Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Sailors and TradersA Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples$

Alastair Couper

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780824832391

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824832391.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM HAWAII SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.hawaii.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Hawaii University Press, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in HSO for personal use.date: 29 June 2022

Sailors, Myths, and Traditions

Sailors, Myths, and Traditions

Chapter One Sailors, Myths, and Traditions
Sailors and Traders

Alastair Couper

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter compares the seafaring traditions, myths, and beliefs held by Pacific islanders and other sailors in the past and present. There are numerous metaphorical legends in the Pacific Islands that recall ancient voyagers to whom islanders are related genetically and through threads of sea-oriented culture. To these are added many other inherited and acquired beliefs of Pacific and fellow seafarers worldwide. This chapter considers such maritime traditions and myths, focusing on those concerning the relationships between Pacific people and the sea around them, images of the ship, protection of the ship, and the belief that women on board ships are taboo or bringers of bad luck. Also discussed is the seafarers' alienation from society when they return home after a year or more away.

Keywords:   maritime traditions, sailors, seafaring, myths, Pacific Islands, ships, women, taboo, bad luck, seafarers

THE PACIFIC SAILOR who is waiting for a jumbo jet at Nadi International Airport in Fiji has been in transit for almost three days. He has travelled by local boat from his home island of Nanouti in Kiribati to Tarawa, the principal island of Kiribati, and from there by small plane to Fiji. He is bound for Townsville, Australia, via another flight from Sydney to rejoin a large bulk carrier as an AB (able-bodied seaman). The ship will probably be heading next for the United States. It is owned by a German company in Hamburg and flies the Liberian flag. This ship once again will be his home and workplace for the next twelve months.

A similar procedure is repeated in various ways throughout Oceania. Some eight thousand or so young men, and a very few young women, move from their home islands to world ports to join foreign-going ships. They are recruited as sailors by agencies of the global labor market and will be sailing worldwide on vessels carrying cargoes of raw materials, oil, chemicals, and consumer goods in containers. Rarely, if ever, will they sight their home islands during these trips.

The sailor from Kiribati was born on a small, flat coral atoll close to the equator (0°40' S). The atoll is remote and only twenty-four miles long and ten miles wide. There are nine villages, with a total population of about 3,200. These are subject to drought conditions, when water and island foods are scarce, and survival has depended on sea resources. When growing up, the future sailor was never beyond the sound of the wind and sea, and at an early age he learned to swim, dive, sail, and fish. Few strangers would have come to his village. Only when an interisland vessel came through the boat pass and anchored in the lagoon to unload flour and other goods by workboat would there be any significant changes in the repetitive rhythm of daily life. The boat would load copra off the beach, which is the only cash product on Nanouti and can be depleted during droughts.

As a youngster, the I-Kiribati sailor would have known male relatives (p.7) who returned on leave from foreign-going ships. They would tell sailors’ yarns and bring money, radios, perfumes, toys, and other attractive items. These were soon distributed within the extended family through the social obligations of bubuti (sharing on request). Some of the younger unmarried sailors would spend only the minimum time on leave at home. They preferred to return to the company of mariners from other islands who congregated in South Tarawa, with its cinema, cafés, bars, and girls and its distance from the rule of the old men and the eyes of the clergy on their home islands.

The Nanouti sailor is following in the footsteps of the itinerant sailors of the past. He is twenty-nine, has qualified at the Marine Training Centre in Tarawa, and has already served three years at sea. He is now a well-paid (by island standards) AB. His young wife and baby daughter have been left on Nanouti, where he has also left part of his personality. From now on, he will adapt to the ways of shipboard life, with its terminology known only to fellow seafarers, its discipline, and its food and customs. He has likewise been transformed in appearance. While on leave on his home island, he lived the relaxed life of a bare-bodied, barefoot villager in a wraparound lavalava. He is now wearing a T-shirt, blue jeans, a baseball cap, sunglasses, and an outsize pair of trainers. He carries a case and a bag, which contain shirts, pullover, socks, underwear, a woollen cap, a boilersuit, boots, shoes, hard hat, oilskins, and a knife, all previously supplied by the company.

Onboard discipline is exercised by a German captain and, on deck, three Polish officers. The engine room has similar numbers and nationalities in charge. The cook is from the Philippines; consequently, for the next twelve months he will not eat the “true food” of Kiribati—fish, coconut, and taro, supplemented by bread, rice, tinned meat, and on occasion pig and fowl. Instead the daily diet will be German and Polish dishes cooked by a Filipino. But he is happy that at least six other ratings will be from the islands of Kiribati. He could of course have found himself in a much more ethnically diverse seagoing community. In any event he will be different in many respects from what he was on his home island.

Like other oceanic sailors, some of the Kiribati crew may recall being told half-remembered stories of founding ancestors. There is that of Batiauea, a female spirit who in the course of a voyage met Baretoka, a male spirit. Batiauea’s canoe was stretched into a curved shape and called Taraea, or Tarawa, where the two spirits dwelt and raised a family. There are numerous such metaphorical legends in the Pacific that recall ancient voyagers to whom islanders are related genetically and through (p.8) threads of sea-oriented culture. To these are added many other inherited and acquired beliefs of Pacific and fellow seafarers worldwide. This diversity is illustrated below by comparisons between the traditions (if not the myths that are specific to the Pacific) and beliefs held by Pacific islanders and other sailors in the past and present.

