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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

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Settlements, Territories, and Trade

Settlements, Territories, and Trade

Chapter Three Settlements, Territories, and Trade
Sailors and Traders

Alastair Couper

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the period of the first arrival of the European colonizers in the Pacific Islands and their impact on maritime trade. Drawing on the journals of Captain James Cook and others from 1768, the chapter considers how population growth and environmental stresses drove chiefs to extend their territories beyond their own villages and islands. It then discusses inter-island trade in the Pacific and cites examples of island maritime trading networks based on evidence from the earliest settlements. More specifically, it explores trade in essential implements; reciprocal trade between high and low islands; the role of kinship in trading voyages; exchanges of religious and ceremonial articles; the use of barter and various forms of currency as a means of exchange; and the participation of women in sea trade. The chapter concludes by turning to a number of small islands with traces of earlier occupation that experienced isolation and loss of sea transport.

Keywords:   territories, European colonizers, Pacific Islands, James Cook, inter-island trade, settlements, kinship, women, maritime trade, sea transport

ONCE SHIPS, PEOPLE, animals, plants, and seed crops were brought to the beach of an unoccupied island, the accounts by explorers of bountiful resources would be tested. There would be plentiful water supplies on high islands, but low islands lacked surface water. On some islands there would probably be coastal coconut trees, the seed nuts having been carried there by winds and currents over many centuries.1 Birdlife in all would be profuse. The variety of species decreases from west to east across the Pacific Islands, but the quantities of birds and eggs would be high everywhere in dense colonies that had lacked major predators. The lagoons, reefs, and adjacent ocean would similarly be full of an enormous variety and quantity of shellfish, mollusks, eels, fish, and turtles. As McGlone and colleagues noted, “The amount of accessible fat and protein per square kilometer on a Pacific island may have been unequaled anywhere in the world.”2

The early colonizers would have lived quite well in their new home. There would have been time to establish yams and taro and to plant coconut and breadfruit trees, paper mulberry (for bark cloth), and Piper methysticum (kava)—all brought with them—and to start breeding the introduced pigs, dogs, and fowls and unfortunately to release rat families, which had arrived as stowaways. Like most migrant communities, they likely would have attempted to keep contact for a time with the original homeland to obtain further supplies of materials integral to their traditional way of life and to reinforce cultural cohesion and secondary migrations. The prevailing easterly winds would enable more predictable downwind voyages back to last places of departure. In the course of time there were increased cultural and social changes, particularly between high and low islands, partly in response to environmental conditions. Ultimately there would have been a decline in the more easily available birdlife and the spread of cultivation, including at some stage the diffusion of the sweet potato.

(p.44) The original settlements would have many of the locational characteristics that have been retained in outer islands. The site values for villages on high islands would include shelter, freshwater streams, level land, and adjacency to a reef pass. Behind was higher land for clearing, terracing, and planting; in front, the tidal reef flats, lagoon, and sea reefs for marine resources. Villages would usually be nucleated, with coconut trees and breadfruit interspersed between houses and in garden clearings; inland, related dispersed hamlets developed. A chief’s house in large villages would be raised by a stone platform, and, as in Fiji, there would be a ceremonial area (rara) and sacred structures elsewhere. On low coral islands, houses would be distributed more linearly, parallel to the lagoon. Above the beach, canoe houses would be situated; farther inland would be wells for fresh water and pits dug to reach moist layers for growing taro. High islands became primarily agricultural with some fishing, and low islands became fishing communities with some agriculture.

On both high and low islands, navigators and shipbuilders appear to have retained social status over time. The captains who brought the original communities to unoccupied islands were remembered in stories and family genealogies. In Aotearoa the names of the great vessels were retained in the Maori designations of people and places. In Vanuatu the ancient first arrivals were embedded in the social structure:

The first canoes landed in different places at different times and their members were given power of primacy. … A society’s symbols and structures often refer to the time of its origins and thus record the decisive act of social and political creation. Societies continually reliving their foundation express a dream of unity in the reminder of such earliest times. This is particularly clear in central and southern Vanuatu, where social organisation has modelled on the original canoe voyage and its group of seafarers.3

In the Carolines descent from a famous seafaring family likewise gave status, although not by right of birth only. Glen Petersen notes that birth by itself was not enough to be accepted as a chief; he also had to “undertake the long and rigorous schooling necessary to become a navigator (pelu) in order to enhance his status, [for] birth alone was by no means destiny and voyaging played a central role in the building of personal reputations.”4

The doctrine of high status and primacy of “first arrivals” probably pertained in many places in the earliest periods. It was the basis of land rights and authority. However, as voyagers continued to arrive, conflicting (p.45) claims would arise over land and sea resources, as well as territory. It is likely also that power shifts would occur within communities when there was greater population concentration on agriculture. It is in fact a feature of dual sea/land communities in most places, other than on small islands poor in land resources, that sea people (Fiji: kai wai), whose men spend most of their time fishing and trading away from home, have less potential influence in the community than the more sedentary land people (kai vanua). Over the centuries, the leading mariners and boatbuilders would nevertheless have retained respect. They were vital in the geographical extensions of the spheres of influence of richer islands through their command of the sea in territorial competition.

