- Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging
Nobody has done more than Ben Finney to develop modern Polynesian voyaging. His vision of experimental sailing coupled with a revival of cultural pride amongst Polynesians, the one the vehicle of the other, first attained shape with the construction of Nalehia in 1965 and later blossomed with the famous Hōkūle'a. Finney has been the intellectual mentor, driving force, and international public face of the project for 40 years—a remarkable achievement. This is his third book on the project, and it brings the history up to date by describing the construction and sailing of Hawai'iloa and of the various canoes from elsewhere in Polynesia that the Hawaiian project has inspired. The main events described are the canoe regatta associated with the Sixth Festival of Pacific Arts in Rarotonga, 1992, and the passages of many of the same canoes from the Marquesas to Hawai'i in 1995. The 1999 voyage to Easter Island is mentioned briefly in an epilogue.
Finney writes an engaging narrative that is concerned mainly with chronicling the successes and failures of the modern vessels and voyages. It is to his credit that despite the explicitly improving objectives of the project, he does not shrink from recording the tantrums, bad decisions, and other lapses along the way. These enliven the text, and the book will appeal to the broad readership for which it is more clearly intended than the Polynesian specialist.
For the latter, Finney's recounting of the later history of the voyaging project is valuable, although details of vessel construction and sailing trials are few. In the wider context, however, some disquiet may be felt. Finney has not kept up to date with the archaeology and indigenous politics that he discusses here and there in the book. For example, in describing the loss of traditional Māori lands, he neglects to mention that since 1975 the Waitangi Tribunal has done much to redress earlier wrongs. As a result, my own tribe, Ngai Tahu, now commands assets of around half a billion dollars. More pertinently—and in the light of the project aims, more fundamentally—he declines to address the various criticisms that have been leveled at the voyaging project throughout the years and especially recently. These center on the incompatibility of the original objectives, described as"an effort in cultural revival as well as an experiment in voyaging" (p. 10). They have never rubbed along well, and too often the scientific experiment has been compromised in the interests of cultural pride. [End Page 126]
This is apparent throughout the book. For instance, Hawai'iloa was meant to answer some of the criticisms of Hōkūle'a by construction entirely in traditional materials, but it ended up with spruce hulls and modern lashings, rigging, and sails, as tests of sennit and pandanus disclosed that these were too weak to be used in voyaging. But surely, isn't that the point? If my Mitsubishi station wagon cannot do 200 mph unless I install a Ferrari engine, then doing so could hardly validate my inflated sense of its potential speed; if reconstructed vessels can only sail as desired with modern materials in critical areas, then they cannot validate various propositions about prehistoric voyaging. Hawaikinui, similarly, abandoned its original traditionally cut sails and opted for those of a modern yacht, while some canoes have chosen nontraditional gunter rigs and often added headsails as well. The voyages, too, do not inspire confidence in the conclusions for prehistory that are drawn from them. In the Rarotongan gathering, the Atiu canoe capsized at the beginning, the Mitiaro and Aitutaki canoes were towed part of the way, and the Mangaian canoe made an accidental passage that left its captain and escort vessel behind. The irony of these events was lost on the Cook Islands premier who, as Finney reports, welcomed the eventual gathering of the crews by roundly condemning Andrew Sharp.
Yet in experimental terms, the voyaging project has failed to dispose of...