Na Keiki o Ke Kai (The Children of the Sea)

The relationships between Pacific people and the vast sea around them are more than geographical; they go to the very heart of people’s birth and being. The ancient creation myths and cultural metaphors lie deeply embedded in collective memories. They have been transmitted orally over generations, often by hereditary storytellers. More recently they have been decoded and interpreted by Pacific Island scholars and are valued as voices from a remote past. At a basic level of interpretation several of the myths can be reduced to accounts of ancient voyages of discovery and the founding of communities on uninhabited islands. For the prehistoric peoples out of Asia who reached the westward beaches of Oceania and eventually embarked on the first explorations by sea toward the distant eastern horizons, their discoveries of new lands and, for some, their return from these with stories of abundance, were epoch making.

These seafaring migrants from Southeast Asia possibly carried the widespread belief in Tangaloa, or Tangaroa (Lord of the Ocean), to the Pacific. This hearkens back to the Sulawesi word for “ocean,” togaloang. In the Pacific, legends of related sea gods have similarities in widely separated islands. They range from the activities of the demigod Motikitiki in the eastern Solomons1 to the Maui myths found over the whole of Polynesia. I. Futa Helu of Tonga recounts how the demigod Maui pulled the Polynesian islands from the bottom of the sea.2 Helu sees this as referring to the chance landfalls made by the earliest Pacific voyagers. In the Tongan story, Maui starts as a navigator and ends his days in Tonga as a farmer. The transition from sea to land epitomizes the long evolution of Tonga from a predominantly marine culture and economy to one based primarily on cultivation plus some fishing.

Pat Hohepa, professor of Maori studies at the University of Auckland, refers to the version whereby Maui brought a giant fish to the surface.3 This, along with Maui’s canoe, became the North and South Islands of Aotearoa (New Zealand). The new land was simultaneously a vessel and a fish, “a progeny of Tangaroa the Sea Lord.” Some twenty generations after the creation of Aotearoa, the navigator Kupe was sent away from (p.9) Hawaiki, the legendary homeland of the Maori (possibly Rarotonga, Cook Islands, or Ra‘iatea, Society Islands), to search for a southern continent—centuries later, another great navigator, James Cook, was given the same task. Kupe decided to seek the fish of Maui (Te Ika a Maui). He found it petrified as Aotearoa and spent two generations exploring both islands before returning to Hawaiki with the news.

Another twenty generations passed, so the folktale goes, before people in a double canoe left Hawaiki to follow “the path” (sailing directions) of Kupe. They did so, Hohepa interprets, to take their families away from the hunger and wars over resources in Hawaiki, which had suffered droughts, perhaps from a severe El Niño. Five generations afterward, successive fleets of canoes made voyages of over 1,600 miles from Hawaiki to Aotearoa. These people eventually dispersed over Aotearoa, as recounted in Maori folklore and genealogy, to occupy tribal territories, some of which carried the names of great canoes.

The remembrances of voyages of founding seafarers have been preserved in other forms elsewhere in the Pacific. Joel Bonnemaison discusses the links between canoes, territories, ancestors, and people in southern Vanuatu.4 Each territory is identified with a canoe, as is the social organization. The descendants of those who occupied the front of the canoe had special status (lords). The helmsman was the captain and, when ashore, a chief. This concept and the memories of the community are carried onward to new territories on migration, thereby combining the essential “rootedness” to an original homeland with the mobility of voyaging.

Another component of voyage-related myths lies in the celestial dome covering the Pacific. The stars, sun, planets, moon, and even comets appear in the stories of the gods of Oceania. The oral transmission of Tahitian myths, for example, shows detailed astronomical observations.5 Ta‘urua (Venus) prepares a canoe and sails west to dwell with his wife, Rua-o-mere (Capricornus). In Kiribati the myth of the courtship of Nei Auti (Pleiades) and Rimwimata (Antares) sees them engage in an end-less race with each other across the sky. Their risings mark the seasons for good and bad voyaging (see chapter 2). The many long and convoluted accounts reciting apparent movements of godlike celestial bodies may have aide-mémoire functions in the oral traditions of Pacific Island navigators. Arthur Grimble, writing in 1931, confirms, “If you want to find an expert on stars you must ask for a tiaborau or navigator.”6 There are many such myths and interpretations. There are also traditions and images of ships and the sea that have been carried by sailors and shared and assimilated among nationalities. Despite technological changes some (p.10) of these have persisted, with adaptations, into modern times as common heritages of global seafaring.

