Ngai Tahu rubbishes claims Maori discovered Antarctica


This same sense of duty further explains why we – Michael Stevens, Te Maire Tau and Atholl Anderson along with Puamiria Parata-Goodall and Tā Tipene O'Regan – were compelled to respond to a problematic article that the Royal Society Te Apārangi published in June 2021.

Written by a senior academic at the University of Otago, Priscilla Wehi, and six co-authors, this article advanced several spurious claims. Chief amongst them was that Polynesian explorers, beginning with a navigator named Hui te Rangiora, journeyed from Rarotonga into Antarctic waters ‘and perhaps even the continent likely in the early seventh century.' The authors' evidence? Their own inferences drawn from 1890s English translations by Percy Smith of Rarotongan narratives recorded in the 1860s. As we noted, with characteristic restraint, the authors presented this “traditional” material without nuance, qualification or critique, and based extraordinary claims upon it without commensurable evidence. For example, how the extreme practical difficulties of sailing a Polynesian waka to and through subpolar westerlies might have been overcome.

Our view is that these Rarotongan traditions need to be critically evaluated, which is how we approached them. Having done so, we found the authors' assertions debatable on key points of interpretation and plausibility. As Te Rangi Hīroa remarked nearly a century ago in 1926, ‘Sometimes we, or the Maori themselves, read into a tradition something that the original narrators of the tradition never attempted to convey.'

As he explained, different methods of speech and forms of expression have to be considered and one ‘must be careful of the overlying strata of popular exaggeration and modern interpretation that have been superimposed on the original narrative.' According to Te Rangi Hīroa, such recent ideas lead to ‘erroneous explanations … that throw discredit on the truth of tradition.' We cannot agree more.

In summary, we think the Hui te Rangiora narrative is more mythic or legendary as an origin story, than historical as a voyaging narrative. Taking our methodological cue from Te Rangi Hīroa, we did not find any reference to Hui te Rangiora sailing to Antarctica. The shortfalls that led to this situation might be of only passing interest to Ngāi Tahu whānui. However, three of the article's seven authors were employed by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and their institutional affiliations are listed, in posterity, as such. coverage of the article described Te Rūnanga as co-leading the project from which the article stemmed. Ngāi Tahu whānui ought to be interested and concerned.

What was the nature and extent of the media coverage this article generated? It was, unfortunately, uncritical and celebratory. News outlets throughout New Zealand and around the world lauded the prowess of pre-modern Polynesian voyaging and the capacity of indigenous knowledge to survive colonial marginalisation and speak truth to patriarchal Western power on the dawn of the Anthropocene of its own making. A year later, the original article has been viewed nearly a whopping 19,000 times: a career-enhancing statistic by any measure.

How did the Royal Society respond to our request to publish a critical response to Wehi et al? To put it politely, utterly inconsistently with academic conventions, the principle of open debate, and the society's stated aim of advancing and promoting the pursuit of knowledge. This attitude was unexpected, especially by Atholl and Tipene, a Fellow and Companion respectively of the Royal Society.

It was only our dogged determination that led to the eventual publication of our reply in September 2021. This has been viewed little more than 450 times, bringing to mind the quip of President Franklin Roosevelt's Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, that ‘A lie will gallop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.'

So the Royal Society published and the media gushed over the original paper, yet almost zero coverage of this response.

The society has also attempted to ‘unlock the innovation potential of Māori knowledge, resources and people' and ‘blend' mātauranga Māori and Western science, which are suspiciously treated as bounded. No matter how well-intentioned this all might be, were he alive today, Te Rangi Hīroa would likely have some difficulties with how institutional biculturalism and “cultural awareness” has unfolded within the Royal Society, and for that matter, New Zealand's universities. In short, uncritical acceptance of Māori knowledge is arguably just as patronising as its earlier blanket rejection. 

It is interesting that Ngai Tahu seem to have a higher regard for critical scholarship that the Royal Society of New Zealand.

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