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The Tide-Beating Heart of Earth

On a new history of Polynesia

Discussed in this essay:

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, by Christina Thompson. Harper. 384 pages. $29.99.

Along with the familiar biases built into America’s standard world maps—Europe as central; Africa shrunk to the size of an overgrown Greenland; the northern continents and countries “on top” weighing down on the southern—­there are subtler ones involving the oceans. The Atlantic is shown in the middle: the sea to be crossed, the sea whose crossing was so historic. The Pacific, meanwhile, is literally on the margins.

Tatafa, by John Pule © The artist. Courtesy Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand

Tatafa, by John Pule © The artist. Courtesy Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand

A globe gives a truer picture, especially if it doesn’t put the manufacturer’s name, compass rose, and key to symbols where the map is most “empty,” in what Melville calls, in Chapter 111 of Moby Dick, “the midmost waters of the world . . . This mysterious, divine Pacific zones the world’s whole bulk about; makes all coasts one bay to it; seems the tide-beating heart of earth.”

On a globe, from a certain angle, the Pacific covers everything in sight except for a slim curl of the Bering Strait and Canada and a sliver of Australia on the bottom left, and it extends still farther past either horizon. It is by far the most dominating feature of our planet, big enough to hold all the land mass in the world with an extra North and South America thrown in for good measure. And just as contour globes, which allow you to feel the bumps of the mountains and the ridges of the ranges, have to wildly exaggerate the vertical scale—a truly scale model of Earth would feel smooth as a marble—Pacific maps need tricks too. Almost every one of the roughly twenty-five thousand islands in the Pacific (depending on what you count) would be invisible if shown to scale: they are less than dots in the immensity of blue.

Amid this immensity, Christina Thompson writes in her new book, Sea People, is Polynesia—islands scattered across an area of ten million square miles between Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island—the settlement of which presents “one of the great geographical mysteries of mankind”:

All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and set of customs, a particular body of myths, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a “portmanteau biota” of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went. They had no knowledge of writing or metal tools—no maps or compasses—and yet they succeeded in colonizing the largest ocean on the planet, occupying every habitable rock between New Guinea and the Galápagos, and establishing what was, until the modern era, the largest single culture area in the world.

The key questions, of course, are how, and from where. Pacific winds at the relevant latitudes blow west, which would suggest a point of origin in the Americas, but the languages of the South American coasts have nothing to do with Polynesian languages; the locals there were not seafarers; and the pigs, dogs, and chickens found throughout Polynesia were unknown in South America. Did the islands used to be attached to a continent? Did the future Polynesians go the long way round, tens of thousands of miles from Asia via the Bering Strait, Canada and California, Mexico and Panama, and South America?

Nearly every question to do with Polynesia comes out of this primal mystery of navigation. The riddle of the New Zealand moa—giant flightless birds up to twelve feet tall and hunted to extinction, but when?—could be solved only in tandem with the riddle of when people had come to these islands: Had they come, and killed the moa, in the Paleolithic some ten thousand years ago, or more recently? Had they come in waves, or just once, which meant the societies on New Zealand evolved dynamically and locally?

Thompson’s consistently engaging book delves into these questions, moving from Maori creation stories to Hawaiian fishhooks, from anthropology and archaeology to comparative linguistics, and in the process puts the central Pacific back in the center, giving a history and geography of the islands, their peoples, and the stories the rest of the world has tried to tell about them. Thompson is good with quick explanatory analogies and excellent at evocative lists: radiocarbon dating made it possible to know when something had happened in the distant past “given a few ounces of organic matter—some wood from a coffin, a handful of barley, a deer antler, an oyster shell, a sample of peat.” She not only covers the facts but also conveys a real feel for Polynesia.

The book is organized chronologically, starting with Magellan, in 1519, which lets Thompson flash back to the more ancient, largely undocumented history of Polynesian migration and settlement as she moves through the various modern efforts to explain it, some of them fact-based, many of them ranging from speculative to crackpot: that the islands are

the peaks of a drowned continent, and the inhabitants the survivors of a great deluge; that Polynesians are Aryans or American Indians or the descendants of a tribe of wandering Jews; that the islands were settled by castaways or fishermen blown thither by capricious winds.

