Maori War Canoe

Model of a traditional Pacific Island vessel, or Waka Taua

This is a Yorkshire World Collections object, one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.


Pictured on the right is a one-metre long model of a Maori War Canoe, or waka taua. The full size canoe would have been around 20 metres long, and was made in the dugout style of boat construction. This means that the boat was made from a huge single tree trunk, which was then hollowed out. Other details were then added. 

Take a look at the images and note any other details you can find that have been added to the basic shape of the boat.


Building a war canoe was a lengthy process. Often a large tree would be selected years in advance, and then prepared by shaving off bark before cutting it down. If the tree was especially large, cutting it down could take up to three weeks. Many men would have worked on the construction of the boat. 


What can the carvings on the boat tell us?

The Maoris also carved out intricate designs into the sides of the boat. If you look carefully at the photographs of the model, you can see these carvings, which are a replica (copy)  of the carvings on the original boat.

The carvings show fern roots, which have a special meaning for the Maori people. The Maoris first settled in New Zealand between 800-1200AD. They had come from tropical islands and at first they struggled to get used to the colder climate of New Zealand. The island's fern roots became a huge part of their diet and saved the Maoris from starvation as they adjusted to their new home.


Making a small model of a ship might seem a strange thing to do, but it was actually a custom of shipbuilders that when you built a ship, you also presented a scaled down model to the person who bought it.


How did the model come to Britain?

The model now lives at the Whitby Museum. It was given to the museum in 1845 by Robert Barry, a very wealthy local man. He was the head of a family firm of ship-builders. In the days of wooden sailing ships, Barry's merchant ships traded around the world.  It is thought that this model was one of two brought from New Zealand by Captain Stephenson Ellerby in 1831 on one of Barry's ships, the  Lady Feversham.


Young person's response to this object

This is impressive both as a work of art in itself and what it represents. The real war canoes must have been very important in Maori warfare.- Tom Burke


Discussion ideas:

  • Can you think of any reasons why the canoe model might have been an important gift? 
  • What the reasons might the Maori have had for giving the model to the captain?
  • Can you think of any other examples of ceremonial gifts?
  • Why might the Maori have needed a real war canoe?
  • What can you find out about how the Maori people conducted wars? 
  • How are Maori war customs different or similar to other cultures?
  • How would you decorate your own war canoe?

Document icon Learning article provided by: Whitby Museum | 
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