Dennis Kawaharada, From Voyaging Chiefs of Havai’i (Honolulu: Kalamaku, 1994)
Before the birth of Christ, voyagers from islands east of New Guinea began to explore and settle islands upwind, toward the rising sun. This migration into the central Pacific Ocean was one of the most remarkable achievements of human history. It took over a thousand years to complete and involved finding and fixing in mind the positions of dozens of islands (some just small coral rings on which the highest landmarks are coconut trees) scattered over 10 million square miles of water. By the time European explorers entered the Pacific in the 15th century almost all of the habitable islands had been settled for hundreds of years and oral traditions told of explorations, migrations, and travels across this immense watery world.
The voyaging was all the more remarkable in that it was done in canoes carved with tools of stone, bone, and coral; lashed with hand-made fiber; and navigated without instruments by expert seafarers who depended on their observations and knowledge of the ocean, sky, and birds for clues to the direction and location of islands.
The canoe hulls were dug out from tree trunks with adzes or made from planks sewn together with fiber of coconut or other plants twisted into strands and braided for strength. Cracks and seams in the hull were caulked with plant fibers and sap from breadfruit and other trees. An outrigger was lashed to a single hull for greater stability on the open ocean; or two hulls were joined to crossbeams with a deck added between the hulls to increase carrying capacity for long-distance voyaging. The sails were made of mats woven from pandanus leaves.
These vessels were seaworthy enough to make voyages of over 2,000 miles along the longest sea roads of Polynesia, like the one between Hawai‘i and Tahiti. And though these double-hulled canoes had less carrying capacity than the broad-beamed ships of the European explorers, the Polynesian canoes were faster: one of Captain Cook’s crew estimated a Tongan canoe could sail “three miles to our two.”
After a visit to Society Islands in 1774, Andia y Varela described the canoes he saw:
It would give the most skilful [European] builder a shock to see craft having no more breadth of beam than three [arm] spans carrying a spread of sail so large as to befit one of ours with a beam of eight or ten spans, and which, though without means of lowering or furling the sail, make sport of the winds and waves during a gale, their safety depending wholly on two light poles … fitted to another spar of soft wood placed fore and aft wise in the manner of an outrigger… These canoes are as fine forward as the edge of a knife, so that they travel faster than the swiftest of our vessels; and they are marvellous, not only in this respect, but for their smartness in shifting from one tack to the other. (Corney 282)
The canoes were paddled or sailed. The dangers were many. The canoes could swamp or capsize in heavy seas; sails could be ripped apart, and masts and booms could be snap by strong winds; the hulls could break apart in heavy seas or be smashed against unseen rocks or reefs. And while there might be grass shelters on the decks of canoes, the voyagers were often exposed to the wind, rain, and sun, with only capes of leaves or bark-cloth wrappings for protection. A person could die of exposure during a stormy night at sea. If supplies ran short during a long voyage, starvation was a possibility. As one tradition about a 1200-mile voyage from Hiva Oa (Marquesas Islands) to Rarotonga (Cook Islands) puts it: “The voyage was so long; food and water ran out. One hundred of the paddlers died; forty men remained.”
Fickle weather was a constant worry. Not enough wind to sail; or wind from the wrong direction; or too much wind and heavy seas. The art of weather prediction without instruments or satellites was essential to voyaging, to anticipate the changing direction and strength of the wind, which seemed to blow through holes in the dome of heaven along the horizon, shifting clockwise or counterclockwise. A knowledge of seasonal patterns was the basis of prediction. Daily, the navigator watched the condition of the sea and the direction of the swells, the color of the sky and the shapes, colors, and movements of clouds overhead to anticipate approaching weather. At night, the twinkling of stars indicated a strong wind. Navigators in the Gilbert Islands used various observations of animals and the moon to predict weather:
When a voyage had to be made during the bad season, the navigator knew several weather signs to help him choose his day. He would watch the small red ants which infest most houses: if they were returning in numbers to their nests, laden with food, and were blocking up their doors with particles of sand, foul weather was impending; but if they swarmed out, leaving their doors wide open, it promised good weather. The spider was another prophet: when the weather was set fair he would stay in the middle of his web; but if wind and rain threatened, he would retire to something more solid. The moon was closely observed: if it had a halo in which more than ten stars could be counted, there would perhaps be rain, but not a great downpour; if fewer than ten stars were visible there would be much rain and probably wind.
