It's a Māui's World


Tina, tina tāku aho

Te Ihi o te rangi

Ko koe e mau mai na

Naku ano taku matau i ta


Be firm, be strong my line

With strength derived from above

You who are firmly caught

By this hook of my own making

When James Cook made landfall in New Zealand in October 1769 he inaugurated the beginning of increasing contact between Māori and the European world. These first meetings were complex and did not end well for Māori.


As we approach the 250 year commemorations of the Cook expeditions we also get the opportunity to reflect on the fact that a number of people died during these great voyages of discovery.


Now is an opportune moment to consider all aspects of these encounters. Cook entered Tōtaranui in January 1770.


Over the course of his three expeditions he spent 170 out of 328 days in what he would rename ‘Queen Charlotte Sound’, far more than any other location.


Cook’s expeditions have been remembered for the advancements made in science and navigation. They have also been  remembered because of the 10 sailors that were killed by Māori at Wharehunga Bay in 1773.  This supposed act of barbarism continues to fascinate, no doubt because of the descriptions left by those who came across the gruesome scene.


Like the killing of Tasman’s 4 men in 1642 and the death of 22 settlers at the Wairau in 1843, the killing of Furneaux’s crew in 1773 has become part of a repertory of images that have constructed Māori as violent and lacking restraint.


Preconceived notions of Māori savagery have over time led to the denigration of Māori nautical achievement. Yet the reality is, as has always been the case, when Cook arrived he had clearly entered a Māori world. 

Cook was renowned for his cartographic abilities. Having mapped the New Zealand coastline Cook put to rest any idea that it was part of terra australis incognita, the great unknown southern continent.


His map is also useful in that it features a number of Māori place names.


When Cook inquired as to what the name of the North Island was he was told, ‘Eaheinomauwe’.


What Cook may well have heard was, ‘Te Ahi a Māui’ or ‘He Mea hi no Māui’.


Whether it was ‘the fire of Māui’ or the ‘the things that Māui fished up’, it shows that Tōtaranui Māori understood the world in which they lived and conceptualised it in a particular way; moreover, reference to Māui anchored New Zealand in Polynesia and to a mythology spanning centuries. 


Cook and the expeditions he led are well known, however, relatively less is known about the people he met.


The observations made by Cook and his crew are certainly useful, that is once we recognise that they have been filtered through a particular cultural lens.


We know the names of the chiefs Cook met and what whānau and hapu were present at the time.


We have whakapapa (genealogy) that connect the Tōtaranui community  with communities on the northern side of Raukawakawa Moana (Cook Strait), and with earlier ancestors, some of whom had only recently arrived in the area. 


Another useful source of information are the many names that have been bestowed upon the land by ancestors who explored and settled this place. Such names are best understood as ‘survey pegs of memory’. An archaeological signature, along with artefacts collected by Cook and now housed in foreign museums, also provide insights into the daily lives of the people of Tōtaranui-Queen Charlotte Sound.  


The connection between the tangata whenua (People of the Land) and their relatives in the Pacific was quickly recognised by Cook and his crew.


As Joseph Banks wrote, ‘from the similarity of customs, the still greater of Traditions and the identical sameness of Language between these and those of the Islands in the South Seas there remains little doubt that they came originally from the same source’. Indeed many names were carried from the Pacific and placed on this new land.


Among the many characters of the Polynesian pantheon Māui stands as the most important.  In the well-known Māori retelling of these traditions Māui survives an inauspicious birth.


Believed to be stillborn his mother wraps him in the topknot of her hair (in some versions it is Māui’s father) and pushes him out to sea.


Here he is discovered by his ancestor, Tama ki te Rangi, who revives Māui by suspending him over a smoky fire.


Māui’s life is spent shaping the environment, making it suitable for human occupation.


Using a hook made from the jawbone of Murirangawhenua Māui fished up islands for humans to live on.


He acquires fire from Mahuika, a useful tool when clearing land for food production, and cooking.


And he and his brothers slowed down the sun, a most important feat in temperate New Zealand where planting and harvesting where crucial for survival.


