Before Cook there was Kupe


Centuries before James Cook entered the Pacific Ocean Polynesians had reached the fringes of the so-called ‘Polynesian Triangle’. The ancestors of the Māori had branched out from their east Polynesian homeland in voyages of discovery that were both purposeful and planned. These voyages have been remembered in the oral traditions of different tribes, and as is the case with the traditions associated with Māui, the traditions associated with the migrations vary in detail from one area to the next, all of which are valid to the communities to which they belong.  


One of the most well known figures in the Māori traditions of exploration is Kupe. His notoriety, at least within the broader community, stems primarily from the work of early Pākeha ethnographers who attempted a standardised account of migration and settlement. It was reckoned that Kupe arrived in New Zealand around 750 AD, and then around 1350 AD a fleet of canoes arrived. This chronology was gradually revised and from the 1960s the idea of a ‘great fleet’ was rejected. Moreover, recent archaeological evidence from the Wairau Bar suggests a settlement date no earlier than 1280 AD, a proposition that requires us to reassess how New Zealand was settled. Cook’s estimation of the Māori population at the time of his arrival was 100,000. If the date of settlement (1280 AD) is to be accepted, then the founding population must have been large enough to reach the levels calculated by Cook. Mass migration in the form of a ‘fleet’ has been dismissed, however, multiple voyages over an extended period of 100 years or so is supported by the evidence.


What then of Kupe? A number of tribal groups name Kupe in their whakapapa. He is usually considered to have been a visitor, who explored and named places before he eventually returned home to Hawaiiki. According to tradition he departed from Hokianga. Kupe’s visit is significant in that the information gathered was passed on to others who would return and permanently settle. Naming significant geographical features and natural phenomena and then incorporating them into linguistic devices such as pūrākau (oral traditions), waiata (songs), and karakia (incantations) ensured that information was remembered and made accessible to those entrusted with this vital knowledge. 


The coastal area of Marlborough is replete with place names associated with Kupe, an indication perhaps of the time he spent in the area. Many of these names are connected with a great battle between Kupe and Te Wheke a Muturangi, a giant octopus that Kupe had pursued from Hawaiiki and eventually killed. The rising stroke before the administration  of the lethal blow is recorded in the name ‘Arapaoa’ Island. The flashing light from Kupe’s axe is remembered in the name ‘Te Uira Karapa’, a rock formation in Tory Channel. Another rock formation in the Channel is a reference to the handle of the axe, ‘Te Kakau o te toki o Kupe’. The Channel itself is rightly known as ‘Kura Te Au’ - The Red Current - a name that alludes to the blood that flowed from the octopus. To this day we are reminded of this event  when red veins of  māunu (krill) run through the area. The old whalers of Tory Channel will certainly remember this.


Having despatched Te Wheke a Muturangi at Whekenui Bay, Kupe gouged out its eyes and cast them into the sea, becoming ‘Whatu Tīpare’ and ‘Whatu Kaipono’, known much later as ‘The Brothers’. A custom that arose from these events was that travellers crossing the straight for the first time would shield their eyes from the Islands with kawakawa leaves. It was in this way that these beautiful, yet at times treacherous waters, received the name ‘Raukawakawa moana’. According to tribal tradition Tamairangi, the daughter of Kahura, who we will meet later was the only person who was not subject to this restriction.


Kupe, having dealt with these formalities, continued to explore the surrounding area naming places as he went. ‘Te Pokohiwi a Kupe’, the Wairau Bar, now recognised as New Zealand’s most important archaeological site, was one such place. South of Te Pokohiwi, at Kai para te Hau (Lake Grassmere), Kupe encountered Te Hau. It is said the two engaged in an epic battle, each reciting incantation that caused earthquakes and tsunamis. These events reflect a worldview in which the spiritual and physical are fully integrated. Research carried out at the Wairau Bar recently confirms that over the last 2000 years earthquakes and tsunamis were a regular occurrence. According to tradition Kupe was responsible for the groves of Karaka trees that are to be found at various locations along the Marlborough coastline. The act of naming and the planting of Karaka trees were all part of a customary process whereby Kupe took possession of new territory. Rights of discovery, however, were conditional on occupation. 


