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Polynesian Voyagers. The Maori as a Deep-sea Navigator, Explorer, and Colonizer

The Trade-winds

page 18

The Trade-winds.

Again, certain writers have maintained that our Polynesian voyagers could never have crossed the Pacific from the westward part of Polynesia, as from Samoa to the Windward Isles, on account of the prevailing winds. These trade-winds have had a greater effect on our writers than they ever had on the Polynesian voyager, we opine. One solution of the puzzle lies in the simple fact that the prevailing winds do not always prevail. Cook, one of the most accurate observers who ever roamed Pacific waters, tells us in his account of the Society Group that the wind, for the greater part of the year, blows from between east-south-east and east-north-east, this being the true trade-wind, termed mara'ai (N.Z. Maori marangai) by the natives. Now, this strong, steady wind has certainly been the cause of much involuntary voyaging (i.e., drift voyages) in Polynesia, and many vessels have been carried by it from eastern to central and western Polynesia. Twenty-eight generations ago it swept Tu-rahui and Whatonga from Tahiti to Rangiatea, and some of their companions to the far-off Samoan Group. That drift voyage was the cause that led to the settlement of New Zealand by the eastern Polynesians. We must also bear in mind that Polynesian voyagers were able to beat against the wind, the long steering-oars serving to some extent as lee-boards.

In the account of the sojourn of La Perouse at the Samoan Isles the following remarks occur: “We knew by the relations of preceding navigators that the trade-winds are very uncertain in these seas, and that it is almost as easy to sail east as west—a circumstance which favours the natives in their long excursions to leeward.” When leaving the group this voyager encountered strong winds from the west and north-north-west. Cook also stated that in December and January the winds are variable, but frequently blow from west-north-west or north-west. This wind is called the to'erau (N.Z. Maori lokerau). The wind from south-west and west-south-west is still more frequent. These remarks are borne out by the observations of recent observers; and it is clear from data obtained by inquirers such as Colonel Gudgeon that the Polynesians were keen observers and recorders of natural phenomena; that they well knew how to take advantage of wind-changes, and when to expect such changes; that they had well-defined routes for voyages to all points, always starting from one given place, and, in long voyages, calling at islets en route. In fact, after he had once explored the Pacific the Polynesian knew perfectly well how and when to reach any part of it.

We know now that the Polynesians must have cross-hatched all parts of the Pacific inhabited by their kindred in this manner; we know that they could not only reach any desired land, but could also return from it, and that neither trade-winds nor yet ocean currents ever held the Polynesian when the voice of Hine-moana called him forth in search of adventure or a new home.

In regard to sailing against a wind, the following remarks from Volume 4 of the Memoirs of the Polynesian Society are of page 19 interest: “Nor do I think they [the Polynesians] would hesitate to face the north-east winds, for their canoes were good sailers on a wind, and this was the course the people often adopted in the South Pacific when obliged to face the trade-winds… From what we know of the sailing-powers of the old Polynesian pahi, it is probable they would beat to windward, if not quite as well as a modern schooner, at least nearly as well … they would naturally make as many land calls as possible for rest and refreshment; and, besides, we must not forget the command these people had over a contrary wind by the use of the paddle, at which they are still admitted to be adepts. Writers who do not know the people are apt to overlook this very important point.” So wrote Mr. S. Percy Smith.

At the same time we must admit the dangers of these voyages in an ocean that often belies its name. We know that many stalwart vikings have perished in the vast water deserts of the Ocean of Kiwa; that three things have controlled many voyages, populated many isles, and sent many souls down the broad way of Tane to the spirit-world: those conditions were wind, ocean currents, and fogs.

In a paper on Maori migrations Mr. Barstow describes a boat-trip made from Eimeo to Tahiti, in the Society Group. At one stopping-place a large double canoe was found hauled up on the beach. This vessel, he remarks, “was built of many pieces of tamanu wood, the largest probably not exceeding 4 ft. in length by 1 ft. in width, sewn together with sennit, and thus forming a pair of vessels of 35 ft. or so in length, 7 ft. or 8 ft. in breadth, and 5 ft. deep. These canoes were joined together by beams across their gunwales, being some 9 ft. or 10 ft. apart. On the beams was a platform, on which stood a small hut of palm-leaves. Each canoe had one mast, near the bow of one and near the stern of the other.”

