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Waka (canoe)

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Waka taua (war canoes) at the Bay of Islands, 1827–1828

Waka (Māori: [ˈwaka])[1] are Māori watercraft, usually canoes ranging in size from small, unornamented canoes (waka tīwai) used for fishing and river travel to large, decorated war canoes (waka taua) up to 40 metres (130 ft) long.

The earliest remains of a canoe in New Zealand were found near the Anaweka estuary in a remote part of the Tasman District and radiocarbon-dated to about 1400.[2] The canoe was constructed in New Zealand, but was a sophisticated canoe, compatible with the style of other Polynesian voyaging canoes at that time.[3][2]

Since the 1970s about eight large double-hulled canoes of about 20 metres have been constructed for oceanic voyaging to other parts of the Pacific. They are made of a blend of modern and traditional materials, incorporating features from ancient Melanesia, as well as Polynesia.

Waka taua (war canoes)[edit]

A waka taua on display at the Otago Museum, Dunedin

Waka taua (in Māori, waka means "canoe" and taua means "army" or "war party") are large canoes manned by up to 80 paddlers and are up to 40 metres (130 ft)[4] in length. Large waka, such as Ngā Toki Matawhaorua[5] which are usually elaborately carved and decorated, consist of a main hull formed from a single hollowed-out log, along with a carved upright head and tailboard. The gunwale is raised in some by a continuous plank, which gives increased freeboard and prevents distortion of the main hull components when used in a rough seas. Sometimes the hull is further strengthened, as in the case of Te Winika, a 200-year-old design, by a batten or stringer running lengthwise both inside and outside the hull just above the loaded waterline.[6][7] The resurgence of Māori culture has seen an increase in the numbers of waka taua built, generally on behalf of a tribal group, for use on ceremonial occasions.

Traditionally the war canoe was highly tapu (sacred). No cooked food was allowed in the craft and the waka had to be entered over the gunwales, not the bow or stern, which were highly decorated with powerful symbols. Canoes were often painted with black or white with black representing death. The main colour was red which stood for tapu. Sometimes a waka would be placed upright as a marker for a dead chief with the curved bottom of the hull carved.[8] Māori told missionaries during the Musket Wars that battles between waka took place at sea with the aim being to ram an enemy's waka amidships at high speed. The ramming vessel would ride up over the gunwale and either force it under water or cause it to roll over. The enemies were either killed, left to drown or captured to be used in cannibal feasts or as slaves if they were female.[9] This description matches the attack on the ship's boat of Abel Tasman in Golden Bay in 1642 when a Māori catamaran rammed a cock boat and four Dutch sailors were killed.[10]

Traditional construction[edit]

Traditional waka at Waitangi Treaty House site
Drawing of a traditional waka, 1773[11]
Waka at the blowing up of the Boyd, painting by Louis John Steele (1889)

During the classic period (about 1500 to 1770) a hapū would select a tōtara tree and prepare it years ahead for felling. Tōtara is a lightweight wood with a high natural oil content that helps prevent rot. This would include the removal of bark from one side of the trunk and the clearing of the ground and the planting of food crops for workers. After chants and prayers, the tree would be felled by a combination of fires around the base and chopping with hand adzes. On an especially large tree with aerial roots a stage about 3 m high was built of wood. On this was built a framework on which was suspended a giant upside-down toki (axe), about 2.5 m long. The long axis of the toki was tied to the crossmember of the upper framework so that it could pivot back and forth, like a swing. Heavy rocks were tied to each side of the long axis at its lowest point to give momentum. The toki was pulled back and released so that the cutting edge bit into the wood that was weakened by fire. It could take two to three weeks to cut down a large tree in this manner.

Once felled, the head of the tree and branches were removed, then the hull was roughly shaped in situ, using fire and hand adzes, under the guidance of the chief designer. A stone adze was used by relatively gentle, but regular and repeated blows. The head was soaked in water to make the binding swell and hold the stone blade more firmly. Once the shaping was complete, the log of 3–4 tonnes was pulled by teams of men to a stream or river, using multiple ropes made from raupō. Some men pulled the waka forward while others restrained it on downhill slopes. Accidents at this stage were apparently common. Saplings were used as skids and rollers over uneven ground.

The final shaping was done closer to the papakainga to be nearer to food. A waka could take a year to make if the construction went smoothly, but it could be abandoned if there was an accident or a death of an important person. Such abandoned, uncompleted waka have been found in post-contact times. Most large waka were built in several main interlocking sections and stitched together with flax rope. Small pegs were put into the holes, which swelled and sealed when wet. Tree gum could also seal the holes. A large finished waka weighed about three tonnes and could remain in use for many decades. All large waka had names and were objects of pride and admiration.

