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

Ocean Currents

Ocean Currents.

We must also note the fact that ocean currents have had much to do with the peopling of Polynesia. In observing a map showing such currents it is plainly seen that these “rivers of the ocean” and their various offshoots, running in divers directions, must have had a considerable influence on the distribution of man throughout Polynesia. This is borne out by the observations of European voyagers. Taking the case of the famous “Black River,” a strong current running from the Japan seas across to the American coast, we have on record numerous cases of drift voyagers by this current reaching the west coast of North America. Thus in 1830 a Japanese vessel was wrecked on the coast of Vancouver Island, and a few years later another was wrecked on one of the Sandwich Islands. In 1815 Kotzebue found a distressed Japanese vessel off the Californian coast. She had been driven by a storm from the Japan Sea, and drifted across the Pacific for seventeen months. But three of her crew of thirty-five men remained alive; the others had perished from starvation.

The following passage is from Taylor's Te Ika a Mani: “In 1845 three Japanese were carried to Ningpo, in China, by the American frigate ‘St. Louis’; they had been blown or drifted right across the Pacific in a little junk from the coast of Japan all the way to Mexico, where they had resided two years. Dr. Pickering … states that a Japanese vessel some few years ago was fallen in with by a whaler in the North Pacific, another was wrecked on the Sandwich Isles, and a third drifted to the American coast, near the mouth of the Columbia River.”

Two Japanese vessels are known to have been carried to the Sandwich Isles. Wilson, in his work Prchistoric Man, notes the case of a Japanese vessel that was wrecked on the Oregon coast, the crew of which were found living among the Indians. About fifty years prior to the arrival of Cortes in Mexico a foreign vessel was wrecked on the west coast, where the crew lived for some time, to be eventually slain by the natives.

In Joly's Man before Metals we are told that on several occasions Eskimo have drifted in their light kayaks to the western shores of Europe, and that one of these craft is preserved in the museum at Aberdeen.

The following paragraph from the Wellington Evening Post of November, 1915, describes the latest-known case of a Japanese vessel drifting across the North Pacific: “Ten Japanese castaways blown off the Japanese coast in a gale three months ago page 22 were rescued by a fisheries patrol boat off the coast of British Columbia. In a small dismasted schooner they had drifted across the North Pacific for fifty days, subsisting on a little food and rain-water. The Japanese sailors tried to reach land. At the end of July the schooner went to pieces on a reef, and the men drifted on to an uninhabited island of the Queen Charlotte Group on the wreckage of their vessel. They lived by fishing, keeping up fires day and night. Finally two of the men made an effort to reach an inhabited island on ratr and were picked up.”

This sort of thing must have begun in early times, for prior to 1637 the Japanese were adventurous navigators, and left their impress on the Caroline Group of Micronesia and other places. A drift of ninety to a hundred degrees is somewhat startling, and must be looked upon as an important factor in the distribution of the human race. Humbolt's Current, Mentor's Drift, the South Equatorial Current, Rossell's Drift, and others, with their refluxes and branch streams, must be credited with many movements of the Polynesian peoples.

Other instances of such west-to-east drifts of Japanese vessels across the Pacific are given in an article on “Buddhism in the Pacific” in Volume 51 of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. The writer refers to the maritime activities of the Chinese, Japanese, and Malays in early times. A brief and suggestive paragraph is as follows: “These instances are quoted to show how easily and how frequently such cases of straying vessels losing their way in the Pacific have occurred in modern times. The same conditions imply the same accidents in much earlier times.”

During the short run from Juan Fernandez to Easter Island, Behrens, who was with Roggewein, drifted 318 geographical miles to the westward of his supposed position. In passing over the same route the “Blossom” experienced a set of 270 miles in the short space of eighteen days.

When sailing northward from Easter Island La Perouse noted that ocean currents carried his vessels to the south-west at the rate of three leagues in twenty-four hours, “and afterwards changes to the east, running with the same rapidity, till in 7° north, when they again took their course to the westward; and on our arrival at the Sandwich Islands our longitude by account differed nearly 5° from that by observation; so that if like the ancient navigators, we had had no means of ascertaining the longitude by observation we should have placed the Sandwich Islands 5° more to the eastward.” All these drifts were owing to currents.

The following extract from a Wellington paper shows how we are gathering data concerning ocean currents: On roth September last, at 11 a.m., Privates H. A. Forrester and F. Goode east a bottle into the sea off the east side of Somes Island. The bottle contained the following written on a slip of paper: ‘Cast into the sea on Thursday, 10th September, 1915, by Privates H. A. Forrester and F. Goode, guards of Some Island internment camp. The interesting sequel to this is a reply now to hand from W. F. page 23 Whiteman, wireless operator at Chatham Island, stating that the bottle was picked up by a Maori on the beach of the north coast of that island on 27th December. The writer states that the occurrence is very interesting, as it gives one some idea of the currents running between New Zealand and Chatham Island. When casting the bottle adrift the senders had no idea that it would reach the open sea, but hoped it would find its way to the Petone shore, as they were under the impression that the tide was drifting in that direction at the time. In this case a drift canoe from Wellington might have reached the Chathams.

Mariner relates a curious experience of his sojourn among the Tongans. On returning to Vavau with natives from another isle of the group, a dense fog came up and the wind changed. Mariner, who had a pocket compass, detected the change, but could not convince the natives that the canoe was heading away from Navau out into the ocean. At last, after running many miles on a wrong course, he persuaded them to follow his direction, and to their amazement they reached Vavau. They had declined to place any reliance on such a trifling affair as a pocket compass, but came to the conclusion that it was inspired by a god, or was a supernatural object in itself. It is clear that a beclouded sky was about the greatest danger that the Polynesian voyager encountered, when there was liable to be a change of wind. Although he largely relied on the heavenly bodies whereby to steer, yet he could get along without them fairly well so long as the wind did not shift and a fog descend, for he had the regular roll of the waves to steer by.