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Jo-Ann Pere (left) steers the Fa’afaite, alongside 26-year-old Tahitian-Italian skipper India Tabellini, the youngest person on board. Photo/Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i

The little known story of the great Polynesian migration and its radical navigators

The Polynesian migration across the Pacific Ocean – which covers a third of the planet – is considered one of the greatest feats of exploration in the history of humankind, as radical in its time as the moon landing. So why do we know so little about it? Joanna Wane reports.

It was 4am when Kiwi film and TV director Anna Marbrook was woken from a deep sleep by the phone ringing in her Prague hotel room. She’d never met the man on the other end of the line, and he sounded a little crazy.

“It was like stepping onto a fast-moving train, when you haven’t quite woken up yet; it took me a while to get my bearings,” laughs Marbrook, co-creator of the performance piece A Waka Odyssey, which celebrates 3000 years of Pacific exploration and was representing New Zealand at the prestigious Prague Quadrennial. “I didn’t really compute who it was till I got off the phone.”

Anyone who’s worked with Dunedin entrepreneur Ian Taylor knows he doesn’t let something as inconsequential as international time zones get in his way. The founder of Animation Research Ltd, which pioneered the use of animated 3D graphics for TV coverage of sports such as the America’s Cup, and multimedia production company Taylormade, he was described as “a game-changer” at the New Zealander of the Year Awards in February, where he was named 2019 Innovator of the Year.

Yet despite being known for his big-picture thinking, Taylor – who has just turned 70 – is actually pretty hopeless on the technical side of things. (During an interview in Dunedin for this story, he got a call to say he’d left his laptop behind after speaking at a conference the night before. “Is that where it is!” he exclaimed, cheerfully.)

A former teen-band lead singer and children’s TV presenter, he’s a natural frontman, still fizzing with passion and energy; a few weeks ago, he flew over to London for five meetings in one day. But Taylor’s real talent lies in an uncanny ability to gather the right people around him who can take his blue-sky ideas and make them happen. Which is where that phone call to Marbrook comes in.


Taylor had been left unsettled after being part of a meeting in Northland discussing how to engage with this year’s Tuia – Encounters 250 commemorations, a nationwide series of events marking the anniversary of Captain James Cook making landfall here in 1769. In te reo, “tuia” means “to weave together” – a name chosen to symbolise bringing people together in unity. But Cook’s legacy, as the harbinger of colonisation, was always going to be contentious.

For Taylor, who’s Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngā Puhi on his mother’s side, it wasn’t just a question of how those first encounters with Māori ended (often badly) but what their true origins were.

Shouldn’t we also be talking about the people who beat Cook to New Zealand by some 500 years, he asked Marbrook, as she shook off the cobwebs of sleep. And where were the stories of the great Polynesian navigators who set out to cross the Pacific Ocean 3000 years ago, with only the stars, the currents and a kinship with the natural world to guide them?

His enthusiasm, she says, was infectious. What he envisioned was a voyaging project, told from his personal perspective. “How he was now a grandfather and finding out the things he wished he had learnt at school about the brilliance and innovation of his ancestors. He wanted his grandkids to know who they were, and therefore who they could become,” says Marbrook, who signed on as executive producer and director. “Looking back now, he had me at the word ‘voyaging’.”

That was in June. Barely two months later, Land of Voyagers became a reality. Re-enacting one of humankind’s great migration journeys, a crew of 16 set sail from Tahiti to New Zealand on the Fa’afaite, a traditional double-hulled va’a (canoe) – with a female skipper, 26-year-old India Tabellini, at the helm.

Related articles: Hero or villain? The still-debated legacy of Captain James Cook | Tuia 250: The effects of Captain James Cook's arrival on tangata whenua

A drone shot taken of the Fa'afaite during a spell of good weather between Rarotonga  and the Kermadec Islands, before a storm whipped up huge swells.

The stories of how a team of three celestial navigators guided them 4300km across the Pacific Ocean, relying solely on the technology available to the Polynesian wayfinders who preceeded them, have been uploaded to the website, which was being furiously readied for launch as this story was published. Next, the film crew is shifting its attention from the sea to the land, travelling around the country to record stories of Māori innovation and create a digital archive as a gift to the nation. Talk about the stars aligning – as the Fa’afaite was closing in on the Bay of Plenty coastline, the Prime Minister announced New Zealand history would become a compulsory part of the national school curriculum by 2020.

With little time to drum up financial backing, Land of Voyagers has been done on the fly. Taylor’s company has put up a quarter of a million dollars (and is still facing a shortfall); his Ngāti Kahungunu iwi has also chipped in. It was an anonymous $500,000 donation from one of the Flying Kiwis in the Hi-Tech Hall of Fame that really got the project off the ground – although a week before the Fa’afaite’s scheduled departure from Tahiti, it looked dead in the water when one cameraman, and then his replacement, pulled out due to family emergencies.