Expanding Territory

Growth of population and environmental stresses would lead to many attempts by chiefs to extend their territories beyond their own villages and islands. They did so mainly by use of sea power. The early Europeans report that war fleets were operated by high chiefs in Hawai‘i, Tahiti, Tonga, Samoa (Manono Island), Fiji (Lakeba and Bau), and the Carolines and by the Roviana in the Solomons, as well as by several Maori leaders in various parts of Aotearoa. The warships of the drua and kalia class and the great Maori war canoes, together with a breed of skilled mariners, allowed the transport of large numbers of well-provisioned warriors to move with speed and surprise and to threaten or inflict punishment on other islands and coastal areas. Many settlements in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Aotearoa were fortified, and several were moved inland during these periods of strife.

Cook in 1774 was surprised to see a war fleet of canoes in Tahiti:

Upwards of 300 of them all rainged in good order for some distance along the shore all completely equip’d and man’d and a vast crowd of men on the shore … their vessels were decorated with flags, streamers &c so that the whole made a grand and Noble appearance. … Besides these vessels of war there were 170 sail of smaller double canoes all with a little house on them. … These canoes must be designed for transport or victulars or both and to receive wounded men etc.

Cook judged that there were 7,760 men on 330 of these ships, all bound for sea and land action. These numbers greatly impressed him, since the men and vessels all belonged to only two districts. He would like to have (p.46) spent more time with the admiral of the fleet before it sailed and regretted that he had “lost the opportunity of examining more narrowly into a part of the naval force of this island and making myself better acquainted how it acts and is conducted.”5 Cook saw this concentration of force as yet another disaffected chief challenging an existing ruler with a display of naval and military power. He commented on these struggles for primacy between islands in several groups without being able to fully understand the history, kinship, status, and rivalries involved.

In 1796, during the early contact time, Kamehameha I of Hawai‘i also employed a massive fleet in an attempt to bring the linear group of islands under one rule. His power at sea was not sufficient. By 1798 he had built another eight hundred or so specially designed war canoes “capable of carrying many more men than the conventional double hull vessels” and with them “achieved the ambition of uniting the islands.”6

Tonga was another archipelago that for a time experienced interis-land wars. The chiefs of Vava‘u, Ha‘apai, and Tongatapu owned ships, many built in the Lau Islands. Several nobles attempted dominance, but it was the Tupou dynastic families that predominated and also revived some Tongan spheres of influence over hundreds of miles of ocean, including Samoa, parts of Fiji, Rotuma, and Wallis and Futuna.

The Tongan sailors were also sea raiders and mercenaries. The young William Mariner—a survivor of the British privateer Port au Prince, which was destroyed in Tonga in 1806—saw the return of the chief Kau Moala to Tonga after fourteen years of visiting and sea roving. He left for Fiji to, as Mariner says, “mingle in the wars of these people.”7 Destinations of his subsequent voyages included Fiji, Futuna, and Rotuma. Kau Moala returned in a newly built vessel with his crew of thirty-five Tongans, about fifteen of whom were women, as well as three Rotuman women and three men from Futuna. It is recorded also that a Tongan chief sent his two sons in turn on voyages seven hundred miles to Rotuma to exact tribute from this small island.8 Tonga engaged in both conflicts and alliances with parts of Fiji. As late as 1855, R. A. Derrick records that ships from Tonga with “2000 warriors and many of their women folk” arrived in Fiji to support Cakobau, the paramount chief of Bua, in the civil war raging in these islands. On the way to Bua the fleet was joined by ships from Lau, a quasi-independent island group within the Tongan sphere of influence.9

The high fertile island of Lakeba in Lau had grown to an important center of sea power. It lay between Tonga and Fiji, and several islands in the region became subject to Lakeba, including Fuluga, which was rich in the hardwood vesi, used in shipbuilding. The sea region was also hazardous (p.47) for navigation because of its reefs and many small islands exposed to storms. The province of Tui Lakeba thereby became the home of splendid shipbuilders and navigators. John Young writes that “drua and their forerunners enabled the chiefs of Lakeba to extend the area they influenced, and in some cases controlled, by their ability to collect tribute or to pay respect over long distances, in return for food supplies in emergency, alliance in war, or speedy vengeance in adversity.”10 The small island of Bua, which had a military alliance with Lakeba, dominated the coastal regions of eastern Viti Levu and the islands of the Koro Sea from the 1800s until near cession in 1874. Part of its power came from its location, which received foreign trade and foreign seafaring mercenaries, but most of all from the seamanship and ferocity of the Butoni and allied sailors of the island. John Jackson in the mid-nineteenth century describes sailing with a large fleet from all the islands of eastern Fiji, and vessels from Tonga and Wallis Island, to pay homage to the ruler Cakobau on the occasion of delivering a magnificent drua, which had taken seven years to build in Lau.11

