Polynesia; an expanse of the Pacific Ocean as large as the North and South American continents combined.
Many thousands of years ago, Bronze Age cultures from the Asian mainland migrated into the many Island groups of the Philippines, Indonesia, and New Guinea. Four to Five thousand years ago the Islands of Melanesia & Micronesia were settled by explorers from these cultures. More than 3000 years ago these cultures made their way to Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. It was here that these voyagers established the proto type of the Polynesian race. Living in isolation for 1000 years, they flourished and expanded in numbers, evolving the physical and cultural traits of the Polynesian people. It was during this time that the Polynesians believe that the first voyagers reached Hawaii. However, modern science believes the discovery took place perhaps a thousand years later, around 400 A.D.
From Tahiti, Samoa and the Marquesas they came, on great double canoes (wa’a kaulua), on a quest for a new land. Driven from their home lands to the south by crop failures, drought, over population, warfare, exile and in pursuit of adventure. Hawaiian legends & genealogical chants called mo’okū’auhau refer to the legendary homeland of Havaiki. The ancient name for the Tahitian island of Ra’iatea is Havai’i and in the same lagoon the island of Taha’a was once called Uporu. The twin islands of Samoa are Savai’i and Upolu. The Northwestern tip of the island of Hawaii is named Upolu.
Surely they were aristocrats these voyagers, for the cost in material & human expenditure was huge. Every endeavor required the best of everything a society could produce. These floating communities would be dependent primarily on what they brought with them for survival as they launched into the great expanse of the uncharted northern seas. The huge canoes that would carry these explorers of the Pacific northward had to be the finest ever built. Only the highest ranking craftsman (kahuna kalai wa’a) who possessed mana (spiritual power) beyond this world could build such a craft. Proper ritual & protocol with mohai (offerings to the gods), pule (prayers) at every major phase – from the selection to the felling of the great trees to the final launching. From stem to stern, every material – the lauhala (pandanus) plaited sails and hull covers, the miles of ’aha (braided cord) used to lash together all the various parts that would become the whole canoe. All these things including the tools that were used to create it were imparted with the greatest of mana from the kahuna and the gods. Amongst great fanfare, feasting, chants extolling the chosen name, the power, pride & physical attributes of this now living member of the voyaging ’ohana, it was put into the sea for trials.
Provisions for the voyages were chosen & prepared. The best of implements for use in the new home carefully blessed and packed away in storage. Seeds, living plants & animals were prepared to sustain life in the new land. Dried food stores, oiled water calabashes covered with netting to guard against breaking, extra sails, sennit lashing, paddles, sea anchors, fishing gear – a ship full of provisions- only that deemed necessary by the navigators. All clothing, sails, cord lashing were oiled with coconut (niu) or candlenut (kukui) to provide waterproofing. In all three to five canoes were in the voyaging company, each seventy feet long or better, with a small hale (cabin) located on a raised midship platform. The night before departure the residences of the valley home provide a great feast – eating, storytelling of great voyages of the ancestors, singing, dancing & love making that lasted thru the night.
The voyaging community was an extension of the ’ohana (family unit) of the valley. Uniquely qualified to conform to shipboard life, the Polynesian social strata was well defined and status was fixed by seniority & lineage. Loyalty to the elders & ’ohana preceded any feelings of individuality. This structure of discipline aboard the canoe fostered good seamanship, for the individual put the needs of the ship and its company above his own. The chain of command aboard – the ali’i (chief) held ultimate responsibility. The navigator – total charge of the business of sailing the canoe. Kahuna nui – spiritual leader. The navigator, himself a kahuna (professional specialist), trained in the powers of observation & memory – capable of invoking spiritual assistance – would accomplish journeys across vast expanses of open ocean based on a sensitivity which only comes from living intimately with nature. Careful observation of the heavens, star paths and sun positions, ocean swell patterns, flotsam, bird flight paths, cloud formations & coloration would all translate to the navigator the information necessary to make assumptions of his position in relation to his homeland and then estimate where his destination might be.
Sailing from home waters, these explorers were comfortable with familiar conditions. Constant set to the west on consistent southeasterly trades, warm and pleasant days of sailing and bountiful fish from the sea. Then they would enter into a new sea. The sea set to the east, the steady winds that filled the sails faltered and the sun became intensely hot. Paddling at night to conserve precious water supplies, drifting aimlessly by day, or sailing slowly on light easterlies. Occasional squalls gratefully filled the water gourds. The water grew colder and the northeast swell increased in size along with the increase in the northeast trade wind. The heavens opened to reveal the new star, hoku pa’a (north star). The peril of great north sea storms has claimed many a voyager, for those who survive testify to their potential terror. Suffering now from the elements, hunger and exhaustion, twenty-five to thirty days out, a revealing bank of stationary clouds on the horizon give them a land mark. The canoe follows returning sea birds in the direction of the land fall. At night a great glow reflects from the undersides of the clouds, and they sit in wonder of what sort of god or demons must occupy this land. Daylight will find them on the beautiful leeward coast of Hawaii and landfall may be made into the verdant valley of Waipio – possibly named for these first voyagers to arrive from the south.
These men and women of extraordinary physical stamina and strength – the chosen best to survive the long voyage – would be the ones to become the ancestors of the present Hawaiian race. These were the children of Kanaloa, god of the sea. They were the descendants of Kane, Ku and Lono, the mighty gods of nature.