Sea People: In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific

There's an unavoidable tension in Christina Thompson's Sea People: In search of the ancient navigators of the Pacific.

Sea People

It's a common one in the genre of books about Pasifika people and it mostly has to do with perspective - how can a writer looking in from the outside sufficiently describe the history, culture, technology and worldview of a people that is not their own? And in doing so, does the resulting work serve that community or does it simply solidify ideas of "otherness" that may already exist? 

Thompson's book, a sort of "history of the history of Polynesia", doesn't entirely resolve those tensions. It can't. But Thompson (who has dual US/Australian citizenship) does an excellent job of acknowledging them.

"How can Europeans be trusted to tell the story of a people they have subjugated and dispossessed? And even beyond the question of willful distortion or supression, how can anyone be trusted to tell a story they may not fully understand?

Writing about these difficulties, the historian Judith Binney concluded that there are contradictions here that simply cannot be resolved. 'We cannot translate other histories into our own, ' she wrote. 'We can merely juxtapose them.' There will always be a sense in which this is a European story and a sense in which it is a Polynesian one as well. The best we can do is to acknowledge this complexity, and, as the anthropologist Kenneth Emory once put it, 'keep our minds as sensitive as we can to every little breeze of thought that flows.'"

Thompson also seems keenly aware that no matter how much research and how many first person accounts she might reference that, due to the oral nature of Polynesian culture of that time, she is only getting one side of the story. Though she makes extensive use of such sources she never takes what an 18th century European explorer wrote in their diary, or was reported as saying entirely at face value. She gives accounts like these their proper context and balance.

The book covers the main explorations, oral traditions, scientific breakthroughs, theories and controversies, and modern voyaging expeditions that have contributed to (or sometimes undermined) our understanding of how Pasifika people are related to one another and how they came to live in the different areas of Te moana nui a Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean). It's also personal in some places - Thompson is married to a Māori man and has Māori children, so her exploration of the topic of Polynesian migration is as much about gaining a deeper understanding of their lineage as anything. In a few places she brings some personal perspective into the telling of the thing.

Thompson is a gifted writer and has a knack for bringing real life to characters like Cook, or his Tahitian informant and fellow navigator, Tupaia. And her descriptions of the different atolls and islands of the Pacific help to set the scene, whether it's the idyllic Marquesan bay Robert Louis Stevenson visited in 1888, or the Hawaiian site of the first Christian service performed by Cook as she explores it with her family - you get a sense of what being there might be like.

It's funny. Even living as I do at the bottom point of the Polynesian Triangle (the other two points being Easter Island / Rapa Nui and Hawaii), I'd never really thought about how vast the Pacific Ocean is and what a seemingly insurmountable obstacle it presented to European explorers. This titanic scale goes some way to explaining why various theorists over the years have had some difficulty believing that Polynesian navigators really did travel back and forth between islands in a purposeful way (the rest can be explained by good old-fashioned racism and Thompson says as much).

Mid-way through reading the book I visited Canterbury Museum and for the first time, when looking at the massive rotating globe of the world, considered just how much of it is taken up by the Pacific. Could people really have travelled those vast distances, in some instances against the prevailing winds, with no physical navigation tools?

The existence of Polynesians suggests... yes. But how? 

One of the more fascinating parts of the book, for me, was the story of Nainoa Thompson, a modern day Hawaiian who went about "rediscovering" the old ways of Polynesian navigation and his revelation that though mental star charts were important, this was only part of the how this system of traditional navigation worked (though it's the bit best understood by western navigators). In fact it was this celestial knowledge in combination with a feel for the rhythms and sizes of sea swells, the ability to read the size and behaviour of clouds, observations of sea birds and so on that could be used to pinpoint the location of an island. So less like finding a needle in a haystack and more taking a magnet with you into said haystack. To be able to read all these signs, would of course take years of training and experience, but that's true of all specialists and experts.

I learned so much from reading Sea People - about the environment of the Pacific, the Lapita people, the history of the discovery of the island I live on, and more. As well as being educational it's also a really absorbing read - Thompson's ability to bring people from history to life, and her evocative descriptions of people and places made this a joy to read. Though the topic seems heavy, the treatment is not academic. At over 300 pages it can seem a little intimidating (like the Pacific itself, perhaps) but it buoys you along, all plain sailing. And with glowing reviews from recreational non-fiction authors like Philip Hoare and Dava Sobel gracing the cover, it seems I'm not alone in that opinion. (I'm also pleased that, from an entirely Librarian viewpoint, it has an extensive notes section and index.)

Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia (alternate title)
by Christina Thompson
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN:9780008339029

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