(Image supplied)

The man hijacking the Cook commemorations to tell the story of Polynesian exploration

On the 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook landing in Aotearoa, Ian Taylor is vowing to tell the story of those who came before Cook: the Polynesian celestial navigators.

“My ancestors travelled across a third of the planet to get here,” says Ian Taylor, “they used state-of-the-art craft and the stars and they knew exactly what they were doing. People need to know this story.”

At 69 years old, Ian Taylor is about to embark on what he says is the “most important work of his life”, documenting the Polynesian voyage to Aotearoa in a way that’s never been done before. He’s embarking on a navigation of his own, through previously unexplored history to bring the story of Kupe and the celestial navigators into the spotlight.

Taylor is the founder of ARL, a Dunedin-based animation research business. ARL’s resumé includes tracking the movement of boats in the Volvo ocean race, adding touches of animation to documentaries by the BBC, Fox and NHNZ and even making the famous Bluebird ad with the dancing penguins in the mid-1990s. Taylor has spent over 30 years in the animation business and won the 2019 Innovator of the Year award. But it’s this next project, he says, that is the most important thing he and his team have done.

In October this year a series of commemorations, Tuia – Encounters 250, get under way to mark Captain Cook’s arrival in New Zealand and the first meeting of Māori and European people, 250 years ago. The event will take place over three months, with a flotilla of six ships making its way around the country, retracing the steps Cook made when he arrived. This flotilla will include a replica of Cook’s ship, the Endeavour, a waka hourua and a Tahitian Fa’afaite. 

Taylor was brought on to the project to help track the flotilla over its trip around New Zealand, but realised early on that a huge part of the story was being ignored. The voyage of the Fa’afaite from Tahiti to New Zealand, unaided by modern technology, was not initially going to be tracked. Taylor says this section of the journey is part of one of the most important stories of Aotearoa and Polynesia, and it’s time that story got told. 

“The map that Tuia 250 is using for the voyage only starts when the Fa’afaite, Endeavour and waka hourua meet off Tauranga. What they are focused on is Captain Cook’s journey around the country. What we are saying is that we have missed the story again. The bigger story is the people coming from Hawaiki, Tahiti, across that great expanse of water to New Zealand. We’re putting that back in place because that’s the story we haven’t told.

“Part of the Māori world vision is ‘ko ngā tāhū ā o tapuwae inanahi’, which means ‘the footsteps laid down by our ancestors create the paving stones of where we stand today.’ We are standing on the paving stones of all those who came before us and created this position, and now we’re going to look at all of those footsteps from the past. Not just Captain Cook, we’re going back thousands of years for the great migration, 500 years before Cook, the arrival of Kupe here, those are the footsteps that Captain Cook joined. He didn’t start them, he joined them.”

Alongside many stories of indigenous achievement, Kupe’s voyage across the Pacific Ocean has not been taught, been erased from history books and often grossly downplayed as a “mistake”. Goldie’s famous painting The Arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand portrays Pacific voyagers being “blown” to Aotearoa in a particularly bad storm. 

“My ancestors travelled across a third of the planet in state of the art craft using the stars and the environment to guide them. They were scientists, they were innovators, they were astronomers and astrologers and I had never learnt that at school.”

A model version of the Endeavour (Image supplied)

National MP Paul Goldsmith said in an opinion piece in July that the arrival of Cook “massively enriched the lives” of Māori people. In his words, Europeans brought “protein-rich food, the written word, metal, wheels, access to the global archives of literature, religion, music, science and stories etc etc.”

“As if we didn’t already have those things?” says Taylor. “When your migration has taken you across the largest space of open water on the planet, which takes up a third of the planet, there’s no big need for a wheel. What Polynesians designed was a state of the art craft to travel across a third of the planet. For our Polynesian ancestors the sea wasn’t a barrier, it was an extension of the Earth.”

The mis-telling of this story doesn’t only affect the past. Generations of Māori and Pacific people have grown up without the knowledge that science, engineering, mathematics and technology is in their blood. Taylor only just began learning these stories of Polynesian voyagers, at almost 70 years old, and says that’s not good enough.