Tribute was exacted by other chiefs from their neighbors. In the late eighteenth century the powerful rulers of Tahiti required the people of the coral islands of the Tuamotus to supply “coconuts, fish, birds, pearl shells, dogs and mats.”12 Tribute in this way from the smaller to the more powerful islands may not have always represented subjugation. In practice there would have been several forms of reciprocal benefits. This can be appreciated from the account below, under “Interisland Trade,” of the relations in the Carolines between the high island of Yap and the linear groups of small coral islands extending a thousand miles to the east. The tribute from these islands seems dictated less by threats of punitive action than by the ability of Yap to offer, or refuse, assistance when the poorer islands suffered from famine as a result of hurricanes, droughts, or tsunamis.13

Sometimes the raiding of other islands was driven by famine. Such were the raids from Marquesas to the Tuamotus at times of drought, but these built up into general antagonism and suspicion of strangers. There is a record of people arriving at Kaikura in the Tuamotus from the Marquesas seeking food and all being killed by local inhabitants except for one woman.14 Such hostile receptions were not unusual if sea raiding was remembered or island food resources were limited. Dening cites Edward Roberts, who describes how in 1798 in the Marquesas a strange canoe arrived and was “carried to the Marae [temple] with its contents of men and all, as an offering to the deity.”15

(p.48) In the traditions of some Melanesian islands, sea raiding by fleets of vessels also took more sinister forms, for headhunting, cannibalism, and slavery. The influence of the headhunting Roviana and Simbo sea raiders in the Solomons extended more than three hundred miles around their islands as they “raided far and wide for slaves, some of whom were set to work manufacturing shell money, while others were taken to serve as ceremonial sacrifices. … [T]hey became the terror of the neighbouring islands, especially Ysabel and Choiseul.”16 This was true also of parts of Fiji, including Bau. William Lockerby (1808), J. E. Erskine (1853), and many others describe raids in Fiji for bakola (human flesh for feasts), with “drumbeats announcing the taking of bakola [and] the pennants flying from the masts of victorious canoes signifying bakola on board.”17

There were other groups of islands such as those in Kiribati where resources were so poor and virtually identical that there seemed few motives for interisland conflicts, or even a basis for trade. Periodic outbreaks of fighting nevertheless occurred between village communities on the same atolls and between islands, when they came under population pressures at times of drought or when leaders simply wished to enhance their status. Defeated people could then be driven off an island to seek asylum elsewhere. They could do so with certainty only if they arrived on an island where they would find an ancestral place (boti) in the maneaba. If they failed, there might be little prospect of karokaro (hospitality to a relative).18 Sabatier records that there were more deaths at sea from populations being driven away from an island than by direct warfare. He also details several attacks. One was an attack on Tabiteuea South by a fleet of thirty-seven canoes from Beru, with six hundred warriors and some women. Sabatier also mentioned attacks on Tarawa by Butaritari, and a massacre on Tabiteuea of one thousand people in 1881, although the latter attack had some religious connotation. At this period of European contact, a te booti (European boat) was introduced to Kiribati, along with a crew of five Europeans with guns, all engaged by a chief of Betio Island in Tarawa lagoon. They conquered the rest of Tarawa and the islands of Abaiang and Marakei.19 The Betio chief (Tokitaka) eventually killed the five Europeans and commandeered te booti. Wars then raged in Kiribati using European weapons, until a peace treaty was signed between chiefs on board HMS Royalist in 1892.20

Interisland Trade

While sea raids and wars between rival chieftains in several island groups were occurring, there was also considerable interisland trade, (p.49) often based on kinship, and this was more regular than conflicts. It was evident in early contact times that every community in the Pacific Islands was engaged in some form of trade, and vast numbers of vessels and mariners were employed. Unlike the detailed observations made by visitors on indigenous wars and warships, the comments on the more peaceful sea trading activities give little indication of the geographical extent and the numbers of trading vessels involved. The master of HMS Dolphin, the first European ship to reach Tahiti, noted in 1767 the coming and going of great vessels with all streamers flying, but what they were carrying, and where they were coming from and going, he could not tell.21 Erskine in the mid-nineteenth century wrote, “Feejeeans have a decided turn for commerce, a constant internal trade being carried on in their own canoes, which we constantly saw either arriving or sailing, heavily laden with bales of cloth, rolls of cordage, and quantities of earthen pots.”22

What Robertson on the Dolphin saw in Tahiti and Erskine observed in Fiji was probably true of every part of the Pacific. Many of the networks of trade that have been historically documented, and those still extant, no doubt grew out of more ancient relationships. Such exchange activities between islands were based on multiple factors. There was a complementarity of natural resources, and many populations acquired specializations in production. But the actual directions and generation of movements involved kinship ceremonies and life crisis events, what Hocart has termed “the paths of feasts and gifts.”23 A good deal of exchanges were obligatory with immediate or deferred reciprocity and were often built around insurances against catastrophic occurrences. There were also systems akin to barter and currency-related transactions. None of these trading activities was mutually exclusive of others, and together they produced complex patterns of movements of goods, people, and services. There were in addition linkages from the maritime sector into the portage trading chains of inland communities, and by canoe along the great Fly and Sepik rivers in New Guinea and the Rewa and Sigatoka in Fiji.

