The History of Mankind – The Races of the Pacific and Their Migrations

The taking of proper bearings is of double importance in this ocean, in which the individual islands are often so far apart and so low-lying that one is astonished that they were ever found. Many islands in the Pacific were discovered for the first time in the present century. The islanders are keen observers of the stars, and have names for a good list of them. They distinguish eight quarters of the heaven and winds to match.

In their conception of the world the ocean is imagined as being everywhere full of islands, which helps to explain their daring voyages. They even inscribe their geographical knowledge upon maps, but while on these the bearings are to some extent correct, the distances are given very inaccurately. In the Ralick group the preparation of maps from small straight and bent sticks, representing routes, currents, and islands, is a secret art among the chiefs. The Marshall Islanders also possess a map of their own, made up of little sticks and stones, showing the whole group.

Stick chart from the Marshall Islands. (Godeffroy Collection).

On their greater enterprises they go to sea in a thoroughly systematic way; the longer voyages of from 500 to 1000 nautical miles are undertaken only in squadrons comprising at least fifteen canoes, commanded by a chief who has one or more pilots to advise him. Without compass, chart, or lead, and with but limited knowledge of the stars, these men contrived to make their distant point. On their voyages they steadily observe the angle made by the canoe with the run of the sea caused by the trade wind, which, north of the equator, blows steadily from the north-east. The use of this run, which remains constant even with shifting winds, has been brought by the native pilots to great refinement. The ocean currents are also no less well known to them by experience, so that they are able to take this also into consideration in laying their course.

As a general rule, in order to get the largest possible field of view, the squadron proceeds in line in which the individual canoes are so widely separated that they can only communicate by signal. By this progress on a wide front they avoid the danger of sailing past the island they are looking for. During the night the squadron closes in. This whole style of navigation contradicts the supposition that before the invention of the compass only coasting voyages were undertaken.

Polynesians and Micronesians often ship on board European vessels, where they prove themselves, apart from their limited physical strength, excellent seamen. The Hawaiians or Kanakas, who are often tried in the whale fishery, are, according to Wilkes, skilful men, but not suited for service on board a man-of-war. They are more serviceable in small than in large parties, being very fond of putting their work upon some one else. They are timid about going aloft. Their best place is at the oar, but even so, when going through the surf, they prefer to jump overboard and swim. On board a man-of-war they find difficulty in accustoming themselves to the word of command, but, on the other hand, in whaling ships they show themselves willing, hard-working, and fearless.

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