“It’s the most important thing I’ve ever learnt. My moko just turned one, born on the same week as Neve, the prime minister’s daughter. I want to make sure that when my grandson, Jackson and Neve grow up and go through the education system, this story and this knowledge is everyday knowledge for them.  If they grow up with this knowledge, with all of their cohort, they will change the country. That’s how you make a shift, you inform your young people, and this story, this gap in our history has been left open for too long.

“If we ask why our Māori and Pasifika kids aren’t performing up there in the STEM world, I believe it’s because this story has been denied them for 250 years. In the 250 anniversary of Captain Cook arriving, it stops. This is when we fix it.”

The technology he’s using is the same as what was developed for the Volvo Ocean Race. Millions of dollars worth of equipment will accurately track each vessel as it makes its way around New Zealand, and more importantly for Taylor, will track the movement of the Fa’afaite from Tahiti, following the journey of Kupe and the Polynesian voyagers hundreds of years ago. The 35-year-old skipper on the waka won’t be using any of this information though. For her, the stars and currents are all that’s needed. 

“We think it’s unbelievable that we landed on the moon, but just one degree off leaving from Rarotonga and you will sail straight past your destination, and they went back and brought others. It’s better than man landing on the moon, because after doing that, there’s still nothing there.”

It’s not a cheap exercise, and Taylor is still in the process of finding funds to support it. He’s got some support from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, New Zealand on Air is supporting the creation of content about the voyage, and he’s had a $500,000 gift from a fellow Flying Kiwi who believes in the project. The rest has been bankrolled by ARL.

He says the funds he’s raised so far will be enough to pay for the first two months, but the work won’t stop then. A website launching five days before the flotilla gets to Aotearoa will be the hub for the research that Taylor is preparing. 

“We’ll tell the history first on the Tahiti leg, then as the waka travel around the country we will collect and retell the stories that are already out there, the documentaries and studies that have already been made. After that, we’ll focus on the young Māori who are travelling in these footprints now.”

He wants the research that he and his team gathers to become part of the New Zealand education curriculum, ensuring it’s a free resource so there are no barriers to anyone learning about the forgotten history of Aotearoa.

“We’re creating this space where all of these stories can be found in one place. These stories have been told in some places but they’re not easy to find. We’re not taking any money from the money raised, we’re spending it with other people to help us make this platform. It will be a gift to our rangatahi, hopefully handed on to the Ministry of Education, because this will be a resource they haven’t been able to build themselves.”

The story of our ancestors is one that has been told before, but it’s so often forgotten in discussions of early scientific discovery and voyage. Taylor is making sure the story of Kupe and the Polynesian navigators carries as much weight as the other “great voyagers”. 

“Pacific people did the same voyage as Magellan, but we did it backwards. Cook did not discover New Zealand, the Polynesian people did, and they did it by using the stars, the setting sun, studying the birds and the currents. They did not accidentally float here, they knew this land was here.” 

Ian Taylor (image: Duncan Greive)

He hopes no other generation will get to the age of 70 without knowing these stories of the discovery of Aotearoa. 

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“We have missed the story for so long. The story is the people coming from Hawaiki, Tahiti, across that great expanse of water to New Zealand. We’re putting that back in place because that’s the story we haven’t told. It’s 2000 years of watching the clouds, the stars and the sun, identifying the land in the south and developing the technology to get there. 

“This year is the 50th anniversary of man landing on the moon, the 250th anniversary of Cook coming to New Zealand, Tuia 250 is commemorating the footsteps back to him arriving, but what we’re doing is following all the footsteps back to our ancestors who laid the paving stones for his arrival.”

To sail across the Pacific ocean is still a feat only taken on by the most skilled navigators. Taylor questions whether Team New Zealand manager Grant Dalton could sail the path our ancestors took, if he had no modern technology on his boat.

“He might be able to, I’m not sure,” he backtracks, “but what I’m trying to say is, it’s something for all of us to be proud of. We have to make Māori and Pacific people proud when they walk in those school gates, and all the Pākehā and Chinese and Indian mates proud as well. They are all part of this story, this is a land of voyagers.”   


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