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Waka taua (war canoes) at the Bay of Islands, 1827–8.

Waka (/ˈwɒkə/; Māori: [ˈwaka]) 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. 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 but they are made of a blend of modern and traditional materials incorporating features from both ancient Melanesia as well as Polynesia.[1]

Waka taua (war canoes)Edit

Waka taua (war canoes) are large canoes manned by up to 80 paddlers and are up to 40 metres (130 ft)[2] in length. Large waka, such as Nga Toki Matawhaorua[3] 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.[4][5] 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. 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.[6] Maori 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.[7]

Waka: traditional constructionEdit

During the classic period (about 1500 to 1770) a hapū (the basic political unit within Māori society, consisting of about eight to 14 families) would select a Totara tree (native to New Zealand), the favoured wood (due to its high oil content and light weight) and prepare it years ahead for felling. 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 3m high was built of wood. On this was built a framework on which was suspended a giant upside down toki (axe), about 2.5m long. The long axis of the toki was tied to the cross member of the upper frame work so that it could pivot back and forwards, 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. The head of the tree and branches were removed then the hull was roughly shaped insitu 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 raupo. 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 in 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 the Waka Taua in the bay 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 Williamsdisambiguation needed, 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.

Technology changesEdit

From the arrival of James Cook in 1769 and especially Marion Du Fresne's longer stay in New Zealand in 1772, Maori were able to obtain iron and steel which did not exist in pre contact Maori culture. Maori quickly learned the superiority of this material, especially for carving. Maori learnt to ask sailors to sharpen 8 inch long ships nails to a chisel point on a ships wheel in exchange for fish. This period between 1779 and 1820 -the height of the musket wars, has been called the golden age of Maori wood carving[8] 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 Maori 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 better load carriers with more stability and was sometimes equipped with sails for windward sailing. Use of shipsboats became common as many Maori worked on a wide variety of sealing, whaling and trading sailing vessels,both in New Zealand and in the Pacific. During the Land Wars few waka were used for movement of warriors as 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 communications. Later, some fine examples of these waka were placed in the Auckland War Memorial Musueum.

Ocean-going canoesEdit

See also Māori migration canoes

A waka taua displayed at the Otago Museum, Dunedin

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; some of these were possibly waka hourua according to legend, 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 are frequently muddled and confused as the descendants of the settlers multiplied and separated into iwi (tribes) and hapu (sub-tribes). Consequently the word waka is used to denote a confederation of iwi descended from the people of one migratory canoe.

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)".[10][11] Already rare in Cook's time, waka ama had largely faded from memory by the early 19th century (Howe 2006:87). However, the term 'waka ama' occurs in old stories, such as the story of Māui published by in Grey in 1854 and in a few old waiata; Tregear also mentions the waka ama as 'a possession of the Maori', 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 that with the outrigger have entirely disappeared from among the Maoris, and it is doubtful if any native now alive has seen either of them in New Zealand' (Tregear 1904:115). 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.[12]

In recent years, 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 supported with the ingenious support of work schemes, has become an increasingly popular sport in New Zealand, often performed as part of larger festivals.

Other materials usedEdit

Some waka, particularly in the Chatham Islands, were not conventional canoes, but were constructed from raupo (bulrushes) or flax stalks. In April 2011 Te Puni Kokiri, The Maori Development Agency, announced a joint venture with an Auckland tribe, to build a plastic PVC waka as a promotion for local Maori. Most of the $2 million funding comes from the taxpayer but the tribe is contributing $100,000 and will retain ownership after the event. The "tupper waka" as it has been called in the media, is actually a small conference facility for well off visitors during the world rugby competition being held in New Zealand in September 2011. The graphic on TV shows 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. The waka taua Te Tuhono in the National Museum of Scotland was restored and partially reconstructed by the Maori craftsman George Nuku, using carved Polymethyl Methacrylate (PMMA) to recreate missing sections.[13]

Related meaningsEdit

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 bird (Heteralocha acutirostris) that are worn as ornaments in the hair. Maori revered Huia feathers as symbols of high status. On her coronation Elizabeth II was presented with two huia feathers.[14]

In current Māori usage, waka is used to refer to cars but is more closely translated to vessel, along with the transliterated term 'motokā' (motorcar). The neologism 'waka-rere-rangi' (literally: waka (vessle) that sails the sky) was coined for aircraft. A 'waka hari hinu', (vessel that carries oil) 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' (New Zealand Transport Agency).


  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. "Waka taua", Te Ara
  3. Tahana, Yvonne (18 January 2010). "Waka back and better than ever". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 1 December 2011. 
  4. Waikato Museum booklet, "Te Winika"
  5. Te Winika is on long-term display at Waikato Museum. See Waikato Museum: Long Term Exhibitions.
  6. Stories Without End.The Lost Drawings of Nukutawhiti. J. Binney. Bridget Williams.2010.
  7. The Meeting Place.V.O'Malley.
  8. The Meeting Place.V O'Malley. Auckland University Press.2012.p135.
  9. The Meeting Place.V. O'Malley.2012
  10. Barclay-Kerr, 2007
  11. 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. 
  12. The story of Māui as written by Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikaheke refers to ama in sentences such as 'hei roto koe, hei te ama o to taua waka' (published by Grey in Nga Mahi a Nga Tupuna, 1971:20, translated by Grey as "You get under the outrigger of the canoe ..." Grey, Polynesian Mythology, 1974:40).
  13. Stable, Charles (2012). "Maximum Intervention: Renewal of a Māori Waka by George Nuku and National Museums Scotland". DOI: 10.5334/jcms.1011202. Retrieved 12 May 2012. 
  14. "CORONATION GIFT", Te Ao Hou


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