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Smaller peoples and their traditional and ritual combat sports

Polynesia: Traditional martial arts

Tongans, Tahitians, Māori

Tonga Islands. Pugilism between two Women
Original steel engraving drawn by Danvin, engraved by Massard. 1836
Website Antique French Engravings

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Tribes and peoples, inhabiting numerous Polynesian archipelagos separated by vast space of the Pacific Ocean have peculiar culture and lifestyle, particularly their own martial art styles. First European seamen (especially famous captain James Cook) recorded skillful wrestlers and boxers from Tonga and Tahiti islands as well as courageous fighters Māori inhabiting New Zealand and Chatham archipelago. Women also participated in the martial arts practicing there.

Occupied for over 6,000 years, Tonga has been central to the dispersal of people throughout Polynesia. By the 12th century, the Tongan Kings or Tui Tonga, controlled a vast confederacy that stretched from Fiji, Wallis & Futuna and the Solomon Islands in the west to the Marquesas in the east to Kiribati in the north; this 'Tongan Empire' lasted for over 400 years. Tonga is the only island nation in the region to have avoided formal colonization.

Tonga also became known as the Friendly Islands because of the friendly reception accorded to Captain James Cook on his first visit there in 1773. The captain’s ship's artist John Webber did sketches of the wrestling performances done for the entertainment of the visitors. The British found it remarkable that Tongan women also participated in this combat sport which also included striking the opponent with blows from the wrist. James Cook wrote in his diary: "If unoccupied, Tongans entertained themselves with boxing and wrestling, women sometimes as well as men, and boys and girls… The Tongans staged boxing and wrestling matches, inviting sailors into the ring and promptly defeated them except when they let the sailors win for diplomatic reasons." Biographer Andrew Kippis wrote: "… our commander arrived at Hapaee [Central Tonga], where he met with a most friendly reception from the inhabitants, and from Earoupa, the chief of the island. During the whole stay of our navigators, the time was spent in a reciprocation of presents, civilities, and solemnities. On the part of the natives were displayed single combats with clubs, wrestling and boxing-matches, female combatants, dances performed by men, and night entertainments of singing and dancing."

In fact, Tonga’s wrestling Pi'i'tauva'a, or Fangatua (Fangatooa) was a standing freestyle wrestling. A wrestler could grasp any parts of the opponent’s body but more often by the waist. Usually, a wrestling match begins with contestants try to conveniently hold each other. Wrestlers held each other by the waist tight and tried to raise an opponent and then throw him down to back. Being defeated, a loser stood up without. Being injured, wrestlers just smiled and let others to help them.

Wrestling also held an important place among exercises at Tahiti, another Pacific island, where it had its own ‘tutelar deity’ (divine, idol), and spectacular exhibitions. James Cook wrote: “Like the Tongans and Samoans, these people [Tahitians] are fond of boxing and wrestling, not only as spectators, but actors… Although wrestling was practiced principally by the men, it was not confined to them. Often when they had done, the women contended, sometimes with each other, and occasionally with men. Persons of the highest rank often engaged in this sport; and the sister of the queen has been seen wearing nearly the same clothing the wrestlers were, covered all over with sand; and wrestling with a young chief in the midst of the ring, round with thousands of queen’s subjects were assembled.”

Perhaps, easy accessibility of female Tahitians to wrestling can be explained by more playful nature of this sport there; not without reason James Cook who watched both – Tahitian and Tongan wrestling matches – concluded: "[Tahitians] do not, however, enter into [wrestling] with the spirit and courage displayed by the more hardly islanders, and there is little doubt that a boxer or wrestler of Tonga would scarcely be able to find a worth opponent in the Society Island."

As it was indicated by European seamen, besides wrestling and boxing, Tangans and Tahitians actively practiced stick fighting. They were very sophisticated in fencing with sticks because in the primitive economy on the islands, sticks were the most simple and handy tools. Long since sticks were used by Polynesians both as a military and sport weapons. And women practiced stick fencing too.

Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand and Chatham Islands. According to old legends, the word Māori represents a distinction between humans from animals. The Māori originated with settlers from eastern Polynesia, who arrived in New Zealand (Aotearoa) and Chatham Islands (Rekohu) in several waves of canoe voyages at some time before 1300 AD. Over several centuries in isolation, the Polynesian settlers developed a unique culture that became known as the "Māori", with their own language, a rich mythology, distinctive crafts and performing arts. In the 2006 census, there were an estimated 620,000 Māori in New Zealand.

