Pacific Voyaging: Building Pride or Testing Hypotheses?

I’ve been catching up on some reading about the Pacific after concentrating so long on Asia, and especially Japan. I came across this interesting countercurrent in Atholl Anderson’s review of Ben Finney‘s Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging (Bishop Museum Press, 2003). The whole review is online (PDF) in the journal Asian Perspectives at Project Muse (subscription required).

[Finney] declines to address the various criticisms that have been leveled at the voyaging project throughout the years and especially recently. These center on the incompatibility of the original objectives, described as “an effort in cultural revival as well as an experiment in voyaging” (p. 10). They have never rubbed along well, and too often the scientific experiment has been compromised in the interests of cultural pride.

Hawai‘iloa was meant to answer some of the criticisms of Hōkūle‘a by construction entirely in traditional materials, but it ended up with spruce hulls and modern lashings, rigging, and sails, as tests of sennit and pandanus disclosed that these were too weak to be used in voyaging. But surely, isn’t that the point? If my Mitsubishi station wagon cannot do 200 mph unless I install a Ferrari engine, then doing so could hardly validate my inflated sense of its potential speed; if reconstructed vessels can only sail as desired with modern materials in critical areas, then they cannot validate various propositions about prehistoric voyaging. Hawaikinui, similarly, abandoned its original traditionally cut sails and opted for those of a modern yacht, while some canoes have chosen nontraditional gunter rigs and often added headsails as well. The voyages, too, do not inspire confidence in the conclusions for prehistory that are drawn from them. In the Rarotongan gathering, the Atiu canoe capsized at the beginning, the Mitiaro and Aitutaki canoes were towed part of the way, and the Mangaian canoe made an accidental passage that left its captain and escort vessel behind. The irony of these events was lost on the Cook Islands premier who, as Finney reports, welcomed the eventual gathering of the crews by roundly condemning Andrew Sharp [who suggested Polynesians had only discovered new islands by accident].

Yet in experimental terms, the voyaging project has failed to dispose of Andrew Sharp’s criticisms of traditionalism. Indeed, Finney’s project is cast very much in a neotraditional mold that takes assumed achievements of the ancestors as the benchmark against which to measure contemporary voyaging. Finney declines to explore the serious implications of substantial departures from traditional marine architecture and rigging that are involved in modern Polynesian voyaging and refuses to engage in the recent discussions of these. I have the impression that what matters most to him, and always has, is the building of Polynesian pride in the generic activity of long-distance sailing. That is a worthy objective and one not under attack by recent criticism of the scientific aspects of the project. Were Finney to separate the two objectives—as, for example, by dropping the subtitle of this book—and allow modern voyaging to stand in its own right, then other issues need not get in the way of the cultural achievement that he has done so much to foster.

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