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

Sea Stores

Sea Stores

The following notes by the Rev. J. B. Stair, a Samoan missionary, on the food-supply of ocean voyages, are taken from the Report of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, 1895: “Fish would be often procured as they sailed onwards, and which it is probable would be eaten raw in many cases, as is the custom with numbers in the present day… Stores of fruit, and prepared or fermented breadfruit, would also be taken on board, and replenished from time to time, as also water, at the different islands they visited, and in many cases these calling-places were not only well known but also of frequent occurrence. The sleeping-accommodation must have been scant and uncomfortable, but the Samoans were not so particular in these matters as we are, and by dividing their crews into watches they would generally manage to get some rest…. Provision was made for a fire by building up stones and earth in some part of the hold or shed, whilst water was stored in bamboos, or water-bottles made from gourds or coconuts. In answer to my query as to whether they did not often run short of water, they have astonished me by saying that the voyagers always took a supply of a certain kind of herb or shrub as a standby in case of need. By chewing the leaves of this plant they declared they could drink the sea-water with some kind of impunity, and thus assuage thirst. Those I asked said they did not know what the shrub was, but were confident that such a custom prevailed in the past, when voyages were more frequently made by their ancestors.”

In his account of Easter Island, visited by him in 1774. Forster says: “Water is so scarce that the inhabitants drink it out of wells which have a strong admixture of brine; nay, some of our people really saw them drink of the sea-water when they were thirsty.” Later information tends to show that this drinking of sea-water at Easter Island was really at a spot where a strong spring of fresh water existed.

In 1616 the “Eendracht,” the vessel of Le Maire and Schouten, came across a double canoe sailing out of sight of land west of the Paumotus. The Dutch attempted to capture the crew, who leaped into the sea, where most of them were drowned. These natives had exhausted their stock of fresh water, and were seen to drink sea-water. There were eight women and several children in the party, three of whom were at the breast. As these natives were unarmed, the Dutch had quite a pleasant time shooting them. The historian remarks on the enterprise of these sea-rovers, who, “without compass, or any of the aids from science which enable navigators of other page 46 countries to guide themselves with safety, ventured beyond the sight of land.”

Of the natives of the south-east part of New Caledonia Missionary Turner wrote: “They drank enormous quantities of salt water.” Here, presumably, the word “enormous” must be accepted in a comparative sense.

In connection with the subject of drift voyages the following extracts are of interest:—

“In his voyage westward from Mexico in 1742 Anson was much delayed by north-west and south-west winds, and his crew subsisted largely on fish and sea-birds caught by them. Rainwater was also caught to replenish their wasting supplies. It was observed in this passage that the fish took the bait more readily in rain, or in showery than in fair weather.”

“During the voyage of La Perouse through the mid-Pacific Isles his crew caught several sharks and shot sea-birds, all of which were eaten.”

In Volume 4 of the Memoirs of the Polynesian Society we are shown that in sea voyages the ancestors of the Maori carried taro (Colocasia antiquorum) and sun-dried sweet potatoes (I pomoea batatas) as food-supplies. Water was carried in bamboo vessels and in bags made of seaweed. At night the latter were hung over the sides of the vessel in order to cool the water contained in them. They are said to have been made of a species of kelp. We also know that dried fish and shell-fish were largely used by Polynesian voyagers.

In the tradition preserved of voyages made from the original homeland of the Maori we are told that the principal food-supply carried was the small seed known as ari, said to be sapless, to contain no moisture (he kai toto kore—i.e., a bloodless food). Evidently this food was of a dry nature, deficient in moisture, sapless, and hence the description. The great land from which these ancestors of the Maori migrated is called Irihia in the traditions, and this recalls Vrihia, an ancient name of India. It was at Irihia that the revered sacred place Hawaiki-nui was situated. Vrihi is a Sanscrit name for rice, while ari is the Dravidian word for rice.

In addition to this food product, others of the old homeland were known as kata, porokakata, tahuwacro, and koropiri; but it is not known what these foods were. We are told that these products, as also the ari, were employed as offerings to the gods on account of their being “bloodless” foods.