We the Navigators

A virtual encyclopedia of Pacific traditional navigation

We the Navigators is a virtual encyclopedia of Pacific traditional navigational lore. University of Hawai’i Press published the book in 1972. Saul H. Riesenberg was the same anthropologist responsible for translating and publishing the book of Luelen. In his foreword, he cites how Pigafetta, Magellan’s chronicler, marveled at the canoes he saw upon the discovery of the Mariana Islands in 1521. Then over two hundred years later and over 3,850 miles to the west, 3,000 canoes surrounded Captain Cook’s Resolution at Kealakekua Bay in 1779. How had these “flying proa” conquered such immense distances and populated every corner of an ocean that covers two-thirds of the equatorial surface of the earth? David Lewis’s book We, the Navigators is an attempt to answer this question.

Lewis commissions traditional navigators to pilot his craft

Indeed, Lewis’s chronicle begins with Tupaia, high chief and navigator-priest of Raiatea. One of Cook’s informants he was the only highly qualified Polynesian navigator interviewed at length by Europeans. He had knowledge of every major group in Polynesia except Hawai’I and New Zealand. An area of ocean extending 2600 miles from the Marquesas in the east to Rotuma and Fiji in the west. He goes on to cite other historic examples of traditional navigators. Then he goes on to show practical examples of then current navigational lore by inviting traditional navigators aboard his yacht Isbjorn and turning it over to their stewardship.

Their primary navigation tools were the stars

The first traditional navigator Lewis introduces is Tevake from Pileni atoll. He navigated his yacht isbjorn without the use of instruments from the Outer Reef Islands to Taumako, Vanikoro and Ndeni. That was a total distance of 335 miles. The second traditional navigator, in a separate part of the ocean, was Hipour from Puluwat. He successfully navigated from his home island to Saipan and back a distance of nearly 600 miles one way. How did they accomplish this? Their primary tools were the stars. They were masters of the night sky with all 36 points on the circumference of the horizon memorized as to star appearances and successive risings as the skies turned the night through. Its image ingrained in their mind to such an extent that on cloud covered nights even a small section of sky was enough to for them to recover their bearings and achieve landfall. An image that rotated with the seasons and kept them abreast of the night sky no matter what time of year their journey took place.

A final fail-safe was the flight path of terns and noddies leaving or flying back to their home islands

In addition to pointer stars that arose on the horizon above the cloud line they used the known position of intermediate islands as triangulation points along their voyage based on successive star risings at approximate right angles to their headings. Finally, they timed their voyages by heaving to and waiting for dawn to arrive before attempting landfall to avoid missing their destination due to darkness. A final fail-safe  within the last twenty miles or so was the flight path of terns and noddies leaving their home islands and flying out to sea in the morning and back after their day of fishing. Looking at a map of the Pacific in this way with a circumference of twenty miles drawn around the periphery of the  various chains of islands leaves most gaps between islands and even archipelagos well under 300 miles. How to explain the populations of outlying islands of Hawai’i, Easter Island and New Zealand? The most logical explanation is accidental drift due to storms or other mishaps, return to home islands and then a purposeful  retracing voyage of settlement.

From New Guinea to Hawai’i

In this way the Melanesians settled the areas between coastal New Guinea in the west to Fiji in the east. The Polynesians settled the area from New Zealand in the south to Hawai’I in the north and Easter Island in the east. The Micronesians settled the area from Palau in the west through the Carolines east to the Marshall Islands. Not necessarily in that order but rather in fits and starts of accidental discoveries followed by purposeful migration. This is but a brief review of the 341 pages of detailing a chronicle of traditional navigational skills traced from island group to island group throughout the pages of Pacific history covered by this monumental book.

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