Te Rā the sail. Image: British Museum Oc,NZ.147

Te Rā the sail, last of its kind

A team of University of Otago researchers and weavers will unlock the secrets of one of te ao Māori’s most precious taonga for the first time in more than 200 years.

The late Hec Busby was in his 50s when the Hawai’ian ocean voyaging waka Hokule’a landed at Waitangi in 1985. By that point, most mātauranga Māori about waka building and ocean voyaging had been lost. A bridge builder by trade, Busby went on to visit museums around the country to learn as much as he could about single and double hulled waka, eventually building 26 over his lifetime, including the waka hourua Te Aurere and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti, which have sailed all across the Pacific.

The one thing he didn’t get to study on his journey through the country’s museum archives was a traditionally crafted sail. That’s because there is only one remaining example of a customary Māori sail remaining in the world. Her name is Te Rā and she has been a guest of the British Museum for more than 200 years.

Te Rā the sail is the only remaining customary Māori sail in the world and is thought to have been in the British Museum for over 200 years. Image: British Museum Oc,NZ.147

At nearly four and a half meters long, Te Rā is made of 13 woven panels, or papa, joined together and a tail, or pennant. The top edge and tail are fringed with clusters of coloured feathers. She’s thought to have been collected by James Cook between 1769 and 1771, but this has never been verified.

In January this year, a team of researchers from the University of Otago on a Marsden Fund grant, set off to meet her and try to unlock some of her secrets. The grant for ‘Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau! Raise up again the billowing sail! Revitalising cultural knowledge through analysis of Te Rā, the Māori sail’ is for three years, but one of the leads on the project, Dr Catherine Smith, says it’s likely to be an obsession “for the rest of our lives.”

L-R: Donna Campbell, Ranui Ngarimu (back) and Catherine Smith. Photo: Otago University

The team is made up of Smith, a textile researcher and conservator of cultural materials, weaving experts Ranui Ngarimu (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mūtunga) and Dr Donna Campbell (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Ruanui), and feather identification expert Hokimate Harwood (Ngāpuhi). Together they travelled to London to meet Te Rā – the storage facility where she is kept is about 40 minutes from the British Museum itself. They were given only three days to analyse the sail up close. 

Although researchers including Elsdon Best and Te Rangi Hīroa have sketched her and speculated about her provenance over the years, no one has ever identified the materials or what kind of vessel she might have been attached to. Even by the turn of the 20th century, very little was known about Te Rā. The Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau! team are the first researchers to take samples, which they brought back to New Zealand to try and identify the plant materials and feathers (and understand their function), and learn about the techniques used to weave her.

A meeting of mātauranga and methodology, the project includes technologies such as polarised light microscopy, DNA testing and cutting-edge imaging and modelling technologies, combined with the ancient knowledge and epistemologies held by experts on weaving. The multi-disciplinary approach aims to create new scientific and cultural understandings that the group hopes will strengthen knowledge around traditional sailing and weaving, and our understanding of the settling of Aotearoa.

Sketches from ‘Maori Canoe-Sail in the British Museum’ by Te Rangi Hīroa, The Journal of the Polynesian Society, Volume 40 1931

Back in 2014, Campbell had travelled to London to see Te Rā with weaving artist Aroha Mitchell, Haki Tuaupiki, a sailor and navigator of traditional waka, and astronomy scholar Rangi Matamua. There’s a touching part in Campbell’s thesis that describes their first encounter.

Excerpt from ‘Ngā kura a Hineteiwaiwa: The Embodiment of Mana Wahine in Māori Fibre Arts’ PhD Thesis by Dr Donna Campbell (University of Waikato)

“It was very emotional,” she tells me over the phone. “We walked into the room and could just feel the story, all of those other taonga calling out ‘we’re here, we’re here!’ I could feel all of the history and mauri of these many taonga from many places and times. It was really powerful.”

“At that point we didn’t really have a plan, we just took a zillion photographs and dreamt about being able to reproduce this taonga. Dreams about bringing her home and letting lots of weavers know how to do it.”