If, again, the moon had a double halo, the inner one reddish brown in colour, it promised a torrent on the wings of a gale. But the most reliable barometer in the opinion of the Gilbertese navigator was (and still is) the shellfish nimatanin (Nerita plicata). This is found in the shallows on the reef by the ocean beaches of the islands. When fair weather promises, it remains on the surface of the rock, and if it is found thus in any great numbers there is every hope of a long fine spell; but if the creature remains in the crevices of the reef, it is an infallible sign of heavy weather, and the deeper it hides itself the worse will be conditions for sailing. Before setting sail in the fair weather season, a Gilbertese mariner will sometimes spend several days in looking at the sea. If it is streaked in places with calm patches of an oily appearance he will refuse to start until these disappear, for they speak to him of strong currents. (R. Grimble 237-8)
For the navigator, the voyage was not only a physical challenge to work with rather than against the weather, but a mental challenge. To navigate hundreds of miles without instruments required an extensive, detailed knowledge of the ocean and sky. And without charts and plotting devices, the navigator had to memorize his course, sometimes over a period of weeks. Some scholars have expressed disbelief that such navigation could be done with any accuracy, especially on long voyages of over several hundred miles. However, modern voyages by Micronesians who still practice a form of traditional navigation and by Hawaiians and other Polynesians who have recovered this lost ancestral art have shown that navigation relying on natural signs for direction and on memorization of one’s course was accurate enough to guide canoes between the farthest reaches of Polynesia. (See Finney, Gladwin, Kyselka, and Lewis.)
Andia y Varela recorded how Tahitian navigators held their courses by using the winds and swells, and the sun and stars, which seemed to rise from fixed pits along the eastern horizon, pass overhead across the dome of heaven, then set into fixed pits along the western horizon:
There are many sailing-masters among the people, the term for whom is in their language fatere [fa‘atere; Hawaiian: ho‘okele]. They are competent to make long voyages like that from Tahiti to Ra‘iatea, which counts about 150 miles, and others farther afield. One of them named Puhoro came to Lima on this occasion in the frigate; and from him and others I was able to find out the method by which they navigate on the high seas.
They have no mariner’s compass, but divide the horizon into sixteen parts, taking for the cardinal points those at which the sun rises and sets.…
When setting out from port, the helmsman reckons with the horizon, counting from the point where the sun rises; he knows the direction in which his destination bears: he sees, also, whether he has the wind aft, or on one or other beam, or on the quarter, or is close-hauled: he knows, further, whether there is a following sea, a head sea, a beam sea, or if it is on the bow or the quarter. He proceeds out of port with a knowledge of these conditions, heads his vessel according to his calculation, and aided by the signs the sea and wind afford him, does his best to keep steadily on his course.
This task becomes more difficult if the day be cloudy, because of having no mark to count from for dividing out the horizon. Should the night be cloudy as well, they regulate their course by the same signs; and, since the wind is apt to vary in direction more than the swell does, they have their pennants, made of feathers and palmetto bark, to watch its changes by and trim sail, always taking their cue for a knowledge of the course from the indication the sea affords them.
When the night is a clear one, they steer by the stars; and this is the easiest navigation for them because, there being many stars not only do they note by them the bearings on which the several islands with which they are in touch lie, but also the harbors in them, so that they make straight for the entrance by following the rhumb of the particular star that rises or sets over it; and they hit it off with as much precision as the most expert navigator of civilized nations could achieve.
They distinguish the planets from the fixed stars by their movements; and give them separate names. To the stars they make use of in going from one island to another, they attach the name of the island, so that the one which serves for sailing from Tahiti to Ra‘iatea has those same names, and the same occurs with those that serve them for making the harbors in those islands.
What took me most in two Indians whom I carried from Tahiti to Ra‘iatea was that every evening or night, they told me, or prognosticated, the weather we should experience on the following day, as to wind, calms, rainfall, sunshine, sea, and other points, about which they never turned out to be wrong: a foreknowledge worthy to be envied, for, in spite of all that our navigators and cosmographers have observed and written about the subject, they have not mastered this accomplishment. (Corney 284-286)
Finding islands before they could actually be seen was also part of the art of navigation. The name “Maui” seems to have been an honorific name given to numerous explorers who were capable of “fishing up” (i.e., discovering) islands. The first sign of an unseen island might be land-based birds like the fairy tern and noddy tern, or nesting seabirds, which fly out to fish in the daytime and return to their home islands at night to feed their young. Swell patterns also provide clues to the directions of islands. Swells from the direction of an island are partially blocked by it and wrap around the island, creating a distinctive pattern. Swells in the direction of an island reflect off the island back toward the observer on a canoe. The navigator was able to feel these swell patterns in the pitch and roll of his canoe. If the island is upwind, human, animal, or plant smells and drifting land vegetation might reach the canoe. Other clues to landfall include special cloud shapes over islands; a green blush on the bottom of clouds above the islands in the daytime; or a glow above an island created by sunlight or moonlight reflecting up from the white sand and smooth water of a lagoon. Underwater lightning may also point the way to land (Lewis 153-215).
