Accidental Colonization vs Deliberate Navigation in Pacific

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Accidental Colonization versus Deliberate Navigation, Debate of Discover in the Pacific Ocean

Andrew Sharp claims in his Ancient Voyagers in the Pacific published in 1956 that the Pacific Islanders did not possess the necessary navigational and sailing technology to deliberately navigate the distances between islands of the Pacific when colonizing these islands. He claims colonization was random and accidental. However, more recent studies from 1972 on of Pacific navigation suggest deliberate navigation and colonization was possible and did take place. These studies have been supported by reenactments of voyages, computer simulations, and newly acquired information regarding preparation for distant voyages.

Andrew Sharp supports his claim of accidental colonization by citing numerous examples of lost voyagers landing on populated islands, their testimony or second hand information recorded by Captain Cook. Sharp claims the only distant voyages were confined to "Western Polynesia-Fiji and the Tahiti-Tuamotu archipelago" (Sharp 1956:2). He states that the longest offshore voyages made without landing on intermediate islands included distances of up to three hundred miles, separating Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Rotuma and the Ellice Islands, and distances up to two-hundred and thirty miles, separating Tahiti from the Tuamotu islands. Sharp refers to an account by Captain Cook's interpreter, Omai, who discovered three of his own countrymen from Tahiti, who landed on Atiu, six hundred miles away. They were the sole survivors of twenty people, blown off course in a sudden gale while attempting to voyage from Tahiti to Raiatea, one hundred miles away. Sharp relies on generalizations given in Cook's logs referring to colonization of the remote islands of Polynesia. Cook refers to the accidental voyage to Atiu stating "this will serve to explain, better than a thousand conjectures of speculative reason, how the detached parts of the earth, and in particular, how the South Seas, may have been peopled; especially those that lie remote from any inhabited continent, or from each other." (Sharp 1956:4) Sharp uses examples procured from Cook's log book, citing observations of Anderson, ship surgeon in charge of natural history observations. "The knowledge they have of other islands is no doubt, traditional; and has been communicated to them by the natives of those islands, driven accidentally upon their coasts, who besides giving them the names, could easily inform them of the direction in which the places lie from whence they came, and of the number of days they had upon the sea." (Sharp 1956:7) Sharp discusses the navigational technology of the Tongans, with most of his knowledge based on Cook's observations. "The sun is their guide by day and the stars at night. When these are obscured, they have recourse to the points from which the winds and waves come upon the vessel. If during the obstruction the winds and waves should shift. . . they are then bewildered, frequently miss their intended port and are never heard of more." (Sharp 1956:16) Sharp further states that if difficulties existed in water the Tongans were presumably more familiar with then even more difficulties existed in sailing in "unknown seas, since on long voyages good visibility is not assured." (Sharp 1956:16). Sharp claims the canoes used, efficient enough to take the Tongans off-shore, would not hold against bad weather. Furthermore, the Tongans related to Cook when courses were reset using the stars, using directional angles with east-west or north-south lines or points on the horizon marked by stars, they resulted in faulty courses. Sharp claims the "primitive voyager" did not have precise means of determining distance traveled, and when the distance of the journey was increased the degree of error for dead reckoning increased. Sharp's biased views are best described in his own words, "Centuries of navigation by the highly sophisticated system of latitude and longitude, which took 5,000 years to evolve, have made us forget the limitations of off-shore navigation without instruments, as well as its romance and achievements." (Sharp 1956:17)