Not long after, Smith and Ngarimu met Te Rā on a trip to the British Museum to look at a rare kakahu Māori (cloak). A casual request to museum staff to see Te Rā while they were there was granted, to their surprise, but there wasn’t enough space for the pair to unfurl the sail and see her properly. So once home, Smith and Ngarimu dreamed up their plan to apply for funding to study Te Rā. Campbell was a natural fit and had worked with Smith at the Otago museum. With the addition of a feather expert, their dream team was complete and in 2017, it was announced that they had won a Marsden Fund grant.

Detail of Te Rā’s edge and feather clusters. Photo: Adam Rowley © Te Rā Project, University of Otago

In preparation for the trip, Campbell and Ngarimu ran a weaving wānanga at Arahura Marae in Hokitika where they carried out visual analysis and tried to reverse engineer the weaving technique based on photos of the sail. The pair took the weaving samples they had made in New Zealand to London to compare. 

Although the whenu (strips of harakeke) they used were about 10 times wider than those of Te Rā, the main weave turned out to be correct, although that’s not all there is to weaving, says Campbell. “It’s not just the technique, it’s the rhythm of the weave. Trying to do it all in one action.”

Most fascinating to both weavers was the reinforced joining used to bind the 13 panels together, which was woven over a series of layers. Campbell says it’s a construction method rarely seen today called hiki or hono.

“The hiki on Te Rā is a triple join… The tripling over of the weave would have made a very strong seam to hold the textile together. It’s not used today. I was excited to go back and work that out, because you have to look underneath to understand what’s happening.”

Most extraordinary of all, she says, is how they managed to get the zig zag pattern, which she’s referring to as puareare “for now”, to continue through the reinforced join.

“How the openings, the pattern that comes down, how that could continue through a joining and not be interrupted, that’s kind of genius. Absolute genius.”

Detail of the puareare weave passing through the reenforced hiki join uninterrupted. Photo: Donna Campbell

Campbell says as of now it’s a technique they still haven’t figured out how to replicate, and that she’ll continue to try and figure it out on her own, with Ranui and with the help of other weavers.

Probably the most delicate process was the sample taking. One is not allowed to simply snip off a corner, the sample has to be undetectable and cause the least possible intervention in the materials. Harwood looked at the feathers adorning the top of the sail and the streamer along the side. She studied the feather down at the base, as well as the colour, the size, shape and any patterning. The down identifies the species of bird, and the physical characteristics will indicate where on the bird the feather came from.

Like so many other decorative artforms in traditional Māori society, it’s thought the feathers had a dual purpose, one of them being to show wind direction. Specific species would have been used as well as specific types of feathers on the bird.

While examining the sail for suitable sites to take a sample, Smith also identified a number of places the sail had been repaired by other museum conservators with tissue. In a video made for their blog while the group was in London, the researchers challenged one assumption fairly early on, that the sail is made from harakeke (flax).

“To me it feels like ti kouka,” says Ngarimu in the video. “The way it feels and the way it moves.”

Ngarimu, Smith and Campbell examine Te Rā. Photo: Adam Rowley © Te Rā Project, University of Otago

Once they got their samples back to New Zealand, Smith says they used a reference collection of plant materials and polarised light microscopy (PLM) to match a number of the features. “Comparing the known with the unknown…” says Smith. “We’re 99.95% it’s from New Zealand and luckily we have a broad reference collection. The same will happen with Hokimate and the feathers.”

When I ask Smith what the samples revealed about the materials, harakeke or ti kouka, she tells me that they have an answer… and she can’t tell me what it is.

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“We’re going to announce the material at the national weavers’ hui in October,” she teases. “We can’t tell anyone else before then because they’re our most important constituents!”

The journey of ‘Whakaarahia anō te rā kaihau! Raise up again the billowing sail!’ has been painstakingly documented in the form of blogs and videos. They’re endlessly fascinating, not least of all because five years on from first dreaming up their project, the teams’ enthusiasm for unlocking the secrets of Te Rā is unwavering.

“Every single time you look at an artefact like Te Rā, every time you talk about it, there’s something else there. We’ll probably be doing this project for another 10 years. This is just a mechanism to start it.”

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