Polynesians in the Southern Ocean

Written by      

About the time that England’s King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, a band of Polynesians, probably in a double hull waka with a woven triangular sail, was pound­ing through the windswept South­ern Ocean far to the south of New Zealand.

No one knows if they were hope­lessly lost at sea, blown off course during an inter-Pacific island journey or exploring. All we know is that they made it safely to Enderby Island, the most northerly of the Auckland Island group 460 kilometres south of Bluff, and spent at least one summer season there.

On a trip to the Auckland Islands with the Department of Conserva­tion in 2003, archaeologist Atholl Anderson investigated two of their campsites and carbon dated the contents of several earth ovens at be­tween the 12th and 14th centuries.

Burnt hangi (earth oven) stones and charcoal from the surrounding rata and other subantarctic brush­wood were mingled with the bones of sealions, fur seals, albatross and several petrel species. There were also the bones of coastal fish and mussel shells, indicating the people were well supplied with local food sources but did not venture far from the island for deep sea fish species. They had made tools, fish hooks and scrapers from local materials and marks on some seal bones showed they had been gnawed by a dog. As the rata, a superb firewood, could have been several hundred years old before burning, only the charcoal of other wood was used for carbon dating.

No one knows where in the Pacif­ic Ocean they came from, although the nearest known settlements at the time were on Stewart Island or possibly the Snares, where an adze of archaic type has been recovered. They may not have been the only Polynesians to venture into the unforgiving vastness of the Southern Ocean, as at least one group appears to have returned to tell the tale. The people of Rarotonga tell a story of an explorer named Ui Terangiora who took his waka Te-Ivi-a-Atea far to the south, where they encountered huge white rocks and white powder on a bitterly cold sea.

While the story could be a com­bination of an ancestral legend with imaginative European additions, a similar tradition is known in New Zealand. When the waka Te Awatea Hou was under construction in Marl­borough for the 150th celebration of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1990, kaumatua from several tribes were asked for advice on the carvings to adorn the new craft. They insisted an ancestor called Hui Te Rangiora, who was credited with sailing to the ice cap and back in mythical times, should be included.

There is nothing to indicate if the people who landed on Enderby Island died there, were eventually able to return to wherever they came from or perished at sea trying to get back. To date no Polynesian burials have been discovered, but they were certainly in an established camp about 500 years before any other humans even knew about the subantarctic islands.

Captain William Bligh aboard the Bounty was the first European to discover land south of New Zealand. He was on a mission from England to Tahiti in search of breadfruit in 1788 just nine years after Captain Cook’s first trip to New Zealand and added “a small cluster of rocky islands” to his chart of the Southern Ocean, which he named the Bounty Isles after his ship.

In 1806 the British whaler Ocean was sailing under a grey windswept sky searching for whales when the lookout yelled a warning of land in sight. Captain Abraham Bristow named the group of islands the Auckland Islands after a family friend, Lord Auckland.

Glowing reports of this rich, unin­habited land in the Southern Ocean convinced Charles Enderby of the British whaling company Samuel Enderby and Co. to establish a new settlement in the relative shelter of Port Ross at the northern end of the main Auckland Island in 1849. His new colony was to be called Hard­wicke after the Earl of Hardwicke, governor of the company.

On arriving, they were astonished to find they were not alone. A com­bined group of Maori and Moriori from the Chatham Islands had been living on Enderby Island for about eight years, eking out a miserable existence. The Ngati Mutunga chiefs Matioro and Ngatere from Taranaki were part of the group which had conquered the Chatham Islands in the late 1830s, enslaving the surviving Moriori. In 1842 the two chiefs, fearing retribution following a bloody encounter with a French whaling ship, chartered another whaling ship, Hannah, to take them, their immediate families and about 30 Moriori slaves to the safety of the Auckland Island where they in­tended to establish a new settlement. On arrival, they were alarmed by the rough seas, bitterly cold winds and the bleak environment, but before they could change their minds, the Hannah weighed anchor and abandoned the anxious immigrants to their fate.

During the following eight years they established a settlement on En­derby Island, which had the warm­est climate, a good sandy beach for launching small boats, fresh water, rata for firewood and a plentiful supply of birds and seals for food. It was nonetheless a harsh place to live, with almost constant wind, hail storms at any time of the year, temperatures rarely above 7°C, long freezing winter nights and poor soil for the few seedlings they brought with them. They had no idea that on the same beach not far from their cooking fires another band of Polynesians had survived for at least one summer about 500 years earlier. Their cooking methods and preferred food species were almost identical.

The hopeful settlers of Hardwicke and the Maori group worked well together but crop failures and a lack of whales caused the venture to fail. It was finally abandoned in 1852. Some settlers returned to England leaving behind sad and lonely graves, among them little Isobel Younger who was born at Hardwicke and died there two months later­ one of a very few native Auckland Islanders.

Some of the Maori and Moriori people stayed on for a few more years and eventually migrated to Stewart Island and then back to the Chatham Islands about 14 years after they left.

Other attempts at settlement came and went, each leaving an impact on the islands. On Enderby, cattle and rabbits changed the land­scape, obliterating signs of human habitation, but a Department of Conservation survey team in 1989 found some archaeological remains of unknown age, which they thought might have been prehistoric. These included a one-piece fishhook, later determined to be of seal ivory, some chert flake-tools, and a possible midden deposit of mussel shell. The remains were similar to material in the Museum of New Zealand which had been picked up on Enderby Is­land by Captain J. Bollons in Novem­ber 1914; some worked shell, bone “prickers” and a one-piece fish-hook almost identical to the specimen recovered in 1989.

In his report, Anderson says it had been assumed that the material had been left by Ngati Mutunga and Moriori between 1842 and 1856, perhaps including some material from sealers or from the mid-19th century European settlement in Port Ross. Sandy Bay had been a favoured recreational area for the Hardwicke settlers.

A 1998 Department of Conserva­tion project at Sandy Bay on Enderby Island took earth cores along the en­tire fore-dune, and excavated three areas. At one site were found sparse remains of shell and bone midden and, directly behind them, part of a Polynesian oven exposed by a dune blowout. Radiocarbon dating on charcoals from both features sug­gested that people had been there at some time between the 12th and 14th centuries AD.

Another expedition led by Ander­son in 2003 proved beyond doubt that Polynesians were on Enderby Island 600–700 years ago.

Although they found places where a combination of good shelter and access to a range of resources might have made them favourable to pre-European Polynesians, no other signs of early human occupation were found.

It is tantalising to speculate that Anderson and the Department of Conservation team may have stumbled on the campsite left by Ui Terangiora and his people, but that is far too long a bow for any scientist to draw. It would also be nice to hope that the early explorers did not end their days, dying one by one, on a cold and lonely subantarctic island far from any other humans and the gentle warmth of their Pacific home. Speculation and hope, however, often have little to do with harsh reality.

More by