The oral traditions of Kupe also reference a number of kaitiaki (guardians). Kupe is said to have had a pet shag - Te Kawau a Toru - whose responsibility it was to test ocean currents. Te Kawau, while appraising the water’s of French Pass, broke its wing and was drowned, becoming a reef. Te Aumiti a Te Kawau a Toru - ‘the swallowing current of Te Kawau a Toru’ - is the name that recalls the event. The King Shag that inhabits certain areas of the Marlborough Sounds are said to be Te Kawau’s descendants. This taonga species is of particular importance to Ngāti Kuia and Ngāti Koata. Concern for Te Kawau and the marine environment has in recent times has seen Ngāti Kuia actively oppose the establishment of salmon farms in the Marlborough Sounds. 


Kupe is also said to have had a pet rupe (pigeon) whose task it was to ascertain the wealth of the area’s forests. Rupe never returned to its master indicating that fruits of the forest could indeed sustain people. According to Ngāti Kuia tradition Rupe visited Puhikererū(Mt Furneaux) and Te Rupe o Ruapaka (near Canvastown); both were traditional birding areas. The whare moe at Te Hora Marae is also named Te Rupe o Ruapaka. Again, the process of naming  provides a living connection with the past.  


Before leaving Raukawakawa moana Kupe performed one last act. At the entrance of Te Hoiere, Pelorus Sound, he installed a kaitiaki to protect the mauri of the area. According to Ngāti Kuia tradition this kaitiaki was Kaikaiāwaro, a white dolphin that appeared in times of danger to assist Kupe’s descendants. Generations later these people met James Cook.



When the Endeavour arrived in Tōtaranui the tangata whenua, which Cook numbered about 300 to 400, were  keen to engage. Earlier exchanges with northern Māori had ended in disaster, and it was fortunate that Cook now sought the advice of Tupaia. Through Tupaia, Cook was able to glean information about the area's geography and the ancestral origins of his hosts. Topaa was overheard by Joseph Banks saying that his ancestors came from ‘Heawye’. Local Māori and Tupaia conversed about religious matters. Māori throughout the country acknowledged his chiefly status and were in awe of his knowledge. When Cook returned to Tōtaranui during his second expedition Māori were informed that Tupaia had died. As was customary a lament was composed, reflecting the esteem in which Tupaia was held. Moreover, Tupaia’s Lament provides an insight into what types of things he and Māori discussed. 


During Cook’s first stay in Tōtaranui he spent time exploring the sound. On one occasion he ascended a hill at the southern end of Arapaoa Island and from this vantage point he was able to determine what Māori already knew, and what he himself already suspected: New Zealand was not part of a large unknown continent but were in fact islands.    


On 31 January 1770 Cook, accompanied by Tupaia, made his way to Motuara Island where they met Topaa. Cook inquired of the old chief if he might be allowed to erect a marker so ships that might subsequently arrive would know that the British had been there first. Topaa agreed and assured Cook that the marker would not be pulled down. Cook then hoisted the Union Jack and took position of the land in the name of King George III bestowing the name ‘Queen Charlotte Sound’. The party then toasted the occasion with a bottle of wine which Cook gave to Topaa along with a coin. There is no doubt that Cook was here on an imperial mission.


The practice of naming is an important one as it  helps to structure oral traditions and in turn make sense of the world around us. Some names have slipped from usage or become corrupted over time. This perhaps parallels the disconnection between us and the environment. It should be said though that the oral traditions have been maintained in our local meeting houses, at Omaka and Waikawa. In the last 3 decades or so efforts have been made to restore the original names to the land, however, there continues to be resistance from certain quarters. The approach that is now taken is one of dual names. This is something we can build on…


Dr Peter Meihana & Mark Moses


In 2019, New Zealand will mark 250 years since the first meetings between Māori and Pākehā during James Cook and the Endeavour’s 1769 voyage to Aotearoa New Zealand. Tuia – Encounters 250 will acknowledge this pivotal moment in our nation’s history as well as the extraordinary feats of Pacific voyagers who reached and settled in Aotearoa many years earlier.

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