Legends of migrations

Traditions are not kept alive by memory only. Political and social relations follow to this day the lines of old connections which link together island groups far distant from each other. Legends of migration survive in individual villages and families, where the old home is still remembered, and the connection with it often bound closer by special reverence. The Tonganswere long in the habit of respectfully greeting the people of Tokelau, as being their ancestors. Men from Ulie in the Carolines, who visited the island of Guam in the Mariannes in 1788, followed the roads from old descriptions preserved in songs; since then the intercourse has become brisker, and at the present day the Caroline islanders collect coco-nuts in the Mariannes on behalf of foreign traders.


Thakombau, the last king of Fiji. (From a photograph in the possession of Herr Max Buchner.)

Political connection, again, is often bound up with objects that have been either left behind or brought along. The Uluthi Islands are subject to Yap, because a great destruction, by means of an inundation of the sea, would take place if an axe belonging to one of the gods, which is buried in the latter island, were to be dug up. When these lines of attraction or attachment intersect, quarrels cannot be far off. Thus the Samoans relate that one of their chiefs fished up Rotuma and planted coco-palm on it. But in a later migration the chief Tukunua came that way with a canoe full of men and quarrelled with him about the prior right of possession. The Maoris found another ground for quarrelling: having come from little islands where land was scarce, every man laid claim to estates in New Zealand that were too large.

The scantiness of migration legends in Melanesia has been regarded as only a part of the general dearth of tradition which is a Melanesian characteristic. Fiji offers us unwonted examples of legends of inland migrations, directed from the north-west towards the south-east, which in still later times was uninhabited. No doubt this bears upon the fact that the home of souls lies across the sea, and that all the spots whence souls go, that is swim, to the next world, face north-west.


If, out of all these innumerable wanderings to and fro to which various causes have given rise, one group stands out by reason of the great extent of its ethnographic operation – that, namely, which has occupied the region between New Zealand and Hawaii, Fiji and Easter Island, with a strikingly homogeneous population – that is but part of the result of the great migratory movement in the Pacific. It is quite wrong to regard this as a single event, or as an exception. It is rather one case of the rule; for none of these races was ever at rest. They wandered far and near, colonising consciously and intentionally, like any Greeks or Phoenicians.

In any case this last series of great migrations and settlements is a single existing fact belonging to that stage in the development of culture which we call the stone age. For that reason it is not easy to understand; we have no means of comparison with similar achievements. The area which this colonising activity has rendered productive far exceeds the empire of Alexander or of Rome. In the domain of annexation it was the greatest performance previous to the discovery of America.

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.