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Language groups in the Pacific

Language groups in the Pacific. (Click to enlarge)

When Tupaia landed in New Zealand he was able to converse readily with the local Maori… James Cook described this ease as being “perfectly understood”, and Cook declared surprise at this. They were 60 days sailing away from Tupaia’s home; nearly 1/10th of the way around the world, yet Tupaia and these natives spoke the same language. In fact, if Cook had traveled a similar distance East from Tahiti, Tupaia would have been able to do just the same.

Tupaia’s language was spoken widely across the Central and Eastern Pacific, and this remains the case today. Apart from dialectic differences, the same language is spoken in; the Society Islands, Tuamotu Islands, Marquesa’s Islands, Austral Islands, and Gambier Islands. This is extremely instructive in terms of Polynesian voyaging.

If each of these island groups had been settled, and then the population had stayed put, then the language in each place would have evolved to be quite different to the others. However, they have not. Despite the enormous distances involved, these Eastern Polynesians were in regular contact with the other islands, and because of this the languages remained consistent. The languages of Eastern Polynesia developed to be quite distinct from the other main Pacific Island groups of Samoa, Tonga and Fiji.

For these Eastern Polynesian’s to maintain similarity of language meant that sailing between the Islands was commonplace; Tupaia’s experience, as recorded by Cook, shows that voyaging was relatively common; that Eastern Polynesian people did not simply stay in one place.

As Cook sailed from ‘Ulitea’ (now Raiatea) in the Society Islands with Tupaia, they spoke frequently about where more islands were to be found, and Tupaia was obviously very well travelled. Cook wrote this about him on 14th August 1769.

“I have no reason to doubt Tupia’s information of these Islands, for when we left Ulietea and steer’d to the Southward he told us that if we would keep a little more to the East (which the wind would not permit us to do) we should see Manua, but as we then steer’d we should see Ohetiroa, which hapned accordingly.”

‘Ohetiroa’, now known as Rurutu, is in the Austral Group. They left from Raiatea in the Society Islands. It took them four days to sail the 750 km between the two, yet Tupaia knew they should see it. Tupaia also told Cook that he had been further south, as far as Tubuai, and that his farther told him of Islands even further to the south, but he hadn’t been there himself.

Rapa-iti and Marotiri lie to the South East of Tubuai… 900km from their current position.

Cook was determined to head southwards, before turning west to find the Coast of New Zealand, but Tupaia, knowing that Cook wanted find more Islands was giving him other advice.

“Since we have left Ulietea Tupia hath been very desirous for us to steer to the Westward, and tells us if we will go that way we shall be with plenty of Islands: the most of them he himself hath been at”…
…”He says that they are 10 or 12 days in going thither, and 30 or more in coming Back”.

Tupaia was directing him towards a group of Islands he would discover on his second Voyage. Those Islands would subsequently be named in his honour… the Cook Islands.

Tupaia had said some important things there; that it would take 10 or 12 days to travel the 1,100 km from the Society Islands, to the Cook Islands, (heading West), but 30 or more to return.

On the return journey, heading East, you have to sail into the wind. The people that populated the Central and Eastern Pacific had boats that could sail upwind. It was on the ability to sail into the wind that Eastern Polynesia was explored, and settled. An intrepid explorer could head into the wind, tacking to make headway. Then, if nothing was found, he could turn about and run downwind back home; heading East was a relatively safe way to explore the huge, unknown Pacific.

The other important point that Tupaia made is that they might set sail expecting to spend a month or longer on ocean. Even in these times, a month on the open ocean is a significant undertaking, yet they would sail for 30 days with no navigational instruments whatsoever, and still find their destination.

Pacific Ocean currents

Pacific Ocean currents. (Click to enlarge)

The Eastern Polynesians were tremendous voyagers, and navigators. It was these skills that allowed them to reach New Zealand safely, but it does not explain why others didn’t come here first; Fiji, Samoa and Tonga are all closer to New Zealand than the Society Islands.

The explanation for this lies in the smallness of the Eastern Polynesian Islands, and the Ocean currents.

In Fiji, Samoa and Tonga there is more land to expand into, and more land for farming. Eastern Polynesia can only support tiny populations; the available land and resources will not permit more. As populations expanded the only choices were; to take land from your neighbours by force, move, or starve.

The populations in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga had less cause to leave their homeland, and the journey to New Zealand was, for them, more difficult; it was against both the wind and the current. The wind and currents from Tonga, Samoa and Fiji will steer you to Australia, not New Zealand.

The Eastern Polynesians traveled to New Zealand via the Cook Islands, from where the wind and current aided their course towards New Zealand. They had mastered these two elements, and on the journey to New Zealand, they used them both to their advantage. Traveling to New Zealand from Rarotonga wan’t their shortest route, but it was the most secure.

So it was that the Voyagers that settled New Zealand, came from the far flung corners of the Central and Eastern Pacific, beyond the Cook Islands.

Many of the Maori ‘origin’ stories identify the place their voyaging ancestors came from as ‘Hawai-iki’. However, well over twenty waka’s made the voyage, and they certainly did not all come from a single Island. But they did all come from the same region, East Polynesia; that part of the Pacific to the East of the Cook Islands, and South of the equator.

Hawai-iki isn’t the name of a single island, there was no single island called Hawai-iki. It refers to that whole region of the Pacific. And it doesn’t mean just one location; it means… ‘Homeland’.

Posted in Kurahaupo, Mataatua, Matawhaorua, Tainui, The Wakas

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