Navigating the mind and the sea.

Today’s random 500 words is about Polynesian navigation.

I like it. What I particularly like is that the recent history of attempting to account for Polynesian wayfinding is a intersection of theoretical and empirical research. There is nothing like the observation of the sun rising and setting, at higher or lower latitudes, to deduce that the earth is indeed round, although I expect at some point in the near future, this concept to be completely dissolved into a fizzy cup of post-modern relativism. In other words, anyone can observe facts about their world and come up with a theory about what it might look like (round and slightly on the piss) without getting in a space ship for a squiz.

Incidentally this reminds me of an interview I heard with Bruno Latour recently, where he described his bemused surprise that his work on the interconnectedness of things had been used to interrupt the idea of scientific causality. Often theorists pen works that are deliberately abstruse, for their generative effect. That is, they cast out a canvas with some dots and lines on it, and let the reader decide what it means. 

Ultimately, the readers’ interpretation may not have any bearing on the original author’s intent, but may produce something of value nonetheless. And sometimes it just produces rarefied bollocks. Latour appeared tickled at the scale and hairyness of them. 

I digress. What is so intriguing to me about Polynesian navigation is that although the concept of a side reel star chart is relatively easy for the Western brain to apprehend, based, as it is, on the idea of celestial bodies moving from horizon to horizon, the rub is longitude. Westerners use time (speed) from a fixed point (Greenwich) to estimate how far around the globe they have travelled. And, of course, this method required an enormously complex and unfailingly accurate, seagoing clock (H3), with its famous bi-metallic strip. In short, it involved what might charitably be referred to as endless dicking around on boats.

Polynesians quite clearly had a method for estimating longitude that was extremely successful, many thousands of years before Europeans, or indeed, anyone else it seems (although this is contested). Indeed, there are two main theories. One of them is also a form of dead reckoning, measuring distance traveled (the same method that the pre H3 clock knickerbocker set used with varying levels of success) triangulating your position by comparing the prevailing ocean current and leeway against the wind and starting point. It sounds simple, but of course is extremely complex. The second theory is one that is perhaps lost, and is based on an even more complex knowledge of the stars. 

For me, what was most striking, when first reading about Polynesian settlement across the Pacific many years ago, is that New Zealand and Hawaii were the last to be settled. Obviously I knew about Aotearoa, but I had always been told that Hawaiiki was the ‘homeland’ and that the original founders had set off from there. 

But even with my limited experience, I could immediately see that this was unlikely and felt silly to have it pointed out. Polynesian waka sailed upwind to colonise the Pacific, and could easily and safely sail about 75 degrees off the wind, with the knowledge that the downwind run was a quick way to get home. Hawaiiki is well outside that 75degrees, (and so is New Zealand). Their boats had outriggers, and a rudder to steer them upwind further, but even so, travel to NZ and Hawaiiki was probably achieved last because of the colonisation of the Pacific – shorter distances to travel. It’s a long way from Micronesia to Hawaii. 

I suppose what came as something of a surprise to me is that I was so invested in what was essentially a fairy tale. No-one ever really said to me – Hawaiiki is Hawaii, but I think, just from the small amount of knowledge that I had, it seemed like it was. 

I suppose that was a lesson.

I love the history of the 20th century attempts to piece together an account of navigation techniques. It’s a testament to how hide bound we can be in terms of our models of how things work, our epistemology I suppose. It seemed almost inconceivable that one group of people could estimate longitude without (essentially) a chronometer. This was really only ‘discovered’ (rediscovered) in the 1970s, by direct experience – a bunch of salty sea dogs set out into the Pacific and navigated their way all over the show, without western instruments.

It’s very much worth thinking about how we come to know things and what stands in our way.

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