Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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

Intrepid Polynesian Voyagers

Intrepid Polynesian Voyagers.

It is clear that two great causes have led to the settlement of the Polynesians over such a vast area of the Pacific Ocean—viz., voyages of exploration and colonization, and drift voyages. According to tradition the first settlers in the isles of New Zealand were castaways who drifted to these shores many centuries ago. In regard to voyages of exploration, it is absolutely necessary for the reader to grasp the Polynesian point of view, and to erase from his mind that of our European progenitors, who, for many centuries, feared to lose sight of the land. The Polynesian was the champion explorer of unknown seas of neolithic times. For, look you, for long centuries the Asiatic tethered his ships to his continent ere he gained courage to take advantage of the six months' steady wind acress the Indian Ocean; the Carthaginian crept cautiously down the West African coats, tying his vessel to a tree each night lest he should go to sleep and lose her; your European got nervous when the coast-line became dim, and Columbus felt his way over the Western Ocean while his half-crazed crew whined to their gods to keep them from falling over the edge of the world: but the Polynesian voyager, the naked savage, shipless and metalless, hewed him out a log dugout with a sharpened stone, tied some planks to the sides thereof with a string, put his wife, children, some coconuts and a pet pig on board, and sailed forth upon the great ocean to settle a lone isle two thousand miles away—and did it.

“When we come to consider,” says S. Percy Smith in his “Geographical Knowledge of the Plynesians,” “that the whole of this vast space of ocean, an area of four thousand by four thousand five hundred miles, was in former times traversed by various branches of the Polynesian race, and that they had no leading coast-lines to follow, but must have steered boldly out into the ocean with but a small extent of land as an objective, after weeks of sail, we cannot but acknowledge that, as bold navigators, the Polynesians were far before any nation of antiquity in art.”

page 9

The late William Churchill has written most interestingly of the eastward voyages of the dauntless sea-rovers of long-past centuries. He speaks of secondary bands of sea migrants pushing through the earlier settlements: “In these voyages the canoe fleets pushed out to the eastward, to Rarotonga, the Cook, the Gambier, the Hervey Groups, to Tahiti, to the archipelago of the Paumotu, to remote Easter Island, ever eastward until land upon the trackless sea failed their daring keels, not courage their stout hearts.” (See Journal of the Polynesian Society, Vol. 15, p. 96.)

In addition to the above we know that these old voyagers ventured outside the Polynesian area, certainly as far as New Caledonia and the Solomons. Again, Captain Cook expressed his surprise at finding a people speaking various dialects of a common tongue occupying so vast an area of the Pacific Ocean —an area stated by him to be twelve hundred leagues in extent from north to south, and sixteen hundred leagues east and west. This latter extent would be from Easter Island westward to the Gilbert Group; though one group of the Melanesian area, the Fiji Isles, intrudes upon this domain. It is quite possible that drift objects, flotsam of the occan, have had some influence on the adventurous seafarers of Polynesia, and may have led to voyages being made in search of other lands. Thus we know that, in former times, logs of Oregon pine were cast ashore at the Hawaiian Isles; that logs of Australian timber have reached the shores of New Zealand; that a foreign canoe-paddle was picked up on the Rangitikei beach. Many other drift objects must have caused speculation in past times among the denizens of the island system. The flights of migratory birds, such as the cuckoo and godwit of New Zealand, may have had a similar effect.

Throughout this Polynesia area most of the islands are occupied by members of that race, and on most of the small ones not so inhabited signs of former occupation have been found. Thus, on Norfolk Island, north-west of New Zealand, which was uninhabited when discovered, stone implements of the Polynesian type have been found; and the same may be said of Sunday Island, of the Kermadec Group, in the same latitude north-east of New Zealand. Searle's Island was found uninhabited in 1797, but the tokens of former occupancy were seen, and thirty years later Beechey found it inhabited. A couple of years ago the remains of a stone building, or foundation, 200 ft. long, were found on Fanning Island (about 4° north of the Equator), and similar remains on lone Suwarrow (about 13° S. latitude) are described by Sterndale, Lord Hood's Island, north of the Gambier Isles, was once inhabited, according to Krusenstern, and Beechey found a stone walled hut upon it. Beechey found Whitsunday Island uninhabited, but found huts thereon, and small reservoirs for the collection and preservation of fresh water cut in the coral rock. Wallis found Queen Charlotte's Island inhabited and well stocked with coconuttrees; Beechey in later years found it with no population and minus the trees. Pitcairn Island, south-east of the Gambier page 10 Isles, was uninhabited when the mutineers of the “Bounty” reached it, but stone erections of a former population were found thereon. This list might be lengthened considerably. When we find these signs of former occupation of small lone islets and atolls now without people, and study the very numerous traditions of former vayagings preserved by the natives of various groups, and note the Polynesian isle names known to the Maori of New Zealand and the legends common to far-scattered groups, then we can only believe that the Polynesian people were bold, confident navigators, capable of traversing a great extent of open ocean in their somewhat primitive craft.