Māui’s final task was to kill Hinenuitepō, and if successful he would secure immortality for humans.


His plan was to enter the vagina of the ‘goddess of death’ and rip out her heart. He failed, and so humans must die.


It was the fantail that woke Hinenuitepō and alerted her to Māui’s movements, ultimately leading to his demise. For this reason the fantail is considered by some to be harbinger of death.  


There are regional similarities and variations in the oral traditions.


The greatest fish of all, Te Ika a Māui, ‘Māui’s fish’, would much later become known as the North South Island of New Zealand; Te Waka a Māui, ‘Māui’s canoe’, would become the South Island. Hence, the coastal regions of Marlborough and Nelson, with its many bays, islands, and inlets is Te Tauihu o Te Waka, the ‘prow  of the canoe’.


On Cook’s map he refers to the South Island as ‘vai pounamu’, while a southern Māori tradition speaks of Te Waka o Aoraki, ‘Aoraki’s canoe’.


According to a local Ngāti Kuia oral tradition, Māui stood on Arapaoa Island in the Marlborough Sounds from where he hauled up the North Island.


His hook was named Pikimaiawhea and his fishing line would become the Grampian Ranges to the south-east of present day Nelson City.


A Rangitāne tradition maintains that Māui would meet his end at Ōhinemahuta, a valley on the north bank of the Wairau River.


Thus, as people moved from one place to the next, from island to island, oral traditions were not discarded but remoulded to take into account a changed environment.


Similarly, names from former homelands were installed in newly discovered lands. This kind of information has been useful for those interested in the relationship between Māori and their Pacific kin, and of course the question that has long interested Europeans: ‘from whence the Māori?’.  


Taunahanaha is the process of naming, and it is central to customary Māori land tenure.


One could strengthen their claim to land and resources if a connection to an early ancestor could be proven, particularly an ancestor whose name or deeds have been written into the landscape, such as Māui, Te  Hau, Kupe, Mātuahautere, Tukauae, Huataki and Tarakaipa.


These ‘survey pegs of memory’ are also key to understanding the migration of peoples travelling south.


Meretoto played an important role here, providing a safe point of arrival for migrants.


It is no coincidence that Cook quickly recognised the advantages ‘Ship Cove’ had to offer. 


Meretoto was also a point of departure.


Some of the people Cook met during his expeditions were kainga rua, that is, they had two homes, one on each side of Cook Strait which they visited seasonally. 


New Zealand has always placed importance on James Cook and Meretoto/Ships Cove.


In 1896 2000 acres surrounding the site was reserved and in February 1913 the Governor, Lord Liverpool, unveiled a large concrete monument dedicated to Cook. It was the second such monument in New Zealand, the first being in Gisborne.


Another Cook monument was erected seven years later on Motuara Island, near to where Cook proclaimed sovereignty over the South Island in 1770.


The bicentenary of Cook’s arrival was commemorated with a re-enactment, performed twice, the second time for Queen Elizabeth II during her royal visit. 


Māori involvement in the commemorations, in any substantial form, began in 1996 when the waka, Te Awatea Hou, accompanied by a replica of the Endeavour during a re-enactment of Cook’s arrival. When the site was redeveloped in 2006 the Department of Conversation and iwi worked together in order to provide a bicultural interpretation of the site and its significance to tangata whenua.


Three pouwhenua, one depicting Kupe and his arrival, and two depicting the iwi with associations to the site were installed. 


As we approach 2020 and the 250 commemorations we are afforded the opportunity to re-examine the histories of Tōtaranui. While much is known about James Cook, less is known about the tangata whenua.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century we have new knowledge and new tools that can broaden our understanding of the past. Oral tradition, though once considered to be quaint imaginings of a savage people, are now recognised as being part of knowledge system in its own right.   

Peter N. Meihana & Mark Moses

Photo : Thanks to Te Papa


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.

  • Totaranui 250 Facebook
  • Twitter -Totaranui 250 Trust
  • Grey YouTube Icon
  • neighbourly1
  • Instagram - Totaranui 250 Trust