Images of the Ship

The vastness of ocean spaces and weather could be overcome only with a ship that could be relied on. The ship was consequently endowed with mythical properties and symbols. At an individual level in the Pacific there is even the symbolizing, through body tattooing, of the unity of the person, vessel, sea, and sky, as described by Laurence Carucci. These were depicted on the bodies of some Kayapo people in the Marshall Islands at the beginning of the twentieth century (before tattooing was denounced by the Congregationalist mission). The central motif of the tattoos was the body embarked on a voyage: “The upper pectoral triangle represented the body of the canoe, the lower pectoral triangle the ocean swells. The belt like band of wavy lines extending across the stomach are clouds, the mast runs from neck to navel. … The body fully fashioned, is the vessel islanders use to face the voyage of life.”7

In the oral traditions of several maritime societies the canoe symbolizes male and female relationships: “A man is equated with the hull and a woman with the outrigger. Thus when visiting neighbours in Enewetak Island in the Marshalls, a common query directed to a man about his wife takes the form—‘ewi kobaak eo?,’ where is the outrigger?”8 The outrigger has the vital function of stabilizing the canoe against capsizing in strong winds; the metaphor clearly relates to the function of women during the rougher passages of matrimony. The attributing of human characteristics to all or parts of a vessel, as in the outrigger allusion, is common. A ship for seafarers is of female gender. Joseph Conrad advises sailors that they must always treat a ship with “an understanding and consideration of the mysteries of her feminine nature[;]then she will stand by you faithfully.”9 Pablo Pérez-Mallaína, writing of sixteenth-century Spanish seafarers, describes how they formed such an identification with their ship that they got into fights to defend her honor. The ship becomes in these respects almost a surrogate wife or family.10 A British rating is recorded by J. M. M. Hill with the comment that for seamen “the sea and ship provide a family background without doing anything drastic like marrying someone.”11

The ship as a symbolic family is encountered in the southern Moluccas of Indonesia (one of the possible places of origin of ancient voyagers into the Pacific). The stern board of the ship, with its animal motifs, including (p.11) a cock, a bird, and a water snake, is the symbolic helmsman: “The union of the ‘boat’ and the ‘helmsman,’ woman and man, sets the family on course.”12 Traditionally, a pair of gold earrings is bound to the joint between the keel beam and stern beam. Nobody knows the precise significance of this, but anthropologists in the region consider it to represent semen. With similar Freudian connotations, the mythical “golden rivet,” said by European sailors to be the last one driven into the hull of a ship before she takes to the sea, is a feature from modern maritime folklore out of the age of the iron ship.

In the Caroline Islands the indigenous female imagery of the ship is that of a “mother”—she “holds the food, holds the crew,” and “the navigator is the father because he distributes the food to his sons, the crew.”13 There can be even more reverence for the ship. The strange European-type ship was perceived by some people as a god in an early contact, as distinct from its seafarers, who were viewed as goblins. The famous account of the Maori Horeta Te Taniwha, who as a child met Cook, is cited in most histories of New Zealand: “When our old men saw the ship they said it was an atua, a god, and the people on board were tupua, strange beings.”14

Images of the Sea—Death and Rituals

The sea, like the ship, is often referred to by sailors in anthropomorphic terms. It needs to be approached with respect; it can be bountiful and can give nurture to people who know how to treat it. The sea can be peaceful, also wild, and always treacherous; it can snatch an unwary sailor. In the cold northern latitudes it is referred to as the “gray widow-maker,” and its waters are “mothers’ tears.” High risks in the course of their day-to-day life, with little access to legal protection or medical care, once again marks off sea people from land people. A farmer can lose a crop in bad weather; a sailor can lose everything, including his life.

Over the ages there has been an expectation of sailors and their families that they may not return from the sea. The weather of the Pacific is considered relatively benign in this respect, but even if ancient migratory voyages avoided sailing in the hurricane season, they would still be vulnerable to losses. A vessel heavily laden with women, children, and livestock could be overwhelmed in the sailing season by waves of squally conditions such as the bogi walu in Fijian waters or the aho valo in Tonga. These are very complex winds, which blow violently for eight days and eight nights. Or their vessels could be dashed to pieces on hidden reefs or, (p.12) in long calms, be carried far away from a sighted island by ocean currents. Such concerns are evident in this ancient Tuvalu song:

  • Our father speaks
  • Exhorting the current to have mercy
  • And flow towards the island.15

We have no idea of the death rate on ancient migratory voyages from storms, adverse currents, and stranding as well as disease, thirst, and starvation. Even allowing for a more favorable climatic period, deaths were probably no less than those for other people of the sea. For the mariners in the days of Pacific whaling, the evidence of death is compelling. Nathaniel Philbrick writes of the community of Nantucket with a population of seven thousand: “Death was a fact of life with which all Nantucketers were thoroughly familiar. In 1810 there were forty-seven fatherless children in Nantucket, while almost a quarter of the women over the age of twenty-three (the average age of marriage) had been widowed by the sea.”16 The British Royal Commission of 1885 recorded six times as many deaths of merchant seamen as of underground miners.17 Today seafaring is still the most dangerous of occupations.

It might be expected that people of the sea, exposed to sudden death, would have predilections to superstitions and propitiation rituals. They do, but with more skepticism than that of, say, large island inland communities. The latter would, certainly in the past, have fears of night travel, sorcery, and magic in their forested and mountainous habitats. Those at sea would always know very well the real nature of the immense physical dangers they faced and how to combat these with seamanship. Even in the deeply religious society of sixteenth-century Spain, Pérez-Mallaína describes how seafarers in a storm would turn to religion only as a last resort: “Even in the midst of a storm, if the mariners continued to curse, passengers could know that things were not too bad, but if the curses turned to prayers, then the situation was really desperate.”18

Attitudes toward death on board as with related rituals were, and still are, often simple, utilitarian, and sardonic. It is considered unlucky to keep a dead body on board. Unless there is adequate refrigeration or proximity to land, a dead sailor is sewn up in canvas by the bosun, and with grim humor it is said he puts the last stitch through the nose. In the past, weights such as cannonballs or fire bars were added. A simple service is conducted, and the body is slid overboard from a hatch cover. European and American sailors would say that their shipmate was now (p.13) bound for Davy Jones’ locker—the refuge of a malignant sea spirit who stalks mariners. On the other hand, the dead sailor might be metamorphosed into an albatross and fly toward the South Pole. At the pole he would find a revolving open hatch. On entering, he would return to his natural form and arrive at the sailors’ paradise of Fiddler’s Green, which lies “seven miles to the loo’ard of hell.” Here he would find good-looking women and free smokes and drinks.19

The albatross as the soul of a dead sailor is a totem; Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” recalls in his horror,

  • And I had done a hellish thing,
  • And it would work ’em woe:
  • For all averred, I had killed the bird
  • That made the breeze to blow.

For the Pacific mariner, one of the totemic birds of the traditional society was the frigate bird. Like the albatross, it has an immense wingspan and glides over the ocean. It became known to sailors generally as the mano’-war because of its piratical and fearless behavior. It closes on other seabirds at great speed and forces them to regurgitate their meal, which it then catches with great skill in midair. The frigate bird was admired, as well as feared, by Pacific island sailors. The belief was that it could communicate between spirits and humans “and carried the souls of the departed to the kingdom of the dead.”20

While these beliefs at sea are precautionary, most seafarers are practical enough to know that in reality their safety depends only on a well-found ship and a good crew. Each of the crew has to know his job and be reliable, and each one looks out for the other. The most significant protection in the past and present relates to the integrity of the crew and the vessel; any flaw in either could mean disaster. Conrad says, “A ship is a creature which we have brought into the world, as it were on purpose to keep us up to the mark. In her handling a ship will not put up with a mere pretender.”21

Despite technical advances, what seafarers still admire are the skills of mariners with a “feel” for the sea and the behavior of the ship. This trait is derived from years of experience. In the Pacific the feel of the underlying swell (as distinct from local waves) and the refraction effects of distant islands were used by experienced navigators to determine the direction of the islands (see chapter 2). A similar technique was utilized by the sailors of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, which they termed omak tua (everlasting (p.14) swell), and by the fishermen of the Shetland Islands. The Shetlanders, when fishing in the North Atlantic in fog, would feel the moder dai (mother wave), which would guide them home. Similarly, experienced seafarers could interpret the shuddering and vibration of their vessel in a seaway, and the tenderness or stiffness as she rolled to a beam sea. A captain of a modern ship is also likely to waken from a deep sleep on feeling a sudden alteration of course, as will a chief engineer with the change in tone of an engine. No doubt the ancient Pacific mariners would likewise have responded to the creaks and groans coming from the flexible movements of lashings and timbers of a vessel as she labored in bad weather. These are human senses for which technology has brought no real substitutes.

Protecting the Ship

In the matter of ship integrity, the building and launching require great practical experience, but to make sure, it was, and is, hedged around with rituals. In the Pacific the choice of the right trees for construction of a vessel was accompanied by the sacrifice of pigs at the trees’ base.22 The building was then in the hands of craftsmen from hereditary clans. In Fiji they served the god Rokola (the son of Degei, the most important god of Fiji),23 and the methods of construction corresponded to the guidance of sacred chants and were accompanied by ceremonies. The building of a massive war canoe was of such significance that “human blood was a necessary adjunct to the construction, launching and first sailing” and “heavy hulls were sometimes launched over the bodies of slain enemies.”24 A. M. Hocart, writing of ships built in the Lau Islands for Tonga, noted that “of old as many as five men would be killed on those occasions, baked and eaten, or a woman would be brought raw.”25 James Morrison, the bosun’s mate of the Bounty who spent eighteen months in Tahiti in 1789 and 1790, described how a man would be secretly selected and his skull smashed with a club at night and put on board as a sacrifice. In the western Solomons, “when sacrifices were required for the launching of new canoes or the inauguration of new canoe houses—around which head-hunting and fishing ritual revolved—an unsuspecting captive would be clubbed and used.”26

It was customary in Fiji for the owner of a vessel to provide feasts for the builders when the keel was laid and when the vessel was delivered. In West Africa in modern times the building of quite a simple fishing canoe is accompanied by feasts and rituals, and the builders carry the canoe to the owner, who has prepared gin, eggs, and fowl.27 In advanced shipbuilding (p.15) countries of today, a woman usually performs the launching ceremony. She smashes a bottle of champagne on the bow and calls upon God to bless the ship and all who sail in her.28 The woman receives a launching present, and the ship slides down the slipway to the cheers of the builders and enters her natural environment of the sea. This is the birth of a ship in its delivery from land to sea. The ship now has a name and a nationality. The death of a ship is also recognized as such by sailors, as in facial expressions depicted in paintings and films as their ship goes down. The European mariners who came to the Pacific instinctively knew that the cruelest way to punish recalcitrant island people was to destroy their vessels on which they had lavished years of building and care with such reverence.