In the webs of sea trading, nodal islands emerged where goods from several places were stored and ships called on a multilateral trading basis. These included the islands of Moce and Lakeba in Lau and the geographically central islands of the Siassi people in the Vitiaz Strait between New Guinea and New Britain.24 Specific villages in turn had central place values that gave them prominence in trade, such as Kaduwaga in the Trobriand Islands, whose name means “water-land-place of boats.”25 A location adjacent to a deep-water pass into a lagoon was particularly valuable as a trading center. Such places prospered even more if they had tenure over the marine resources of these nutrient-rich passes, with, among other fishing (p.50) assets, the giant clams that thrive in these channels. Many retained such locational advantages into the modern trading period.

The island trading systems were sometimes supported by specialists who engaged in the carriage of goods and people on behalf of several communities. Commander Charles Wilkes described the itinerant traders of Fiji as having no fixed place of residence,26 and the Reverend Thomas Williams remarked on the seafaring Levukans who conducted much of the trade of central and eastern Lau.27 Likewise the Siassi people of the Vitiaz Strait islands had rights over carriage and obtained their livelihood as seafarers and traders.28 It has been shown for the Carolines that part of the reciprocity that the primary chiefs of Yap Island received for providing refuge and resources to distressed coral island people was the services of skilled seafarers and navigators of the small islands. They made voyages between Yap and Palau to obtain stone coin money vital for Yap as a store of wealth.29

Examples of Island Maritime Trading Systems

Essential Tools

Sea trade was apparent from the earliest settlements of the Pacific. Stone tools, which were vital for the first sea migrants, are identified with their places of origin. Even on high islands the igneous rocks were not always suitable for toolmaking, which required fine-grained basalt and obsidian. The widespread finds of such tools in graves show that the sea trade in these items must have been plentiful and frequent in the near Pacific. Obsidian was also traded over open sea passages from New Britain to Santa Cruz eastward and Sabah westward, and as far as Fiji and New Caledonia via several islands over a distance of 1,500 miles. Farther east, vessels sailed from the northern Cooks to Samoa for basalt, and from the Tuamotus to the Society Islands to obtain stone tools. Trade in these essential implements was multilateral, as they passed between high islands and from high to low islands and between the low coral islands.30

Essential Lifelines

Maintaining linkages between islands was sometimes a matter of life and death. Gladwin describes these in the Carolines: “Dozens of islands stretched over a thousand miles of ocean from Yap on the west to Truk and the islands beyond on the east have been linked by their seafaring men and their sailing canoes into a network of social, economic, and often political ties without which they probably could not have survived.”31 (p.51) These small islands of the Carolines are vulnerable to typhoons, which cause island-wide destruction of trees and crops. Tsunamis occur periodically, and islands can disappear underwater for hours with, among other dire consequences, a loss of fresh water as well as food. Harold Weins quotes an old song from Ifalik Island:

  • Men are taking wing
  • Flying in all directions
  • To islands were there is food
  • and trees standing.32

The custom of providing hospitality and immediate refuge by each of these islands was built on trading relationships and intermarriage. All of the 550 islets and islands in the Caroline group were linked by many vessels and seafarers. The main islands had sea-lanes between them, each of which was named and whose sailing directions were memorized, including star courses and seamarks. With their fast outriggers, the highly skilled seafarers of the Carolines efficiently knit all these small islands into a single entity. The vast sea space was thereby as much a part of the homeland for the populations as their islands, lagoons, and reefs.

Of equal importance for mutual assistance between islands was the role of the island of Yap. Lying on the western periphery of the Carolines, Yap is a large, high, fertile island. The chiefs of the district Gagil on Yap had primacy in the island, and their influence extended eastward for about a thousand miles. All the small islands paid regular tribute to Yap and thereby acknowledged the status of the chiefs, but the island also served the purpose of trade and provided guarantees of food and shelter after a disaster. The annual sawei tribute, or trading system, saw vessels leaving from the eastward islands and following the sea-lanes to every other island in turn, where more vessels would join the fleet on the way to Yap. The flotilla would carry people, woven fibers, sennit, spondylus, turtle shells, and mother-of-pearl. At Yap they would received hospitality and leave with cargoes of turmeric, whetstones, and orangewood.

