Captain Cook 'discovers' Tahiti and Hawaii.
The natives tell Cook how they navigated the vast Pacific Ocean.
Later commentators dispute this, and some natives of today---many decades after ravages of their culture by outsiders--decide to rebuild the ancient navigation knowledge and traditional sailing canoes to create a new legacy of wayfinding and revive the spirit of the ancestral way as they teach others to face new horizons.
Herb Kawainui Kane speaks about Thor Heyerdahl and his Kon-Tiki expedition, and then the Hokule'a (Hōkūle'a)-- a re-created ancient double-hulled voyaging canoe (vaka taurua) featured in this extract.
Two ocean-going canoes
have returned to New Zealand after an epic voyage to Easter Island by
Polynesian navigators using traditional craft.
The revival of ancient
skills continues to gather momentum and has great cultural and political
significance for the indigenous people of the Pacific.
They waded ashore from their canoes through the luminous
turquoise water of the lagoon.
The captains, festooned with garlands of
flowers, led a procession of around 20 men and women, Cook Islanders,
Tahitians, New Zealand Maoris and three sailors from Rapanui, better
known to most of us as Easter Island.
Then the band played, waiting dignitaries made speeches and girls from the High School, still in their uniforms, danced.
The two vessels that had brought such excitement to sleepy Rarotonga rolled at anchor in a gentle swell just off the beach.
They looked like ships from a dream world, blink once and they'd be gone.
They were ocean-going, double-hulled canoes, big catamarans
with two masts and capable of carrying a crew of 14.
20-year-old Te Aurere, has no nails or rivets, it's entirely lashed
together, and all the stronger for that, I was told.
The speed, seaworthiness and size of traditional vessels like these astonished early European navigators.
But over 3,000 years the Polynesians had been using their
great canoes, combined with near-miraculous navigation skills, to
explore and settle a vast stretch of the Pacific, from Hawaii in the
north to isolated Rapanui in the east and down to Aotearoa in the south
west, the land of the long white cloud, re-named New Zealand after its
discovery by Dutch navigator, Abel Tasman
, in the 17th Century.
Re-naming is the first act of possession.
followed for Polynesia has been summed up in the phrase, "fatal
impact," deadly-introduced diseases; raids by slave traders; the
arrival of missionaries; colonisation; the nuclear testing era; and
now globalisation, a mixed blessing for remote islands with little to
offer that can't be produced more efficiently elsewhere.
In the face of all that, it's been a huge morale boost for
the indigenous people of the Pacific to be once again building their
ocean-going canoes and sailing them on long voyages, using ancestral
One man who arrived in Rarotonga with the canoes had a quiet
charisma, an air of authority.
He was a handsome, weather-beaten
51-year-old New Zealand Maori, Jacko Thatcher, the master navigator.
was he who had brought the canoes safely to this landfall with no modern
It was having to give up rugby after a knee injury that led
him into voyaging and this evolved into a deeper quest to find his
He told me of the 66 stars whose rising and setting positions a
navigator must know.
And an affinity with the ocean is crucial.
"You must learn", he said, "to be attuned to changes in wind and wave
direction, cloud formations and the passage of birds".
So the canoe
itself, "becomes an instrument for you".
These ancient wayfinding skills were nearly lost.
At the end
of the last century there was only one man left alive with a complete
grasp of them.
He was Mau Piaulug from Satawal in the Caroline Islands.
Mau was already middle-aged when the Polynesian Voyaging Society asked
him to teach a new generation of navigators.
Mau invited apprentice voyagers to Satawal where he would be
For men like Jacko Thatcher, and Tua Pitman from
Rarotonga, this was a life-changing experience.
We realised, Tua told me, that the ancestral knowledge would
bring big responsibilities and a leadership role.
"By re-living the
connectedness of the islands", he said, "we'd be helping keep alive our
identity as an oceanic people".
One surviving example of that old connectedness came up during the
recent voyage from Easter Island.
At first the Spanish-speaking
Rapanuans, French-speaking Tahitians and the English-speaking Cook
Islanders and Maoris on the canoes had difficulty understanding one
Through weeks at sea they solved this by using their distinct but closely-related native languages to communicate.
There's no denying that in today's Polynesia most
inter-island travel has become more difficult, even than it was on my
first visit in 1978, and the remoter places are becoming more isolated
The crippling cost of air fares and poor job prospects mean
that many young people leave their islands never to return
is stay at home or emigrate.
And perhaps that helps explain why the master navigators and
the double-hulled canoes are held in such awe.
They are a powerful
reminder of a heroic age not so long ago when those mythic islands of
the south seas were more connected and the ocean really was a highway
rather than a barrier.