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Hawaiians as Navigators and Seamen

Photo: Ku'ialuaopuna

Hawaiians as Navigators and Seamen

Samuel Wilder King

[From the 34th Annual Report of the Hawaiian Historical Society, 1925, 11-14]

I was reading recently an article that advanced the proposition that the man who first made use of a rude paddle to propel a crude raft was essentially a greater inventor than the many who later developed the rowing boat to its present mechanical excellen ce. So, in other fields the first germ of an idea was the most important, the big step forward, the later improvements following as a matter of course, inevitable as midday after morning. Our complicated modern civilization gives us immense knowledge, the use of all the stored experience of thousands of years of people of many races; but the big new ideas are still few and far between. It is doubtful if we excel our ancestors in intellect, however much we may be their superiors in knowledge. Judged on their grasp of the fundamentals, the ancient Hawaiians had a splendid foundation in seamanship and navigation. Remote and isolated as they were, and had been for years, what they knew was either part of the scanty heritage brought with them from their ancient home in the west and treasured through all the thousands of miles of eastward migrations, and generations of residence on the fair isles of Polynesia, or was of their own devising. Perhaps some unrecorded Galileo or Lord Kelvin added a mite or two to their original store of knowledge. At any rate we know that the Hawaiians could not benefit from the discoveries and improvements being made in the European world, that the narrow limitations of their islands confined their progress in countles s ways, and that the lack of writing made it extremely difficult to standardize their knowledge and keep it clear of error. When the Haole first came to Hawaii it was a source of wonder to them how the Hawaiians got here. Further acquaintance with the mele (songs) of old voyages increased the wonder. Finally it was borne upon them that the Hawaiians, like their kin throughout Polynesia, were great seamen, with a clear knowledge of the prevailing winds, the moods of the sea, and the signs and portents that foretold the weather. In their canoes, the greatest of which were frail craft compared with the vessels of Cook or Vancouve r, they traveled the seas of Hawai'i daringly, braving the currents and tempestuous waves of the island channels, and making far trips beyond the horizon. With mat sails and paddles they accomplished voyages upon which we moderns would hesitate to venture . With neither compass nor chart, sextant nor chronometer, but with mind filled with the ancient lore, handed down through the generations, the lore of wind and sea and sky, they set out, and counted not the mischance of failing to make a landfall. A priestly astrologer, the kilo hoku would give the more important of the prospective trips a good clearance, or hold the boat for a better day; and mixed with his rites there were always the realties of keen weather observing. Of course the pig must be b aked, the 'awa chewed and mixed, the gods propitiated with offerings and prayers, and then the heavens and sea scanned for portents. If the rainbow stood arched in the wrong quarter, if the clouds were flying in scattered fragments, the wind and sea from the wrong direction, the sailing was delayed. But if the indications were fair the astrologer completed the prognosis with an inspired dream, and the voyage was well begun. The canoe captain, the ho'okele then took command. He knew the different waves with their specific names, equivalent to our own cross sea, following sea, head sea, etc.; and the winds of many kinds, each with its name and peculiar characteristic; and he k new his boat, and how it should be handled under every condition, even to righting it if overturned. To make the desired landfall the ho'okele first located the North Star, in Hawaiian, Hokupa'a, or fixed star, and kept it on the proper bearing; and then selected from the heavens the steering star, the star from among many that would carry him safely to his port. If the little star near Na Hiku (The Seven, or The Dipper) was seen to wink frequently, or if other signs were present, a storm was approaching, and he steered for a safe haven. In this manner the Polynesians populated every habitable rock and coral island in an area of ocean greater than a continent. There is no record of those who failed; but of those who achieved a new landfall, and carried the news back to their kinfolk, we h ave some record, fragmentary it is true, because the Polynesians lacked the art of writing. From what we have we can piece together epic poems of great journeys, sagas of our Pacific Vikings less known perhaps than those of their Norsemen brothers of the sea, but of equal daring and romance, a tribute to the virility and courage of that ancient Polynesian race. Our modern astrologer is the weather bureau, and our modern ho'okele has many aids in his struggle with the elements, but the principles of taking a vessel from port to port are much the same, based on good seamanship and navigation. For the long trips, the great voyages to the far off islands of the South Pacific, the navigator knew his astronomy, Ka 'oihana kilokilo, and his geography, kukulu o kahiki, and became he ho'okele-moana, a deep-water sailor. His chart might be the circula r base of a gourd, lines burnt in to show the meridian of Hawaii, and the tropics. From Hokupa'a, the North Star, to Newe, the Southern Cross, was the Hawaiian Greenwich; the northern tropic was Kealanui Polohiwa a Kane, the black shining highway of the s un; the southern tropic was Kealanui ka piko o Wakea, the highway to the middle of the earth. The east was Keala'ula a Kane, the red track of the sun; and the west was Kealanui ma'awe'ula a Kanaloa, the wide red track of Kanaloa. In the celestial sphere s o bounded moved the stars, na hoku pa'a o ka 'aina, among them the navigational stars (na hoku ho'okele); and the planets, na hoku hele (moving stars). Beyond were strange stars, na hoku o ka lewa. Of the planets the Hawaiians knew five: Mars as Hoku 'ula , the Red Star; Venus as Hoku loa, the Great Star; Jupiter as Ka'awela, the Brilliant One; Mercury as Ukali, the [Sun] Follower; and Saturn as Makulu. Of the stars a great many were listed in the old instructions and mele (songs), many not identified toda y. Besides the North Star and the Southern Cross, Altair, Vega, Sirius, Orion, the Pleiades, the Dipper, Castor and Pollux, and others were known and studied. With this stock of knowledge, the Hawaiians used a calendar based on the moon, knew and corrected its error by reference to the stars, named each month, and each night of the month by the characteristics of the moon, and judged the hour closely by the sta rs at night, or the sun by day. Thus equipped many brave chieftains of the olden times made the great voyage to Tahiti and back. How they provided sufficient food and water, how they survived storms and calms and submerged reefs and lee shores, is but bri efly known from the chants that have come down to us. What captains failed and died unsung will never be known. But we do know of many who succeeded, and brought back new chiefs and priests to Hawai'i, new customs and ideas, dances and drums, plants and d resses, and started ferment in HawaiÔi nei that did not end until Kamehameha the Great ruled supreme over the eight islands. Of Hawai'i specifically, such names as Pa'ao, Kaulu-a-Kalana, Paumakua, and the famous old sea-going family headed by Mo'ikeha and including his foster son La'a, named La'a-maikahiki, the son Kila, and the grandson Kaha'i, have come down to us as great vo yagers of a later period, when Hawai'i and the southerly islands revived the old bond, and exchanged ideas and peoples, after several centuries had been allowed to elapse since the original settlers had come north to "Green-backed Hawai'i" as they called it. The exploits of these Hawaiian Vikings surpass in daring and danger that of the Norsemen. Among those who go down to the sea in ships, the ancient Hawaiians hold a high and honorable place; and the seamen's bent and flavor holds with their children today.

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