Māori migration canoes
Among these is the story of Kupe, who had eloped with Kuramarotini, the wife of Hoturapa, the owner of the great canoe Matahourua, whom Kupe had murdered. To escape punishment for the murder, Kupe and Kura fled in Matahourua and discovered a land he called Aotearoa ('long-white-cloud'). He explored its coast and killed the sea monster Te Wheke-a-Muturangi, finally returning to his home to spread news of his newly discovered land.
Other stories of various tribes report migrations to escape famine, over-population, and warfare. These were made in legendary canoes, the best known of which are Aotea, Te Arawa, Kurahaupō, Mātaatua, Tainui, Tākitimu, and Tokomaru. Various traditions name numerous other canoes. Some, including the Āraiteuru, are well known; others including the Kirauta and the sacred Arahura and Mahangaatuamatua are little known. Rather than arriving in a single fleet, the journeys may have occurred over several centuries.
The "great fleet" hypothesis
Percy Smith believed that while the Polynesian traditions may have been flawed in detail, they preserved the threads of truth which could be recovered using a method already well established for Hawaiian traditions by Abraham Fornander (1878–1885). This method involved seeking out common elements of tradition from different sources, and aligning these to genealogies to give a time frame for the events. Fornander, Smith, and others used this method to reconstruct the migrations of the Polynesians, tracing them back to a supposed ancient homeland in India.
Smith used the Fornander method, combining disparate traditions from various parts of New Zealand and other parts of Polynesia, to derive the 'Great Fleet' hypothesis. Through an examination of the genealogies of various tribes, he came up with a set of precise dates for his 'Great Fleet' and the explorers that he and others posited as having paved the way for the fleet.
According to Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, "Smith’s account went as follows. In 750 AD the Polynesian explorer Kupe discovered an uninhabited New Zealand. Then in 1000–1100 AD, 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 AD a ‘great fleet’ of seven canoes – Aotea, Kurahaupō, Mātaatua, 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."
The great fleet scenario won general acceptance, its adherents even including the famous Māori ethnologist Te Rangi Hīroa (Sir Peter Buck), and was taught in New Zealand schools. However it was effectively demolished during the 1960s by the ethnologist David Simmons, who showed that it derived from an incomplete and indiscriminate study of Māori tradition as recorded in the 19th Century. Simmons also suggests that some of these 'migrations' may actually have been journeys within New Zealand.
Historian Rāwiri Taonui, writing in 2006 for the website Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accuses Smith of falsification: "The Great Fleet theory was the result of a collaboration between the 19th-century ethnologist S. Percy Smith and the Māori scholar Hoani Te Whatahoro Jury. Smith obtained details about places in Rarotonga and Tahiti during a visit in 1897, while Jury provided information about Māori canoes in New Zealand. Smith then ‘cut and pasted’ his material, combining several oral traditions into new ones. Their joint work was published in two books, in which Jury and Smith falsely attributed much of their information to two 19th-century tohunga, Moihi Te Mātorohanga and Nēpia Pōhūhū" (Taonui 2006).
- However according to K.R. Howe in Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, "Kupe was not a well-known figure in tradition" and his position as the discover of New Zealand is "a fabrication". See Ideas of Māori origins, 1920s–2000, New Understanding.
- See Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand: Ideas of Māori Origins
- Howe puts it more strongly, stating that Smith's great fleet was "a fabrication", and that Simmons "also demonstrated that Smith manipulated tradition and other evidence to produce the story he wanted." Ideas of Māori origins, 1920s–2000, New Understanding.
- R.D. Craig, Dictionary of Polynesian Mythology (Greenwood Press: New York) 1989, 24–26.
- A. Fornander, An Account of the Polynesian Race 3 volumes. (London: Kegan Paul), 1878–1885.
- T. R. Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck), The Coming of the Maori. Second Edition. First Published 1949. Wellington: Whitcombe and Tombs) 1974.
- K. R. Howe, 'Ideas of Māori origins', Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 3-Apr-2006. URL: www.TeAra.govt.nz/NewZealanders/MaoriNewZealanders/IdeasOfMaoriOrigins/en
- G. Irwin, The Prehistoric Exploration and Colonisation of the Pacific. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge) 1992.
- D.R. Simmons, The Great New Zealand Myth: a study of the discovery and origin traditions of the Maori (Reed: Wellington) 1976.
- S.P. Smith, History and Traditions of the Maoris of the W. Coast, North Island, New Zealand (New Plymouth: Polynesian Society) 1910.
- R. Taonui. 'Canoe traditions', Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 3-Apr-2006. URL: www.TeAra.govt.nz/NewZealanders/MaoriNewZealanders/CanoeTraditions/en
- R. Walter, R. Moeka'a, History and Traditions of Rarotonga by Te Ariki Tara 'Are, (Auckland: The Polynesian Society) 2000, viii.
- Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand: Ideas of Māori Origins
- Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand: The meaning of canoe traditions
- maori.info Useful summary of the mythical and historical origin of the Māori of New Zealand