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

Course picked up from Landmarks

Course picked up from Landmarks.

John Williams remarked that “The natives, in making their voyages do not leave from any part of an island, as we do, but invariably have what may be called starting-points. At these places they have certain landmarks by which they steer until the stars become visible, and they generally contrive to set sail so as to get sight of their heavenly guides by the time their landmarks disappear.”

Williams had failed to find the island of Rarotonga, and resolved to adopt the native custom of starting from known landmarks on Atiu Island. He continues: “Knowing this, we determined to adopt the native plan, and took our vessel round to the starting-point. Having arrived there, the chief was desired to look to the landmarks while the vessel was being turned gradually round, and when they ranged with each other he cried out ‘That is it.’ I looked immediately at the compass and found the course to be south-west by west, and it proved to be as correct as if he had been an accomplished navigator.”

To these remarks are added the following, made by Colonel Gudgeon: “Polynesians always went long voyages by well-known courses—i.e., always had a starting-point at a certain island to reach a distant place, and would first sail from the primal starting-point to the place of departure for New Zealand, or wherever they were going to.”

In Beechey's Voyage we read the following account of the starting of three native canoes from Chain Island, in Eastern Polynesia: “On the day of departure all the natives assembled upon the beach to take their leave of our adventurers: the canoes were placed with scrupulous exactness in the supposed direction, which was indicated by certain marks on the land, and then launched into the sea amidst the good wishes of thei countrymen.”

Maori traditions tell us that vessels coming to New Zealand steered a south-west course. As they always seem to have made Rarotonga their final starting-place, this definition is about correct. It is said that the bow of the vessel was kept just to the left of the sun or moon, or of Kopu (Venus), or some star; these were the sailing directions for about November and December. Presumably these seafarers employed as guides such heavenly bodies as were in the right position to be so utilized at the time.

Of the islanders of the Ralick Chain Mr. H. B. Sterndale wrote: “The Ralick men are good navigators, and have no page 45 iear of the sea, They have been accustomed to make voyages at a great distance, such as the Coquilles and Ualan, returning at all seasons, and making a correct landfall. Sometimes they leave their homes for a year or two, and cruise from one island to another for trade in such articles as they make, and often for mere pastime.”