The sawei was regarded as not being entirely an act of submission. It was more a means of cementing bonds between vulnerable low islands and the richer high islands of Yap. In quantity, the exchanges seemed to be greatly in favor of the poorer islands. This gave prestige to Yap, but it also enabled the leading inhabitants of Yap, who became primarily land people, to receive as reciprocity assistance of the Caroline seafarers in making the three-hundred-mile voyage to Palau for the fei stone currency (p.52) (comprising wheels of argonite). This was required by the dominant clan on Yap as a conspicuous representation of their wealth, as well as for redistribution by them to lesser chiefs to maintain peace and allegiances. At Palau the Caroline seafarers would load the yellow limestone fei disks, some weighing more than one hundred kilograms, onto large Yapese bamboo rafts (fofoot), which they would then tow with skill behind their sailing craft through the Pacific swells to Yap.33 As well as the reciprocal obligations to carry out these voyages, they would have been reminded that the renowned Yapese sorcery could devastate their home islands with storms and typhoons if their tributes were not met.34

The Caroline mariners made other trading voyages hundreds of miles northward to Guam and the islands of the Marianas and also sought kinship refuge there during periods of famine. In the eighteenth century they were employed by the Spanish colonizers in these islands as pilots, sailors, and traders and as carriers of government dispatches throughout the region. Hezel records, “By the time the French and Russian naval ships began making their calls at Guam, a flotilla of Carolinian outriggers in the harbor had become a familiar sight there.”35

Complementary Trade

Differences in resources and specialization in production gave rise to more naturally reciprocal trade between high and low islands. The former were often great yam and taro producers and manufacturers of bark cloth, sennit, and pottery, whereas the latter produced pandanus for matting sails and hardwoods for shipbuilding. In places such as Lakeba, with its political control of Lau, it was possible to combine resource inputs and skills from several islands to specialize in shipbuilding and to exchange these vessels in distant areas for other products. However, in most islands, craft specializations went beyond resource endowments. Buell Quain has described how the Fijian village of Nakoroko in Vanua Levu specialized in mat making at the expense of all else and depended on trade to maintain a balanced supply of goods.36 The people of Vuna concentrated on the production of lampblack (for tattooing) and would trade this for nets on the island of Taveuni and exchange these for bark cloth from Lau.37

There are many such examples of local specialization that enabled islands producing craft goods to trade widely. Marshall Sahlins observes, “Moalan women make several kinds of sleeping and floor mats, but it is Gau that is known for the special double-thickness floor mats very much desired in other islands. Moalan women certainly have the material and skills necessary to make the kinds of mats imported from Gau. There are (p.53) women from Gau who have married into Moala and who could practice and disseminate the techniques—yet they do not.”38 These traditions of specialization have the effects of maximizing local skills and achieving economies of scale, as well as giving many islands opportunities to trade widely in times of need. This process also generated very large volumes of vessel movements between islands in complex networks.

Kinship Obligations

Many of the trading voyages were closely directed on a kinship basis, including long-distance marriage parties between Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. There were even more frequent and bigger events within archipelagic groups. The Fijian solevu is typical of a range of such kinship-related gatherings and exchanges. It starts with messages being sent to an island or specific village by a related group of people to arrange a ceremonial exchange. This cannot easily be refused. Both sides start preparing the solevu over months or even years before the event.

Major solevu involved large parties on fleets of vessels carrying enormous quantities of goods. On arrival at the island, the boat parties would be welcomed and would arrange the piles of goods to be presented. The hosts would do likewise. After a feast, orators would declaim how they had worked day and night to produce all the cloth, mats, wooden bowls, and other items as “a means of cementing them together in eternal friendship.”39 These speeches would be accompanied by the passing backward and forward of whales’ teeth (tabua) to each other. The women of the visiting party would present their mats and tapa, and the men their tanoas, headrests, and other wooden articles, as well as pigs. The next day, the hosts would do likewise. Feasting, dancing, singing, and drinking yaqona would continue for several days, until the visiting party departed on vessels loaded with gifts. The party that showed the most generosity would win the greatest prestige. (Chapter 10 provides a detailed account of a modern solevu voyage).

On a smaller scale, but widespread in terms of reciprocal obligations between related people, there were, and still are, such customs as kerekere in Fiji, kolo in Tonga, bubuti in Kiribati, and faka molemole in Tuvalu. These are more hand-to-hand exchanges, as, for example, when sailors return with goods from elsewhere that are requested by relatives, or when a good fisherman unloads his catch and relatives bubuti parts of it. These traditions have an effect of achieving equality of food and material possessions within the extended family. The giver acquires status in this way rather than by the accumulation of wealth. (p.54)

Religious and Ceremonial

In island societies before European colonization, long voyages were made to obtain articles of ceremonial significance. The art of navigation, skills in vessel construction, and tattooing were all practiced in combination with religious rituals involving exotic articles.40 Of great significance for precontact religious observance were red bird feathers for the decoration of images in the worship of Oro, the son of the major sea god Tangaroa. Vessels made voyages from the Marquesas to Rarotonga for these feathers, and they were carried by marriage parties between Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa. In Melanesia, red feathers were a means of exchange in the Santa Cruz region.