The image above shows a waka taua with unusually high freeboard. A noticeable feature of a loaded waka taua was its very low freeboard of 400–500 mm, which made the vessel unseaworthy in all but good weather, despite the presence of one or two young men on board dedicated to bailing. The normal timber used, totara, is a lightweight native podocarp, which retains its natural oils even when cut down. This prevented the timber opening up and splitting. Angela Ballara noted that they only put to sea when it was fine. One voyage across the stormy Cook Strait was delayed for a week while the travellers waited for fine weather. The missionary William Williams, son of Henry Williams, noted that the voyage of a waka taua was a leisurely affair due to the requirements of foraging for food and waiting for fine weather.

The 1974 National Film Unit documentary - Taahere Tikitiki - the making of a Maori canoe - records the 18 month long construction of a waka taua - the Taahere Tikitiki. The waka was commissioned by the Māori Queen, Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, and constructed at Tūrangawaewae Marae by master carver Piri Poutapu. The film, directed by David Sims, is a visual insight into the building of this cultural taonga.

Traditional sails[edit]

Tasman noted that two of the waka which attacked his ships in Golden Bay in today's Tasman District in December 1642, had a sail that Tasman referred to as a Tingang sail[12]—a small triangular sail often temporarily hoisted. Later, early Europeans from the 1830s onwards gave detailed descriptions of the use, appearance and materials used in Māori sails. Although there were regional variations within New Zealand, most sails were temporary and could be hoisted or struck in a few minutes. The roughly triangular sail, usually made from either flax, leaves or raupō (bulrushes) or a combination, was set about one-third back from the bow. The raupō sail was much lighter. The mast and yard spars were small diameter, with the yard being thinner, about 5 metres (16 ft) high, long, and permanently attached to the sail so the rig was raised as a single unit. Loops were woven into both the luff and the leech of the sail for attachment to the spars. Tanekaha (celery pine) branches were favoured, as it was common, as far south as Nelson. It was a straight, strong and flexible wood. An added advantage may have been that the wood bled red tannin, a colour strongly favoured by Māori.

Māori waka with triangle sail drawn by Herman Spöring during Cook's first voyage to New Zealand in 1769

The head of the triangle sail was the shortest—about 2 metres (6.6 ft)—and often decorated with tufts of feathers that may have served as wind indicators. The mast was held in place by a forestay, a backstay and two side stays. The sheet to control the sail angle led from the top of the yard directly to the sheet handler, although early British sailors were critical of the sheet being tied off. The sail was only used downwind, as the waka lacked a keel or centre-board to prevent leeway, therefore preventing windward sailing. Rarely, two sails of the same size, were used in larger waka.

Due to its slim hull the waka could sail at considerable speed down wind. When struck, the sail was wrapped around the two spars and laid along the centre of the waka thwarts, between the paddlers. Sometimes a pattern was woven into the sail, using a different material. The only known example of a traditional waka sail is in the British Museum. Capsizes were not unknown, with the hull being tipped to get rid of water, then bailed out.[13] This type of triangular sail, with straight mast and high angled sprit, is identical to that used in the Marquesan Islands. Although there are references to the use of the Society Island–type crescent-shaped sail in New Zealand, these appear to have been rare and no examples exist.[citation needed]

Technology changes[edit]

From the arrival of James Cook in 1769 and especially Marion Du Fresne's longer stay in New Zealand in 1772, Māori were able to obtain iron and steel, which did not exist in pre-contact Māori culture. Māori quickly learned the superiority of this material, especially for carving. Māori learnt to ask sailors to sharpen 8-inch-long (20 cm) ships' nails to a chisel point on a ship's wheel in exchange for fish. This period between 1779 and 1820 has been called the golden age of Māori wood carving.[14] Much of the carving was confined to waka taua.

During the middle 19th century, from 1835, the arrival of large numbers of European settlers and ships meant that ship's boats were far more commonly available and were increasingly used by Māori in preference to waka. In 1839 100 ships visited The Bay of Islands.[9] This was a trend that the missionaries such as Marsden and Williams had noted had begun in the 1830s. The beamier, lighter, ship's boat was a better load carrier with more stability and was sometimes equipped with sails for windward sailing. Use of ship's boats became common, as many Māori worked on a wide variety of sealing, whaling and trading sailing vessels, both in New Zealand and in the Pacific.

