Nonfiction: How Was Polynesia Populated? Two New Books Explore the Pacific’s Mysteries


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It was an enigma that nearly didn’t get solved at all. The success of Captain Cook’s expeditions soon opened the door to flotillas of other European sailor-conquerors — such that eventually, by the beginning of the last century, the millions of square miles of what had been free and open ocean had been effectively closed off by invisible colonial boundaries.

A Polynesian navigator could once sail the South Seas as he liked. No longer. It would be impossible for him to travel at will from Hawaii (which had been seized by the Americans) to Tahiti (colonized by the French), or to Samoa (which until 1914 was German) or to Tonga (which was run for the local monarch by the British), without having both permission and, more ludicrously, a passport. The sailing skills that had flourished for centuries seemed all of a sudden quite valueless to a people who were now being corralled into what were de facto high-seas reservations, and from which they couldn’t easily leave.

But in 1976 a group of remarkable young Hawaiians decided they would seek to save these ancient skills — to blow forcefully on the embers of a dying ocean fire. They first hand-built, as their bicentennial tribute, a 60-foot-long twin-hulled traditional sailing canoe, naming it Hokulea, for Arcturus, the bright “star of joy,” the zenith star of the Hawaiian Islands. They then sought out, down in the tiny island of Satawal in the Caroline chain, an elderly canoe-builder named Mau Piailug, who still knew and practiced the traditional ways. They flew him up to Honolulu, whereupon he readily agreed to sail with them, to try to get their vessel down to Tahiti, 2,500 miles away.

Crucially for the experiment, they would undertake their voyage without any modern navigational aids whatsoever — no chart, no compass, no sextant, no timekeeper and (not that it existed in 1976) no GPS. Piailug was, in his own way, like Cook’s Tupaia, and he well knew that he was on a mission. “I made that trip,” Thompson quotes him, “to show those people what their ancestors used to know.”

The wise man of Satawal showed the crew, mostly youngsters, mostly native Hawaiians, how the Polynesians used to navigate — how they listened to the heartbeat of the sea, how they watched and learned the patterns of the swells, how they read the flights of seabirds, looked for drifting plants and land birds, measured the rise and fall of the daytime sun and at night, how they performed complex mensurations on the geography and geometries of the southern stars.

And to universal delight, they got to Tahiti, spot on and right on time. “The governor of French Polynesia had declared the day of their arrival a public holiday … over half the population of the island had come to witness Hokulea’s arrival … there was cheering and the beating of drums, then, as the canoe approached, a silence fell over the crowd and a church choir lifted up its voice in a Tahitian hymn of welcome composed especially for the day.”

Unwittingly, perhaps, that one 2,500-mile voyage helped also to restore a sense of pride to Polynesians, and especially to those in Hawaii who had been long reduced to second- or third-class citizens on their own islands. A renaissance of sorts got underway, an upwelling of pride that became ever more energized as the canoe’s navigational achievements and successes — all still performed with no instrumental help — accumulated. There were subsequent journeys to California, to Chile, to Japan, to New Zealand, and to all the islands that others had long ago seized and come to think of as theirs.