The Pacific Ocean mariners also use various seamarks to find their way. “As Europeans use landmarks, so the Gilbertese [navigators] use seamarks to check their daily position. These signposts in mid-ocean consist of swarms of fish, flocks of birds, groups of driftwood, or conditions of wave and sky…peculiar to certain zones of the sea. Hundreds of such traditional betia [seamarks] were stored up in the race memory as a result of cumulative experience of generations” (A. Grimble 48). These seamarks were found along routes between islands and indicated to the navigator that he was at a certain point along the way to his destination. For example, a seamark called “the swarming of beasts” consisted of an extraordinary number of sharks and might indicatethe canoe was “a day’s sail downwind of land.” Other fauna marks included a region where flying fish leaped in pairs, a zone of innumerable jellyfish, an area of numerous terns, an area of sharks and red-tailed tropic birds, a place marked by a school of porpoises, a place where pairs of porpoises point their heads “in the direction of the passage into Tarawa lagoon” (A. Grimble 49-50).
Before the 1992 voyage of the modern Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a from Hawai‘i to Tahiti, Satawalese navigator Mau Piailug told Hawaiian navigator Shorty Bertelmann to look for a seamark he remembered from previous voyages along the route: a school of porpoises at the northern edge of the doldrums (around 9 degrees north latitude). Bertelmann sighted the porpoises at the right place, confirming for him that he was on course and solidifying his faith in Mau’s traditional navigation.
Along with their extensive natural knowledge of ocean and sky, Polynesian voyagers depended on help from the gods and spirits. The gods were essential to canoe-building. The builders performed rituals and prayers to ask persmission of the forest gods to cut down a tree; they called on the gods to guide the work. (In the tradition of Rata, the forest god To‘a-hiti and his canoe carver Ta-va‘a built Rata’s canoe.) The builders also called on the gods to protect the canoe at sea. The naming of canoe and parts was important, for it was part of the mana, or power, of the canoe: in the tradition of Te Erui Ariki, the canoe had to be renamed after it was almost destroyed in a hurricane. The two masts were renamed for the gods Tanaroa and Rongo.
The gods were also called upon to assist in sailing. Ru, who led a migration from Ra‘iatea to Aitutaki, prayed to Tangaroa to calm the stormy seas. Spirits accompanied Rata on his voyage to avenge his father’s murder. They guided his canoe and helped him defeat various sea demons. Aku (bonito) and ‘opelu (mackerel) came to rescue Pa‘ao from storms sent by his angry brother Lonopele. The two fish were thereafter placed under a kapu (i.e.) protected during their spawning season by Pa‘ao’s priestly family. The god-like voyaging chief Hiro, on the other hand, was more inclined to challenge the gods – after the bird of Tane caused the death of his four brothers, he pursued the bird to the third sky, then back to earth. When the bird pleaded for mercy, Hiro relented, but banished the bird into the tenth sky. In another version of this story, Hiro pursued the god Tane himself and threatened to hurl him to his death; the god was spared only after he begged Hiro for mercy and promised to give him seven lands and four islands.
The most celebrated center of Polynesian voyaging and navigation was the district of Opoa on the island of Ra‘iatea, anciently called Havai‘i, one days sail downwind from Tahiti in the direction of the setting summer sun. The island was apparently named after a distance homeland, which some have suggested was the island of Java (Havai‘i = Java ‘iti, or “Little Java”). This name was given to new islands discovered as exploration and settlement spread east across the Pacific: Savai‘i is the name of the largest island of Samoa; and Hawai‘i, the largest island in the Hawaiian chain. (In Maori, “Havai‘i” is pronounced “Hawaiki”; in Rarotongan, “‘Avaiki.”)