It was the custom in several places for vessels setting out on long voyages to be further protected against loss by figureheads, usually gods, saints, heroes, beasts, or handsome women (figure 1.1). The Chinese and Vikings adopted dragonlike figureheads, and the Solomon and Trobriand

Sailors, Myths, and Traditions

Figure1.1. The figurehead and the sailor were survivors of a shipwreck on Penrhyn Island. The sailor is described in 1890 by Fanny Stevenson in The Cruise of the Janet Nichol as “a gentle, soft-eyed youth from Edinburgh” who settled as a trader on the island with his “proud lady.”

(Courtesy of the Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh)

(p.16) islanders had symbolic predatory birds and carved heads mounted on the prows of their canoes.29 Apotropaic eyes were painted on the big trireme ships from the fourth century BC in Greece and are still painted or carved on wooden boats in China.

In Catholic countries it was thought prudent when a vessel took to the sea to seek the protection of saints, and many ships that went on voyages of exploration and conquest, such as the Santa Maria of Columbus in 1492, were given the names of patron saints, just as Pacific sailors had patron spirits such as Dakuwaqa, the shark god of Fiji. In offering up prayers to the saints, sixteenth-century mariners came under the scrutiny and suspicion of the Inquisition as to whether they departed from official dogma toward “pagan flavor.” Their prayer to St. Elmo, fire of the night, was one such: “Holy Body, true friend of mariners, we want you to help us, and always appear at night before us.” These sailors got into even more trouble when the inquisitors searched their ships, looking for paintings in which male and female saints appeared “not with their true decency.”30 Sailors then, as now, have images of women on cabin bulk-heads and as body tattoo decorations.

There are many more unusual and unexplained beliefs and rituals held by seafarers. It is bad luck to sail from a port on a Friday; a knife stuck in the mast, or whistling, or throwing a broom overboard will all bring the wind. A strong favorable wind would be acknowledged with “the Judys have got us in tow,” meaning it was the girls pulling them to port. Less esoteric expressions and metaphors have entered the English language from the sea heritage, including the “ship of state,” “keeping on an even keel,” and so on.


In contrast to their favorable images on bulkheads and ship figure-heads, women on board ships have been regarded as taboo, as bringers of bad luck. There were many forms of sexual taboos. During early European contacts in the Marquesas, women were seen swimming out to the vessels while the men came on canoes; the canoes, it was explained, were taboo for women.31 In present-day Kiribati, women would not normally be welcomed on deep-sea fishing canoes, and they have never as yet been enrolled at the Marine Training Centre, even when they were perfectly well qualified. In Rotuma, “on the night before a deep sea fishing expedition the fishermen were supposed to sleep alone.”32 In the fishing (p.17) villages of northeast Scotland it would even be considered unlucky if a crew member on his way to the boat spoke to a woman who had “a bad reputation.”33

Women have in practice always sailed on vessels and, in the Pacific, carried goods for trade and presentation. There is also some history of women as navigators in a few places, which are referred to in the next chapter. Captains of Pacific whalers and traders from Europe and America sometimes had their wives with them, but sailors were not always happy. Women are seen as people of the land; in the Pacific they have traditionally looked after the children, the pigs, and the gardens. They have made mats and sails for vessels, but they were considered sedentary whereas men were nomadic. This viewpoint is changing (see chapter 10), but some Melanesian sailors still say women are welcome on board only in port when there is, in sailor pidgin, “pati long sip” (party on the ship). Working at sea has in fact always been an occupation reserved for men in most societies. This practice still prevails, as less than 2 percent of the 1.25 million merchant seafarers in the world are female, and those are mainly in catering and cleaning.

Words likewise have symbolic meanings, bringing bad and good luck by their utterance. Jocelyn Linnekin says of preliterate Pacific society: “Words have power: to cure, to curse, to provoke wars, to invoke the divine. Once uttered, their effects cannot be undone.”34 Consequently certain words of the land have been taboo at sea. Ed Knipe relates an experience during a trip on a Scottish fishing vessel in 1980: “I mentioned the word ‘pig.’ Their reaction was first to look at each other, then laugh. They made it clear that I should not say that word on board or the skipper might get angry enough to steam back to port and put me ashore.”35

Reference to a minister of religion also had to be avoided. It has been regarded as even more unlucky if a clergyman actually sailed on a ship. Why this should be is uncertain. Perhaps it is because a minister of religion has close contact with death and is a somewhat mystical authority in the community on land. Any such intrusions of alternative status on board make life uncomfortable in the normal hierarchical structure of a crew, their sets of beliefs, and the bonds between men of the sea. A Pacific palu (navigator) says, “If a chief sails with me he is considered a member of the crew and not the leader. When we arrive at an island, I will go ashore first: the chiefs of that island will wait for me in their canoe house, will listen as I tell them of our voyage and give news of other islands. Why? Because the chief is of the land, but the palu is of the sea.”36

(p.18) Living on Board

When Pacific sailors began serving on foreign ships in the late eighteenth century (see chapter 6), they would have encountered unfamiliar rituals of the sea. Some of these they frighteningly associated with their own spirits of the deep; others were simply puzzling at first. A new sailor or a crew newly brought together will go through a subtle process of testing and bonding. Swapping yarns of experiences of past ships, mates, storms, accidents, ports, and so on is seen by Eric Sager as a ritual “affirming ties with the brotherhood of man.”37 On a long passage, boredom would be relieved when new sailors were required to attend the court of King Neptune on crossing the equator. If the ship hove to, the king and his guards and priests, all in bizarre costumes, would appear out of the sea and make the newcomers pay the price for brotherhood in a wet and boisterous rite of passage.

