20 Jan 2016

London Māori called to identify Captain Cook's souvenirs

7:05 am on 20 January 2016

Britain's National Maritime Museum hopes a group of London-based Māori can resolve a mystery around artefacts brought back to England by Captain James Cook.

Members of the haka group Ngāti Rānana have been given rare access to the taonga Māori, which are set to go on display in 2018.

Group chairman Lewis Whaitiri said they were shown ancient weapons collected in Captain Cook's first and second voyages.

"We saw tewhatewha, kotiate, patiti and a taiaha... They were tupuna [ancestors]. You could feel the mauri when you walked in."

"They had been stored away for so long, some of them had not seen a Māori face or been touched by Māori since the museum has had them so the mauri that was in that place, you could feel the taonga crying for home."

Mr Whaitiri said the museum curators told him they did not know much about the taonga, which include a harpoon-head weapon and a long-handled club shaped like an axe.

"Some of these curators had no idea what these taonga were. They look at them and they just see weapons, but we told them these are actually living things of the Māori people. They are like an extension of your body, in a sense."

He said, despite having to wear gloves, it felt good to hold them in the appropriate way.

"By holding the taonga, you could feel the mana and the mauri that sits within those taonga and just how happy they were to be in Māori hands again."

Iwi on look-out for confiscated taonga

Ngāti Rānana members have shared photos of the artefacts on social media in the hope that their friends and whānau in New Zealand can provide details about them.

Former curator Jody Wyllie said Gisborne iwi Rongowhakaata have been on the look-out for confiscated taonga, taken when Captain Cook landed on their shores in 1769.

"Some of the earliest examples of the Tūranga style of carving and painting, which is particular to the Ngati Kaipoho hapu of Rongowhakaata, was taken by Cook.

"So some of our earliest examples exist in places like the British Museum and the British Maritime Museum and so we are very interested in what he did."

He said Captain Cook kept a diary that could provide clues about where artefacts came from, as well as looking at the patterns of the carvings.

"It's a bit like CSI piecing it together. It's a very long and arduous process, and one thing I am very mindful of is claiming other people's taonga and that's the risk you run when you're dealing with mahi like this."

Te Papa to contact UK museum

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa plans to make contact with the National Maritime Museum about the taonga.

Arapata Hakiwai

Te Papa Māori co-leader Arapata Hakiwai said he was happy to hear of the taonga's existence but would prefer them to be held in Aotearoa. Photo: Supplied.

The museum's Māori co-leader, Arapata Hakiwai, has seen images of the taonga and said Te Papa's team could help.

"Already you can see that there is kotiate, tewhatewha and taiaha and a whole host of different taonga... We are going to contact them quite soon actually, and share with them what these taonga are."

He was happy the taonga still existed, he said, but sad they would be unknown to most New Zealanders.

About 20,000 Māori artefacts are held in foreign museums around the world.

Mr Hakiwai said he would rather they were back in Aotearoa but he could appreciate the value of showcasing Māori culture overseas.