Migration by sea in the south Pacific: 2000 BC – AD 800
Probably at first more by accident than design, the islands of the south Pacific are reached by people sailing or drifting from southeast Asia. The first to be settled are those immediately to the east of New Guinea and Australia – the region given in modern times the name of Melanesia, because of the dark skins of the inhabitants (from the Greek melas black and nesos island). The pottery of the early settlers links them with the people of the Moluccas.
In around 1300 BC seafarers make the longest step so far in this process and reach Fiji, a group of islands intermediate between Melanesia and Polynesia.
The Pacific islanders develop a twin-hulled sailing canoe which is an extremely effective sea-going vessel. In boats of this kind they continue the process of spreading eastwards through Polynesia (Greek polus many, nesos island). The first staging posts are Tonga and Samoa.
The earliest surviving trace of human occupation in these islands is about 420 BC in Tonga and 200 BC in Samoa. But colonists are likely to have arrived considerably earlier than this, since by the 1st century BC humans have reached the much more inaccessible Marquesas Islands.
The final thrust, to the most remote island groups of the Pacific, takes place from the Marquesas. Hawaii is reached in about AD 400; Easter Island perhaps a century later; Tahiti and the Society Islands in about 600.
The last great step in man’s colonization of the planet involves the longest sea journey of all – thousands of miles southwest from the Marquesas or Tahiti to New Zealand. This is accomplished in about AD 800.
Easter Island: 6th – 18th century AD
The famous statues on Easter Island are first described in 1722, the year in which the Dutch admiral Jacob Roggeveen visits and names the island on Easter Day. They must have been carved over a long period, for there are about 600 of them, between 10 and 20 feet high, with the largest weighing some 50 tons. They may have been created at any time between the first arrival of people on the island, probably in about AD 500, and the visit of the Dutch in the 18th century.
The huge investment of labour in these production-line figures is an extreme example of the religious compulsion behind much primitive art.
The statues consist of massive heads, each on a sketchily carved top half of a body. The heads all have the same features – prominent noses, square jaws, deep-set eyes and long spaniel ears. Probably representing ancestors, they are designed to stand facing inland on ceremonial burial platforms, where the dead are exposed and their bones subsequently interred.
The material of the sculptures is an easily worked stone, formed originally of compressed ash, cut from Rano-raraku – one of the three extinct volcanoes on the island.
It is evident from the quarry on Rano-raraku that the figures are carved in the round from the rock face, and are not cut loose until nearly complete. The islanders have no metal, so the work is done with stone chisels – several of which have been found at the site.
Local tradition says that the statues are dragged to their destinations around the island, using rope from indigenous hemp and with round pebbles to serve as rollers. They are probably jacked into an upright position by means of an earth ramp and gradual excavation from below the figure’s base – in a method similar to that of ancient Egypt.
Terra Australis: 16th-18th century
From the early 16th century European merchants are sailing the seas of southeast Asia. Often they make unexpected landfall, raising hopes of unknown territories rich in gold, silver or spice. The discovery of the Solomon Islands by a Spanish vessel in 1568 prompts interest in a so-called Terra Australis Incognita (‘unknown southern land’). Part of the brief given to Francis Drake, when he sets off in 1577 to sail across the Pacific, is that he should search for this supposed land of treasure.
Interest is maintained in the early 17th century when Dutch ships, sailing to and from the Moluccas, sight stretches of the western Australian coast. Are these places perhaps connected to the southern land?
The governor general of the Dutch East Indies, Antonio van Diemen, decides to investigate. He chooses for the purpose an experienced navigator, Abel Tasman, who is instructed to sail far south in the Indian Ocean and then to strike east, hoping to discover whether there is an open passage to South America. In the process he may also perhaps discover Terra Australis.
Tasman leaves Batavia in August 1642. He sails to Mauritius before continuing south and then east. He first makes landfall in November. He calls the place Van Diemen’s Land, after the governor who has appointed him. Not until 1856 is the island renamed Tasmania, in honour of its discoverer.
Keeping to the southern coast of this large island, Tasman continues eastwards. In December he reaches New Zealand. Sailing northeast along the coast of both South and North Island, he concludes that this must be the northwest corner of Terra Australis. Tasman discovers Tonga in January 1643, and the Fiji islands in February. He then continues northwest, passing north of New Guinea and returning to Batavia in June.
Remarkably, in his ten-month voyage, Tasman has sailed all the way round the real Terra Australis without noticing it. It will be another century before the continent of Australia is properly discovered and charted.
Discovery of the Pacific islands: 18th century AD
During the 18th century the maritime powers of northwest Europe make an increasingly coherent effort to discover which remote islands may be lurking in the middle of the vast Pacific. Dutch, French and English vessels undertake voyages of discovery, gradually filling in the map.
Islands are regularly discovered during the century. Among the better known, Easter Island is reached by the Dutch in 1722, Tahiti by the English in 1767, the New Hebrides by the French in 1768, and New Caledonia and Hawaii by the English (in the person of Captain Cook) in 1774 and 1778.
The discovery of the islands by Europeans coincides with and contributes to a romantic theme developing in European literary fashion in the second half of the 18th century. The islanders, untouched by any outside influence, are for the most part warm, friendly and open – a famous characteristic of the Pacific region even today. They have a brilliant tradition of wood carving. They appear to live elegant and relatively gentle lives.
They are, in other words, exactly what a certain school of romantic thought, associated in particular with Jean Jacques Rousseau, might expect them to be – noble savages, uncorrupted by the evils of civilization. (It is not in fact a theme which Rousseau himself develops, and the term ‘noble savage’ was coined in 1670 by Dryden.)
The islanders also soon attract the eager attention of another very different group of Europeans – a new breed of English missionaries, committed to taking the Protestant faith to savages as yet unaware of the truth. A spate of missionary societies are founded in London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The first to arrive in the Pacific is the London Missionary Society, with an expedition to Tahiti in 1797. The islands become a favourite region for gospel work, well before the similar effort in Africa. And as in Africa, the missionary presence proves a prelude to the entire region being divided up between the colonial powers later in the 19th century.