In the eighteenth century it was still the practice on naval ships to haul a new man to the yardarm in a ducking chair and drop him into the sea, to be pulled on board half drowned. A ritual on merchant ships would take place when sailors had worked off the costs of the cash advances they had received before sailing. This was the “old horse” ceremony, when a made-up wooden horse was hauled to the yardarm and dropped into the sea. Often it was accompanied by sailors’ songs, including the sardonic line “After hard work and sore abuse we’ll salt ye down for sailors’ use.” They were now earning pay, no longer flogging a dead horse on board. The bonding and reliance these rituals may have achieved for mateship and mutual help could be matters of life and death: “You’d be slithering about a deck, you know, and a hand’ll catch you and pull you up, and something like ‘By Christ you were bloody near for it there weren’t you?’”—and the incident was over and done with.38

When they are bonded together in the closed confines of a ship, there are also unwritten rules of social behavior. Hill, writing about British sailors, observes, “The seafarer tends to develop a highly skilled way and ability to make quick jovial temporary relationships with those with whom he sails.”39 Similarly, writing about Pacific sailors from Anuta in the eastern Solomons, Richard Feinberg says that “on the ocean, the crew adopts a spirit of easy camaraderie, with much relaxed conventions, singing, joking and even banter.”40 There is often a tacit avoidance of controversy in this behavior. Bonding within a crew meant that someone thieving from another sailor would be dealt with summarily by the crew. On naval ships this could mean the culprit would run the gauntlet between lines of (p.19) shipmates who would hit him with rope ends. Conversely, on boarding an enemy ship, “pilfering” of anything not part of the ship or cargo was allowed, a custom not unlike some in the Pacific toward foreign vessels and shipwrecks. Broaching cargo on their own ships and stealing officers’ alcohol were not regarded as crimes by European crews, and no one would tell on another.

The term “broaching cargo” was used also for having, or hoping for, sex with passengers. On most voyages there was in fact little opportunity for sexual relations while at sea. It was still primarily a male society, and in the past “unnatural acts” in the Royal Navy could carry the death sentence. In practice such activities were often tacitly ignored when crew was short and the sailors were reliable and skilled in their duties, unlike the ridicule and persecutions met with ashore. On merchant ships homosexual liaisons tended to be unobserved or, when overt, treated with nautical humor by most sailors. The staid society of New Zealand in the 1950s, for example, was shocked when foreign seamen from ships in the port of Auckland turned out for the “wedding” of two male stewards from the British vessel Largs Bay as they were paraded down Queen Street with their burly “bridesmaids.” Polynesians, in contrast to the New Zealand press, would have no problem of fitting this with the more tolerant island cultures of fa‘a fafine and other descriptions of transvestites in their societies.41

Going Ashore

When the sailors’ celebration of the Largs Bay event was in full swing at Ma Gleeson’s hostelry, the Auckland police dared not enter. In the past there many such special places in the “sailor towns” around the world.42 News would be exchanged between sailors from ships in port: “What’s the mate like? What’s the food like?” Barmaids and crimps were able to pass on information about who was on which ship, when it called, and where it sailed for. Herman Melville describes such a gathering of seamen in the 1840s: “Presently a rioting noise was heard without. Starting up, the landlord cried, ‘That’s the Grampus’s crew. I seed her reported in the offing this morning; a three years’ voyage, and a full ship. Hurrah, boys; now we’ll have the latest news from the Feegees.’”43 Even in the remote island of Rotuma in 1874 it was observed, “It is no rare thing to find men who have visited Havre, or New York, or Calcutta, men who can discuss the relative merits of a sailor’s home in London or Liverpool.”44

It has always been easy to recognize sailors ashore in port towns. (p.20) Robert Louis Stevenson, a keen observer of seafarers, had his character Jim Hawkins say with some wonder, “I saw, besides, many old sailors, with rings in their ears, and whiskers curled in ringlets, and tarry pigtails, and their swaggering, clumsy sea-walk.”45 Stevenson did not comment here on their tattoos. This characteristic was a gift to sailors from the Pacific islands. All over the Pacific, chiefs, men, women, and children were tattooed. It was a long, painful process, and there were many complex meanings to the decorations. From the time of Cook’s arrival in 1769, foreign sailors underwent this ritual, possibly to show they had been to the South Seas. Later it became a universal means of tribal identification as a sailor. Tattoo parlors appeared in most of the sailor towns around the world; and sailors, often after a visit to a hostelry, awoke the next day with tattoos of girls, mermaids, ships, anchors, and the word “mother” on arms and chests. Stan Hugill says the reason for the once-popular tattoo of a crucifix on the arm of a sailor was that “if their bodies washed up on some foreign heathen shore, they could expect a good Christian burial.”46

