Stars guided the voyages
In about 1820 Taufaahau, the future king of Tonga, went to Samoa to be tattooed. As he was returning from Samoa he and the people journeying with him became lost.
They did not know if should they go south, east, west or north to get to Tonga. This was very serious because if they did not find land then they would die of thirst at sea.
In one of the kalias (double canoes) there was an old blind man. He told the people to tell the king’s canoe to stop. Then he had his son lead him to the edge of the canoe. He reached down into the sea and felt it with his hands.
Then he said, “Tell the king that we are in Fijian waters.” Then he asked, “Where is the sun?” He was told that it was rising. He then said, “By noon we shall see land.” Several hours later, they arrived at an island which is one of the islands near Fiji. So what this old man had said was true. Because of this, this man was given the name F�f�kitahi (Feel the ocean).
The first Europeans to come to Polynesia were surprised to find that people in Hawaii spoke almost the same language as the people in New Zealand, or Easter Island or Tonga. They were puzzled that a people with only open canoes could travel so far and find so many small islands in such a large ocean.
It is believed that the first people to come to Tonga came from Fiji. Then from Tonga they traveled to Samoa and then to the islands of eastern Polynesia. These people in ancient times did not find these islands by accident. They found them because they sailed out into the sea to look for them. For example, there is a very old Tongan legend about a chief named Loau who traveled from Tonga to the tafatafakilangi (horizon), the place where the sky meets the sea. During his journey, he sailed past Haapai, Vavau, Niue, Uvea, Samoa, Futuna, then through a red sea and then through a white sea. Finally he arrived at the tafatafakilangi. During each part of the journey the servants of Loau wanted to return to Tonga, but Loau faced the unknown sea and said, “Sail On!” This story is talking about how the ancient Polynesians sailed out from their homelands to look for new lands.
The old Tongans looked for new lands by preparing food and water and then sail from Tonga looking for new lands. Usually no lands were found and after maybe several weeks of traveling the people would turn around and sail back to Tonga. Hoping to get back to land before they ran out of food and water. However, if these voyagers found a new land they would sail back home and gather their relatives and return to the new land and live there. After the first Tongans discovered Samoa, they returned to Tonga, then gathered their relatives and returned to live in Samoa. That is why the Tongans and the Samoans are so much alike. You see they both came from the same people. It is just that the ancestors of the Samoans were Tongans who went to live in Samoa a couple of thousand years ago.
If you sail from Tonga in an open canoe to look for new lands you will need to be able to return to Tonga. The only way to return to Tonga is if you know the stars, the waves and the currents.
When the old Polynesians sailed they would point their canoe in the direction of the star that would guide them to an island. After that star rose a little, a second star would rise after from the same hole under the horizon. They would follow the second star until it was followed by other stars rising from the same hole, one after another. If they knew the right stars to follow they would find land. If they did not, then they would be lost and they may wonder for weeks until they drank all their water and they died at sea.
Stars guided the voyages in different ways. Certain pairs of stars rise or set at the same time in Tonga, but not in Samoa. If you are going to travel from Tonga to Samoa in a canoe watch the stars before you leave to see which pairs of stars set at the same time. Then when you return get to Samoa, watch those two stars. One will set before the other. When you sail back to Tonga, sail so that you will be east of Tonga or Haapai. Watch those two stars that you know will set at the same time. When you see that they set at the same time, then sail west until you come to Haapai or Tonga. You are home.
The old Polynesians knew when there was land, even though the land was too far away to be seen. There were things that they could look for that would tell them when land was near, even though they could not see it. Clouds that float over the sea are blue underneath, clouds that float over land are green underneath. The ocean currents flow from east to west in Polynesia. If there is an island east of your canoe, then the waves will be different than if you are in the open sea. Some birds fly to sea during the day, but they return to land at night. If it is evening and you see different birds flying in the same direction, then you know that there is land in that direction.
I respect the old Polynesians for many reasons. There is one reason in particular: they had courage. If you journey to the horizon to look for new lands, you might sail for weeks, far from your home. Your heart is scared because you wonder if you will be able to return to your home, but still you sail on into the unknown ocean.
School is starting for many Polynesians. If you are in your classroom it is easy to be quiet and not ask questions. But if you want to learn lots of things you have to have courage because you have to ask questions. In ancient times in Tonga, when there were battles the bravest warriors ran to the front of the battle to fight. Polynesians should be like that for education. They should go after knowledge like a big fish chasing little fish. It is a scary thing if you are in a classroom and you raise your hand and ask a question. Everyone looks at you, you might be scared that it is a dumb question. But, the old Polynesians have shown us an example of courage. They faced the unknown to look for new lands. Raise your hand in class, ask questions. If you do that then you are honoring the old Polynesians who faced the unknown sea to look for new lands.
National Geographic, December 1974
Revised: February 22, 1996
Copyright © 1996 Daniel (Taniera) Longstaff