The suspense is not in what happened in Polynesia but, as Thompson says in italics, in how we know.

The history of Polynesian contact breaks down rather neatly into exploration, exploitation, and explanation: overlapping phases of discovery, trade, and scientific efforts to understand this third of the globe. After a handful of encounters between 1595 and 1763—Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira arriving in the Marquesas, Abel Jans­zoon Tasman sighting New Zealand, Jacob Roggeveen finding the most remote inhabited place in the world on Easter Sunday, 1722, and naming it Easter Island—Britain’s new, undisputed domination of the seas following the Seven Years’ War, along with various technological advances, meant that Pacific voyages took off.

“Moai, Study 16, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island,” by Michael Kenna © The artist. Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York City

“Moai, Study 16, Ahu Tongariki, Easter Island,” by Michael Kenna © The artist. Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery, New York City

The British captain Samuel Wallis, blown north off his intended route, discovered Tahiti in 1766, naming it King George III Island; the French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, after whom the tropical flower was named, arrived eight months later but claimed the island for France anyway, giving it, in French fashion, the decidedly more aphroditic name New Cythera. Captain Cook, having left for Tahiti in 1768 to observe the transit of Venus and determine the size of the solar system, reached the island in March 1769—250 years ago, making it the subject of numerous commemorative publications and museum shows last year and this. Not long after Cook came countless traders and whalers, government administrators and their soldiers, missionaries (the first in 1796), louche Conradian drifters, settlers, and tourists.

The early European visitors couldn’t help but wonder how the Polynesians had gotten there. The generally sober and practical Roggeveen, among others, felt that the only explanation was God having placed them in situ to start with, and Thompson is clear-eyed enough to point out that “it is probably safe to say” the idea “was almost as absurd in 1722 as it seems to us today. But it does suggest how perplexing Europeans found the issue of Polynesian origins.” Somehow, the same group of people—physically, linguistically, culturally—had settled all these scattered islands so quickly and cohesively that “until the era of mass migration, Polynesians were both the most closely related and the most widely dispersed people in the world.” It just didn’t seem possible that they could do this in canoes, with no maps or instruments—nor was it clear why they would even have wanted to venture into the trackless unknown.

Maybe it wasn’t possible to navigate without instruments, and the Polynesians, as one contrarian historian argued in the 1950s, had ended up on their islands by drift and pure dumb luck. This theory didn’t make many friends, especially among the Polynesians themselves, but it hung on until two geographers in London (one of them from New Zealand), looking for projects to study with the new technology of computer simulation in the 1960s, thought to test the matter quantitatively. After a few years spent devising wind and current probability matrices for all 392 squares on their map, entering information on 994 islands, and “transcribing nearly 800,000 separate entries on winds and currents, keypunching, assembling onto magnetic tape, and checking” the data, they simulated more than 120,000 boats adrift at sea, finding “no support” for the possibility that anyone had drifted from Samoa to the Marquesas, from tropical Polynesia to New Zealand, or to Easter Island from anywhere at all. Meanwhile, another simulation of “voyaging with intent” showed that canoeing east from Samoa with a certain level of human intent and control and reaching the islands was “quite probable.”

Everyone felt that answering where the Polynesians were from would explain who they were. European Americans were eager to fit Polynesians into racial categories, whether the classic five types based on skull measurements (Caucasian, Mongolian, Malayan, Ethiopian, and American) or the equally pseudoscientific twentieth-century rubrics of Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. The Polynesians, clearly, were an ad hoc “hybrid people,” with “affinities” and “resemblances” to other groups in the world, jerry-rigged together into an apparent “category.” The label of Melanesia (“black,” from the same root as melanin and melancholy) for the islands at the western edge of the Pacific was invented pretty much solely to bracket out the darker-skinned people there from the lighter-skinned, “more civilized” Polynesians; the Melanesians, needless to say, were routinely described as more ugly, primitive, mistrustful, despotic, chaotic, cruel, and “ill-favored.”