In the mid-1970s an old British bosun coming ashore from a newly paid-off ship would hardly be missed from “the cut of his jib” as a seaman. He would be weather-beaten, have tattoos visible on hard hands, and carry a canvas bag with “homeward bound stitching,” and he would show an independent swagger, have money to spend, and probably be slightly inebriated when he called for a dockside taxi. By this time he was already a threatened species from the old world of western European crews. Teuea Toatu, writing in 1999 about the new seamen from Kiribati working on foreign ships, observed, “One can easily recognise these seamen with their long hair, long trousers, shoes (for in Kiribati it is rare to see people wearing shoes) and brand new motorcycles.”47

Home from the Sea

When the modern Pacific seafarer finally makes it from an overseas port to his home island after a year or more away, he often feels greater culture shock than at the many ports visited during the voyage. Daily life in a village in the outer islands of Kiribati, for example, still revolves around fishing, copra making, church services, and listening to gatherings of old men in the maneaba (meeting house). The local store would carry only basic goods, such as biscuits, cigarettes, tinned meat, and possibly beer. It is a quiet relatively insular society, traditionally male dominated, (p.21) but because so many young men go to sea, it is now in practice partially matriarchal. Inevitably a gulf develops between the seafarer and his wife and family in consequence of the enormous disparity in their respective experiences over the year or so he has been away. Generally the returned sailor will reconform to and enjoy island life for a time. He tends not to recount adventures in New York, Hamburg, or Sydney, except in the secretive presence of young admiring boys who want to go to sea.

This difficulty of readjusting to home life when on leave is not confined to seafarers of the Pacific islands. Francoise Péron describes the reception of sailors returning to the Isle of Quessant off northwest France.48 The women lay down in no uncertain terms how they are to behave: “They can do what they like in their boats but here they have to sing Hail Mary.” Members of the Overseas Seafarers’ Wives Association, based in Tarawa, and the regional Pacific Women in Maritime Association (PacWIMA), also have views on the behavior of husbands and partners (discussed in chapter 11). The concern is that sexually transmitted diseases, and especially the dreaded AIDS, from the ports around the world will spread in this small population. Seafarers down the ages have always been the victims and carriers of contagious diseases. It was partly because of this that shipwrecked sailors were in danger on some islands in the early days of contact. They had “salt water in their eyes,” meaning they had come uninvited to the island out of the sea.

A Sea People

This brief review of some seafaring myths, traditions, and lifestyles shows considerable commonality extending across time and national and ethnic boundaries. It is these values of shipmates, understanding each other and using a common nautical language, together with professionalism toward the dangers of the sea, that allows multinational crewed vessels under any flag to function with an equanimity beyond that of many ethnically mixed societies ashore. Pacific Island young men adapt extremely well to life at sea; women until very recently have seldom had the opportunity.

When they come together on board, Pacific sailors carry with them components of their own culture but conform to shipboard society. When they return home, they carry elements of shipboard identities as sailors, along with foreign port town values, which have an impact on their societies. (p.22)


(1.) Richard Feinberg, “The Island and Its People,” in Polynesian Seafaring and Navigation: Ocean Travel in Anutan Culture and Society, ed. Richard Feinberg (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1988), 11.

(2.) I. Futa Helu, “South Pacific Mythology,” in Voyages and Beaches: Pacific Encounters, 1769–1840, ed. Alex Calder, Jonathan Lamb, and Bridget Orr (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999), 45–54.

(3.) Pat Hohepa, “My Musket, My Missionary, and My Mana,” in Calder et al., Voyages and Beaches, 180–202.

(p.210) (4.) Joel Bonnemaison, “The Tree and the Canoe: Roots and Mobility in Vanuatu Societies,” Pacific Viewpoint 25, no. 2 (1984): 117–151.

(5.) Teuira Henry, “Tahitian Astronomy,” Journal of the Polynesian Society 16 (1907): 101–104.

(6.) Arthur Grimble, “Gilbertese Astronomy and Astronomical Observations,” Journal of the Polynesian Society 40 (1931): 197.

(7.) Lawrence Marshall Carucci, “Symbolic Imagery of Enewetak Sailing Canoes,” in Feinberg, Polynesian Seafaring and Navigation, 17.

(8.) Ibid., 26.

(9.) Joseph Conrad (1906), quoted in Michael Mason, Basil Greenhill, and Robin Craig, The British Seafarer (London: Hutchinson/BBC in association with the National Maritime Museum, 1980).

(11.) J. M. M. Hill, The Seafaring Career (London: Tavistock Institute of Human Affairs, 1972), 60.

(12.) Nico de Jonge and Toos Van Dijk, Forgotten Islands of Indonesia (Leiden: Periplus Editions, 1995), 40–42.

(13.) Stephen D. Thomas, The Last Navigator (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987), 170.

(14.) Anne Salmond, Between Worlds: Early Exchange between Maori and Europeans, 1773–1815 (Auckland: Viking Press, 1997), 87.

(15.) D. G. Kennedy, Field Notes on the Culture of Vaitupu, Ellice Islands (New Plymouth, New Zealand: Polynesian Society, 1931), 131.