Now, canoes were constructed in this manner at such islands as did not possess large timber-trees; in such lands as New Zealand large canoes were hewn out of a single trunk, with a single top-strake added thereto.

The above vessel contained ten men and four or five women, who had come from an isle in the Paumotu Group, several hundred miles to the castward, in search of a party that had been blown to sea some time before. The seekers of the drift party had visited many islands, including Huahine and Raiatea (“Rangiatea” in N.Z. Maori) without gaining tidings of the lost ones, and were now on their way home again. They were waiting at this place for a fair wind. Six months later this party was seen in the same place, still waiting for a westerly wind. Eventually the wind changed and the party set sail for the Paumotu Isles. From October to December some two or three weeks of westerly wind may be expected in these parts, but occasionally the easterly wind blows throughout the year, save some squalls of a few hours' duration.

The same writer mentions the case of two men and two women who had drifted in a canoe from the Paumotu Group to Eimeo in two weeks, having subsisted on a supply of coconuts page 20 they had on board. Again, he describes, in a vivid account, a forty-days drift voyage made by a whaleboat containing three natives and one white man in 1844, from Chain Island, east of Tahiti, to Manua, of the Samoan Group, about 25° west of the starting-point. The European was the only one who survived the experience.

Missionary Ellis, an excellent observer and writer, curiously enough fell into the error of supposing that the Polynesians could not navigate their vessels from west to east on account of the prevailing easterly winds; hence he believed that all the long voyages, accounts of which have been preserved, really took place from east to west.

Colonel Gudgeon, formerly British Resident at the Cook Islands, informs us that the Polynesians always commenced a voyage at the most favourable time of year: thus December was the best time at which to make the voyage from Rarotonga to New Zealand, while June was the most suitable for the return voyage.

Missionary Williams tells us that the easterly trade-winds are by no means constant, that at least every two months there are westerly gales for a few days, and that in February the wind blows from the west for several days, then veers round the compass and, in the course of twenty-four hours, comes from that point again, frequently continuing so for eight or ten days. He concludes with the remark that “The difficulty presented by the supposed uniform prevalence of the easterly winds is quite imaginary.”

This writer, who made a number of inter-island voyages in his little “home-made” vessel, gives us some interesting items concerning them. He sailed from Rurutu to Tahiti, three hundred and fifty miles, in forty-eight hours. At another time, from a point two hundred miles west of Savage Island, he sailed with a fair wind seventeen hundred miles to the eastward in fifteen days. In October, 1832, while on a voyage from Rarotonga to the Navigators, his vessel sailed eight hundred miles in five days, without shifting the sails the whole way.

Professor Hale, of the United States Exploring Expedition, remarks: “In February, 1840, we were for twenty days kept windbound at the Navigator Isles by constant and strong winds from the north-west.”

Porter, Commander of the United States warship “Essex” in the Pacific in the years 1812–14, states that the wind sometimes for several days together blows from the north-west, as well as from the south-west, and removes all difficulties as to the navigation from the leeward to the windward (eastern) islands.

Dillon remarks that, from December to March, the north-west wind prevails at Tikopia. This wind would bring vessels from Melanesia into the Polynesian area.

In regard to the subject of long voyages made in ill-found, poorly-victualled craft, such as drift voyagers and castaways had to put up with, we may well reflect on the case of Bligh and his companions. These hapless waifs, turned adrift in a boat page 21 23 ft. in length at the time of the mutiny of the “Bounty” in 1789, made an astounding voyage of four thousand miles in that open boat from Tonga, or Friendly Isles, to Timor, in Indonesia. Being fearful of the inhabitants of isles they passed, these unfortunates were afraid to land, and obtained but little refreshment during their voyage. The sufferings of the party were great, but all reached the Dutch Indies after a voyage of forty-one days.