To solve the question of Polynesians’ true origins, and therefore nature, there were thousands of arms, ears, and noses to be measured and hair and tooth shapes to be classified, and, of course, there was skin color, to be identified with tools such as

Broca’s Couleurs de la Peau et du Système Pileux (“Colors of the Skin and Body Hair”), published in Paris in 1879; a color panel designed by the German anatomist and physiologist Gustav Fritsch, consisting of forty-eight shades painted in oil on special paper in a handy pocket-size case; and Felix von Luschan’s Hautfarbentafel, or skin-color panel, a seven-by-three-inch brass tray containing thirty-six glass mosaic pieces in shades from ivory to nearly black, which also came in a smaller, double-sided version fitted with a sliding brass sleeve.

Still, the person using these tools often couldn’t find the right tone on the chart and would write down pairs of numbers or fractions. The results remained controversial.

What was really at issue were European America’s procrustean racial ideas and policies. In the 1940s, the great half-Maori anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa—­best-selling author, recipient of four honorary doctorates and a knighthood—was refused citizenship in the United States “on the grounds that he was not more than 50 percent Caucasian, as US naturalization laws then required,” even though most anthropologists at the time in fact “believed that Polynesians were Caucasian, being part of the great Indo-European diaspora.”

Science marches on, pseudoscience falls away—or today’s version isn’t yet recognized as such—­and, in the book’s slightly anticlimactic last chapter, we see the puzzles of Polynesia solved after all, with techniques such as DNA testing. Polynesians did come from Asia, not South America, and around a thousand years ago, later than was thought. The quest for explanations is more or less over, although new discoveries are still being made—the oldest known cemetery in the Pacific was discovered just in 2003, by a bulldozer driver who was turning an abandoned coconut plantation into a prawn farm—and a few mysteries remain, such as the sweet potato: an American crop common on the islands, even though all the other crops in Polynesia spread from Asia.

But after that chapter comes Thompson’s coda, about “two ways of knowing,” where she lays out her underlying vision. She finds “many of the most compelling insights” over the centuries coming from

moments of convergence, when two different ways of looking at a problem—practical and abstract, ancient and modern, humanistic and scientific, European and Polynesian—­intertwine.

As she herself realizes, these are some of the most intellectually exciting parts of her book. We meet Abraham Fornander, a Swede who crossed paths with Melville, married and settled on Hawaii, and became a pioneering collector of Hawaiian lore as well as a champion of the idea that Polynesian tradition was a source of truth:

If “the Icelandic folklore which tells of exploits and voyages to far distant lands” was to be believed, he asked, why not “the Polynesian folklore which tells of voyages between the different groups?”

There are the hybrid navigation techniques, mixing traditional methods and training in planetariums, that made it possible for a canoe, the H?k?lea, to sail from Hawaii to Tahiti without modern instruments in 1976.

Best of all, there is Tupaia’s map. Tupaia was the wise man or man of knowledge, often called a priest, whom Cook met on Tahiti and who quickly proved indispensable. He gave the British the names of nearly a hundred Pacific islands, a dozen of which he had been to himself; he told Cook and Cook’s scholar and artist in residence, Joseph Banks, about Tahitian customs, words, canoe technology, and mythology, while apparently soaking up at least as much from the strangers he was encountering. Despite there being no tradition of realistic illustration in Polynesia, Tupaia learned to paint and to see in Western ways, producing a striking series of watercolors that were attributed to Banks until 1997. Tupaia’s paintings “are closely observed and seem to confirm what was so often said about him: that he was a man of boundless curiosity and a natural experimenter.” When, in the late twentieth century, the mystery of how ancient proto-Polynesians could sail east, against the prevailing trade winds blowing west, was finally solved, the answer “turned out [to be] just as Tupaia had described it to Cook”: wait for the wind to blow east after all, which did happen occasionally.

Tupaia also worked with Cook to make a chart of seventy-four Pacific islands, arranged in compelling, mysterious, harmonious, pleasing loops reminiscent of the famous Aboriginal song lines. Thompson returns to this chart several times in the book and rightly highlights it as

a truly remarkable artifact: a translation of Tahitian geographical knowledge into European cartographic terms at the very first moment in history when such a thing might have been possible; a collaboration between two brilliant navigators coming from geographical traditions with essentially no overlap.