Captain Cook was impressed by the importance of such religious and ceremonial articles sought for over great distances. When he was leaving Tahiti in 1774 bound for Tonga, the king, Cook said, “importuned me very much to take one or two [men] to collect red feathers for him.”41 During his third voyage in 1777, Cook was presented in Tonga with “cap[e]s covered with red feathers.” He was very willing to accept these gifts, knowing they would be “highly valued at Otaheite.”42 He had already been surprised by the value placed on such ceremonial articles when he first arrived on Aotearoa in 1769. Among all the wonders on board the Endeavour, the Maori visitors to the ship wanted the bark cloth from Tahiti, which “they valued more than anything we could give them.”43

The most documented account of voyages for exchanges of ceremonial articles that have survived into modern times is that of the Kula ring. This is conducted around the Trobriand and related islands of southeast New Guinea by outrigger vessels specially constructed and ornately carved and decorated for the purpose (although nowadays often by motorboats). Circular voyages are made in stages between two or more islands and village trading partners. Those carrying decorated shell armbands sail counter-clockwise, and those with necklaces of red spondylus shell clockwise. The trading parties hold temporary ownership of the sacred items before passing them on to other partners as they move over limited legs of their respective sailing cycles. It is known that non-Kula utilitarian bartering also takes place during the Kula voyages but is subservient to the rituals of peace and relationships.44

Barter and Currency

The Hiri trading systems in Papua New Guinea have a strong barter element, although not devoid of ceremony. The women of the Motu maritime people of the New Guinea coast in the vicinity of Port Moresby have (p.55) traditionally produced clay pots for trade. Each October, under the prevailing southeast winds, men and women departed on fleets of twenty to thirty loaded double-hulled lakatoi vessels for the 180-mile voyage along the coast, westward to the Gulf of Papua. They traded there with the people of the Purari Delta and other rivers for sago, as well as for tobacco and betel nut. In this trade the Motu for centuries also carried stone axes, which they had received from hill people in their hinterland in exchange for sago. The Hiri trading system bridged several linguistic boundaries and gave rise to a regional seafaring and trading language that persists. The Motu would remain with the people of the estuaries, and there would be ceremonies and marriages, and during this time they would construct new lakatoi vessels for the return voyage when the westerly winds came in January.45

As well as barter, various forms of currency have been in use in Melanesia as the means of exchange and as stores of wealth that embody the values of other articles. The Yap Island stone disk was one such regional currency, as were porpoise teeth and cowry and other shells representing objects akin to money, which moved also from the coast to inland markets. In the New Guinea highlands pig tusks were a medium of exchange and bride-price, and in the Solomons strings of red and white shell disks were widely used. In Fiji, whales’ teeth (tabua) accompanied ceremonial exchanges but could not be construed as currency. They were very symbolic and valuable in many other ways to the community.

Women as Sea Traders

Many of the articles of trade were produced by women such as pandanus mats, baskets, bark cloth, pottery, woven loincloth, sennit, and sails for vessels. Women sometimes led the trading parties on both sides and made sea voyages for marriage and mortuary occasions, and major ceremonies such as the solevu. They travelled as passengers, although the missionary Thomas Williams, writing in 1870 of Fiji, remarks that women had an important role as traders and ordinary seamen.46

Women often carried the items of exchange for presentation at ceremonials, as they do today in modern interisland exchanges (see chapter 10). Their roles in more precarious peace-maintaining exchanges between sea and land people on the beach were noted in 1886 by the British resident commissioner of the Solomon Islands Protectorate: “The actual bartering is done by the women, who advance one towards another, the island woman with the fish, and the bush woman with yams or taro, while the men stand on guard on either side with spears and rifles.”47 Matthew (p.56) Cooper, writing of the maritime Langalanga people of the Solomons, notes, “a Peace-of-the-Market and institutionalized trading partnerships persisted even in times of general hostility.”48

These island trading systems were ceremonial and utilitarian. They helped maintain peace and promote intermarriage. Multilateral trade contributed to balancing resources and could respond to needs during times of crisis. The voyages were also a means of communication. On arrival, a navigator might meet with chiefs at a marae, a maneaba, or a canoe house and talk about the voyage, other islands, and general news. A small island that lay outside these networks of friendship, trading, and help could have problems of survival when meeting challenges of environmental, economic, social, or hostile shocks. Several such islands were occupied during the latter stages of the general diaspora across the vastness of the northwest and southeast Pacific.

Trade and Survival on Isolated Small Islands

Irwin has identified twenty-seven islands that were “empty at [European] contact but showed traces of earlier occupation.”49 Some of these were no doubt either way stations between major groups or simply temporary camps. Some others were nearly viable but were dependent on trade to balance resource requirements. An example can be drawn from the group of Mangareva, Pitcairn, and Henderson, which lie on average one thousand miles southeast of Tahiti.