(16.) Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea (London: Harper Collins, 2001), 14.

(17.) British Parliamentary Papers, First Report of the Royal Commission on Loss of Life at Sea (1885). Before this report on British seafarers, there is considerable evidence of the high incidence of mortality aboard merchant ships. The 3,910 seafarer deaths referred to in this report is an underestimate, since it does not take account of seafarers who died onshore after accidents on board, nor subsequent deaths due to infectious diseases contracted during sea service. See also Ronald Hope, A New History of British Shipping (Edinburgh: John Murray, 1990), 320–321.

(19.) Stan Hugill, in Sailortown (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967), describes the sailor towns of the world as the earthly Fiddler’s Green, with their “pubs, dance-halls, groggeries, and brothels.” See Ronald Hope, Poor Jack (London: Chatham Publishing, 2001), 269, for a description of the sailors’ hopes for the mythical Fiddler’s Green after death.

(20.) Solange Petit-Skinner, “Traditional Ownership of the Sea in Oceania,” in Ocean Yearbook, vol. 4, ed. Elizabeth Mann Borgese and Norton Ginsberg (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 312. The frigate bird, according to Louise Becke, was used in the nineteenth century for carrying messages (p.211) between traders in the Ellice Islands. See Becke, Notes from My South Sea Log (London: Faber and Unwin, 1905), 119–121.

(21.) Joseph Conrad (1906), quoted in Mason et al., British Seafarer, 16.

(22.) Mifflin Thomas, Schooner from Windward: Two Centuries of Hawaiian Interisland Shipping (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1983), 11.

(23.) R. A. Derrick, A History of Fiji (Suva: Government Press, 1963), 16.

(25.) A. M. Hocart, The Lau Islands of Fiji Bernice Bishop Museum Bulletin 69 (Honolulu, 1929).

(26.) Owen Rutter, ed., The Journal of James Morrison, Boatswain’s Mate of the Bounty, (London: Golden Cockerel Press, 1935), 206. For the full context of the W. Solomon Rites, see Nicholas Thomas, Entangled Objects (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 47.

(27.) R. M. Lawson, and E. Kwei, African Enterprise and Economic Growth: A Case Study of the Fishing Industry of Ghana (Accra: Ghana University Press, 1974), 63.

(28.) The analogies between launching vessels, childbirth, and the rhythms of the sea range from modern onboard stories of sailors being refused leave to attend the birth of their children on the grounds that “they were required only to lay the keel and were not needed for the launching” to the display in the hospital at Palau of tide tables to predict times of births and the comforting of women in labor by telling them “the tide will turn soon and the baby will come.” R. E. Johannes, Words of the Lagoon: Fishing and Marine Lore in the Palau District of Micronesia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 35.

(29.) Nicholas Thomas, Oceanic Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995), contains detailed descriptions and interpretations of Pacific island figureheads and other canoe decorative art.

(31.) Greg Dening, Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land; Marquesas, 1774–1880 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1980), 57.

(32.) Alan Howard, “Rotuman Seafaring,” in “Historical Perspective,” in Feinberg, Seafaring, 129.

(33.) Ed Knipe, Gamrie: An Exploration in Cultural Ecology (New York: University Press of America, 1984), 95.

(34.) Jocelyn Linnekin, “New Political Orders,” in The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders, ed. Donald Denoon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 200.

(38.) Ibid., 130.

(41.) In Samoan society the fa‘a fafine (like a lady) are boys reared as girls and do women’s work. They are not necessarily homosexual. In Tonga they are known as fakaleiti and dress and act like women. In Tahiti they are the mahu. Over all of Polynesia in fact this form of (male) transvestite appearance and behavior has always been a part of society. Bengt and Marie-Thérèse Danielsson write of Tahiti in 1978: “In sharp contrast to the basically negative attitude towards homosexuals in western society the individuals in Polynesia who follow the traditional Mahu way of life are not only tolerated but meet with general approval and praise” (“Polynesia’s Third Sex: The Gay Life Starts in the Kitchen,” Pacific Islands Monthly, August 1978, 11). See also Deborah MacFarlane, “Transsexual Prostitution in Polynesia: A Tradition Defiled?” Pacific Islands Monthly, February 1983, 11–12.

(42.) Regarding “Ma Gleeson’s,” Stan Hugill in Sailortown refers to the many women known to sailors as “Ma” and “Mother” “throughout the Seven Seas.” These women who ran sailors’ houses and brothels included Mother Hall in Newcastle, New South Wales; Ma Grant in Astoria, Oregon; Ma Egerton in Liverpool, England; and Ma Jackson in Rio de Janeiro.

(43.) Herman Melville, Moby Dick (London: Penguin Books, 1994), 33.

(45.) R. L. Stevenson, Treasure Island (1881; London: Penguin Classics, 1999), 41.

(47.) Teuea Toatu, “Seamen and Cultural Change in Kiribati,” Pacific Perspective 8, no. 2 (1975): 31–32.

(48.) Francoise Péron, “Seamen of the Island and the Faith: The Example of Quessant,” INSULA: International Journal of Island Affairs (Paris)1, no. 1 (1992): 38.