In the confluence, the two streams eddy with complexity: some of the islands are oriented “correctly” with respect to Tahiti, others are in the “wrong” quadrant altogether; Cook might have misunderstood the Tahitian words for the directions, making much of the map upside-down (and perhaps he repositioned on the map the islands he recognized but not the ones he didn’t); fundamentally, Tupaia was working within an entirely different orientational system, not latitude and longitude on a grid.

His chart might have been meant to contain information more about relative than absolute orientation (what islands seem to be between which others from a given perspective, or what stars they are aligned with), about winds and swells, about distance in time, not space. To a navigator at sea, it is useful to “expand the target” and detect signs of an island—birds, shimmering air, underwater luminescence, wave and swell patterns—before you can actually see it; archipelagoes where these targets overlap increase still further the chances of finding land. The islands on the chart might show these so-called screens of findable land:

on the chart more than half the circumference of the sea around Tupaia’s homeland of Tahiti is masked by islands—a much greater density of land than actually exists. But perhaps what was being depicted was not the islands themselves so much as the expanded targets they represented. Perhaps it was less a matter of accuracy and more a reflection of the navigator’s belief that the sea was full

and therefore land could be found one way or another.

Thompson repeats in her coda, “I have always loved the image of Tupaia in the great cabin of the Endeavour with Captain Cook,” making the chart. But despite Thompson’s emphasis on, and praise for, these moments of shared knowing, her book, organized around Western observers and how we know what “we” know about the region, can’t help but frame the Polynesians as objects of study, curiosity, and fascination more than as subjects. Polynesia is a “puzzle,” the book’s subtitle says, not foregrounded as a full-fledged player in global history. In Melville’s terms, Sea People gets to the Pacific as the midmost waters of the world but fails to get at its tide-beating heart.

A chart of the Society Islands made by Captain James Cook in collaboration with Tupaia during a voyage in 1769 © The British Library/Granger.

A chart of the Society Islands made by Captain James Cook in collaboration with Tupaia during a voyage in 1769 © The British Library/Granger.

Other recent accounts, such as James Cook: The Voyages, an exhibition at the British Library last summer and now viewable as an extensive website, make sure to complement the curators’ and British scholars’ essays with essays by scholars from Polynesia and Oceania, providing various counternarratives to Cook’s own and using the journals, drawings, and paintings from the voyages “as invaluable sources for the history of dress and tattoos, canoes and dwellings, ceremonies and beliefs” of their own cultures.* One needn’t be Polynesian oneself to broaden the perspective, in my view. But we do, I think, need to integrate Polynesian history into a more dynamic and global story.

For one thing, the centuries of encounter involve not just European arrivals in the Pacific but Polynesian departures. Tupaia decided to join Captain Cook and leave Tahiti—sharing what Cook called the “prodigious advantage” of his geographical and diplomatic knowledge to reach and explore New Zealand, and making Cook’s exploration and circumnavigation of those islands fundamentally different from any other encounter in the period. Generations of Tahitians, Marquesans, Hawaiians, and Maori would ship out as deckhands and crisscross the world, driven by their own urge to explore: “cosmopolites by natural feeling” with “a disposition for enterprise and bold adventure,” as one European traveler described them.

Thompson mentions in passing the most famous Polynesian in the West until Disney’s Moana—­Ishmael’s good friend Queequeg the harpooner, in Moby Dick—but doesn’t linger on what it means that Melville, who made his name with the titillating Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life in 1846, five years later immortalized as an adventurer in his own right the son of a Pacific island chief who canoed out to board a ship from Sag Harbor and see the world. “In Quee­queg’s ambitious soul, lurked a strong desire to see something more of Christendom than a specimen whaler or two,” Melville writes—how revolutionary this was, giving a Polynesian character his own desire, ambition, soul. Queequeg leaves the island by choice, out of curiosity, to see the world—no different from Ishmael, or, most likely, from the Polynesian explorers who first found the islands a thousand years before.

Thompson acknowledges “the vast fortunes accumulated during” the late nineteenth-century Gilded Age as an impersonal “fin-de-siècle trend,” which led to a “highly attractive sort of philanthropy” that involved funding for anthropologists and collections of so-called primitive art. But no connection is even hinted at between those vast fortunes accumulating like Strega Nona’s spaghetti and their basis: the exploitation of resources—­whale oil; guano; petroleum, of course—from the very same areas these fortunes would soon pay so philanthropically to explore.

