Monday, May 22, 2023

Christina Thompson - Sea People

The Pacific Ocean is the largest body of water on Earth. It huge area is larger than the planet's entire landmass, and its possible to look at the Pacific on a globe and almost imagine a planet completely devoid of land. Yet zooming in from such a view, it quickly becomes apparent that this massive area of water has land, tiny volcanic islands that poke out of the water, sometimes separated by thousands of kilometres. When Europeans first arrived at these islands they were amazed to find most of them inhabited. To the European's this seemed amazing. The islanders had what seemed to be very rudimentary boats. How could this have taken place? 

Christina Thompson's book is a history of the "Polynesian Triangle", an

area of ten million square miles in the middle of the Pacific Ocean defined by the three points of Hawai'i, New Zealand and Easter Island. 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. 

Without compasses, sextants or maps, they colonized the Ocean and did so in a remarkably short period of time., creating what was "until the modern era, the largest single culture area in the world".

The Europeans, of course, could not believe the Polynesian's did this on their own, and a significant part of the book is the story of how Europeans misunderstood the history of the Pacific. Believing that navigation over such distances was impossible without European technology, those that came after Captain Cook, came up with a variety of ideas about what happened. These ranged from the racist - that the Polynesians were actually descendants of white tribes, to the improbable - the Polynesians were actually South American. Much discussion took place about how the navigation took place - whether it was accidental (as most people believed until very recently) or planned.

In exploring the European approach to the Polynesians, Thompson draws out the real story - which is an incredible account of brilliant exploration, genius navigation and completely different ways of understanding the world. She shows how different understanding of the relations between currents, waves, land and water, allowed the first navigators to move around the Ocean with incredible accuracy, and how this was proved by some startlingly brilliant experimental voyages in the 1970s and 1980s. These trips both proved the impossible possible and gave new renewed identities to the Polynesians themselves, rescuing their own history from the condescending ideas of many European scientists. There are fascinating accounts of archaeology, navigation and oral history - and I was particularly struck by Thompson's brilliant account of Cook's relationship to the Tahitian Tupaia who produced a famous chart. Thompson shows how this is actually an incredible accurate map of the Pacific, but one almost incomprehensible to a 17th century European sailor.

I picked up Sea People on a whim in a bookshop and I am very glad I did. It seems like it might be a specialist topic, but its a brilliant exploration of the different "ways of seeing" that different human cultures develop, and how such knowledge has been lost because of the way European colonialism remade everything in its own image. I highly recommend it. As Thompson points out, there are still questions about the origin of the Polynesians, it is "unlikely that we will ever know how some of the remotest archipelagos were initially discovered or how many canoes were lost in the course of this long and arduous colonising process", but

To the extent that this history has been disentangled... it has been thanks to input of radically different kinds. At one end of the spectrum are the mathematical models: the computer simulations, chemical analyses, statistical inferences - science with all its promise of objectivity and its period lapses into error. At the other, the stories and songs passed from memory to memory: the layered, subtle, difficult oral traditions, endlessly open to interpretation, but unique in their capacity to speak to us, more or less directly, out of a pre-contact Polynesian past.

Related Reviews

Poskett - Horizons: A Global History of Science
Cushman - Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World: A Global Ecological History
Moorehead - The Fatal Impact
Hunt & Lipo - The Statues that Walked: Unravelling the Mystery of Easter Island

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