Saturday, 19 January 2013

Maori first to reach Antarctica?

Over 20 years ago I wrote an article for the New Zealand Adventure magazine based on over a decade of research, that a New Zealand Maori or perhaps more safely described as Polynesian, Ui-te-Rangiora,  reached the Antarctic waters, and the scene he described is not unlike sailing into the Ross sea. The frozen ocean is expressed by the term Te tai-uka-a-pia, in which tai is the sea, uka, (Maori huka) is ice, a pia means— a, as, like, after the manner of; pia, the arrowroot, which when scraped is exactly like snow, to which this simple people compared it as the only or best simile known to them. Further information at the end of this article. 
Sir Mark Soloman, John Key and Ranui Ngarimu are joined by the Scott Base Leadership team with the Pou Whenua carving at Scott Base, Antarctica.
Most New Zealand newspapers ran the headline story today stating that New Zealand's Maori links have been stamped firmly on Antarctica today with the unveiling of a pou whenua at Scott Base's 56th birthday.
Ngai Tahu leader Sir Mark Solomon and Prime Minister John Key jointly uncovered the totara carving in a formal ceremony this morning with Scott Base staff and invited guests from the United States' McMurdo Station.
As they removed the sleeping bag covering, the sun briefly shone and a patch of blue sky appeared above, a brief break in the constant snowfall that has blanketed the base soon after the Prime Minister arrived on Friday.
Solomon joked with the crowd that th.e pou did not mean Ngai Tahu was about to lodge a claim on Antarctica.
''I thought I better reassure the Prime Minister that.''
He said it was a privilege that Ngai Tahu, as the southern-most iwi, was asked to carve the pou.
The new Maori carving Pou Whenua at Scott Base Antarctica.
The pou, called Navigator of the Heavens, was made of totara from the West Coast, which he was confident would withstand the rigors of Antarctica's harsh environment, despite it developing several cracks since its arrival on the frozen continent.
Key said the pou was a ''very meaningful addition'' to the base.

''Scott Base has a place in the hearts and minds of New Zealanders even if they haven't visited here. Maori culture is enshrined in who we are as New Zealanders and to have this representation here is a lovely touch.'
Two woven tukutuku panels were also unveiled, a project headed by Ngai Tahu master weaver Ranui Ngarimu, kaiawhina to Sir Mark.
One panel symbolised Maori ancestors interwoven with New Zealanders who had died in Antarctica, including the 257 passengers and crew killed in the 1979 Mt Erebus plane crash.
The other paid tribute to the scientific work ongoing on the southernmost continent.
West Coast weavers from Arahura, Ngai Tahu's main pounamu site, wove the tukutuku but Scott Base staff also helped, Ngarimu said.
Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Lou Sanson said about a third of his staff at the base were military and many were Maori.
Several years ago, the issue was raised of enhancing the cultural identity of New Zealand's Antarctic base, which led to the pou's inception.
A new carved wooden sign for Scott Base was also unveiled today. (thanks to for permission to quote this article and use photos.

It was S. Percey Smith that led me into believing that Maori could have been the first people to reach the Antarctic waters, in particular Ui-te-Rangiora. I spent 13 months in Antarctica in 1969-70 and traveled in the Ross sea by ice breaker so I had a first hand chance to study ice and talk to experts on ice, glaciologists from NZ, the US and Soviet Union.  Photo: Bob McKerrow

I started off this article off by asserting that Ui  te Rangiora reached the Antarctic waters and described a scene like entering the Ross sea and seeing the Antarctic continent. Here is Percy Smith's article that provides excellent background reading.



