Image from the cover of Madi Williams' book Polynesia: 900–1600. By John Bevan Ford, Reading the Swell, collection of Christchurch Art Gallery. "In John Bevan Ford's drawing, a small canoe rides the ocean's swell; above, the seafarers are protected by an outstretched cloak. The soaring amour (also known as a bosun bird or tropicbird) symbolised for Bevan Ford the migration of Polynesian people across the Pacific Ocean." []

Cover image of Madi Williams’ book Polynesia: 900–1600. By John Bevan Ford, Reading the Swell, collection of Christchurch Art Gallery. “In John Bevan Ford’s drawing, a small canoe rides the ocean’s swell; above, the seafarers are protected by an outstretched cloak. The soaring amour (also known as a bosun bird or tropicbird) symbolised for Bevan Ford the migration of Polynesian people across the Pacific Ocean.”

Historian Madi Williams sheds light on half a millennium of human history in the South Pacific, in her book Polynesia 900–1600: An overview of the history of Aotearoa, Rēkohu, and Rapa Nui. Kennedy Warne has been checking it out.


Madi Williams (Photo: Melissa Banks)

When the proposed content of the new school history curriculum was released last year, one of the criticisms levelled against it was that most of this country’s human history — the 500-plus years between Polynesian settlement to the arrival of Europeans — was absent. It was as if the first people stepped off their waka one minute and were signing Te Tiriti the next. 

To many historians, the curriculum’s silence on half a millennium of Māori history was an inexplicable oversight — one that doesn’t appear to have been corrected in the final version of the curriculum. 

It is timely, then, that Madi Williams’ book, Polynesia 900–1600: An overview of the history of Aotearoa, Rēkohu, and Rapa Nui, has arrived on the scene to fill in some details of that missing period. 

Madi, a lecturer and researcher at Aotahi, the School of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury, hails from three iwi of the northern South Island, including Ngāti Kuia, which is known as the tribe of pakohe (argillite, an extremely hard stone used for making adzes) and the tribe of karakia.

Her aim in the book is to encourage readers to think about the Middle Ages — roughly the 5th to 15th centuries — from a Pacific perspective, not as a Eurocentric construct. She focuses on three sites in South Polynesia that offer insights into what was happening during the 700-year period of her book: Aotearoa, Rēkohu/Chatham Islands and Rapa Nui/Easter Island. 

The three locations differ in their settlement dates. Rapa Nui is thought to be the earliest, around the 8th or 9th century. Aotearoa next, in the 12th and 13th centuries. And Rēkohu at the beginning of the 16th century. 

None of these dates are set in stone though, and new scholarship continues to throw up either earlier or later settlement dates. Although most historians think that Rēkohu was settled from mainland Aotearoa, some believe it could have been settled directly from East Polynesia.

They may be geographically distant from each other, but their cultural similarities testify to the connectedness of Oceania. “The Moriori and Māori languages have around a 70 percent similarity, and the Moriori and Rapanui languages are about 22 percent similar,” notes Madi. 

“This is remarkable given the distance between these locations, particularly of the latter two [separated by 6000 km of ocean]. . . For instance, the word for mountain is ‘maunga’ for both Māori and Moriori and ‘ma’unga’ for Rapanui. Similarly, the word for sacred in all three languages is ‘tapu’.”

With a book whose central theme is migration, it’s to be expected that Madi Williams describes how the process was accomplished by voyagers who crisscrossed the Pacific as if it were their backyard. The voyages that yielded discovery of Aotearoa and other islands in South Polynesia were unrivalled by their contemporaries anywhere in the world, she writes.

Once arrogantly dismissed as journeys of luck — the aimless drifting of incompetent mariners — these voyages are now rightly adulated as “among the greatest acts of voyage and discovery in world history.”

Jeff Evans, a voyaging expert, writes: “When most European seamen were still hugging the shoreline as they sailed from port to port along their coastlines, the Polynesians had already sailed halfway across the vast Pacific Ocean on voyages of discovery.”

Madi provides a few tantalising insights into the skills of those legendary navigators. One vital aid to wayfinding was the observation of land birds, “because when birds are present, land is nearby. Depending on the species of bird, it can then be roughly determined how far away the nearest land is. For instance, noddies often go no further than around thirty-two kilometres from land and are therefore a useful bird for navigators.”

