Portrait of Sir Peter Henry Buck, anthropologist and director of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, taken in 1935 by Stanley Polkinghorne Andrew of Wellington. (Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library)

More than 80 years after it was first published, Te Rangi Hīroa’s (Sir Peter Buck’s) celebrated book, Vikings of the Sunrise has been reproduced for modern readers.

Te Rangi Hīroa (Ngāti Mutunga) was known for his work in politics, medicine, anthropology, literature and academia, and received a knighthood for services to science and literature in 1946.

He was the first Māori medical graduate from a New Zealand university and also received honorary doctorates from the universities of New Zealand, Yale, Rochester and Hawaii. In 1936 he was appointed director of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, and as well as his New Zealand knighthood, he received a Swedish knighthood, the Royal Order of the North Star in 1946.

In Vikings of the Sunrise, Te Rangi Hīroa retraces the history and examines the heart of the Pacific, its peoples and their connections. He does this by expertly drawing on not only years of anthropological studies, but on Polynesian mythology and mātauranga, and observations from his own life and personal journeys throughout the Pacific Islands.

The book was first published in the US in 1938, and in New Zealand in 1958. The new reproduction, part of Oratia Books’ New Zealand Classics series, includes photos and maps compiled by Te Rangi Hīroa, and a new foreword by anthropologist Paora Tapsell who describes Vikings as “essential reading” and the “crowning achievement of physical anthropology”.

The following is an excerpt from Vikings of the Sunrise.

 

The first tropical island I ever visited was Rarotonga. At the time, 1909, I represented a Maori constituency in the New Zealand Parliament. To eke out a meagre stipend, I managed to get myself sent to Rarotonga during the recess to relieve the local medical officer in his fight against an epidemic of dengue fever.

I shall never forget the first odour of tropical plants, the first sight of the lush foliage and vivid scenery, the strangeness of outrigger canoes and of houses thatched with pandanus, and, above all, the kindly salutations and spontaneous hospitality of the handsome brown-skinned inhabitants who were kin to my own people. Their dialect was similar to Maori, for they retained the k and ng, and like the people of my own district they did not aspirate the h sound.

Te Rangi Hīroa with a stone image from Raivavae, in the Austral islands. (Photo: Bishop Musuem)

On the first day that I passed through the main village, two venerable chiefs barred my path and guided me to the verandah of their near-by house. The smiling family gathered with handshakings and salutations of ‘Kia orana’ (May good health attend you). A platter of peeled green oranges and drinking coconuts was placed before me. One of the old men, who I later learned was a descendant of a hereditary line of high priests, handed me a drinking nut, saying, ‘In New Zealand you have drunk the water of the land, but here in the land of your fathers you will drink of the water of trees.’ Since then I have drunk the contents of many nuts in various isles of the Pacific, but that first drink with the old priest looking on approvingly was in the nature of a libation to the shades of my ancestors.

I had met many of the Rarotongan chiefs who had attended an International Exhibition in New Zealand two years before. We had lived together in a model Maori village to which I had been assigned as medical officer. Now my old friends and others vied with one another in feasting my wife and me.

The high chief (ariki) of Arorangi village sent his son for us with a four-wheeled carriage surmounted by a canopy with a tasseled fringe along the edges and drawn by a single horse. The harness, however, had decayed and the leather traces were replaced by ropes. The diminutive horse found our triple weight embarrassing. In response to the persuasion of a long stick, the horse made a jerky effort to start, both the rope traces parted, and we came to a standstill.

Image captured during Te Rangi Hīroa’s travels to Easter Island. (Photo: Bishop Museum)

The prince leaped out and examined the parted ropes, but they were too short to be knotted together. The Maoris of New Zealand wonder what their kinsmen do without the flax with which all things are tied. I wondered also what our escort would do. Without the slightest hesitation, he took a large bush knife from the back of the carriage and went to one of the native hibiscus trees which grew all along the road. He slashed the trunk high up, tore down a long, wide strip of bark, joined the ends of his traces together with the bark, and we went gaily on our way. Thus I learned that what the flax was to the Maori, so the bark of the wild hibiscus was to the inhabitants of volcanic islands.

The food for the feast had been provided by the chief’s family and his tenants who paid for the use of the land with part of its produce. Sweet potatoes, yams, taro, breadfruit bananas, coconuts, fowls, pigs, and fish were assembled. The requisite quantity went into the earth ovens, and the remainder was heaped up to make a brave showing. Various puddings of pounded taro and breadfruit mixed with nut cream were cooked beforehand in leaf wrappings.

We arrived on an animated scene with the whole village population bedecked in garlands of flowers and scented leaves. Choice wreaths were put about our necks, and people crowded in with outstretched hands and smiling salutations of ‘Kia orana’. In the old days, they would have pressed their noses against ours. I held my nose poised for the nasal contact to which I was accustomed in my own land, but the reciprocal movement did not come. The ancient pattern of greeting had been abandoned throughout tropical Polynesia. I was both disappointed and relieved.

Te Rangi Hīroa much admired the outrigger canoes he saw on his journey. (Photo: Bishop Museum)

The steaming mounds before us were rapidly denuded of their covering of leaves and the pigs baked whole were revealed on the hot stones beneath. Coconut and banana leaves were spread on the ground before the pile of uncooked food, and on these were placed the pigs and other cooked foods from the oven. The chief’s orator standing beside the food thus addressed me, ‘This is the oven of food of the high chief Tinomana and his people. Here are pigs, fowls, fish, and other foods. Here are uncooked taro, breadfruit, and other foods. This food is in honour of your visit.’ As he pointed to each kind of food, he called it by name. He continued, ‘We come of the same ancestry. We welcome you as a kinsman to the land through which your ancestors passed on their voyage to the South. All this food is now given into your hands.’

The Rarotongan dialect is very similar to that of New Zealand. I arose with what dignity I could assume and replied in fitting terms for the honour done me. I chanted a Maori incantation which impressed them, though they did not altogether understand it. I ended by saying, ‘Divide up the food that we of the same blood may eat together.’

In a short time, the pigs were divided into individual portions. In every Polynesian community, there are experts who can divide the food into heaps so that each family gets its correct share. Then all sit down to eat, and what is left over is taken home together with the share of uncooked food. After we had eaten, listened to songs, and watched dances, our liberal share of the food was packed into the carriage that took us home. All the live fowls came into our share of the feast. We had no hen coop at the doctor’s residence, so our maid tethered the fowls with strips of hibiscus bark to the shaded fence in the back yard. Our cook worked down the line of fowls as occasion required, but before he could reach the end, another invitation to a feast would arrive and the casualties in the ranks of the chickens were replaced by fresh recruits.

At one feast, I forgot the usual concluding remarks of my speech in reply. A dead stillness ensued. The air of suspended expectancy was retained. The orator came quietly to me and whispered, ‘Will we load all the cooked pigs and the food into your conveyance?’ With Polynesian politeness they were prepared to send the whole feast to my home unless I said a word to the contrary. I stood up as if I had never sat down and cried, ‘Divide up the food that we may all eat together.’

I have digressed somewhat in the hope that these first experiences in Polynesia might convey a little of the atmosphere that eighteen years later influenced me to give  up medicine to join Bishop Museum in its programme of research in Polynesia.

 

Vikings of the Sunrise is republished by Oratia Media as part of its New Zealand Classics series.

 

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.