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

The Science of Navigation

The Science of Navigation.

There appear to have been three main phases in the evolution of the art of navigation. In the first of these, voyages consisted of coastwise expeditions, in which the coast-line was the guide, page 53 and which mariners were careful not to lose sight of. The second stage was that in which seamen conversant with land-contours crossed extensive gulfs from point to point, as early voyagers, having noted the regularity of certain winds, at last ventured on the voyage from the Red Sea eastward to the shores of India. The third stage was that in which the voyager cut himself free from land guides and boldly sailed out across great oceans. Possibly the Phoenicians were the first seafarers to attempt this mode of navigation, and some writers have maintained that those daring sea-rovers probably employed a rude form of magnetic compass. The Chinese are said to have been acquainted with the properties of the loadstone many centuries before the Christian era, but did not possess a sea-compass until about 300 A.D. T. C. Johnston, in his work “Did the Phœnicians discover America,” endeavours to show that those people made trading voyages across the Pacific to America for about three hundred years from 1000 B.C. The evidence brought forward is not very convincing, and the endeavour to make Polynesian island names agree with those of the eastern Mediterranean is very weak. He makes Samoa and Tahiti wayside stations of these voyagers, but omits Easter Island and its strange relics of the past.

Undoubtedly the Phœnicians were bold and skilful navigators, as shown by the range of their sea traffic to Britain and the Baltic, to India and even farther east, and on African coasts. If they possessed the compass such voyages were noteworthy but not marvellous. In the case of the Polynesians, however, wo know that they did not possess the sea-compass; that they ranged over vast oceanic areas unassisted by scientific devices, guided only by the heavenly bodies, by the winds and winddriven waves. The assertion made by Johnston, that “the Phœnicians possessed some instrument that enabled them to steer a definite course through the trackless deep, irrespective of obstacles interposed by sea, coast-line, or sky, seems to be incontrovertible,” cannot apply to the Polynesian.

In a paper on “Night Marching by Stars.” by E. A. Reeves, read before the Royal Geographical Society, 13th April, 1916, occurs the following passage: “Long before the magnetic compass was known, at any rate in Europe, men found their way across unexplored oceans and trackless deserts by the sun by day and the stars by night; and the same guides are used by nomad tribes at the present time. So long ago as the seventh century B.C. Thales, the Greek philosopher, had taught the Ionian sailors to use the stars and steer by the Little Bear, like the Phœenicians.” The mariners compass was introduced into Europe about 1400 A.D.

Such, then, are the records of the Polynesian voyagers, of the hardy and adventurous men who, lacking compass and metals, hewed out vessels from tree-trunks with stone tools, and cross-hatched the vast Pacific with the wake of their lean canoes. Such were the men who trod the ara moana, or sea roads, in times long passed away—the men who relied on their gods to bear them safely across great ocean spaces. Forsaking the shelter page 54 of Tuanuku, the old Earth Mother, they invaded the ocean of Kiwa and traversed the vast realm of Hine-moana in search of new lands. They left earth-bound peoples behind them, and followed gleaming stars to the lure of the unknown. They saw many coast-lines sink into the dark seas behind them; they entered the great free spaces of Marae-atea and Tahora-nui-atea, the plaza of the Wind Children, the playground of the oftspring of Hine-moana, the Ocean Maid.

The time has now come when we must take leave of the Polynesian voyager, for we have tarried with him full long in his daring but erratc wanderings athwart lone seas. We have voyaged with him in “frail canoes” many thousands of miles, and felt the rushing lift of his pirogue before the trade-winds; we have sauntered over placid lagoons in diminutive outriggers, and watched the foaming water walls on either side of the cumbrous double canoe. We have seen him break through the hanging sky and lay down the water trails we still follow. And though, century after century. Hine-moana claimed her ceaseless toll of many lives, yet ever the Vikings of the Sunlit Sea pushed boldly out into the realm of Kiwa and sailed bravely down to distant palm-lined islets—or the spirit-world. The call of the summer isles of Eden comes yet to the wayworn wanderer in sterner climes, the spray of the lilting prau gleams brightly in the sunlight of many memories.

But where our old-time voyager drove his canoe along the endless leagues of the Mar del Sur, the huge cargo-steamer now rushes down the trade routes; where he by night crept on across the darkling seas with his prow held to a gleaming star, the colossal liner, ablaze with light, now throws the leaping leagues astern.

Even so the gallant old Polynesian voyager fades away into history, and his place shall know him never again. Nought remains save traditions of his prowess and the hard fruit of his toil that he left to us—the ways of many waters, the splendid water roads. For as Brady, the sea singer, has writ,—

Though Time shall write his traces
Upon the ways of men,
The ways of open waters
Are even now as then.

For, circled by the sunrise,
And spread beyond his set
The breezy roads and bonny
Are rolling bravely yet!
Beneath the grand expanses
Of guiding, starlit sky,
The tracks the rovers travelled
Still wide, unbounded lie
And till old Gabriel's trumpet
Shall echo overhead,
And from their place of biding
Come up the wakened dead—
Till lost ships all deliver
Their long-forgotten loads,
Still will they shine and sparkie,
The splendid water roads!

By Authority: W. A. G. Skinner, Government Printer, Wellington.—1923.