Author: S. Percy Smith

But I now come to one made by this daring navigator, Ui-te-rangiora, in his celebrated canoe Te Ivi-o-Atea, which outshines all the others, and shows him to have been a man worthy of taking his place amongst many of our own most fearless navigators of ages long subsequent to the seventh century. In the history of Te Aru-tanga-nuku, who in his time was also a great voyager, we find the following: "The desire of the ariki Te Aru-tanga-nuku and all his people on the completion of the canoe, was to behold all the wonderful things seen by those of the vessel Te Ivi-o-Atea in former times., These were those wonderful things:—the rocks that grow out of the sea, in the space*beyond Rapa; the monstrous seas; the female that dwells in those mountainous waves, whose tresses wave about in the waters and on the surface of the sea; and the frozen sea of pia, with the deceitful animal of that sea who dives to great depths—a foggy, misty, and dark place not seen by the sun. Other things are like rocks, whose summits pierce the skies, they are completely bare and without any vegetation on them." The above is as literal a translation as I can make, and the meaning is quite clear; that the bare rocks that grow out of the frozen sea are the icebergs of the Antarctic; the tresses that float on the monstrous waves are the long leaves of the bull-kelp—over 50 feet long—quite a new feature to a people who dwelt in the tropics, where there is nothing of the kind; the deceitful animal that dives so deep, is the walrus or the sea-lion or sea-elephant. The frozen ocean is expressed by the term Te tai-uka-a-pia, in which tai is the sea, uka, (Maori huka) is ice, a pia means— a, as, like, after the manner of; pia, the arrowroot, which when scraped is exactly like snow, to which this simple people compared it as the only or best simile known to them. Now, the Antarctic ice is to be found south of Rapa, in about latitude 50° in the summer time, and consequently both Ui-te-rangiora and Te Arutanga-nuku at different times (250 years apart) must have gone to those high latitudes, as the story says, "to see the wonders of the ocean."
Since the above account of these Antarctic voyages was written in 1897—I have come across a further confirmation of the story. When relating my visit to Eastern Polynesia to the Maoris of the Nga-Rauru tribe, west coast, New Zealand, I was asked if I had also visited that part of the ocean where their traditions state that the seas run mountains high, coming along in three great waves at a time, and where dwelt the monster, the Maraki-hau. Now, the Maraki-hau is a well-known figure depicted on ancient Maori carvings, and the origin of which has much exercised our Ethnologists; it has the body and face of a man, but the lower half is a fish's body and tail,—in fact, it is just like a mer-man. But it has in addition, two long tusks coming out of its mouth which the Maoris call ngongo, (or tubes); these are as long as from the mouth to the waist of the figure. To my mind this is the Maori representation of the walrus, or sea-elephant, which they could see only in high latitudes. The old man who questioned me on the subject, clearly had it in his mind that the Maraki-hau dwelt in that mysterious part of the world from whence their ancestors came to New Zealand. It would seem that this confirms the
Who, after this, will deny to the Polynesians the honour that is their due as skilful and daring navigators? Here we find them boldly pushing out into the great unknown ocean in their frail canoes, actuated by the same love of adventure and discovery that characterises our own race. Long before our ancestors had learnt to venture out of sight; of land, these bold sailors had explored the Antarctic seas, and traversed the Pacific Ocean from end to end. Considering the means at their command—their lightly-built canoes (sewn together with sinnet), the difficulty of provisioning the crew, the absence of any instruments to guide them—I feel justified in claiming for these bold navigators as high a place in the honour-roll as many of our own distinguished Arctic or Antarctic explorers.
Many people have doubted the ability of the Polynesians to make the lengthy voyages implied in finding the race in places so widely separated as Hawaii, Easter Island, New Zealand, and the N.W. Pacific south of the line. But we cannot doubt the very definite statements made in their traditions. The love of adventure, of moving about from place to place, which is so characteristic of the race even in these days has always been a feature in their lives. More often than not they made these adventurous voyages with the definite object of establishing new colonies in which to settle, taking with them their Lares and Penates, their domestic animals, seeds, plants, and families, It has already been pointed out the effect the vast number of islands in Indonesia must have had on the people, in increasing their powers of navigation.

Front row l to r: Bob Headland, Robin Judkins and Bob McKerrow. Back row: Ed Cotter, Suzanne and Phil Ryder, Tara Kloss and Colin Monteath Photo: Robb Kloss
In 2008 I met Bob Headland in Christchurch,  who is the author of  Chronological List of Antarctic Expeditions and Related Historical Events and published by Cambridge University Press. Bob had spent a lot of time at the Scott Polar Research Institute and knew the Antarctic better than most. In his respected book he lists "Ui-te-Rangiora and other Polynesian navigators sailed as far south as the frozen ocean. "
I spoke to Bob about this and put forward my theory that voyages are not done as continuous journeys, but when a new island is found, the sailors may take a break of weeks, months or many years. It may have been that Ui-te-Rangiora spent time on Campbell Island, or another sub-Antarctic island where they hunted seals for skin and clothing, used seal and whale bones and the stunted wood from trees to repair canoes, before venturing towards Antarctica. Seal and penguin meat would have given them the 5000 plus calories a day and the Omega 13 solution to keep very fit and healthy. Bob, thought this very plausible.
Kieran Mulvaney in her recent book At the Ends of the Earth: A History of the Polar Regions wrote this 
 "Given the Polynesian proclivity for traveling extraordinarily long distances and colonizing far flung islands throughout the Pacific, it is not wholly improbable that he or one of his countrymen-perhaps even one of the early settlers in Aotearoa-was the first to dip a tentative toe into the frigid waters of Antarcica."

 The Discovery channel Timeline of the Antarctic states this on their website: 

Ui-te-Rangiora (a 7th Century Maori navigator from the island of Rarotonga) is believed to have first encountered the Ross Ice Shelf. According to disputed legend, Uti-te-Rangiora lead a fleet of Waka Tiwai’s south until they reached “a place of bitter cold where rock-like structures rose from a solid sea”.

We will probably never know for sure whether Ui-te-Rangiora put foot on the Antarctic continent, but it is likely he sailed into the Antarctic Ocean before turning back.

Perhaps Sir Mark Solomon's words were said in jest  when he "joked with the crowd that the pou did not mean Ngai Tahu was about to lodge a claim on Antarctica."
''I thought I better reassure the Prime Minister that.''

But NZ Maori and other Polynesians have a greater claim to Antarctica having been the first in the Antarctic waters.


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
Just finished reading a massive tome called Antartica by David Day. In the forward is a mention of Bob Headland and how the author had more than one lunch at Cambridge with him and a few pints. I can imagine.
I came away from the book a little disillusioned with so many of the men there I had admired, Shackleton, Amundsen, Byrd, amongst others. I still fully admire them for their spirits and adventures and was well aware that like all men are also flawed. But from the 1700's to today it is still a continent being subjected to colonization and exploitation. And though there is seemingly a saner approach these days, as with any continent subject to colonization it is the indigenous who suffer most. In this case the mass slaughter of whales, seals, penguins in their hundreds of thousands, and now the fish stocks seemingly, there are many wrongs to be righted. I had thought, prior to this book, that the deeds of Scott, Mawson, and the above were done solely in the spirit of adventure. My blinders have been removed. It was always about human exploitation. The plots and counter plots amongst nations are amazing, and continue on the sea floor.
Hope you are well.

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