Recent published studies since 1972 of navigational technology in Polynesia contradict Sharp's findings and shed light on the capabilities of Polynesians as navigators supporting deliberate colonization of the remote Polynesian islands. This more recent evidence contradicts statements and reasoning by Sharp, supporting the probability of deliberate distant voyages and colonization. Seaworthiness was necessary to make distant voyages. Edward Doran Jr., in his 1976 publication "Wa, Vinta and Trimaran", describes the Caroline Islanders' technique for righting an overturned canoe. "The mast is rigged from under side of float to a sheer legs erected above the bottom of the capsized boat. Four men climb quickly up the inclined mast their weight forcing the float to submerge to a point directly underneath the main hull. . ." taking the canoe to an righted position. (Doran 1976:45) It seems reasonable that on any occasion of sailing out to sea, righting ones vessel would be a necessary skill. Edwin Doran's study included the wa or single outrigger canoes of the Caroline Islands and the vinta or double rigger canoes of the Sulu Archipelago. The vessels had "excellent speed and performance, seaworthiness, and general voyaging capacity of the wa and the vinta cannot be seriously questioned. Their performance in comparison with modern sailing yachts is remarkably good." (Doran 1976:45) Geoffrey Irwin, in his The Prehistoric Explanation and Colonisation of the Pacific points out the materials with which the Pacific canoes were built allowed them to give rather than break; furthermore, in gale winds averaging 34 knots, although a canoe could not sail, it could survive intact. (Irwin 1992:44) Some canoes could easily average 100 - 150 sea miles in twenty four hours. "Some of the first Europeans to reach Polynesia saw canoes over 30m long while others saw local canoes literally sail rings around their own more ponderous vessels." (Irwin 1992:43) David Lewis, in his 1972 publication, We, the Navigator: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, discusses the frequency of overcast days stating that while at sea for 273 days "position could not be determined on 7, or one in 39." Furthermore, he states that when the sun was not obscured the whole day, but just during the desired sight time; the stars were not obscured on corresponding nights. (Lewis 1972:82) Swells could guide the vessel when the stars or sun were obscured. The use of swells was "more feel than sight—which emphasizes the value of the art on overcast nights." Lewis describes how the navigator Tevake would lie down in the outrigger and direct the helmsman by "analyzing the roll and pitch of the vessel as it corkscrewed over the waves." (Lewis 1972:86) R. Gerard Ward, John W. Webb and M. Levison in their publication "The settlement of the Polynesian Outliers: A Computer Simulation", work with computer simulations of the settlement of Polynesia to show that drift or accident alone would be extremely unlikely to bring people into the "Polynesian triangle from East, North, West, or South, though it could account for settlement throughout the Fiji-Tonga- Samoa groups once an entry had been made to one the three archipelagos. . . Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island could not have been settled by a drift process." (Ward et al. 1976:57)

In fact, the individuals who ran the canoes spent their whole life learning the complex sidereal compass as used in the Caroline Islands and steering by swells as used in the Marshall Islands. (Irwin 1992:45) A lack of knowledge in some cases led to lost navigators. As Lewis points out, "Accidental voyages involving inshore canoes and untrained Islanders must have occurred with increasing frequency as the general navigational level declined and specialized deep-sea canoes became obsolete. Rash adventurers in unsuitable vessels, and ill-equipped fishermen, would readily get blown away and often lack the skill to come again to land." (Lewis 1972:25) This could explain the many references that Sharp takes from Cook's logs, such as the discovery by Omai of three of his fellow islanders from Tahiti who were stranded on Atiu. Irwin points out that colonization was deliberate "because explorers took with them the plants and animals, women and men necessary to establish viable settlements". (Irwin 1992:7) In some cases this was made possible by using canoes that had huge storage capacities; food during the long-term Carolinian voyages might include: pre-cooked fermented breadfruit, pounded taro, drinking and eating coconuts and baked fish, while the Santa Cruz "sea-going diet. . . included a variety of thick pastes of puddings of banana or taro in coconut oil, dried breadfruit chips and nyali nuts. All these are said to keep indefinitely. They are supplemented by baked sweet potato and breadfruit and plentiful supply of drinking coconuts", in other cases Gilbertese created a paste from Pandanus that would keep for two months. (Lewis 1972:274) It is obvious that the diet of the voyager was created to stay edible for long periods of time when stored in the proper area of the canoe. This, coupled with the average speeds of Micronesian and Polynesian canoes' "100-150 miles a day, this would give a range, in winds that were not contrary, or 3000-4500 miles" covering the furthest reaches of Polynesia. (Lewis 1972:275)

Colonization of the Pacific required an extensive knowledge of the celestial system and intimate knowledge of the Pacific. Preparation for successful distant voyages required careful practice, experience and careful preparation of supplies. Scholars have rejected Andrew Sharp's view that the Pacific was colonized by accident. Most scholars today support deliberate colonization of the Pacific with reenactments, computer simulations, and newly acquired knowledge regarding the preparation process for distant voyages.


Doran, E. Jr. "Wa, Vinta, and Trimaran." Pacific Navigation and Voyaging Ed. Ben R. Finney. New Zealand: 1976. 29-46

Farrall, Lyndsay et al. Unwritten Knowledge: Case Study of the Navigators of Micronesia. Australia: Deakin University, 1979.

Gladwin, Thomas. East Is a Big Bird: Navigation & Logic on Puluwat Atoll. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Irwin, Geoffrey. The Exploration and Colonisation of the Pacific New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Lewis, David. We, the Navigators Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii, 1972.

Lewis, David. "A Return Voyage Between Puluwat and Saipan Using Micronesian Navigational Techniques". Pacific Navigation and Voyaging Ed. Ben R. Finney. New Zealand: 1976 15-28

Sharp, Andrew. Ancient Voyagers in the Pacific. New Zealand: Polynesian Society, 1956

Ward, R. G., Webb, J.W., Levison, M. The Settlement of the Polynesian Outliers: A Computer Simulation. Ed. Ben R. Finney. New Zealand: 1976. 57-68

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