One of the world’s most popular and esteemed writers during that same age was Pierre Loti, born Julien Viaud, teller of thrilling and evocative tales of adventure from Angkor Wat to Montenegro and from Iceland to Japan, a defining force in the cultural shift from, broadly speaking, romanticism to modernism. And he too was shaped by Polynesia, not just shaping the Western view of it. His maiden voyage on the Flore took him to Tahiti, by way of Easter Island—where he managed French relations with the islanders and found a moai statue to saw down, decapitate when the torso was too big for the ship, and send back to Paris. His first published writing, and first published drawings, were taken from his Easter Island journal; his erotic adventures on Tahiti inspired the novel that introduced the autobiographical character whose name he would later adopt as his own—“loti,” he said, was a mispronounced Tahitian word. Though “African masks” get most of the credit, Pablo Picasso was looking at Pacific art, likely including Loti’s stolen moai, at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro when planning the Demoiselles d’Avignon and inventing modern art along with Henri Matisse, Constantin Brancusi, and the rest.

Ben Finney, who gets a striking portrait in Sea People as the white anthropologist and catamaran racer who spearheaded the H?k?lea project, is known in other circles as the author of the great history of Hawaiian surfing, first published in 1966 and influential to a generation. (Tupaia himself was an original Big Kahuna, as the leader of the surfer gang was called in Gidget: an expert authority, a master of skills and knowledge, in Tahitian tahu‘a, in Hawaiian kahuna.) Surfer dudes and dudettes around the world are offshoots of Polynesian culture, not parts of or answers to any puzzle.

A drawing of indigenous Australians in bark canoes, by Tupaia. Courtesy the British Library

A drawing of indigenous Australians in bark canoes, by Tupaia. Courtesy the British Library

Near the middle of Sea People, Thompson explores the ramifications of Polynesia as, until contact, an oral culture with “an oral way of seeing.” While writing enables abstraction, distancing, and what we generally call objectivity, the truth of oral cultures is thoroughly subjective. Islands aren’t dots on a map seen from the sky but destinations one travels to in the water. When asked which of hammer, saw, hatchet, and log is not like the other, members of oral cultures might argue that they are in fact all alike; they would reject the idea that the wood is in a different “category” from the tools, because you can’t build anything without wood no matter what tools you have. It’s not about what things are; it’s about what you do with them.

Polynesian navigational techniques, too, use “star paths”—courses leading from one island to another, defined by the rising and setting stars—not Western-style “star charts,” which specify where the stars are in an impersonal sense. By day, navigators use the ultimate dynamic phenomena of ocean swells—not local waves but slow undulations created by overarching trade winds or distant geography. They are hard to recognize—“in practice the actual pattern of waves and swells at any particular point will be a complicated mix of ‘systems that differ in height, length, shape, and speed moving across each other from different directions,’” Thompson writes, quoting one of the Westerners who studied and learned these techniques—but an expert Polynesian navigator could “lie down on the outrigger platform, the more clearly to feel the pitch and roll of his canoe and thus disentangle the different forces.” (One old-timer reported that “the most sensitive balance was a man’s testicles.”)

Rather than picturing their boat moving across a map, Thompson writes, a Polynesian navigator might use

a system known as etak, in which they visualize a “reference island”—which is usually a real island but may also be imaginary—off to one side of the path they are following, about midway between their starting point and their destination. As the journey progresses, this island “moves” under each of the stars in the star path, while the canoe in which the voyagers are traveling stays still. Of course, the navigators know that it is the canoe and not the islands that are moving, but this is the way they conceptualize the voyage.

The navigator’s information is organized not as distance, speed, and bearing per se but subjectively, as a canoe at rest in the ocean and an oriented world shifting around them. Anyone who can comprehend this sort of animated reverse triangulation is moving through the world in a very different way.

Sea People is a rich compendium of the ways Polynesia has been pinned down on the maps of geography, history, and culture through the centuries. As Thompson so eloquently shows, such descriptions are only half of a story.

 is a translator, the editor of Thoreau’s The Journal, and the author of The Inkblots, a history of the Rorschach Test and the first biography of its creator, Hermann Rorschach.

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May 2019