Few waka were used for movement of warriors during the Land Wars: When the Waikato campaign started in 1863, the government forces made a point of sinking all the waka they could find on the Waikato River and its tributaries to slow rebel communication. Later, some fine examples of these were placed in the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

Ocean-going canoes[edit]

Te Aurere, a reconstructed waka hourua, in Mangonui in 2009

Ocean-going waka, whatever their size, could be paddled, but achieved their best speeds when propelled by sail. The Polynesian settlers of New Zealand migrated to New Zealand in large waka; according to legend, some of these were possibly waka hourua, double-hulled vessels. The names and stories associated with those waka were passed on in oral history (kōrero o mua), but dates, names, times, and routes were frequently muddled as the descendants of the settlers multiplied and separated into iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes). Consequently, the word waka is used to denote a confederation of iwi descended from the people of one migratory canoe.

In 1992, Hekenukumai Busby built Te Aurere, a waka hourua, using traditional methods and materials.[15] It has since voyaged across the Pacific, to Hawaii, Tahiti, the Marquesas, New Caledonia and Norfolk Island, as well as repeatedly circumnavigating Te Ika-a-Māui using Polynesian navigation methods.[15]

Waka ama (outrigger canoes)[edit]

Early European explorers saw Māori using waka ama (outrigger canoes). "Sydney Parkinson, an artist on Captain 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 korewa)".[16][17] Already rare in Cook's time, waka ama had largely faded from memory by the early 19th century.[18] However, the term waka ama occurs in old stories, such as the story of Māui published by Grey in 1854 and in a few old waiata; Tregear also mentions the waka ama as "a possession of the Māori", adding that "It was beneath the outrigger of such a canoe that the famous Maui crushed his wife's brother Irawaru before turning him into a dog. Both the double canoe and the outrigger have entirely disappeared from among the Māoris, and it is doubtful if any native now alive has seen either of them in New Zealand".[19]

Two outrigger floats were found in swamps along the Horowhenua coast of Cook Strait, and another float was found in Moncks Cave near Christchurch. All three floats were short, suggesting that Māori outriggers were small and used only in sheltered waters.[20]

The Māori words for the parts of the outrigger, such as ama and kiato, recorded in the early years of European settlement, suggest that Māori outrigger canoes were similar in form to those known from central Polynesia.[21]

Since the 1990s, waka ama racing, introduced from Pasifika nations into New Zealand during the 1980s and 1990s, using high-tech canoes of Hawaiian or Tahitian design and with the ingenious support of work schemes, has become an increasingly popular sport among Māori, often performed as part of cultural festivals held in summer.[22]

Other materials used[edit]

The Haunui, a replica ocean-going waka

Some waka, particularly in the Chatham Islands, were not conventional canoes, but were constructed from raupō (bulrushes) or flax stalks.

In 2009, the Okeanos Foundation for the Sea and Salthouse Boatbuilders built a fleet of vaka moana / waka hourua with fibreglass hulls.[23] One of these, the Haunui, was gifted to the Te Toki Voyaging Trust in New Zealand.[24]

In April 2011 Te Puni Kokiri, The Māori Development Agency, announced a joint venture with an Auckland tribe to build a PVC plastic pavilion in the shape of a waka as a promotion for local Māori. The "Tupper waka", as it was called in the media, was a small conference facility for well-off visitors during the world rugby competition held in New Zealand in September 2011. Most of the $2 million funding came from the government, but the tribe was contributing $100,000 and would retain ownership after the event. The graphic on television showed that it is largely a promotional device with seating, tables and a bar. It will not be open to the general public, according to the media briefing.[citation needed]

The waka taua Te Tuhono in the National Museum of Scotland was restored and partially reconstructed by the Māori craftsman George Nuku, using carved poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA) to recreate missing sections.[25]

Related meanings[edit]

The word "waka" is also used in broader senses that can be translated as "vessel", "container", or "vehicle".

A waka huia is a hollowed and carved vessel used for storing of taonga (treasures) such as the prized tail feathers of the now extinct huia (Heteralocha acutirostris) that are worn as ornaments in the hair.[26]

In current Māori language usage, waka is used to refer to cars, (along with the transliterated term motokā), waka-rere-rangi for aircraft and a waka hari hinu is an oil tanker – a waka niho (gear container) is a car's gearbox. Waka can be used to refer transport in general, such as in "Te Manatū Waka" (Ministry of Transport) and "Waka Kotahi" (NZ Transport Agency).

Waka may also refer to a kinship group descended from the crew of a canoe which migrated to New Zealand and occupying a set territory.[27] A waka in this sense may comprise several iwi (tribes).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The plural is also waka. Similar craft are encountered elsewhere in Polynesia, with cognate names such as vaka, wa'a, or va'a.
  2. ^ a b Chitham, Karl; Māhina-Tuai, Kolokesa U.; Skinner, Damian Hugh, eds. (2019-01-01). Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the wider Moana Oceania. pp. 30–31.
  3. ^ Johns, Dilys A.; Irwin, Geoffrey J.; Sung, Yun K. (2014-10-14). "An early sophisticated East Polynesian voyaging canoe discovered on New Zealand's coast". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 111 (41): 14728–14733. Bibcode:2014PNAS..11114728J. doi:10.1073/pnas.1408491111. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 4205625. PMID 25267657.
  4. ^ "Waka taua", Te Ara
  5. ^ Tahana, Yvonne (18 January 2010). "Waka back and better than ever". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 1 December 2011.
  6. ^ Waikato Museum booklet, "Te Winika"
  7. ^ Te Winika is on long-term display at Waikato Museum. See Waikato Museum: Long Term Exhibitions.
  8. ^ Binney, Judith (2010), "The Lost Drawing of Nukutawhiti", Stories without End: Essays 1975–2010, Bridget Williams Books, pp. 26–43, doi:10.7810/9781877242472_2, ISBN 9781877242472, S2CID 184282006
  9. ^ a b O'Malley (2012).
  10. ^ Tasman (2008).
  11. ^ Hawkesworth J, Wallis JS, Byron J, Carteret P, Cook J, Banks J (1773) An Account of the Voyages Undertaken by the Order of His Present Majesty for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, vol 1, chap 10. W. Strahan and T. Cadell in the Strand.
  12. ^ Tasman (2008), p. 22.
  13. ^ E Best; A. Shearer. The Māori Canoe. Wellington: NZETC. pp. 252–265.
  14. ^ O'Malley (2012), p. 135.
  15. ^ a b "Te Aurere". Te Tai Tokerau Tarai Waka. Retrieved 30 July 2020.
  16. ^ Barclay-Kerr (2007).
  17. ^ Hawkesworth, John (1773). "Voyages in the Southern Hemisphere, Vols. II–III". An Account Of A Voyage Round The World In The Years MDCCLXVIII, MDCCLXIX, MDCCLXX, and DCCLXXI By Lieutenant James Cook, Commander of his Majesty's Bark the Endeavour. London: William Strahan and Thomas Cadell. p. 460.
  18. ^ Howe (2006), p. 87.
  19. ^ Tregear (1904), p. 115.
  20. ^ Howe (2006), p. 240.
  21. ^ The story of Māui as written by Te Rangikāheke refers to ama in sentences such as "hei roto koe, hei te ama o to taua waka" (published by Grey (1971), p. 20, translated by Grey as "You get under the outrigger of the canoe ..." Grey, Polynesian Mythology, 1974:40).
  22. ^ Neilson, Michael (8 February 2019). "Waka ama race through Auckland retraces 800-year-old Tainui route". NZ Herald. Retrieved 19 June 2019.
  23. ^ "Vaka Moana". Okeanos Foundation for the Sea. Retrieved 29 July 2020.
  24. ^ "Our Waka Hourua". Te Toki Waka Hourua. Retrieved 29 July 2020.
  25. ^ Stable, Charles (2012). "Maximum Intervention: Renewal of a Māori Waka by George Nuku and National Museums Scotland". Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies. 10 (1). doi:10.5334/jcms.1011202.
  26. ^ "CORONATION GIFT", Te Ao Hou
  27. ^ "Waka - te Aka Māori Dictionary".


  • Barclay-Kerr, Hoturoa (2007). "Waka – canoes". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Updated 13 April 2007. Archived from the original on 19 August 2007. Retrieved 2007-09-20.
  • Grey, G. (1971) [1854]. Nga Mahi a Nga Tupuna (4th ed.). Reed.
  • Howe, K.R., ed. (2006). Vaka Moana – Voyages of the Ancestors. David Bateman.
  • O'Malley, V. (2012). The Meeting Place. Auckland University Press.
  • Tasman, Abel (2008) [1644]. Diary of Abel Tasman. Random House.
  • Tregear, Edward Robert (1904). The Māori Race. Wanganui: Archibald Dudingston Willis. Retrieved 2007-09-02.