A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Murray Buckman
Date: 2022 Jan 14, 13:16 -0800
A bit of a rant but...
I have been interested in Polynesian navigation since I was a university student (and young celestial navigator) in New Zealand four decades ago. Over the years I have consumed pretty much all I could find on the subject.
I agree with Frank. Sir Tom Davis was a well know figure in New Zealand and also a capable sailor. But I have never found a credible source for the coconut sextant that predates his writing.
One aspect of the resurgence in interest in Polynesian navigation techniques that disturbs me is the way that myth is being presented to the general public as fact. In making this statement I am taking nothing away from the traditional navigation techniques (which I admire) - instead I am criticizing much of the modern retelling.
I will give two examples.
The first concerns Tupaia, the Raiatean navigator and spiritual leader who joined Cook’s first voyage in Tahiti. There is considerable interesting scholarship around Tupaia, his contributions to the voyage and his so-called map, including worthwhile papers within the last 15 or so years (some of it controversial, but all interesting).
But one point is clear among scholars: Tupaia did not “know” where New Zealand was and did not guide Cook and the Endeavour to New Zealand. Despite that, I read an item by a writer in New Zealand recently (I wish I could find that link) which asserted (I paraphrase) that the superiority of Polynesian navigation over “European” navigation was obvious and that the “fact” Tupaia had guided Cook to New Zealand was “proof” that New Zealand Maori had made return voyages to the islands after settling New Zealand.
There is no evidence for this, and considerable evidence that Tupaia did not know of New Zealand. But a portion of the public take it in as it is told.
The second remains on the theme of return voyages from New Zealand to the islands and the “fact” that the navigators followed the paths of the birds – in particular the cuckoo. Here is a link to a website and video that is intended for use in New Zealand schools:
In summary it presents two unproven items as fact. First, that the Pacific Islanders sailed south to New Zealand by following the migration path of the cuckoo, and second, that they returned so that others knew how to repeat the journey. In doing so, the story presents a key figure in Polynesian mythology, the demi-god Maui, as an historical person. It connects that to the idea that Kupe – who according to Maori oral history was the first of the voyagers to bring a group from the islands to settle in New Zealand – knew where he was going because of Maui’s previous voyage.
The story of the cuckoo amuses me. It is true that two species of cuckoo migrate from the Pacific Islands to New Zealand and return. But a few unfortunate truths make the idea that the cuckoo set the path for Polynesian migration to New Zealand difficult to swallow. (Cuckoo, swallow – oh never mind). Firstly, from the assumed source of the voyagers to New Zealand, the cuckoo does not fly south. Instead it flies east, following the trade winds until it reaches a convergence zone between Fiji and New Caledonia where it turns south. Its return voyage is somewhat more direct, again using the prevailing winds. Secondly, the cuckoo does not migrate in flocks. Instead they fly alone or in small groups and at high altitude for a small bird; around 5,000 to 10,000 feet (1,500 – 3,000 meters). The idea that a navigator can identify and follow the path of a bird smaller than a crow flying even 1 km above the ocean , let alone 5 – 10km – well, what do you think?
Of course, the birds were important as navigation tools – especially close to land. But to claim that Polynesian navigators followed the path of the cuckoo does not hold water.
So where did the story come from? You might assume it was passed down as part of Maori oral history.
You would be wrong.
The first reference I can find to it is a speculative one from an amateur anthropologist, Percy Smith (1840 – 1922). He speculated that perhaps Maori/Polynesian navigators followed the cuckoo in his writings over 100 years ago. He did not cite a source within Maori oral histories – rather it was his own speculation.
Much of his work has suffered reappraisal in the years since his death, and has not done well. Yet this idea of the cuckoo even made it to a government website (albeit noting the idea was speculative):
I could go on, but will stop here. None of my criticisms are directed at the navigations skills themselves and what was achieved, and I applaud the resurgence in interest in this area of study. I just wish my former country would not teach myth as fact.