When Cook arrived in Polynesia, Western explorers knew little of the Pacific. The Polynesians on the other hand had found every island between Hawai’i in the north, New Zealand in the southwest and Easter Island to the east. There is evidence that some Polynesians even travelled right across the Pacific to South America.
In Polynesia, Cook saw that Polynesian ships – and especially those in Tonga – were bigger and faster than his own ship. “Polynesian ships tended to be double hulled – a little like modern catamarans – or to have outriggers, which increases their stability,” Claire says. It is thought that they also had sails that were shaped like ‘crab claws’, which is narrower near the foot of the sail and wider at the top.
Exploring the Pacific with Tupaia
After Cook had observed and documented the transit of Venus from Tahiti, he had orders to chart the Pacific and find the great southern continent that the Europeans called Terra Australis. Cook was fortunate to meet a Polynesian priest in Tahiti, Tupaia, who volunteered to show him the islands of the Pacific.
“Tupaia wants to voyage with Cook and he was interested in going as far around the world as he could,” Claire says. “He was of a priestly class and he was an experienced and capable navigator. He was a gifted linguist too, which is part of the reason for the Endeavour's success on its voyage.”
Tupaia also had the knowledge of the Pacific that the Europeans lacked. “Tupaia is a real asset for the crew. He draws a map, and he is able to explain to Cook where various island groups are found. Cook finds these places because Tupaia can direct him to them.”
Navigating the Pacific Polynesian style
With Tupaia’s help, the Europeans learnt some of the ways Polynesians sail the Pacific. Polynesians didn’t have watches or sextants, but they had knowledge that had been collected by previous generations.
“There's patterns of birds, there's a sense of where islands should be and how far off you can see these islands. Reading the winds, reading the currents, understanding flotsam and changes in water colour,” Claire says.
She adds that we don’t know exactly how Polynesians navigated. That was because the Polynesians also learnt how the Europeans sailed. Over time, they forgot their own traditional sailing knowledge as they quickly adopted new technologies.