Wrestling and stick fighting are ancient sports practiced by Māori. According to Māori mythology, the art of wrestling was invented by Gods who shared it with humans. In fact, Māori wrestling and fighting styles are similar to Polynesian; they are continued to be practiced by New Zealand and the Chatham Islands. Known as Mamau (Mau, Takaro, Kukumi) which means unarmed fighting or more appropriately by the Māori word for wrestling Ringa Ringa, it was taught in special schools Ware Kura (Knowledge house). Children of noblemen attended those schools between 12 and 16-17 year old. Besides the schools, wrestling and other fighting styles were practiced in so-called Ware Tapere (Fun house) were experienced martial artists taught youngsters.

Mamau was not only a form of combat training for Māori warriors but also a physical development, fun and strength test. Fighting performances were often also done, In the recent past, every Māori practiced wrestling, including young boys, girls and women.

During numerous festivals and celebrations (particularly Matariki New Year Festival in June), various strength test contests were held in which representatives of different villages, clans and tribes settled their differences. Young women occasionally took part in wrestling and club fighting. Sometimes, two young girls opposed one boy – it was a peculiar Māori wrestling style with specific techniques. However, sometimes grown girls and mature women do not hesitate to go one-on-one with a man.

In the 19th century, a famous female wrestler from ‘Te Arawa’ tribe named Kurawha lived in Maungapohatu. Being young, Kurawha was enough for any man to handle even though usually one young man would wrestle two young women. She and another strong woman Whaitiri were two of the leading spirits in the vigorous arm battles against European invaders.

Wrestlers use of amulets whereby to strengthen oneself for the contest, and also to weaken an adversary, was apparently common in wrestling bouts.

The Moriori people of Chatham Islands lived there before Māori invasion in 1835, used wrestling and stick fighting as peace keeping rituals since instigated by one of their founder chiefs Nunuku but without more developed martial arts were powerless against the Māori, who killed and enslaving most of the indigenous population.

Māori wrestling was still being taught in the late 19th century and the national champion Herbert Slade used these methods against many visiting champions such as William Miller of Australia and John L. Sullivan of the USA in the 1890s.

Taiaha Besides wrestling, Māori were proficient fighting with sticks and other cold weapon, particularly, the martial art Te Mau Taiaha. The weapon called Taiaha reminded a spear and featured a 5-6 foot long hardwood shaft of ovular cross-section, tapering from a flat blade (“rau”) at one end, to a point at the other. The shape and decorations of the weapon are considered to represent those of a stylized human body. The spear-like point is known as the "arero" or tongue, and is likened to the protruding tongue of Tu Matauenga, the God of War. Both blade and point are traditionally fire-hardened and are nearly as sharp as steel. According to an ancient Maori proverb, Te Mau Taiaha should be taught “from the feet up”. Formal taiaha footwork patterns are based on a complex, dance-like step called karo (evasion), with many variations named for the characteristic movements of different animals. As in many Asian martial arts, however, these stylized formal patterns are intended primarily to improve strength, co-ordination, balance and mobility during the early stages of training. The footwork employed in orthodox combat and in sparring exercises is much more economical, and resembles that of fencing or even boxing. Fighting techniques with the weapon include an extremely wide range of strikes, thrusts, parries and evasion techniques,

Unlike the Māori martial arts of Te Mau Taiaha, which uses sticks and another weapon, the native wrestling style has not been fully revived. Instead like in other parts of Polynesia, Sumo has become the style adopted by many Māori.


"The World Encyclopedia of Wrestling" by A.C.Mandzyak and O.L.Artemenko

Polynesia. Wiki

Tonga. Wiki

Taiti. Wiki

Māori. Wiki

Chatham Islands. Wiki

Captain Cook's Endeavour Journal

Traditional Māori Parenting

Games and Pastimes of the Māori

The Journal of the Polynesian Society

Te Mau Taiaha

Pacific Islands (Martial Arts)

Tonga: As the Explorers Saw it 1616-1810 By Edwin N. Ferdon, The University of Hawai'i Press, 1987

Tongans Overseas: Between Two Shores By Helen Morton Lee, The University of Hawai'i Press, 2003

The Life of Captain James Cook By J. C. Beaglehole, Stanford University Press, 1974

Narrative of the Voyages Round The World, Performed by Captain James Cook, by A. Kippis, 1788

The uncivilized races of men in all countries of the world By John George Wood. The R. Heber Newton Collection Presented by his Children, 1931

Tongan stick fight
Compilation from the drawings made by Cook's artist Danvin




Two women fight on the Tonga Island.
Print, 1837.
Illustration from "The World Encyclopedia of Wrestling" by A.C.Mandzyak and O.L.Artemenko


Wrestling and Stick Fighting

Training in stick fighting




Māori Combat dance

>> Ethnic forms of wrestling

>> Smaller peoples and their traditional and ritual combat sports

>> Combative activities

>> Combat History

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