For navigation far from land, sea and stars are the guides. “The ocean provided many signs for the experienced navigator,” she writes. “One sign is the swells of the ocean that are caused by the presence of islands. Another is the underwater phosphorescence, when flashes of light appear in the water and indicate that land is between approximately fifty and one hundred and thirty kilometres away.”

Navigators used the stars by night and the sun by day. The navigator of the waka Te Arawa is said to have “understood the language of the stars, the children of the lord of light, Tane-nui-a-rangi; he conversed with the moon, Hinauri; and he kept the prow of Te Arawa pointed in a direction that was a little to the left of the setting sun.”

One facet of discovery and settlement that Madi Williams explores is the practice of naming places. She starts with the most important name of all: the place of origins — Hawaiki. 

She quotes Teone Taare Tikao, a Ngāi Tahu elder, who explained the prevalence of that name to ethnographer Herries Beattie in the early 20th century. 

“The piece [of land] on which they lived was known as Hawaiki,” said Tikao, “and when they left it and went [on] their first sea-voyage they called the island they came to Hawaiki also. When they left that island and moved on to another one they named the new island Hawaiki in memory of their first two homes, and so it went on. Looking back they could see it would not do to have them all called Hawaiki, and nothing else, so they began speaking of the different places as Big Hawaiki, Long Hawaiki, and so on.”

Tipene O’Regan has also discussed the reappearance of names in multiple locations: “Each time we voyaged onwards we rolled up our legends, our whakapapa and our place names, and carried them with us to be unrolled in a new place and fitted to a new landscape.”

Thus in Aotearoa, the highest mountain, Aoraki, is a name from Hawaiki, as is Rapanui, which occurs in both Aotearoa and Rēkohu, and Raratoka/Centre Island, in Foveaux Strait, an adaptation of Rarotonga.

Madi provides other morsels of mātauranga to chew on and consider, such as the Māori identification of north with below and south with above. “The reason for this is that early migration in Aotearoa was typically southwards; therefore, where they had come from was behind them (the north), and where they were going to was ahead of them (the south),” she writes.

Another topic for Madi Williams’ consideration is time — an elemental consideration for an historian. She quotes academics Bill McKay and Antonia Walmsley, who write: 

Westerners think of their location in time as similar to a stream, backs turned to the past, poised in the present, facing the future . . . The Māori space-time construct can be thought of more like a constellation with the past and the people of the past always felt in the present . . . always before you, always behind. . . 

“For those living in oral societies, there is a ‘constant’ present that is being recounted. Māori exist in the present with their ancestors, the gods, and culture heroes. This understanding of time is based on whakapapa (genealogy), which is the basis for the Māori world. It is the relationships that take ontological priority in this view; in other words it is not the ‘when’ and ‘what’ that are of importance, but the ‘who’. Therefore, when Māori recount the past, time becomes relative.”

In Madi Williams’ telling, of equal importance to the migrations themselves are what came next — adaptation to lands that, in the case of Aotearoa and Rēkohu, were very different in terms of climate and resources from the voyagers’ islands of origin. 

“To adapt and then thrive in the completely new environments of which they had no knowledge before arrival was a significant achievement,” writes Madi. “The strongest example of this is the swift adoption of more sustainable practices when it became clear that the resources of their new lands were not limitless, as they may have appeared at first.”

In Aotearoa, one of the more significant developments was the advent of fortified villages, which date from the early 1500s. 

“Pā are a fascinating phenomenon because they are essentially the only example of monumental architecture in [Aotearoa],” she writes. “They were primarily a North Island phenomenon, because that island was more conducive to horticulture and had a larger population. One of the primary reasons for the emergence of pā was the protection of resources, such as the kūmara. As more intensive horticultural practices developed, so too did new storage methods and the need to remain more settled in order to protect the food sources.”

Another development considered by Madi Williams is the adoption of warfare by Māori and its rejection by Moriori. And for Rapa Nui, the endlessly fascinating story of the creation and then partial destruction of the moai.

The principle that undergirds the work is seeing history through the eyes of its participants, not from an outsiders’ vantage point. 

“The real challenge of global history is to write from other perspectives, not write about other places from your own particular world view,” she writes. “It is only through this approach that any depth of understanding can be gained.”

How did South Polynesians view their new world, their whenua hou? Madi Williams’ book provides a welcome glimpse.


Kennedy Warne is the co-founder and former editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine and the author of Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation, published in 2013. Kennedy has written extensively about the connections between people and place, past and present, both in Aotearoa, the Pacific and elsewhere.

© E-Tangata, 2021

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