In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific
Growing up in rural/coastal New Zealand and being immersed in Maori culture from the age of 5-12, the myths, legends, stories, cultural practices have always resonated with me.
Perhaps because I was so young, or because there was a clear connection to the landscape and environment that rang true, the geography of New Zealand was part of the mythology, that curious blend of enchantment and reality; it made sense to a child.
A Polynesian Connection and Resonance
I read Sea People not so much out of that European curiosity to discover where people originated from, but for the familiarity of that “way of seeing” through the oral tradition of storytelling, of describing things from where I see and what I see around me, not from the lofty heights of above looking down.
My curiosity in all honesty, lay too in wondering if a woman’s perspective and approach might be different.
As the number of oral cultures in the world has diminished, interest in them has grown, and one of the most intriguing questions is whether there might be such a thing as an ‘oral way of seeing’, a worldview common to oral peoples that might be different in some generalizable way from the worldview of people in cultures with writing.
I loved it.
Like her own mixed family, the author Christina Thompson straddles the masculine/feminine, Polynesian/European aspects and shares something that goes back over all the approaches to Polynesia from the earliest eyewitnesses of 1521 to the brilliant modern day reconstructions of Polynesian canoes, that set sail with a crew of experimental voyagers, trained in the old non-instrument methods of navigation, to re-enact the voyages of the ancient Polynesians.
The Polynesian Triangle is an area of ten million square miles, defined by the three points of Hawai‘i, New Zealand and Easter Island. All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and set of customs, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a collection of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went.
Sea People tells the story of these remarkable voyagers and of the many people—explorers, linguists, anthropologists, folklorists and navigators—who have puzzled over their astonishing history for more than three hundred years.
There is a reason the remote Pacific was the last place on Earth to be settled by humans: it was the most difficult, more daunting even than the deserts or the ice.
Written in six parts, chronologically, we follow the thinking of the different eras, immersing in the exploration and research studies of the time, travelling through all the speculation, attitudes, reverence and mystery of a very Eurocentric enquiry, until recent times when those of Polynesian heritage themselves, as decolonization and indigenous rights movements were gaining strength worldwide, demanded representation and respect in these constant intellectual probings.
The first parts look at the various European explorations, their intentions, their reception, discoveries and the kind of records they kept about they witnessed. It also shows the difference in their encounter(s) when they befriend and take a Polynesian navigator with them, bridging a cultural divide, that had often resulted in violence previously.
Much has been made in histories of the Pacific about the problem of observer bias. Early European explorers saw the world through lenses that affected how they interpreted what they found. The Catholic Spanish and Portuguese of the sixteenth century were deeply concerned with the islanders’ heathenism; the mercantile Dutch, in the seventeenth century were preoccupied with what they had to trade; the French, coming alone in the eighteenth century, were most interested in their social relations and the idea of what constituted a “state of nature”.
Part Three looks at some of the stories the Polynesians told about themselves and the difficulty their European visitors had in understanding and interpreting them.
Europeans and Polynesians, it would seem, had very different ideas about the purpose of narratives and the relative meanings of “falsehood” and “truth”.
The Polynesian Art of Non-Instrument Navigation
For me that was the highlight of the literary journey, when Nainoa Thompson, a young Hawaiian, did all he could to learn the old ways, studying the stars, the winds, reading the waves and ocean swells, the imagined island, all the techniques known that had been passed down, to navigate like the ancient mariners, great ocean distances with nothing but what nature offered to guide them.
And in the face of disbelief by all the European sceptics who’d come before, unable to embrace the paradigm of this ancient skill, they succeeded, using practical sea voyaging, no computer simulation or dusty pottery references or annals of research; a brilliant touch of reality and reaching back through the generations of ancestry.
It was a stunning achievement. Without maps or charts or instruments or recording devices, without even paper and pen, an apprentice navigator – the first from Hawai’i in at least half a century – had piloted a canoe more than 2,500 miles, spanning more than thirty-five degrees of latitude.
A wonderful history and a beautifully accessible read. While it is inevitably limited due to being addressed from within those same structures that European exploration came from, and written by an outsider (albeit married to someone from the region), it provides a valuable insight into that outsider view and representation of centuries of exploration.
A dual citizen of the United States and Australia, she was born in Switzerland and grew up outside Boston and spent a decade living in Australia. Since 2000 she has been the editor of Harvard Review and teaches writing at Harvard University Extension. She lives outside Boston with her husband and three sons.
Sea People won the 2020 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the 2019 NSW Premier’s General History Award. Her first book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, was a finalist for the 2009 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.
NPR Interview: ‘Sea People’ Examines The Origins And History Of Polynesia by Ilana Masad
Read More Co: Author Interview: Christina Thompson