Book Summary: Sea People by Christina Thompson

My Personal Summary

This book is about how the Polynesian Islands were first settled.

“Polynesia” is the region in the Pacific Ocean that ranges from Easter Island to Hawaii to New Zealand.

Evidence has shown that the people of Polynesia came from the Indonesian islands who progressively ventured further out into the Pacific using only canoes and navigating using the sun and stars.

Book Notes

  • As early as the 1950’s, explorers from Spain passed through the North Pacific, but it wasn’t until 1778 that Captain James Cook stumbled across Hawaii while on his third voyage headed for North America in an attempt to find the Northwest passage.
  • The Pacific Ocean is so large that you could fit all the landmasses of earth inside it.
  • Portuguese traveler Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to cross the Pacific Ocean in 1519. He greatly underestimated how big it was and by the time his journey was over his crew had resorted to eating rats, sawdust and leather because they had completely ran out of food.
  • In the 1500’s and 1600’s, the biggest mistake that geographers made was believing that there was a massive continent known as Terra Australis Incognita somewhere in the South Pacific. This giant continent was depicted on nearly all world maps at the time and was believed to exist because it was though that an equal land mass must exist in the northern and southern hemispheres of the earth to balance out the planet in terms of mass.
  • The first Polynesian island spotted by Europeans was the Marquesas in 1595, which are known to be mountainous. On mountainous islands, on the windward side the mountains wring moisture from the air, creating a lush ecosystem. On the leeward side, the rain shadow of the same mountain range causes the region to be “perfectly parched.”
  • Interesting: Most people who live on islands live on the coastal plains – the flattest region on the outskirts of the island that are the most hospitable for farming and housing. This is why, when navigating most islands, the roads are usually on the perimeter of the island since the elevation becomes much higher in the center of the island.
  • In the 1500’s and 1600’s, the only way for European sailors to even get to the Pacific Ocean from the Atlantic Ocean was to go all the way south of South America around the Cape of Good Horn, which was known for treacherous and violent conditions. One alternative was the Strait of Magellan in the southern part of Chile, but that was difficult to navigate as well. Even after getting to the Pacific Ocean via these routes, it was difficult for ships to proceed because of the westerly winds that blew towards them in the southern Pacific.
  • An atoll is a ring of coral with no island inside it. It forms by underwater volcanoes breaching the surface with lava when they erupt, then cooling to form an island. A fringing reef then forms on the edges of the island and as the volcano slowly sinks back in the water over time, a barrier reef forms, the finally an atoll. This process takes millions of years.
  • Atolls support a wide variety of marine life but only very few shrub and tree species. Despite this fact, some Polynesians still lived on atolls and were even able to fashion impressive canoes out of the minimal wood and shrub material on the land.
  • In 1642, a Dutch captain working for the Dutch East India Company named Abel Janszoon Tasman got blown off course and accidentally discovered an island southeast of Australia, which was eventually named after him – Tasmania. He then traveled to New Zealand where was attacked by locals, then made his way further north east to Tonga.
  • Easter island represents the southeastern vertex of the Polynesian triangle. It is the most isolated inhabited island in the world, surrounded by 3 million square miles of empty ocean.
  • When the 7 Years War ended in 1763, Britain had the most powerful Navy in the world. The British crown dispatched Samuel Wallis on a series of expeditions to the Pacific to explore the region. He happened upon the island of Tahiti in 1768, located directly in the heart of the Polynesian triangle and part of a larger collection of islands known as the Society Islands. At the time of discovery, it’s estimated that 60,000+ people were living on the island.
  • In 1769, Captain James Cook then traveled to Tahiti and spent four months there. There, he met a local man named Tupaia who incredibly had knowledge about the locations of islands in the Pacific as far away as 2,000 miles. Tupaia joined Cook’s crew when he left the island and even drew a map depicting the locations of various islands throughout Polynesia.
  • Cook made two more trips through the Pacific until 1779 where he was killed in Hawaii. He was a crucial figure in developing European understanding of Polynesia because he observed that individuals on different islands throughout Polynesia shared similar linguistic and cultural habits, which offered a clue that all Polynesians might share a common ancestry. Cook also did a great deal to map of the geography of the Pacific. This, combined with improvements in maritime technology such as the invention of the chronometer, made it much easier for future travelers to explore the Pacific.
  • In 1976, a boat traveled from Maui to Tahiti using only ancient sailing techniques, proving that it was possible to travel that far using only primitive techniques.
  • In summary, it’s believed that the people of Polynesia came from the Indonesian islands who progressively ventured further out into the Pacific using only canoes and navigating using the sun and stars.
  • DNA and modern scientific tools have shown that many islands in the Pacific have only been settled since 900 AD to 1300 AD.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *