The Museum at Waitangi

February 23, 2020
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BACK at Waitangi, the mini-capital of the Chathams, there’s a museum housed in the Council buildings. I decided to go and have a look and find out more about how people lived in bygone days.

In the first of these posts, I showed a spectacular pointing of the blowing-up of the Boyd. Well, something similar happened in the Chathams in 1839. The Māori warriors who had lately invaded the islands and enslaved the Moriori destroyed a French whaling ship called the Jean Bart, after an affray apparently caused by the French crew thinking that aggressive Māori traditional greetings were the prelude to an attack.

The surviving crew of the Jean Bart fled in small boats and all seem to have perished at sea. Unable to handle the ship, its hijackers crashed it onto the rocks at Waitangi; where apparently its remains lie on the bottom of the harbour to this day.

The museum has a painting of the Jean Bart waiting to trade with the Māori, just before the incident, by the English-born artist Roger Morris:

In the painting, the Jean Bart looks as though it has a gun-deck with about twenty cannon. Whaling vessels often carried cannon, as their cargoes were very valuable and they sailed in remote and lawless places. Like the Chatham Islands, as it turned out.

Though only a whaler, the Jean Bart bore a name of some naval distinction. There was a Jean Bart in the Napoleonic Wars; a Jean Bart in World War II; and there is still a Jean Bart in the French Navy today.

Soon after the destruction of the whaler, a rather more serious French warship called the Héroïne turned up along with two more whalers, one of them American, and shelled Waitangi before putting about a hundred troops ashore to complete the destruction.

It was this sort of thing that probably encouraged the British to take over New Zealand in 1840, before the Americans or the French did.

The Māori and Moriori word for a canoe or boat is waka. The Māori built waka of various sizes from the trunks of rainforest trees. Such waka often had elaborately-carved prows and sterns, like the prow shown to the right of Morris’s painting.

Māori waka tend to be long, narrow (because carved from a tree-trunk) and fast, and look really impressive. On the other hand the classic Māori waka also tips over easily because it is narrow, and is basically an inshore vessel.

By the 1830s, the Māori had lost the ability to build the waka of their ancestors, the ones by which New Zealand was colonised from tropical Polynesia. Those waka had double hulls, rigging and sails and were really sailing-ships, though in English they’re called canoes as well.

Another technology that the Māori had lost was the outrigger, commonly added to the waka of the islands for stability in the surf outside the lagoon. Māori knew of such a thing, which they called waka ama. But by the 1830s, they didn’t seem to build waka ama anymore.

And so the Māori of the 1830s had to hitch rides on European vessels to get to and from the Chathams. The canoes shown in Morris’s painting would have been for inshore use. And probably also made from shipwreck timber, I suspect, since few if any trees of the size normally used to make Maori waka grew on the Chathams.

Moriori waka were very modest compared to Māori ones. The waka of the Moriori are called waka kōrari, which means ‘reed canoe’ in English, and that tells you what they were made of. Two side by side keels of narrow timber had a superstructure of reeds built on top of them, with kelp for flotation.

The waka kōrari are also called waka pahī or ‘wash canoes’ because the water gets in past the reeds, with the result that they sit low in the water, awash. The word pahī and its cognates are also used to refer to blue-water vessels in general in Māori and some other Polynesian languages, perhaps because they are generally though to be awash. And this is a clue to the Chatham Island’s waka’s secret, which was that this semi-submerged vessel also stayed upright more easily in rough seas than the Māori canoe.

A waka kōrari has been built and displayed in the museum at Waitangi; there are also one or two in museums on the mainland of New Zealand.

Waka kōrari or pahī in front of an apparently unrelated exhibition

This image shows the keels. I’m not sure of the significance of the toy dog.

Compared to the humble Chatham islands wash canoe, which looks as though anyone could have made it from stuff found on the beach, many Māori waka are awesome. If they were broader in the beam and thus more suited to rough seas, they would easily be the equal of the Viking longship: whose sinuous and sinister prow-dragons look so similiar, indeed, to the Māori ones. As I mentioned in the first post in this series, the Māori and kindred Pacific peoples came to be known as the Vikings of the Sunrise: a striking instance of convergent cultural evolution at opposite ends of the world.

Māori waka at the Waitangi (New Zealand mainland) Treaty House grounds. Photo credit W. Bulach (2009), CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But there wasn’t anything Viking-like about the Moriori wash-canoe. And so the Māori conquerors of the Chathams laughed at it to begin with. But they soon adopted it themselves, once its superior seakeeping properties were discerned.

(I’m not sure if it ever occurred to anyone to reinvent the waka ama, which might have had the same effect.)

The museum at Waitangi on the Chathams also had a display dedicated to the New Zealand Māori ‘social bandit’ Te Kooti, who fought against British colonists and the New Zealand colonial government in the 1860s and 1870s. He was of humble origin and had no facial tatoos of the sort with which more respectable Māori were extensively decorated.

He started out as a petty criminal from a rough background (his own father had tried to murder him) and then went on to become the leader of an army of guerillas, who carried on the fight against the colonists after the more conservative Maori King movement, the mains source of opposition to the colonists in the mid-1860s, had thrown in the towel.

Te Kooti was a rebel through and through, as much against the old social order of Māori-dom as against the colonists and their new laws. Basically, he was the nearest thing that colonial New Zealand produced to Australia’s Ned Kelly. Perhaps, even, to a more politically notable figure such Che Guevara. He certainly looked the part, being noticeably wild-eyed. According to the museum display, “All writers who described him mentioned his particularly fierce eyes and the absence of tatoo.”

Te Kooti and his followers were imprisoned on the Chathams by the British; only to escape with the help of the long-suffering Moriori. Back in mainland New Zealand in 1868, Te Kooti founded a religious sect called Ringatū, which means the upraised hand. In the long run the Ringatū would incorporate some of the peaceful principles of the Moriori, though in the short run Te Kooti would keep fighting.

The Te Kooti / Ringatū display. Note the upraised hands at bottom right, symbols of the sect, along with spiritual bird and Bible.

The church seal includes the phrase ‘Wharekauri 67’, a reference to the imprisonment of Te Kooti and his followers on the Chathams, called Wharekauri in Māori.

Te Kooti is probably the chief inspiration for the fictional character of Te Wheke (‘the Octopus’) in the classic 1983 New Zealand film Utu, its title the Māori word for settling the score.

Like Te Kooti, Te Wheke starts out on the side of the colonists and the British and then turns against them after something shocking happens. In colonial service, Te Kooti was accused of disloyalty and being a spy. Te Wheke’s village gets massacred at the start of the film.

There are few departures from verity. The film’s Te Wheke, played by an actor named Zac Wallace, acquires traditional facial tatoos in the course of the action. The eventual fate of Te Wheke also differs from that of the Te Kooti (it’d be a spoiler to say more than that). But on the whole, it’s all quite parallel.

You can watch Utu for free in its entirety, in the director’s cut, on Youtube:

One of Quentin Tarantino’s favourites, which gives you a good idea of what it’s like(!), Utu has lately been remastered. Though that version — Utu Redux —normally can’t be viewed for free.

There are also some anthropological displays of rare Moriori artifacts, though the light was a bit too dim for me to get sharp photos of these I think:

And there are also displays of a more folksy sort: of bottles, bridles, the time one of the flying-boats that used to serve the islands before the airstrip was built got into difficulties on the lagoon (fortunately quite shallow); and how the children used to ride horses to school.

But I didn’t spend all my time in Waitangi just nosing around the museum and reliving other people’s bygone days! I also travelled around the island some more.

In the next and final installment of this blog series, I’ll talk about how I got to the dendroglyph forest of Hapupu; to Port Hutt, where there is a shipwreck in the harbour; the new and impressive Kopinga Marae; and the Thomas Mohi Tuuta (Rangaika) Scenic Reserve.


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