Seventy Million Miles of Open Sea: The Polynesians and their Wanderlust

Travel is, has always been, will always be integral to human life. You can dismiss that as biased, because personally, there’s little I like more than travelling, but you have to accept that throughout history people have always travelled, always wandered, and more often than not for no apparent reason – for the love of the travelling itself, or the promise of new lands. Humanity wouldn’t be the same without travel, to be honest – we wouldn’t have left Africa, we couldn’t have discovered Iron and Coal in the mountains of Europe, Silk and Furs in the forests of China, we couldn’t have developed the amazing systems of communication across distance that allow me to write something like this today and have it read by my friends, wherever they are and whenever they want to do so. So this story is all about travel; specifically travel over a distance that makes the Roman Empire look pathetic and the United Kingdom look like no more than a tiny speck. More than anything, it’s about travel for the sake of travel, for the experience of just travelling, and it’s about the culture that embraced that to become one of the most expansive but unknown civilisations in history. This is the story of the Polynesians.

For an ancient mariner culture, they’re doing a good job of avoiding that albatross.

If you draw a line between New Zealand and Hawaii, and bending from Hawaii down to Rapa Nui (or Easter Island, because local place names are waaaay less valid than European novelty ones) and from Rapa Nui back to New Zealand. If you can get over the fact that I’m mentioning the Southern Hemisphere for once, you should have a triangle. That’s called the Polynesian Triangle, it’s the space that the Polynesians have made their home and it covers 70,000,000 square miles of the world’s largest ocean. Now check the picture below. That’s a va’a. The Polynesians used the va’a to traverse damn near every one of those 70 million, in convoys of only a few boats.

One thing should be apparent. The Polynesians were damned good travellers.

Indonesia pictured desperately trying to photbomb the other ‘Nesias.

OK, so maybe I should explain a little about the origin of the Polynesians, and why they set out to discover new land in the first place (it’s also probably worth mentioning why they were so good at it). Record-keeping wasn’t great in Prehistoric Oceania, but historians are pretty sure the Polynesians were part of a much larger exodus of cultures from Taiwan towards the Pacific in 2000BC. Some historians say it was because of overpopulation, others because of tribal disputes. Many think it was just because travel was important to their culture. Anyway, as the tribes spread east, they developed better and better navigation skills – they had a system of navigation based on the stars that would have made contemporary European and Asian explorers look like complete chumps right up until the invention of the compass (some 3,000 years later). Some tribesmen could tell when they were near an island just by studying cloud formations. And wherever they settled, they built villages and hamlets, left a few of their number behind to start a new population. Populations survived and thrived in places like New Zealand (which they gave the awesome name Aeotearoa) and Hawaii (which they gave the awesome name…well, Hawai’i), but they settled on pretty much every one of the islands in their triangle, with each developing a slightly different culture and fortune.

Polynesian culture after they settled was, ironically, not so different from systems in place on the mainland. They had kings (and queens – the story of the last queen of Hawai’i is an amazing if sad one), a caste system, and, more often than not, huge totem-like offerings to their gods. But their unique customs are interesting too – they invented the tattoo as a way to quickly share information (single, married, royal, peasant, warrior, merchant, each had a tattoo symbol) before they even developed written language. One island group, the Samoans, even invented a system of meritocracy, where leaders are chosen because they’re good at their job, something pretty much no other culture has achieved to date.

It is, therefore, kind of sad what became of the Polynesians after the Europeans arrived.

The last Queen of Hawaii – she would later be removed to make way for a US colonial territory.

The 19th century Great Powers of Europe looked at Polynesia with the kind of snobbery only 19th century Great Powers of Europe seem to be able to muster. With Britain taking New Zealand for the good Queen Victoria, and France taking the Pacific Islands for the sake of “Liberté” (hell, even the isolationist USA got involved with Hawaii and parts of Samoa, in a spate of Manifest Destiny-fuelled escapades), the ancient settlements of the Polynesians were slowly turned into trading posts and testing grounds to see if native populations could be “civilised”. They could, obviously, but it would come at the cost of 4,000 years of cultural achievement.  Today, the islands are usually parts of larger, whiter countries – New Zealand, the USA, Chile (France has even kept its colonies in the form of French Polynesia) – but the legacy of Polynesia lives on. Cultural awareness is getting better better, local autonomy is becoming more important, local traditions are starting to begin again. The isolation of the Polynesians might have made them easy to split up and conquer, but their amazing travels haven’t stopped yet.


4 thoughts on “Seventy Million Miles of Open Sea: The Polynesians and their Wanderlust

  1. Another excellent account of how a unique, well-rounded civilization came to be and was then “civilized” to the nth degree. Always a pleasure to read, but Phil, I’m not sure how Independent Samoa feels about being lumped in with American Samoa.

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