The number of long voyages recorded in the traditions of divers groups are of much interest, and a certain amount of confirmation is to hand: for example, the voyages made from the Society Group to New Zealand, twenty generations ago, are still known to the natives of Rarotonga and Tahiti; the names of some of the vessels have been preserved in those isles. This was a voyage of over two thousand miles, the course being from Tahiti to Rarotonga, thence to the North Island of New Zealand. On this latter stretch some of the vessels called at Sunday Island, Kermader Group, known as Rangitahua to the natives of New Zealand and Rarotonga. At one time the tropical region of Polynesia must have been very frequently traversed by voyagers, who, as Mr. S. Percy Smith has written, “guided themselves by the regular roll of the waves driven before the trade-winds in the daytime, and by the stars at night.”

We are aware that voyagers to New Zealand did in some cases use Sunday Island as a stopping-place, and Colonel Gudgeon states that another isle once existed between Rarotonga and New Zealand, possibly at the reef shown on some maps at about lat. 27° S., long. 170° W. This would have been a welcome place of call, for it is situated half-way between Rarotonga and Sunday Island. Another lost island was that known as Tuanaki, an inhabited islet south of Rarotonga. Colonel Gudgeon states that the Haymet Reef, situated south of Rarotonga, is supposed to represent, or be a part of, the lost isle of Tuanaki. On a map of Polynesia at the Dominion Museum an islet, reef, or shoal a little north-west of Haymet Reef is queried as Tuanaki, thus—“? Tuanahe.” The same authority also informs us that, according to native tradition at Rarotonga, the Beveridge Reef was once a fine isle, with many coconut-palms growing thereon, but that it was swept bare by a fierce hurricane, which carried away both trees and soil, leaving nothing but the bare rock.

The Rev. Mr. West, in his Ten Years in South Central Polynesia, gives a long account of the destructive volcanic disturbances that have taken place in the Tongan Group during the past century. On the 7th November, 1837, an immense earthquake-wave from the west coast of South America swept, across the Pacific as far as the Bonin Isles. On the east coast of Hawaii the water rose 20 ft. above high-water mark, swept villages away, and destroyed many lives.

It is quite possible that volcanic disturbances have been the cause of movements of peoples in the Pacific to some extent.

page 11

The Takitimu folk of the east coast of our North Island have preserved a tradition that, about eight generations prior to the coming of the Takitimu canoe from eastern Polynesia, a volcano named Maunga-nui, at or near Rangiatea (Ra'tatea), was destroyed by a terrific explosion. At the same time an extensive tract of land called Whainga-roa was submerged by the sea, in which disaster whole tribes perished, one of which was named Ngati-Kaiperu. This would be about the year 1200. Possibly it is a myth; and, in any case, the native love of exaggeration must be borne in mind.

Some of the voyages made to New Zealand by Polynesian voyagers were those of adventurers who in some cases settled here, and in others returned to the northern isles. Some, like Tamatea of Takitimu, were attracted here as settlers by the fame of Aotea-roa as a fertile land, its humid climate, and its food-supplies; but the majority propably came here to find a peaceful home away from the intertribal quarrels of Polynesia. We are told in tradition that some tribal remnants fled hither to escape annihilation, and that some came here in order to attain a position of influence denied them in their former homes, (“Ko etahi he takiri ingoa mona kia tu ai tona mana i tenci motu, he kore kaore i tu ki Hawaiki”).

In giving some account of old-time voyages of the Polynesians we shall practically be confined to such as took place within the Polynesian area, inasmuch as but little has been preserved as to the expeditions or migration from the original homeland of the race. Tradition asserts that, after leaving the fatherland, those who migrated are said to have sailed in an easterly direction.