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Oceania and David H. Lewis

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The adventurer David Lewis was born in England in 1917 and died in Tin Can Bay, North Queensland, Australia, in 2002. He is best remembered by many Pacific Island people for the work he did in emulating and documenting the navigational techniques of the early Polynesian voyagers. He recorded this information in his doctoral research thesis and later in his books We, The Navigators and The Voyaging Stars. The following Web information comprises the foreword to We, The Navigators and was written by  S. H. Riesenberg in 1972. 


The world of the Pacific islands burst upon the consciousness of the Western world with the discovery of the Marianas by Magellan in 1521. By the eighteenth century, a whole complex of exotic and romantic conceptions had come into being about the people of the South Seas, an apparatus of cliches that are even now the material of novels and musical plays and are the subject of graphic portrayal in travel posters. One essential part of this complex, often at the core of it, is an image of the outrigger canoe and the heroic men who compose its crew, sailing intrepidly over uncharted seas to yet undiscovered isles. This stereotype of the Pacific and its native inhabitants has a basis in the very first descriptions by the European explorers. Pigafetta, Magellan's chronicler, marvelled at the canoes he saw in 1521. No less deeply impresses were the later visitors to those islands: Cavendish, Dampier, Rogers, and Anson. The flying proa of the Marianas, its sailing qualities and its speed, captured the imagination of the explorers, and they could scarcely find words (singular, extraordinary, ingenious, among other adjectives) to express their admiration.

In similar terms, almost in awe, Ledyard describes the excellence of the canoes that in immense throngs - 3000 of them, with 15,000 passengers - surrounded the Resolution at Kealakekua Bay in 1779. Earlier, in 1774, at Tahiti, Cook and Forster had observed the 'magnificent scene' of a 'grand and noble' naval review at which they 'were perfectly lost in admiration'; it contained 330 vessels with no fewer than 7760 men. Wiles, in the Fijis in 1840, characterises the navigators there, their daring and skill, and the speed of their canoes in the same lyrical manner. Indeed, to catalogue the accounts of Pacific canoes and native voyagers written in this glowing style is to catalogue half of the European explorers.

Hyperbole there was, of course, and we are in debt to Andrew Sharp for a chastening re-examination of the evidence of the abilities of the South Sea native mariners. But we cannot accept all of his strictures. Ad David Lewis tells us in this book, much of the navigational knowledge in many places was secret; it was an arcanum limited to a select circle of society; and even information that could have been obtained remains unknown - some of it now, fortunately, revealed through Lewis's labours - simply because questioners did not know enough to ask the right questions, which often still remain unasked. Many skills vanished under the impact. One survival, described by Lewis, is the indigenous sidereal compass of the Carolines, which has not been superseded by the magnetic compass. It has survived precisely because the two compasses are incompatible and there is no area of conflict between them.

It should be added that European influences are not the only cause of degeneration of native arts. Bougainville in 1768 named Samoa the Navigator Islands, so impressed was he by the swarms of canoes which circled his ship. The canoes were really manned only by offshore fishermen, but Bougainville assumed that they were navigators of the high seas, hence designated them as he did. But, as Hornell points out, the Samoans would indeed have deserved the name much better six or seven hundred years before Bougainville's time, before any European had visited them. In contrast, Duperrey in 1824 and Lutke in 1827, among others, enlarge upon the landlubberly qualities of the people of Kusaie. Yet without question, the Kusaians were once great mariners, ranging far to the west, every atoll in the Central Carolines has tales of Kusaian visitors, and various clans trace their origins to women from that island; while Ponape's political charter, in the Malinowski sense of that word, is rooted in the traditional military conquest by Kusaian invaders. Whatever the reasons - perhaps on some high islands nature's generosity in the course of time saps away at the economic incentive to range abroad - internal factors can also play a role in the decline of seafaring.

What has survived of the old knowledge is examined and studied in detail in this pioneering work of David Lewis, which stands almost alone among studies of this kind, which he is uniquely qualified to undertake. Of the peoples that Lewis visited, sail with, and whose navigational methods he studied, only those of Puluwat are personally familiar to me. To the reasons for voyaging set forth in Chapter II of this book, I should like to add one given me, along with the local equivalent of a dig in the ribs and with an unmistakable leer, by my Puluwatese adopted brother, a man in his sixties: to get away from a nagging wife to a place of complaisant women. In a more serious vein he said that he travelled to Satawal to obtain the tobacco sold there by the Yap Trading Company, rather than make the much easier trip to Truk to get an inferior brand. We can only wonder and speculate what charms distant places might have held for island navigators in the days before there was anyone to recall them.      

S. H. Riesenberg, Washington, 1972

Micronesian stick chart of the type described
by David Lewis on page 204 of We, The Navigators

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