Polynesian Navigation and Tuki’s Map

The Polynesian ancestors of Māori successfully reached and settled New Zealand around 200 years before Columbus ventured across the Atlantic.

They sailed thousands of kilometres to get here and all the evidence indicates intent. Routes were preserved in memory or recorded in song. The navigators on these voyages were guided by the night skies and other natural phenomena.

Indicators of position or progress would have included island landmarks; wind, cloud and weather system behaviour; the position of the sun; ocean swell patterns; migrating birds and whales; floating driftwood and vegetation; the colour of the sea and the “scent of nearby land”. They developed star compasses and are known to have fashioned stick charts as navigational aids.

Māori likewise developed an ability to navigate their new homeland, weaving place names and overland route descriptions into oral histories and traditions that were passed from generation to generation. Māori had no need for print maps – theirs was an oral cartography.

However, on the arrival of Europeans, Māori were quick to learn the cartographic methods used by the visitors. In the exhibition is one of the earliest known examples of a map drawn by Māori.

Tuki s map
Tuki's Map by Tuki Te Terenui Whare Pira London: Cadell & Davies, 1804 MapColl 830ap/[1793]/(1798)/42785.

Tuki was the son of a tohunga, one of two young Māori kidnapped in 1793 off the Cavalli Islands and taken to Norfolk Island to teach convicts how to dress flax, a singularly unsuccessful project as preparing and using flax was largely women’s work. The map was drawn to better communicate with, and possibly at the behest of, the lieutenant-governor of Norfolk, Philip King. It is possible that Tuki was attempting to indicate where he and Huru should be returned to, which eventually did happen. The map was initially drawn by chalk on the floor of a room and then transferred to paper. Annotations were mostly done by King’s secretary.

The map is not to scale and the area Tuki was familiar with (Northland) is shown disproportionately large. He was clearly aware of the South Island’s existence, despite never having travelled there.

The double dotted line indicates the pathway taken by spirits of the dead departing for the underworld. Other details, presumably dictated by Tuki, relate to the political alliances, fighting strength, location and size of local iwi populations.