Mangareva had quite good soil, reef resources, and trees but lacked vital quality stone for tools. Pitcairn, some three hundred miles southeast of Mangareva, was agriculturally poor and lacked coral reefs. It was also deficient in shells for deep-sea fishhooks but had excellent obsidian for adzes. The low coral island of Henderson, about a hundred miles north-east of Pitcairn, was well endowed with birdlife, reef resources, and turtles but lacked good land and quality stone. Excavations indicate these islands traded together from about AD 1000 to 1450. Mangareva, the largest of the three, was also periodically linked by long-distance sea trade with the Society Islands and Marquesas through the Tuamotu Archipelago.

For reasons that remain uncertain, Mangareva experienced adverse upheavals, which included civil war, deforestation, loss of shipbuilding, and consequently loss of trade. For the two small trade-dependent islands at the end of the line, that meant disaster, and they were depopulated by about AD 1500. The larger Mangareva population partially survived with difficulties. Henderson was never permanently reoccupied, and Pitcairn (p.57) became settled again only after the Bounty mutineers arrived in 1790, attracted by its very isolation.

A more extreme case of isolation and loss of sea transport was Rapa Nui, which was colonized between AD 1000 and 1200. There is no evidence of any subsequent contacts from or to the island. The first known external link was the ship of Jacob Roggeveen in 1722. He estimated the population to be between two and three thousand. Cook arrived in 1774 and managed to obtain a few sweet potatoes and some sugarcane, but he described the water supply as brackish and stinking. The island, he said, was very barren, with few birds and no trees. He estimated the population as six to seven hundred. Rapa Nui is without coral reef. Its inhabitants could have engaged in sea fishing, but Cook saw only three very mean narrow canoes with outriggers.

Cook could not identify any evidence of sea transport by which the Rapa Nui people could reach such a remote place. A possible clue is found in his description of some of the houses as “low, long and narrow,” with “much the appearance of a large boat turned bottom up.” He measured one as sixty feet in length and eight to nine feet high in the middle.50 What he possibly witnessed were symbolic remembrances in the landscape of the vessels that had brought the people to the island. The gunwale lines representing upturned boats (hare paenga) can still be seen on the ground, usually at the landward sides of the moai (stone statues). These boatlike structures are considered to have once been the houses of chiefly families, while the common people lived in cruder huts farther inland.51 There are also a few very large hare paenga close to the sea at good landing places, the significance of which is open to interpretation (figure 3.1).52

How and why Rapa Nui people lost their seagoing ships and navigational skills have also been matters of research and speculation. Human destruction of the environment, and especially deforestation, rat consumption of palm nuts and bird’s eggs, territorial disputes, and the diversion of resources and human efforts to quarrying, transporting, and erecting the statues, and then toppling them in wars are all postulated. Another possible factor is the effects of climatic change (AD 1300–1450), which saw the “destruction of elaborate terrace systems”53 and related agricultural loss and social disintegration. However, prolonged isolation from social and economic linkages by sea, in what became virtually a cul-de-sac in Polynesian voyaging, must also figure in the apparent decline.

Another potential cul-de-sac, because of its distance of over 1,600 miles from the Polynesian heartland, was Aotearoa. The competent mariners who worked their vessels from the tropics through the adverse (p.58)

Settlements, Territories, and Trade

Figure 3.1 A resident archaeologist on Easter Island, leading a party from the MV Discovery, anchored off. The site is the foundation of an ancient house structure designed along the lines of the inverted hull of a vessel (hare paenga) at a possible beach arrival place.

(Photograph by the author, 2006)

westerlies eventually arrived at a very different environment in temperate latitudes. The coconuts, breadfruit, and banana plants they may have carried would not have ripened. Return voyages to the home islands would have been equally difficult, although there is some evidence of such voyages being undertaken. The major differences with Rapa Nui were the size and diversity of Aotearoa, which, as with isolated Hawai‘i, made it internally (p.59) sustainable. Seasonal and environmental diversity gave rise to coastwise trade between various regions of Aotearoa, but there were also territorial competition, intertribal wars, and the building of fortified villages.

The fortitude and courage of the founding seafaring ancestors of Aotearoa were bred into traditions of ihi (fearlessness), as Cook learned from his very first contacts with the Maori in 1769. He wanted to stop two boats at sea crewed by young men. To impress them with gunfire and exert his naval authority, he ordered “a musket to be fired over their heads thinking that this would either make them surrender or jump over-board, but here I was mistaken for they immediately took to their arms or whatever they had in the boat and began to attack us.”54

Cook and the other European mariners who arrived in the Pacific could not fully explain the similar cultural traditions of many indigenous societies, nor comprehend the size and complexities of their maritime trading networks. These new arrivals in the Pacific have been the subject of a substantial body of literature discussing the misunderstandings, violence, and subsequent agreements that took place with the island peoples. Without overduplication, it is necessary in this maritime account to reconsider the relationships between European sailors and local maritime communities. (p.60)


(1.) R. Gerard Ward and Muriel Brookfield, “The Dispersal of the Coconut: Did It Float or Was It Carried to Panama?” Journal of Biogeography 19 (1992): 467–479. See also P. S. Dale and P. A. Maddison, “Transport Services as an Aid to Insect Dispersal in the South Pacific,” in Commerce and the Spread of Pest and Disease Vectors, ed. Laird Marshall (New York: Praeger Scientific, 1984), 225–256.

