Review: Sea People by Christina Thompson

I find the Pacific Ocean kind of unsettling. There’s just so much empty sea. Play with a map of it and you can’t see the islands unless you zoom right in, and then you can’t see how they relate to each other. It seems impossible that they are inhabited, let alone that people find their way between them. When Europeans began sailing through the Pacific and encountered people on nearly all the islands they found, they too were struck by this impossibility. From Hawai’i to Easter Island to New Zealand, islands separated by at least 7,000 km of water, this part of the Pacific known as the Polynesian Triangle was settled at some point in the past. But how, and by whom?

These are the questions that have entranced people for three centuries, and the questions Christina Thompson sets out to investigate in Sea People. She is drawn by the exhilarating mystery of it all and by a compulsion to understand her Māori husband and children’s inheritance. Except, as she finds, because of the uncertainties in this area of study, “the story of the Polynesian settlement of the Pacific is not so much as story about what happened as a story about how we know.” This turns out to be far more interesting than it sounds.

Thompson begins at Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i, the place where, on February 14 1799, British explorer James Cook was killed. Coincidentally, I started reading the book on the same day – and also coincidentally this is the first year I saw some rather funny memes circulated celebrating “Valentines Day”.

Cook is central to Caroline Thompson’s history of her inquiry into the origins of Polynesians and Polynesia. Unlike his predecessors, whose encounters with Polynesians were happenstance, Cook began to wonder what connected people on islands as far apart as Hawai’i, New Zealand and Easter Island. Joseph Banks, who tagged along to do science, noted that Polynesian languages seemed to have similarities to those in south east Asia – a startling moment of prescience that is backed by other lines of evidence today. Moreover, as a serious sailor, Cook understood the feats of navigation required to cross thousands of kilometres of empty ocean. He compared notes with Tupaia, a Tahitian man who journeyed with Cook for much of his first voyage.

From the first accounts of European eyewitnesses, Thompson traces the path of study across the centuries since. Missionaries followed explorers, who began to document the oral traditions of Polynesians, using them to draw sometimes accurate, sometimes wonky conclusions. With the age of anthropology in the 20th century came an obsession with data collection, but also scientific racism. Archaeology, radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis have all added their two cents to the story. In the 1950s, a series of brave teams set out to test the feats of navigation by sailing between islands themselves using Polynesian navigation techniques and traditional vessels.

It’s a riveting tale of intellectual inquiry. The characters who came to wonder about Polynesia – mostly white, mostly men – are an eccentric bunch, and their disagreements and wild theories are quite entertaining. But the story really comes alive when Thompson draws on the work of Polynesian scholars, such as Te Rangi Hiroa, a New Zealand anthropologist who saw his biculturalism as giving him an edge; or the revival of Hawaiian culture following modern attempts to use traditional methods to cross the seas. The story that emerges is almost incredible, a tale of people in small boats crossing unchartered seas, seemingly just because they could. The film Moana gets a lot of it right, in spirit at the very least.

The study of Polynesia began as – and arguably still is – a colonial project. Thompson sometimes seems to gloss over the violence and dispossession that came with European colonialism, which, although it is not her story, is integral to the story she is telling. Most of the first encounters were violent; Polynesian societies were soon decimated by European diseases; culture was suppressed. But as Thompson acknowledges these problems at the end she writes, “the best we can do is acknowledge this complexity, and, as the anthropologist Kenneth Emory once put it, “keep our minds as sensitive as we can to every little breeze of thought that flows.””

Thompson’s writing is clear and engaging throughout, despite some unfortunate slips (describing the winds that circle the ocean as “gyres” when this term technically refers only to the currents below). She is a passionate guide and wonderfully conveys the mystery and achievement of Polynesian settlement. I particularly enjoyed her chapter on experimental voyages and attempts to grapple with Polynesian navigation techniques, using the stars, sun, winds, currents and other signs of land. Here she is describing the Polynesian practice of using a “reference” island, in which the navigator imagines the islands moving and the canoe staying put, near-impossible for Western-raised minds to grasp:

This image of a canoe stationary on the great circle of the sea, while the ocean and all its islands slide past, is reminiscent of Polynesian tales in which islands float away or wander, or appear and disappear in certain places or at certain times of day, or have to be caught and tethered to the bottom of the sea. Islands in these stories are less fixed or stable than one might have expected; they are more like clouds or vapour, which from a distance they resemble. In some stories they are said to hover on the horizon and to be driven through the night sky by wind.

It’s little wonder that people continue to be entranced by the achievement of settling a near-empty ocean filled with a scattering of shifting, vaporous islands.

Gay rating: not gay


  1. An enjoyable read, I particularly liked it when the younger generation took up the challenge to reacquaint themselves and relearn the ancient ways of non-instrument navigation, including discovering the dangers.
    European explorers and scholars seriously underestimated the abilities and intentions of these ancient voyagers.

    Liked by 1 person

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