Ngātokimatawhaorua is the waka taua that sits on the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi. Built for the 1940 centennial commemoration of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, the giant war canoe “remains a powerful symbol of Māori identity, strength and pride”.
That’s what Princess Te Puea Hērangi, who was the driving force behind the waka’s construction, had hoped for, when she went looking for a tohunga to build the waka.
But it was a close-run thing, as Jeff Evans writes in this extract from his new book. Had Te Puea delayed her search, “it’s almost certain the direct line of knowledge of the ancient craft of waka building would have been lost forever”.
Puketi, a forest of giants
Ngāpuhi heartland, October 1937. Rānui Maupakanga, possibly the last master waka builder of his generation and by then in his 70s, enters Puketi Forest. Heir to the skills and knowledge required to build waka taua, he will prove to be a vital link to the tohunga tārai waka of years gone by. He will also be a key figure in the revival of the Māori war canoe.
Born in the small settlement of Hauturu near the eastern shores of the Kawhia Harbour, Maupakanga is solidly built, his face oval and his eyes deep set. A wide moustache covers his upper lip. He has a habit of wearing a short-sleeved bush shirt over his woollen jumper, and on sunny days a well-worn fedora and a pair of round-framed sunglasses complete the picture. He has made the long trip north into Ngāpuhi territory from Waikato, at the request of Te Puea Hērangi, to oversee the building of a massive waka taua.
At a planned 120 feet (35.7 metres) long and 6 feet (2 metres) wide, the waka will be the largest ever built, and will represent northern Māori during the 1940 centennial commemoration of the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Maupakanga is in the forest to locate a pair of kauri trees suitable for the task. Stands of the tree dot the forest, but his challenge is to find two large enough to meet Princess Te Puea’s requirements. Even with the help of knowledgeable local guides, the search takes him a full two weeks.
The week before I travelled to Puketi Forest, a low-pressure system had settled over much of the country, bringing with it the late onset of winter. After weeks of good weather, the days had suddenly turned wet and cold and dreary. The one saving grace was that the day I had chosen to explore the forest looked likely to be the driest day of the week, perhaps of the coming fortnight. Even so, the growing intensity of the showers dancing in my headlights began to make me nervous the further I drove.
By daybreak, I had passed Whangārei and the low-hanging clouds that hid Mount Hikurangi; ahead, the sky seemed to be darkening. That I was driving north, alone and before daybreak, was thanks in large part to a couple of innocuous words I had seen handwritten on an old topographical map of Puketi Forest. Spelt out in black ink next to a minor forest trail were the words “Canoe Track”.
I hadn’t quite believed it when I first saw the notation, but over the course of several years, I had come to suspect that the logs used to build Ngātokimatawhaorua may have been taken from somewhere near the end of that track under the supervision of Te Puea’s experts.
Te Puea, a granddaughter of the second Māori king, Tāwhiao Te Wherowhero, was in her mid-50s when she sent Maupakanga north. Renowned for being warm and generous and able to connect with people of all backgrounds, she had devoted much of her life to improving the welfare of her people.
In Te Puea: A life, historian Michael King contended she wanted “to raise and sustain Waikato morale; she sought to give people confidence in the present and future by drawing from the assurance of a Māori past”.
Able to call on learned kaumātua from within her iwi, she engaged experts in language, in music and in the oral traditions to help uplift her people, before extending the programme to support what King described as “more ambitious and more visible cultural projects”. These included several carved meeting houses and plans for seven waka taua, each representing one of the canoes that had brought a major tribal group to Aotearoa.
Michael King suggested that Te Puea’s desire to build a fleet of waka stemmed directly from watching the waka taua Taheretikitiki being paddled on the Waikato River as a child.
“Nothing,” he wrote, “had moved Te Puea more in her youth than the sight of a team of paddlers ferrying guests from Huntly to Waahi in Mahuta’s ornately decorated canoe Taheretikitiki, and then it going through its paces and manoeuvres afterwards to salute and entertain the visitors.”