At the last minute, Samoan ocean voyager Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i was brought in to shoot the first leg, from Tahiti to Rarotonga. Then Māui Studio’s Madison Henry-Ryan (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Rarotonga) flew out from Christchurch with five days’ notice to come aboard for the rugged final haul.

Henry-Ryan, who joined a watch crew rotating on four-hour shifts, says the first week in warm island waters was “real festive”, with lots of singing and sunbathing on deck. Later, night temperatures dropped below freezing. On the seventh day, they were hit by a storm, with winds of 30-40 knots whipping up huge swells. “It was pretty intense, getting bashed by the waves, which were coming from behind us,” he says. “Usually there’s only one person on the hoe [the large paddle used to steer]. We needed four or five.”

Teveiti Teihotaata on the hoe (a steering paddle similar to a rudder); Teihotaata had sailed this journey before, with his father Teva. Photo/Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i

In late September, three and a half weeks after leaving Tahiti, the canoe sailed into Tauranga – and Henry-Ryan headed into the editing suite to work his way through three terabytes of footage.

The Fa’afaite has now joined the official Tuia 250 flotilla, alongside a replica of Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, two tall ships and two waka hourua (double-hulled canoes). The flotilla was due to set out from Gisborne on 10 October to sail around New Zealand, with public events planned at sites of significance along the way (see The Art of Storytelling, page 82).

With funding from NZ on Air, Taylor has had each vessel fitted with tracking equipment so people can follow their journey online, employing the same sophisticated technology his team back in Dunedin uses to cover the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race. He loves the irony in that. “There’s the skipper on Fa’afaite standing next to all this technology and infrastructure we need to tell us where she is [on the map] and she doesn’t need any of it!” 

After the flotilla arrives in Wellington, at the end of November, the Endeavour will peel off to Australia while the remaining craft sail to Christchurch. The Fa’afaite and two waka then loop back to Hawke’s Bay for the mid-December closing ceremony at Māhia Peninsula, one of the first places on Earth to see the dawn of a new day. It’s a fitting finale, Taylor says, for craft that were state-of-the-art in their day to end their celestial journey at the site where Kiwi entrepreneur Peter Beck’s Rocket Lab launches satellites into space – “back to the stars that guided us here”.

In a video filmed for the Land of Voyagers website, Ian Taylor revisits his old school in Raupunga, on the east coast of Hawke’s Bay. Both his parents taught there – but he learnt only about the ancestors on his Scottish father’s side. Photo/Screenshot
The closing ceremony will be a homecoming for Taylor, too. He grew up in Hawke’s Bay in the 1950s, in the small east-coast settlement of Raupunga. Both his parents were teachers at the local school, where he learnt all about the Pākehā ancestors on his Scottish father’s side.

“I remember the debate over who was first: Cook or that guy from Holland [Dutch explorer Abel Tasman]? It was as if my Polynesian ancestors were sort of just here,” he says. “Cook was a great sailor, a great explorer, and he’s been acknowledged. But he didn’t create the footsteps that came here, he joined them.

“Thousands of years ago, people sailed across a third of the planet, in the greatest migration in the history of mankind. To do that, they had to be scientists, astrologists, engineers, mathematicians, innovators... What if young Māori and Pasifika who seem to struggle with this European vision of science know there’s another way to look at the universe, and that it’s in their DNA? If we ask ourselves why they’re at the bottom of our education ladder in STEM, maybe it’s because they’ve been denied this story for 250 years. And this year, on the anniversary of Captain Cook, that stops.”

And Taylor is convinced all it takes to make that change is one generation. His first grandchild, Jackson, was born last year – a week before Jacinda Ardern’s daughter Neve. Tainui master navigator Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, who co-directed A Waka Odyssey with Marbrook, believes in gifting that legacy to his own young grandson, too. Noenoe Barclay-Kerr, Land of Voyagers’ star reporter, is one of his daughters; she’s been scooting up the mast of waka since she was five.

An influential figure in the Waikato, Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr has attracted what he describes with admirable understatement as “social media attention” over his participation in the Tuia 250 commemorations. He’s co-chair of the national co-ordinating committee, and his waka hourua, Haunui, is part of the official flotilla. “People ask me, ‘What would your ancestors say about you supporting something like this?’ Actually I’m more worried about what my great-great-grandchildren will say when they look back in another 250 years,” he says. “I don’t want them talking and complaining about the same stuff.

“Chasing the Endeavour away in many ways is to cast a cloak of invisibility over Cook and all the things he did. What we need to do is be able to sit and talk about those things, good and bad, and then you can move forward. Nobody did that in 1969 [the 200th anniversary of Cook’s arrival] – they just watched models of the Endeavour going around the country.”

