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

Olla Podrida

page 43

Olla Podrida

The following notes on Polynesian navigation, their methods of steering, &c., are of interest.

In his account of the double canoes of the Paumotu Group Commander Wilkes writes: “After examining them one can easily account for the long voyages which the natives have been sometimes able to accomplish. They find no difficulty in navigating them, and are now learning the use of the compass; but I am informed that they still prefer sailing by the stars and sun, and seldom make any material error. Navigating as they do from island to island, they have not infrequently been overtaken by storms, and some have been lost, while others have taken refuge or been wrecked upon other islands, and have been absent from their own several years. These gales, they say, come from the north-west.”

The Rev. S. Ella states that Polynesians “steered by the stars, and if the night became cloudy, or an adverse wind arose, they would simply lower the sails, entreat the protection of the gods, and then quietly resign themselves to drift whither the sea and winds might bear them.”

In an old tradition of the voyage from Irihia, the original homeland of the Maori, it is stated that the migrants steered at night by the stars and moon, and, when they were invisible, by keeping the bow of the vessel to the damp easterly breeze.

Of Polynesian voyagers Ellis remarks: “The natives of the islands were, however, accustomed in some degree to notice the appearance and position of the stars, especially at sea. These were their only guides in steering their fragile barks across the deep. When setting out on a voyage some particular star or constellation was selected as their guide in the night. This they called their aveia, and by this name they now designate the compass, because it answers the same purpose. The Pleiades were a favourite aveia with their sailors, and by them in the present voyage, we steered during the night.”

The same writer also tells us that in eastern Polynesia side drift of canoes was prevented by the use of steering-oars with very large blades. These would act as lee-boards to some extent.

The Rev. J. B. Stair, a Samoan missionary, gives us the following brief notes: “Certain constellations were their guides in sailing, to which they trusted with confidence and success, the Amonga (Orion's Belt) being the usual guide to those visiting the Friendly Islands. In many cases they were accustomed to take their idols, or teraphim, on board as a protection and shield.”

In his account of Freycinet's voyage (1817–20) Arago describes how a native of the Caroline Islands explained the position of the isles of that group: “By means of grains of Indian corn he contrived to represent all the islands of his archipelago, and to mark their relative positions with wonderful ingenuity. He named every one of them, designated such as were easy of access, and those which were surrounded by reefs of rocks, and told us what were the productions of each.” This witness also page 44 remarked that his people navigated their vessels during long voyages by means of the stars, which he named, adding that when these guides failed them they regulated themselves by the currents, the courses of which were known to them by many years' experience. “Welewel is the name they give to the polar star; and according to them the Great Bear has only five stars. By means of some grains of maize he made us comprehend that turned round an immovable point.”