Volume 21 1912 > Volume 21, No. 3 > Ancient Maori canals. Marlborough, N. Z. by W. H. Skinner, p 105-108
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ANCIENT MAORI CANALS. MARLBOROUGH, N.Z.

THE report of Department of Lands and Survey, New Zealand, for year 1902-1903, Appendix VIII., contains a short account by C. W. Adams, Esq., Chief Surveyor, of a series of Canals and Waterways traversing the lagoons and mud flats in the vicinity of the mouth of Wairau river. The report has an excellent map attached, the result of a survey made by Mr. D'Arcy Irvine, Assistant Surveyor, and which is here reproduced, with the addition of many of the old Native names. In the opening paragraph of Mr. Adams' report, he writes: “These Canals or channels are a unique feature in the topography of the ‘Mud Flats’ near the mouth of the Wairau river, and are about six miles from Blenheim, and average about two miles from the seashore. The Canals are evidently the work of numerous bands of Maoris, who must have toiled for years in the excavation of the various waterways, as they are of an aggregate length exceeding twelve miles.” The writer goes on to describe the chief water-areas in the locality which consist of the “Big Lagoon” (Mataroa) of about 2,000 acres; the “Upper” (Ohinauanau Mati or Ohine-anau-mate) and “Chandlers” (Te Awa-a-roiti), about 700 acres, and the Main Channel (Wahanga-a-Tangaroa) leading from the “Big Lagoon” to the mouth of the Wairau river, about another 700 acres. He adds “that the Canals are still—1902-3—for the most part in a state of good repair, and navigable for small canoes. They have been constructed with great care, and many ol them are 10ft. or 12ft. wide, by 2ft. or 3ft. deep. One very large one, joining the Opawa river to the outlet of the ‘Upper Lagoon’ (Ohinauanau Mate) is known as ‘Morgan's Creek’ (Orua), while another has a remarkable course, having been taken along a narrow ridge of land separating the Upper and Chandler's Lagoons, then it skirts another small lagoon and terminates at the point of a long narrow strip of land projecting into the ‘Big Lagoon.’” The big channel or Canal that connected the Upper Lagoon with the Raupo Swamp, probably a lagoon at the time the Canal was cut, is a very heavy piece of work as a glance at the map will show. It is over four miles in length, and from ten to twelve feet in width, with an average depth of cut of about eight feet. When it is considered that the whole of the excavation—over - 106 sixty thousand cubic yards of soil—was made with the most primitive of tools, by means of the ancient wooden ko or spade, one begins to notice what an industrious and enterprising people the old-time Maori was.

From information supplied by Mr. George Macdonnal, the intelligent head of the Wairau pa Natives and of Rangitane descent, I gather that the Canals were started by the Rangitane people in the time of Whatakoiro and Patiti, ancestors who flourished four or five generations ago, and completed by Nganga, a son of Whatakoiro, approximately from one hundred to one hundred and twenty years ago. For untold generations the lagoons at the mouth of Wairau river had been a great game reserve for the different tribes of natives from the Takitimu migration on through the Ngati-hau, Poheo, Ngati-uma-tako-kiri, Te Aitanga-o-Te Rapu-ai, Wai-taha, and Ngati-Mamoe people, the Rangitane being a branch of the Ngati-Mamoe. It is asserted that the astonishing abundance of water-fowl and fish in the lagoons and over the mud flats was a constant occasion of raids and invasions by the more warlike tribes of the North Island, who coveted this “Land of Goshen,” and were ever on the look out for a take or cause to attack the peaceful, well-fed inhabitants of the Wairau. As already stated the labour involved in the construction of the waterways was enormous, and nothing but the united efforts of the whole of the people could have carried the work through as we see it to-day. My informant says they were a united and very numerous people, well-fed, strong and vigorous, immune from disease, with the one exception of a virulent outbreak of what is supposed to have been a very bad form of influenza or dengue fever, taken by contact with one of the early ships that touched away in the North of New Zealand for spars in the early years of last century. This “plague,” for such it was in its virulence, is known to the Natives by the name Rewharewha, and appears to have swept from one end of New Zealand to the other. Very few of the resident natives at the Wairau survived, and they had not recovered from the effects of this decimation when Te Rauparaha crossed over from Cook Straits and practically completed the annihilation of the Canal builders. The Canals were dug out with the ancient Maori ko—wooden spade—with the help no doubt of stone adzes in the harder clays. The spoil was placed on a kind of hand-cart or stretcher, made by stretching or plaiting on to a frame made out of Manuka sapplings and tops, a flax mat, which when full was lifted up by two or more men or women and carried away to where required. The work was carried out on the same principle as they constructed the deep and broad Maioros, outworks and fortifications, surrounding their great fighting pas. At regulated distances the Canal banks had buttresses left projecting a little into the channel and narrowing in the passage along