Buck describes the development of central Polynesian culture in the fertile high islands of the Tahitian archipelago: “An exuberant new life opened up in central Polynesia and new adjustments and progress took place, not only in the arts and crafts but in social and religious matters. The senior families and the most intelligent priests seem to have settled down in the Opoa district of Havai‘i, which became the cultural centre of the group.” (71-72). The main gods of the priests of Opoa were Ta‘aroa (Kanaloa in Hawaiian, Tangaroa in Rarotongan), a god of fishing and the sea, represented by the octopus; and later his son ‘Oro, a war god who required the first fruits of battle (human sacrifice) for his favor.
From this district, the chiefly culture spread throughout the Pacific to inhabited and uninhabited islands.
The story of these voyagers from Havai‘i are told in the oral traditions of Polynesia. These oral traditions range from factual accounts of migration voyages (Ru, Te Erui Ariki, and Ruatapu) to stories in which the human and the divine, the natural and supernatural intermingle.
The motivations of the voyagers varied. Some left to explore the world or to seek adventure. Others departed to find new land or new resources because of growing populations or prolonged droughts and other ecological disasters in their homelands. Within the sphere of known islands, others sailed to wage war or seek vengeance, to escape political persecution or unhappy love affairs, to find a wife or visit relatives, or to obtain prized objects, like red feathers, not available at home.
Whatever the motivation for voyaging, the challenge was always the same – the huge, trackless expanses of sun-heated saltwater capable of generating fierce winds and battering waves. The challenge was met again and again by daring Pacific island voyagers, long before sailors in other parts of the world ventured beyond the coastlines of continents or inland seas and lakes. The oral traditions collected herein are a tribute to the “living spirit and divine courage” (Buck 85) of these voyagers.
Voyaging Chiefs of Havai‘i
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Buck, Peter. Vikings of the Sunrise. New York: Stokes, 1938.
Cartwright, Bruce. “The Legend of Hawaii-Loa.” Journal of the Polynesian Society. Vol. 38: 1929. 105-121.
Corney, B.G. (ed.) The Quest and Occupation of Tahiti by Emissaries of Spain during the Years 1772-6 (3 vols.). London: Hakluyt Society, 1913-1919.
Emerson, N. B., “Long Voyages of the Ancient Hawaiians,” Papers of the Hawaiian Historical Society, May 18, 1893 (No. 5) 5-13.
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Finney, Ben. “Voyaging and Isolation in Rapa Nui Prehistory.”
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Henry, Teuira. Ancient Tahiti. Honolulu: Bishop Musuem Press, 1928.
Henry, Teuira et al. Voyaging Chiefs of Havai‘i. Honolulu: Kalamaku Press, 1995. A collection of voyaging traditions from across Polynesia.
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Koro, Timi and Drury Low, trans. “The Story of Ru’s Canoe and the Discovery and Settlement of Aitutaki”; The Story of Te Erui Ariki; The Story of Ruatapu. Journal of the Polynesian Society. Vol. 43, 1934. 17-24; 72-84;171-186, 258-266.
Landgridge Marta, trans. Von den Steinem’s Marquesan Myths. Canberra, Australia: Target Oceania/The Journal of Pacific History, 19 88.
Lewis, David. The Voyaging Stars: Secrets of the Pacific Island Navigators. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
Lewis, David. We, the Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific. 2nd Edition. Honolulu: UH Press. 1994.
Lindo, Cecilia Kapua and Nancy Alpert Mower. Polynesian Seafaring Heritage. Honolulu: Kamehameha Schools, 1980.
Siikala, Jukka. ‘Akatokamanava: Myth, History and Society in the Southern Cook Islands. Auckland, New Zealand: The Polynesian Society, 1991. The settlement of Mauke in the Southern Cook Islands.
Tairi. “The Origin of the Island Manihiki”/ “Extracts from Dr. Wyatt Gills’s Papers, No. 29.” Journal of Polynesian Society, Vol 24 (1915), pp. 146-147.
Te Ariki-Tara-Are and S. Percy Smith, Trans. “History and Traditions of Rarotonga.” Journal of the Polynesian Society. Part VII (Vol. 28, 1919, pp. 183-197), Part IX (Vol. 29, 1920, pp. 11-16) and Part X (Vol. 29, 1920, pp. 45-65). The story of Tangiia and Tutapu.
Te Matorohanga / S. Percy Smith, Trans. “Kupe” from The Lore of the Whare-wananga. Journal of the Polynesian Society. Vol. 4, 1912, pp. 118-133. The story of Kupe, discoverer of Aotearoa (New Zealand).