Wayfarers of the South Pacific

European explorers invariably believed they were superior to every group they encountered. This is well known. Some of the examples of the ignorance of feelings of superiority include European encounters with the Wayfarers of the South Pacific.

The first European to see the Pacific Ocean was the 16th century Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa who had crossed the isthmus of Panama in 1513.

When the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan made his epic journey round the horn at the southern tip of South America he missed some important things.  The voyage was indeed impressive, but it was also impressive in the things that ideological blinkers prevented the explorers from noticing or seriously considering.

When Magellan turned around the corner of the Horn and began to head north he feared he was entering a void. That was how ignorant Europeans were about what could be found in the South Pacific. By that time half his men were already dead from the hazards of the voyage. He sailed for another 4 months in the southern Pacific and astonishingly he managed to miss every populated island group in the Pacific. Finally, on April 7, 1521 he landed on the island of Cebu.  Now we call the island group the Philippines.

Magellan was a brave explorer. It took guts to venture forth into the Pacific, because it was an ocean of the unknown in 1521. Yet he plunged on bravely. He named it “Pacific” because when he saw it the ocean was very calm. Nonetheless, although we acknowledge the bravery we also notice the blindness. As Wade Davis said, in his magnificent book, The Wayfarers,  “In his desperation and blindness he had by circumstance bypassed an entire civilization that might have taught him a great deal about the open water.”

There was an entire civilization that could have taught him how to survive and thrive in the Pacific. Yet, as so often happened with the European explorers, he failed to take advantage of what could be learned from indigenous people. That is exactly what Davis’ book is about. That is what has inspired me to consider what could be learned from indigenous people. Like my friends who suggested we could go to  an Indian Reserve in Canada and build a house for people there and solve their problems for them. If only they would listen to us. Over and over again, Europeans, thinking they were the finest and best at everything neglected to learn from indigenous people and that failure has made all the difference. Europeans were not stupid. The achievements of European explorers were remarkable, but sometimes they also possessed remarkable arrogance that did not help their cause.

The South Pacific was an astounding place. Davis said that it was “the largest sphere ever brought into being by the human imagination. Polynesia: 25 million square kilometres, nearly a fifth of the surface of the planet, tens of thousands of islands flung like jewels upon the southern sea.” Davis described the “discovery” of Polynesia by the Europeans as encountering “a new planet.” It really was that strange.

We have to remember how vast the Pacific was. It is the largest thing on the planet. It dwarfed everything—absolutely everything—the Europeans had ever seen.

The first sustained contact between Polynesia and the Spanish occurred later in 1595, some 74 years later. This was when Alvaro de Mendaña de Neira reached the islands he called the Marquesas after his patron. This was the most isolated island group in the world. There were probably as many as 300,000 people living there at the time. Davis was right: “It was an extraordinary meeting of civilizations.” It was one of the most extraordinary such encounters of all times. It was every bit as amazing as the meeting between Europeans and North Americans.

The Marquesans considered their islands to be the end of the earth, much like the Europeans had believed about their own continent before Columbus sailed to the “New World.”  That is what it was to the Europeans when Columbus sailed. This was another New World. It was nothing less than that. The Marquesans considered it the last stop on a mythical journey made by their ancestors from the west.  They believed that every human being was a descendant from Tiki, the first human. Sounds a lot like Adam doesn’t it?

The Marquesans were not in awe of the Spaniards. Far from it.  They felt they were vastly superior to these ruffians from the east.  Davis described their attitudes to this historic encounter this way,

“Thus, to the Marquesans, the Spaniards were as demons, embodiments of depravity born beyond the reaches of the eastern sky. Carnal and deceitful, cruel beyond reason, the Spaniards offered nothing. They had no skills, no food or women, no knowledge of even the most elemental elements of the natural world. Their wealth lay only in what they possessed, curious metal objects that were not without interest. But they had no understanding that true wealth was found in prestige, and that status could only be conferred upon one capable of acquiring social debts and distributing surplus food to those in need, thus guaranteeing freedom from want. The white Atua—these strangers who came from beyond all shores—had no place in the order of life.  Such was their barbaric state that sorcery did not affect them, or even the power of the priests. So complete was their ignorance that they did not distinguish commoners from chiefs, even as they treated both with murderous disdain.”

The people of the South Seas of Polynesia believed that the people with real prestige were those who helped others. Those were people who should be honoured. Yet the Europeans were puzzled by the ignorance and barbarity of the Marquesans. They wondered how such ignorant people could have accomplished so much. These were two solitudes staring each other down. A little less superiority on both sides would have been a boon to both. Arrogance is seldom a helpful attitude.

There were serious things for the Spaniards to puzzle over. They wondered how had these people come to these islands that were more than 3 months sailing distant from the most western Spanish outpost.  They noticed that women were not allowed in canoes. That was taboo.  So the women swam towards the Spanish vessels. The Spanish also noticed that the Marquesans had no magnetic compass like the Spaniards did. As a result it seemed impossible that these people could have peopled these distant islands. It was a serious puzzle.

Remember at the time European sailors had not yet solved the problem of how to measure longitude. That meant that they had to hug shores when they explored. This was a serious deficiency. That was why the English government offered a reward of 20,000 pounds to the person who solved this puzzle. At a time when a mansion in London could be furnished for about 100 pounds, this reward was magnificent. Until the invention of the chronometer European navigators had to rely on dead reckoning. As a result sailing too far from land was extremely dangerous. Yet here in the Pacific Ocean, much more vast than the Atlantic Ocean the Europeans were more accustomed with dealing, the Spaniards found these strange people. How had they got here? How had they colonized these islands? How did they get their women there so they could bear children for their men?  These were deep mysteries to the Europeans.

Captain James Cook was to some the greatest navigator in the history of England’s Royal Navy the greatest Navy in the world. At least so the English thought. Cook was the first person to pay serious attention to this puzzle. When he arrived in Hawaii his ship was met by a flotilla of 3,000 natives. Cook had noticed at Tonga that local catamarans could travel 3 leagues in the time that his ship could only cover 2 leagues. He was also surprised that people from the Marquesas could understand the language of the Tahitians even though nearly 1,600 km of the Pacific Ocean separated the two.  How was this possible?

On Cook’s very first voyage in 1769 he met in Tahiti a navigator and priest who went by the name Tupaia who drew from memory a fairly accurate map of every major island group in Polynesia except for Hawaii and Aotearoa. He placed more than 120 stones in the sand each representing an island. The map spanned 4,000 km.  That is about the distance across North America . Who in Europe could draw such a map? Could these people not teach some things of value to Cook? The answer was obvious. But not to Cook.

Later Tupaia astonished Cook even more than that. As Davis described a future trip the two took together,

“Tupaia later sailed with Cook from Tahiti to New Zealand, a circuitous journey of nearly 13,000 kilometres that ranged between 48 degrees south latitude and 4 degrees north.  To his astonishment, Cook reported, the Polynesian navigator was able to indicate, at every moment of the voyage the precise direction back to Tahiti, though he had neither benefit of sextant nor knowledge of charts.”

Imagine what would have happened if both sides had more respect for the other. How much could they have learned?

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