Te Puea wanted to share that sense of awe. She instinctively understood that anyone, Māori or Pākehā, who saw waka taua on the water were enthralled by them. And that is what she wanted to create: a symbol to make Māori feel proud, and for Pākehā to admire.
When Te Puea decided to build a fleet of waka taua, she found herself with a unique challenge. Before she could start, she first needed to find a tohunga tārai waka, an expert canoe builder, capable of building waka taua.
The problem was that no waka taua had been built for the best part of 40 years. In Piri Poutapu — who would later play a major role in finishing Ngātokimatawhaorua — she had a skilled carver who learnt his craft at the School of Māori Arts at Ohinemutu in Rotorua, but he had no experience building war canoes. He was in his mid-30s with the calloused hands of a man familiar with holding woodworking tools; but as gifted as Poutapu was, entrusting the project to him would have been risky at best. The construction of a massive war canoe was no job for a novice.
So Te Puea went searching, raising the subject at every opportunity until, after either a tangi or a hui (accounts differ) at Rākaunui (near Kawhia) in 1936, Rānui Maupakanga presented himself. The elderly man rose to his feet and announced to those in the meeting house that he had built a waka taua for Te Puea’s grandfather, Tāwhiao. Te Puea had found her man.
The first task Te Puea entrusted to him was to salvage and restore the old waka taua Te Winika. It had been dismantled by Gustavus von Tempsky’s Forest Rangers during the Waikato War and, remarkably, the central section of the canoe was still intact, lying abandoned near Port Waikato.
Work began almost immediately. Under Maupakanga’s direction, the section of hull was recovered and transported to Ngāruawāhia, where it was received with an emotional pōwhiri. Poutapu then set to work shaping replacement haumi (the fore and aft sections, sometimes referred to as haumi kokomo) from freshly cut tōtara, under the old tohunga’s supervision.
The refurbishment of Te Winika would turn into a masterclass for Poutapu. Not only did he learn the intricacies of adzing hulls directly from an expert, but he also acquired an encyclopaedia’s worth of other knowledge about building waka; knowledge that would equip him well when he began work on Ngātokimatawhaorua.
He learnt, for instance, the importance of submerging adzed timber in water (preferably salt water, but fresh would do) to draw out any sap. It was an old trick, Maupakanga explained, that greatly reduced the chances of the timber splitting.
Poutapu also witnessed Maupakanga using an ember to draw the outline of the slot-end of a mortice-and-tenon join on the first of the new tōtara logs. So sure was the old man’s hand that when the join was cut, it fit perfectly with the existing central section. Later still, Maupakanga showed the younger man how to caulk and lash the joins. To complete the build, Poutapu, fellow carver Waka Kereama, and Poutapu’s pupil and future opera singer Īnia Te Wīata, carved new rauawa, tauihu and taurapa (top boards, figurehead and sternpost) for the canoe.
Te Puea could only have been delighted when she inspected the restored waka. Encouraged, and confident now in the skills of Maupakanga and Poutapu, she dispatched a party to Oruanui Forest, near Mōkai in the central North Island, with instructions to search for suitable tōtara with which to construct the first of her new waka taua.
Her dream was taking shape, but it had been a close-run thing. Had she delayed her search for a tohunga, or had Maupakanga not been at Rākaunui on the day of her visit, it’s almost certain the direct line of knowledge of the ancient craft of waka building would have been lost forever.
This extract is taken from Ngātokimatawhaorua, written by Jeff Evans and published by Massey University Press.
Jeff Evans is the author of seven works of non-fiction relating to Māori and Polynesian culture. A number of his books are waka related, including Waka Taua: The Māori war canoe, Ngā Waka o Neherā: The first voyaging canoes, and Reawakened: Traditional navigators of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. He also wrote Not Here By Chance, the biography of the late Sir Heke-nuku-mai-ngā-iwi Busby.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.
If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.