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the waterway. These were left for fixing eel traps and other fish nets when the fishing season was on. In close proximity to these “trap” buttresses, were sand pits into which the traps and nets were emptied. The old method of killing tuna (eels) was by sprinkling fine dry earth grit or sand. The eel soon died under this treatment, and the bruising caused by knocking the fish on the head with a wooden club was avoided. The reason given for this was that in those big fish drives they were taking and preparing food to last them through the scarcity of the winter, and the bruised part of the fish would soon putrify and become useless for winter stock. The killing by a blow on the head was all right when the fish was to be eaten right away. Immense quantities of eels were caught each season along the winding lengths of the various canals. Another use, and probably their principal one, was for the capture of the innumerable wild fowl that bred and frequented the lagoons inside the Cloudy Bay (Whanganui-a-Tara) “Boulder Bank” (Te Poko-hiwi). During the moulting season, which was for the Putangitangi or Paradise duck the months of January, February and March, the birds being unable to fly were easily taken by hand in the narrow water lanes and cross drives. When in this condition they were known as Maumi, or flappers. The parera or grey duck moulted in April and May, and were dealt with in the same way as the Paradise ducks. They were slowly herded up and driven into the catchments and there quietly sorted out. Each duck as it was caught was carefully felt-over, and if in good condition was appropriated for the larder, if in poor condition it was passed over and released. At the close of the duck season, when sufficient had been taken for the winter requirements of the tribe and for presents to distant friends and relatives, a great feast was held in honour of the occasion. The birds were potted down in their own fat and stored in ipus, calabashes, or vessels, made from the bark of the totara tree, and also from the giant sea kelp, and put away in the whata or village storehouse for future use.

Thus the old-time Maori spent his life in a regulated existance. Tilling the soil in the spring and gathering their fruit in the late summer, sea fishing in the calm, warm summer months, bird hunting in the autumn, and when all the products of the soil, the sea and the forest and fen lands were safely gathered in and stored away in their various ruas and patakas, then the warriors of the tribe were ready for the war path—labour interspersed with games, feasting, enjoyment and war.

A closely regulated and scientific method of game laws, which, under the dread of the universal law of tapu, none dared or even thought of infringing, left them ever full and abundant game preserves, more than sufficient for their utmost wants. No waste was permitted, although there was such an abundance. All this is now - 108 changed. The lagoons are there, the same practically in outline and extent as they have been for generations past, but, alas, the bird life no longer exists, or exists only in a very minor degree compared to what it was before the advent of the pakeha. Indiscriminate shooting and poaching in season and out of season, over what is nominally a “Native game preserve,” has harried the birds to that extent, that the once countless flocks of Paradise and grey ducks that roamed and bred in undisturbed possession for nine months out of the twelve over these fens and lagoons have fled, whence, it is hard to conjecture. The clear cut Waterways and Canals still remain to show the pakeha what engineering skill and enterprise was possessed by the old time Maori. Such skill, enterprise and power of sustained work it would appear has vanished with the passing of the older generation of the Polynesian race of these islands.