(2.) M. S. McGlone, A. J. Anderson, and R. N. Holdaway, “An Ecological Approach,” in The Origins of the First New Zealanders, ed. Douglas G. Sutton (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1994), 140.

(4.) Glen Petersen, “Indigenous Island Empires: Yap and Tonga Compared,” Journal of Pacific History 35 (2000): 5–22.

(5.) J. C. Beaglehole, ed., The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961), 385–386.

(7.) John Martin, ed., An Account of the Natives of the Tongan Islands, by William Mariner, 2 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1817–1818).

(8.) Greg Dening, “The Geographical Knowledge of the Polynesians and the Nature of Inter-Island Contact,” in Golson, Polynesian Navigation, 123.

(10.) John Young, “Lau: A Windward Perspective,” Journal of Pacific History 28 (1993):165.

(11.) John Jackson, “Feejeean Islands,” appendix to Journal of a Cruise among the Islands of the Western Pacific, ed. J. E. Erskine (Edinburgh: John Murray, 1853), 452–453.

(13.) Paul D’Arcy, “Connected by the Sea: Towards a Regional History of the Western Caroline Islands,” Journal of Pacific History 36, no. 2 (2001): 163–182; and Petersen, “Indigenous Island Empires,” 6–17.

(15.) Greg Dening, ed., The Marquesan Journal of Edward Roberts, 1797–1824 (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1974), 180–181.

(16.) Peter Corris, Passage, Port and Plantation: A History of Solomon Island Labour Migration 1870–1914 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1973), 18. There is controversy over the extent in the past of cannibalism in the Pacific, many reports being considered exaggerated and ascribed to missionaries.

(17.) Fiji is a case in point. Marshall Sahlins provides a major contribution to the debate by reviewing the accounts of bakola in Fiji, leaving little doubt regarding the extent and veracity of most of the reports. See Sahlins, “Making Up Cannibalism?” Anthropology Today 19, no. 3 (2003): 44.

(18.) H. E. Maude, The Evolution of the Gilbertese Boti, Polynesian Society Memoir 35 (Wellington, New Zealand, 1963), 51.

(20.) M. Baraniko, T. Taam, and N. Tabokai, in Kiribati Aspects of History (Tarawa: Ministry of Education, Training and Culture, 1984), 44–64.

(21.) H. Carrington, ed., The Discovery of Tahiti: A Journal of the Second Voyage of HMS Dolphin round the World, under the Command of Captain Wallis, RN in the Years 1766, 1767 and 1768, by George Robertson (London: Hakluyt Society, 1948), 222.

(26.) Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition in the Years 1838–1842 (Ridgewood, NJ: Gregg Press, 1970), 362.

(27.) T. Williams, Fiji and the Fijians (London: Hodder and Singleton, 1870), 40.

(30.) Bellwood, Polynesians, 51. See also Marshall I. Weisler, ed., Prehistoric Long-Distance Interaction in Oceania: An Interdisciplinary Approach, New Zealand Archaeological Association Monograph 21, Auckland, 1997.

(32.) Harold J. Weins, Atoll Environment and Ecology (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1962), 182.

(33.) D’Arcy, “Connected by the Sea,” 165–169. See also D’Arcy, People of the Sea (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006), 144–163.

(36.) Buell Quain, Fijian Villages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), 173.

(38.) Marshall D. Sahlins, Moala: Culture and Nature on a Fijian Island (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), 422.

(40.) Ben R. Finney, “Experimental Voyaging, Oral Traditions and Long-Distance Interaction in Polynesia,” in Prehistoric Long-Distance Interaction in Polynesia: An Interdisciplinary Approach, ed. Marshall I. Weisler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 72–73.

(42.) Ibid., 473.

(43.) Ibid., 81.

(48.) Matthew Cooper, “Economic Context of Shell Money Production in Malaita,” Oceania 41, no. 4 (1971): 270. The maintenance of peace may also have been the basis for the enormous scale of Arioi touring parties in Tahiti (D’Arcy, People of the Sea, 58–59).

(50.) Beaglehole, Journals of Captain James Cook (1961), 2:352, 357.

(51.) Jared Diamond, Collapse (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 80–135, provides a summary of archaeological results in Mangareva, adjacent islands, and Easter Island.

(52.) From my visit to Rapa Nui during February 2006, as lecturer with the BBC History Magazine team on MV Discovery.

(54.) Beaglehole, Journals of Captain James Cook (1955), 1:170.