Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki, the story of his amazing 1947 attempt to drift from South America to Polynesia on a balsa-wood raft, was published in Norway in 1948 and translated into English two years later. It sold millions of copies and was eventually translated into more than sixty languages, including Mongolian and Esperanto. Described by the New York Tribune as, “great as few books in our time are great,” and by the London Sunday Times as, “certain to be one of the classics of the sea”—which it has indeed become—it was praised by Somerset Maugham as both incredible and true. The film, based on footage shot aboard the raft, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1951 further catapulting Heyerdahl to worldwide fame.
From The Journal of Abel Janszoon Tasman, ed. Andrew Sharp (London: Oxford University Press, 1968).
This beautiful thing is a page from the ship's log of the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman—imagine if all our journals looked like this!
Tasman is here describing the island of Tongatapu, in the southern reaches of the Tongan archipelago. He was not the first European to reach what is now the Kingdom of Tonga; the Dutch explorers Schouten and Le Maire had passed through the northern edge of the archipelago in 1616. But he was the first outsider to describe Tongatapu.
Tasman said that the people he met there were friendly and eager to trade. They came out to the ships in large numbers, and much of his account is given over to detailing the specific terms. A hen, for example, was equal in worth to a nail or a chain of beads. A small pig could be exchanged for a fathom of dungaree; ten to twelve coconuts for three to four nails (or a double medium nail); two pigs for a knife with a silver band plus eight or nine nails. And a pile of yams, coconuts, and a length of bark cloth was the rough equivalent of a pair of trousers, a small mirror, and some beads.
Between 1852 and 1872, the Reverend William Wyatt Gill worked as a missionary on the island of Mangaia, the most southerly of the Cook Islands. Gill was an energetic collector of traditional Polynesian lore and a great admirer of what he called the “natural poetry” of “the Polynesian conception of things.”
Here is a sample of his translations of several common Mangaian words and phrases. In Mangaian, Gill writes, the word for “chief” means literally the eye that sees in the dark;
“violent death” is eternal deafness
“humility” is to creep like the roots of a tree
“old age” is a mountaintop yellow with the rays of the setting sun
“a widow” or “widower” is only a bone
“a childless wife” is a foodwaster
“trousers” are covering for the pillars
“dawn” is the dividing of the dark shadow of night
“a waterspout” is a whirling, whirling of the sea
“a cyclone” is a turning upside down
“a victor” is to be standing on your feet
words are said to be eaten and the stomach filled with them.
From William Wyatt Gill, Life in the Southern Isles; or Scenes and Incidents in the South Pacific and New Guinea (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1876), pp. 29–34; engraving p. v.
Many of the Polynesian flood stories collected in the 19th c. have overtly Christian overtones—only one man and one woman survive, they take their animals with them to higher ground, sometimes they are explicitly being punished. But a few flood stories were recorded that exhibit a different logic. In one, recited by a Tahitian tahua (priest) to an English missionary in 1822, the deluge is caused by an ocean god named Ruahatu-tini-rau who becomes angry when a pair of fishermen drop a hook on his head while he is napping in his coral grotto.
The god gives the fishermen time to get their families to an islet where they will be safe, but warns them not to delay. "I am vexed with you for disturbing me," he says. "I will not only pluck the tips of the branches . . . All Ra'iatea shall certainly be destroyed." There follows a quite amazing description of the coming of the great wave and the destruction it leaves behind.
The fishermen paddle out to the islet where they wait, some in their canoes, some on the rock. Everything is perfectly silent. “All the birds, spiders, and insects, shadows of the gods, were caught up by their respective deities into the skies, for the emergency.”
When the surge comes, they hear “the murmuring of the sea, the crackling of the branches of the trees . . . and the rattling of coral and the rushing sound of the confluent sea which covered the reef.” All night the sea advances until the island is completely submerged. In the morning when they awake, the sea is “gliding out to the ocean,” as “unrippled as though it had not just been wildly tossing.”
The people looked toward the land and saw that the branches of the trees were all broken and uprooted, and the sea along the shore was mixed with debris from the soil . . . they saw slimy rocks, branches of coral, and dead fishes and shells of Mollusca scattered over the shore. . . . There were no houses, the temples had fallen down; there were no birds flying about, no pigs uprooting the earth, no fowls crowing, no dogs running about, and there were no fruits upon the clumps of trees. All was desolate, all was swept clean.
The story concludes with a vivid account of the famine that followed, during which the people ate “red clay with fish.” But, eventually, the trees begin to bud again, “and then every kind of food came in its season.”(See Ancient Tahiti by Teuira Henry, pp. 448-452.)
In 1869, a man named Paiore from the island of Anaa drew this diagram, illustrating the creation of the world. Polynesians did not have a tradition of this kind of illustration and it seems likely that he drew it at the behest of some European who was trying to understand the principles of Tuamotuan cosmogony. These include a beginning in deep darkness (represented here by a small circle of dots at the very bottom of the diagram), and just above that a primordial pair. The male, Te Tumu, is depicted as something that looks a little like a snake, and the female, Te Papa, as a thick black line. Above them rise the generations of plants, animals, gods, humans, and all the other elements of creation, including, interestingly, canoes.
When the Dutch explorers Schouten and LeMaire crossed the Pacific in 1616, they happened upon a number of small islands which they named according to what they found: Vliegen Island, where the landing party returned covered from head to foot with flies; Waterlandt, where they found fresh water in a pit; Sondergrondt, where the sea was so deep they could not anchor; and Honden Island, where they were puzzled to discover dogs but no people. Later in this same voyage, the explorers stopped at islands in the western Pacific, including one they called Cocos, where they traded for coconuts, yams, bananas, chickens, and pigs, and another called Verraders, or Traitors, Island, where they were unexpectedly attacked.
I love this map because of the way it so confidently depicts a chain of islands that never existed. The Portuguese navigator Quiros believed that islands—or maybe the edge of Terra Australis Incognita—lay just to the south of the routes he had taken across the Pacific in 1595 and 1605, and many later maps show bits of coastline (sometimes marked "Seen by Quiros") in this part of the ocean. This one goes the whole hog, envisioning an entire chain of islands strung like stepping stones across what is, in fact, an utterly empty region of the sea.
This is a map showing what European explorers expected to find in the Pacific: a large unknown continent called Terra Australis Incognita or the Unknown Southland—and sometimes optimistically referred to as Terra Australis Nondum Cognita, the Southland Not Yet Known. The reality of this continent was an article of faith among European navigators for much of the Great Age of Exploration. All through the 16th, 17th, and much of the 18th centuries they searched for it; until Captain Cook finally demonstrated its nonexistence by sailing through what remained of the region in which it was supposed to lie.
Ptolemaic maps from the fifteenth century, do not even include the Pacific—what Cook would later call “the fourth part” of the globe. Their focus is on the known, inhabited regions of the world, which means, at this stage of history, that there is nothing west of Europe, east of Asia, or south of the Tropic of Capricorn.