o-Hei/Mercury Bay in November 1769 and, at the same time, reflect on the arrival centuries earlier of those intrepid Polynesian seafarers in their waka hourua who settled in the Bay, will take place from Friday 18 October to Monday 21 October this year.

It will be a Māori and Pakeha commemoration of those two key events in our local history which, although centuries apart, cannot be separated. It is the shared heritage of two maritime peoples who, over time, came together and established a bi-cultural and now multi-cultural nation.

The story of Māori ancestors is one of legendary Polynesian sailors and navigators who voyaged across vast tracts of ocean. They were skilled “shipwrights” and developed numerous designs for different purposes - some still in use today. The fabled stories of these vessels and the people who sailed in them can be found in Andrew Crowe’s excellent book, “Pathway of the Birds - The voyaging achievements of Māori and their Polynesian ancestors.” Crowe categorises them as follows -

A “pahī,” a large seagoing canoe with pointed ends and no keel, propelled with paddles. It was used for transporting people or goods by sea, mainly between neighbouring islands.

Another inter-island canoe was an “ama,” notable for having an outrigger on the windward side of a canoe.   

A ‘”waka” or “vaka” is a single hull canoe in general, different forms being distinguished by epithets or distinct names. They could carry a sail and/or be paddled.

Finally, there is the sophisticated “hourua” or “waka hourua,” a large twin-hulled canoe with a deck joining the two hulls and powered by one or two triangular matting sails - essentially a catamaran. These were the long-distance blue water voyaging canoes also called “waka moana.” During Cook’s time in Tahiti he noted that many hourua were up to 24m in length, had a large steering paddle and were capable of accommodating 80 - 100 crew (by comparison, the length of the Endeavour was 32m and accommodated 94 crew).

Despite some believing to this day that Polynesian sailors paddled their way to New Zealand, it was the large waka hourua which undertook the long-distance blue water voyaging. These superb seagoing sailing vessels successfully brought Polynesian settlers to New Zealand some 800 years ago.

Now we come to a commerce vessel originally built for transporting coal along the east coast of England and known as a “Whitby Cat.” The British Admiralty, after deciding that a broad beam shallow draft “Cat” would be ideal for exploring coastal and inland waterways, purchased a recently built ship for James Cook’s planned voyage to the Pacific and named it Endeavour. Fortunately, the Admiralty quickly discovered the navy already had an HMS Endeavour on its books - that being a 14-gun sloop. After some head-scratching, they decided on different classification for the recently purchased ship and commissioned it HM Bark Endeavour. To this day, many believe the ships nomenclature is not “Bark,” but “Barque” - a French class of similar sized vessels. This was not the case and Admiralty records of the day confirm the Endeavour was a Bark. Given the British and French being fierce rivals and their respective navies frequently engaging in armed conflict during the 18th century, it would seem using French terminology for one of His Majesty’s ships was a bit too much for the Admiralty to stomach.

Polynesians and Europeans, each in their own way, were equally skillful in the art of shipbuilding, ocean voyaging and navigation.

Pictured: Ngahiraka mai Tawhiti will form part of the Tuia 250 Voyage, a flotilla of vessels that will tour around New Zealand as part of the nationwide Tuia - Encounters 250 commemoration (marking the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the explorer James Cook in Aotearoa/New Zealand). The flotilla will arrive in Te Whanganui-o-Hei/Mercury Bay on Friday 18 October and will depart on Monday 21 October.


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