The northern point of a Tahitian star compass carved into the deck of the Fa’afaite. Photo/Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i

A “famous sailor” once told Taylor to give up on the idea that Polynesian migration was a voyage of discovery –  his ancestors were probably just blown here. That’s exactly how Goldie depicted it in his famous painting “The Arrival of Maoris in New Zealand”, which shows desperate, starving men on a canoe with tattered sails. But genetic data and archaeological evidence support oral traditions of a planned exploration strategy, says Otago University molecular anthropologist Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith, who believes all New Zealanders can be rightly proud of the feats of those early Polynesian wayfarers.

“They knew land was there. The early trade and exchange of resources, and the speed at which the Pacific was settled, is an indication it wasn’t a chance event.”

Matisoo-Smith says initial expansion into Oceania began around the same time as the Phoenicians – celebrated as great voyagers – were moving around the Mediterranean Sea (by size, a mere drop in the Pacific Ocean). The final push to Aotearoa, across an immense expanse of empty water, completed “one of the greatest stories in human history, when you think of the distances they travelled and the technology they were using, which was remarkably sophisticated compared to other people worldwide.

“To us, the ocean is vast and scary and unpredictable, but they didn’t see it as a barrier; it was part of their known environment and they knew how to read it. We think the wheel is incredibly important but that’s a very Western, Eurocentric view. It’s useless if you’re ocean people living on an island.”

In te ao Māori (the Māori way of looking at the world), the footsteps laid down by our ancestors are the paving stones of where we stand today, says Taylor. So the past is always in front of us.

Marbrook, who talks of voyaging waka as floating marae and “the keeper of stories”, says the Pacific has a rich history of adventurers who dreamed beyond the horizon. “Everyone who has come to the outer edges [to New Zealand], has a story of voyage. There’s a spirit I think we all share, right through to the most recent immigrations.”

“And by telling stories from inside their culture, we can tap into the potential of young Māori and Pasifika as future scientists and experts in technology,” says Marbrook, “because their ancestors were the astronauts of their time.”

The Adventures of TupaiaWhat's on

Events are being held nationwide to mark Tuia – Encounters 250, the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s arrival in New Zealand (visit mch.govt.nz/tuia250 or the “Tuia 250” page on Facebook). Key exhibitions and book releases include:

Voyage to Aotearoa: Tupaia and the Endeavour (Auckland Museum, till 15 March 2020): An interactive family exhibition on Cook’s first Pacific voyage, with a focus on Tahitian priest, navigator and interpreter Tupaia – whose story is told in a fabulous accompanying graphic novel, The Adventures of Tupaia (Allen & Unwin, $35), written by Courtney Sina Meredith and illustrated by Mat Tait for ages 8-12.

Tākiri: An Unfurling (New Zealand Maritime Museum, Auckland, till 7 June 2020): Seven artists explore the ongoing impact of early encounters between Māori and Europeans through new work inspired by taonga and artefacts.

HERE: From Kupe to Cook (Pātaka Art + Museum, Porirua, till 23 November): In te reo, “here” means “a place to bind your waka”. Works by contemporary artists from Dame Robin White to Greg Semu to Samoan-Japanese fa’afafine Yuki Kihara offer their take on the first Polynesian, Māori and European voyagers to Aotearoa.

Tuia – Southern Encounters (Hocken Collections, Dunedin, till 9 November): Taonga, images, maps and the knowledge handed down from ancestors tell the story of how southern New Zealand had been settled for 50 generations before Cook sailed down the Otago coast in 1770 and observed what he thought was a barren, uninhabited land.

Native Voices: Ko Au, Ko Mātau – I Am, We Are (Tairāwhiti Museum, Gisborne, till 15 March 2020): Māori artists join the dialogue around Tuia 250 as tangata whenua, and look to the indigenous legacy they say will continue to resonate “far beyond these commemorations”.

The Cook Voyages Encounters by archaeologist and prehistorian Janet Davidson (Te Papa Press, $65): From plant specimens and engravings to an elaborately carved māripi used in the ritual cutting up of human flesh, Davidson catalogues the treasures in Te Papa’s extensive collection of “curiosities” from Cook’s Pacific voyages.

100 Days that Mapped a Nation by Graeme Lay (New Holland, $65): Lay revisits Cook, placing the British navigator’s three Pacific voyages in the context of his era, The Enlightenment – “an age of great scientific curiosity and discovery”.

First Map: How James Cook Charted Aotearoa New Zealand, by Tessa Duder, illustrated by David Elliot (HarperCollins, $49): The story behind the creation of Cook’s famous map, pieced together during his six-month circumnavigation of our shores.

This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.