Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia
The puzzle of Polynesia, as it has long been called, involves a suite of quandaries that have for several centuries pertained to the great un-Pacific ocean. Who first settled its hundreds of vastly scattered islands? Where did their peoples come from? How did "they" (for they were not us, we the intrepid, scientific rationalists of the West's Enlightenment) get there, and how do we think we know?
1787 print of The Death of Cook by marine artist John Cleveley.
In Christina Thompson's somewhat breezy narrative the matter of knowing is everything. Her account, written with the clarity you would expect from an editor of Harvard Review (and a former editor of Meanjin), revisits much that we cut our teeth on: the first glimpses of and voyages into the new space, the first encounters, wonderments and murder of the newly "discovered peoples", our fatal impacts and subsequent expiations. But these post-colonial reflexes aspire to be no more important than Polynesian understandings of the world.
In other words, the canvas of Sea People is an act of careful regard, not to mention declared love, for whatever differences of cultural understandings are at issue. Thompson's husband is Maori, as she tells us early on (and more than once), so it is impossible to approach the sweep of her book without a kind of faith in commensurables. Implicitly, her Sea People seeks to relegate the Gothic Pacific – those adventures into cannibalism and sexual licentiousness – in favour of agency and intelligent imagination; all that unites the human family.
Sea People by Christina Thompson.
To overcome the lurid slant of the Western imagination is no mean feat. The Pacific has long been tinted with Christian states of barely suppressed arousal, not to mention political predation. Even some of our best historians – I'm thinking of Greg Dening and Beach Crossings, his great overview of a life of empathetic scrutiny of the Pacific – could not escape the visceral dimensions of historical understanding. Dening's trembling interest in the Pacific – the happenings that occurred on his beaches, those liminal places of encounter and exchange, echoed Herman Melville's "one delirious throb at the centre of the All".
By contrast, Thompson gives us a becalmed account of how European minds came to be educated by the Pacific and its peoples. Sailors, linguists, archaeologists, folklorists, geographers, many species of puzzlers can be encountered in her journey, which begins, aptly and dramatically enough, with the death of our legendary Captain Cook at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawai'i in 1779.
"There have been varying interpretations of these events over the years," Thompson writes, "but the most widely accepted view is that by sheer chance Cook had arrived in the Hawaiian Islands during a season ritual cycle known as the Mahahiki."
The central event of the festival involved the return of the god Lono. Cook received much obeisance from the priests and eventually sailed away, heading off in a clockwise direction (as was proper for Lono). When he unexpectedly returned to mend his ship, he created metaphysical confusion; in a fracas that followed he was shot. For already, as one islander put it, Cook "had amused them with Lies". Of necessity, Thompson's account is brief: even so, it is bland when put beside the polemical anthropology that informs recent debates.
Still, lies and misdemeanours, guesses and hypothesis, speculations and proofs, big theories and successful demonstrations – all pertaining to the mapping of the Pacific, the movements of people into it, their material and linguistic communalities – are the breadfruit of this instructive book.
Thompson is especially interesting on ethnographic pioneers such as the Swedish-born sailor Abraham Fornander, whose great work on The Polynesian Race, its Origins and Migrations and the Ancient History of the Hawaiian People was published (1878-85) at a time of population collapse, of "death coming in like a tide", as Robert Louis Stevenson put it.
Fornander collected 2000 years of genealogies, customs, legends, place names, numerals and mythological traditions from all over the Pacific and found ways of connecting them to Indian, Iranian and European traditions. He posited different waves of migration from the north-west.
His methods did not yield historical dates as we understand them. And it eclipsed the significance of the oral nature of Polynesian traditions that were, in Thompson's terms, "densely poetic, elliptical, evocative and occasionally obscure". Voyaging stories, however, there were aplenty, even if they were propelled by winds in magic bags or talking stars. In this part of her book Thompson is allowing us to appreciate the resonances of a Polynesian Cosmos that defined itself without writing.
The universe began in something known as Te Po, typically described "as a period of chaos or darkness or a kind of night". The darkness is both literal and metaphorical, a grand catch-all dualism that issued forth in elaborate and powerful chants, many of them expounding on the procreational fecundity of a world of "abundance in multitude". The result was a cosmic genealogy where rocks and fish, corals and trees were part of a family tree.
Yet I only wish Thompson had laid out more of the Polynesian world: we get a short chapter on poetic schemas, chants and prayers and so on, but little of depth about the scores of Pacific languages and their kinships, including the identifiable Oceanic language family once reflected upon in the 19th century. Here it makes an appearance, only to vanish under the waves, like the continents the islands were once thought to be.
What will delight many readers is the focus on navigational themes. Essentially, this is the marvellous story of the population of the Pacific islands being settled by canoes navigated by men who could read the stars and the currents, the swells and the passage of birds because the maps in their mind could compete with what Europeans had to offer. The celebrated case in point was the techne of Tupaia, who sailed with Cook after he had finished his affair with Venus on Tahiti. Tupaia drew a now famous chart that suggested a knowledge of islands over a vast expanse. It was not "accurate" but its schema implied much.
Beyond Tupai's map, from where did the islander people mainly come? Cook thought Taiwan, a notion buried until recently. Out of the dark forests of New Guinea? What is the difference between the Micronesian and Melanesian people? From South America, bringing the potato with them? If so, how did they manage the prevailing West winds?
The Kon Tiki expedition demonstrated, we once thought, that the Polynesians relied on the currents, not the wind: they drifted rather than sailed, or if they sailed they progressed across the islands by accident. It was some years before modern sailing experience gave other answers, rebutting the scepticism of Andrew Sharp's Ancient Voyages of Polynesia in favour of the real-life enactments by the anthropologist Thomas Gladwin and the sailor David Lewis – both their writings and voyages involving an intimacy with islander navigators.
The sea world of Sea People comes through in all of the above. The reader gets soaked. Thompson's larger task is also to saturate us with the knowledge of what our sciences tell us of prehistory. This includes the latest claims of radio-carbon dating, as well as what can be said of the new frontier of DNA, dependent as it is on the possession of skulls dug from ground still of sovereign value to ancestors. Her DNA chapter is less up to date than it might be, but it presses cross-cultural questions that involve issues of ownership of facts as well as skulls. The nagging question in the Pacific domain is who is to speak for whom, when? In all cultures, it seems, possessiveness contaminates claims to knowledge, even that which emanates from laboratories.
The supra theme of Sea People is a vision of knowledge systems intertwined – the outcome of history, cultural tolerance, and a grasp of misunderstandings. Thompson's tone is perfectly tuned for such enlightenment, as is the life-position from which she writes. In the end, she lands us on the beach in the Marquesas where Robert Louis Stevenson watched the sun come up – the sea with the lustre of satin, an efflorescence floating on its lighter hues, solemn blooms appearing in the dark.
Barry Hill's most recent book, Reason & Lovelessness: Essays, Encounters, Reviews 1980-2017, is published by Monash University Press.
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