of the sea

Polynesians, sailing in simple double-hulled canoes and navigating with the help of wind direction, stars and cloud formations, had explored and settled the Pacific region from as early as 1500 BC.

In 1830, many Europeans refused to believe that the vast spaces of the Pacific Ocean could have been navigated without even the most basic equipment. It was thought that Polynesia had been colonised from the Americas, because the primitive boats must have relied on the easterly direction of the prevailing trade winds.

In November 1520 the Portuguese seafarer Ferdinand Magellan rounded Cape Horn and entered the Pacific Ocean, where he set a northwesterly course towards the Equator, which he reached on

('It is possible that their civilisation may be traced back, island by island, to the East Indies.'


February 13, 1521. It was a nightmare voyage. The provisions were swiftly exhausted. The crew's hunger became unbearable, with the men devouring anything that appeared remotely edible: strips of leather, wood shavings boiled up into a soup, and - as a special delicacy - rats. At least 19 sailors died of scurvy. The voyage to the nearest large group of islands, the Marianas, was 10,000 miles and lasted several months. On this journey, they traversed an area of the Pacific known from its numerous islands as 'Polynesia'.


The area of the western Pacific was aptly named. Present-day French Polynesia alone comprises more than 1500 small islands scattered over a huge area of 60,000 square miles. As Magellan and his men passed through the region, they sighted only two islands, both of them uninhabited. As the islands were surrounded by coral reefs the sailors were unable to make a landfall, and their hopes of obtaining desperately needed provisions were dashed.

On March 6, 1521, two larger islands, Guam and Rota, lying almost 2000 miles from mainland Asia, finally came into view. The islanders greeted the foreigners, who were weak with hunger, with a hail of spears. Magellan replenished his food supplies, burnt the islanders' villages and lost no time in weighing anchor and resuming his voyage, but not before he had caught a brief glimpse of the boats that were drawn up on the beach. He was so impressed that he called the islands Las Mas de Velas Latinas ('The Islands of the Lateen Sails'), after the triangular sails used on the boats. He had no inkling that the seamanship of the inhabitants and the efficiency of their vessels were more than a match for him, the great European explorer.

(Simple single-hulled dugout canoes, carved from wooden logs, were stabilised by outriggers, which prevented them from capsizing in the open ocean. Traditional canoes are still made in the Pacific islands)


Long before the European oceanic expeditions of the 16th and 17th centuries, all the major islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean had been inhabited for several centuries and possibly for millennia. The settlement of Polynesia may have begun as early as 1500 BC, and by AD 1000 the Polynesians were the most widespread ethnic group on Earth, settling an area of over 20 million square kilometres. The colonisation of the Pacific islands was gradual: it is speculated that as populations grew to the point where they could not be supported by the resources available, small groups of pioneers set off in search of new island homes. How did they manage to navigate accurately and cover such enormous distances without even the most basic equipment used by the Europeans? Magellan and his crew had almost come to grief on this route, despite the fact that they and their ship were accompanied by the best of European seafaring technology.

In May 1976, the Hokule'a (named after the star Arcturus, which shines over Hawaii), a faithful replica of a traditional Polynesian twin-hulled canoe, set out from the Hawaiian island of Maui on an experimental voyage across the Pacific Ocean. Hokule'a had two 19-metre hulls; eight iako, or crossbeams, joining the two hulls; pola, or decking, lashed to the crossbeams between the two hulls; rails along the decking; and two masts. All the materials that were used to build this boat came from the Pacific islands: it was constructed from wood, leaves and plant fibres, all held together by adhesive plant resins. The sails, woven from leaves, enabled the boats, which could be up to 30 metres long, to reach considerable speeds with a favourable following wind. They could cover distances of between 60 and 100 miles in a single day, even with a full passenger complement of as many as 50 people. The performance of the craft easily matched that of the elegant Viking 'dragon boats' which terrorised the coasts of

Europe from the early Middle Ages onwards.

The Hokule'a was helmed by Mau Piailug, a Micronesian who steered her without recourse to any modern navigational aids. He navigated mainly using the stars but also by observing other natural signs: the wave patterns would tell him which side of an island he was sailing off. Clouds were another important pointer. Tall clouds massed on the horizon almost unfailingly indicated a large, mountainous island beneath. Clouds with a milky green base usually had a low-lying atoll underneath them. After 31 days, the Hokule'a arrived safely in Tahiti 2500 miles away, proving beyond doubt the seaworthiness of this ancient type of craft and the accuracy of traditional methods of navigation.


One question remained unanswered: where did the Polynesians come from? There is evidence to suggest that they travelled in several waves from southeast Asia - and perhaps specifically from the island of Taiwan where DNA has shown links to indigenous peoples. Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl believed that the islands were colonised from South America. He reinforced his arguments with spectacular voyages. His view was widely supported, but recent findings based on linguistic, architectural, DNA and botanical studies have disproved his theory.

Over recent centuries, the ancient traditions of the Polynesians have largely been forgotten. The colonial authorities forbade trade with other islands and prohibited the construction of traditional vessels. As a result there are now only a handful of people on the islands of Oceania who are fully versed in the arts of navigation and boatbuilding. But now Polynesians are looking to their ancestral heritage with pride, and seeking to revive ancient skills and traditions.

The settling of Polynesia

Settling Fiji, Tonga and Samoa 

By the 16th century BC, the ancestors of the Polynesians, who almost certainly came from Southeast Asia, had reached Fiji. By the 14th century BC, they had progressed to Tonga, and by the 11th century to Samoa, from where they opened up the rest of the region from 1000 BC onwards.

Easter Island and Hawaii 

Easter Island was first settled in around 400 AD, the Hawaiian archipelago in c.800 AD, and New Zealand by the end of the first millennium AD.

European settlement   

The first European to discover the Pacific Ocean was the Spaniard Vasco Nunez de Balboa in 1513 who claimed it for the king of Spain. European navigators then explored and opened up Oceania on behalf of the European colonial powers.