Intellectually speaking, I seem to be working my way back through time. When I first went to Australia in the mid-1980s and got my first taste of the South Pacific, my plan was to read contemporary Australian literature. But then I found that in order to understand Australian stories, I had to know something about Australian history and that, in turn, meant understanding British colonial history and before I knew it I was back in the 18th century, where, to my surprise, I felt right at home.
Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All was my attempt to make some observations about the kinds of colonial encounters that had taken place, not just in New Zealand but mostly there, in the late 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. It was also, of course, the story of how I went to the Pacific as a young woman and returned with a Maori husband and, eventually, three sons.
There is a chapter in that book called “Hawaiki” which prefigures the project on which we are now embarked. This chapter looks deeper into the past, not just hundreds but even thousands of years, back to the original settlement of the Pacific by the ancestors of today’s Polynesians.
Long before Europeans had caught so much as a glimpse of the Pacific, the great ocean had already been crisscrossed by ancient navigators who found and settled its many islands using nothing more than their understanding of the sea and the stars. They had no compasses, no logbooks, no writing even, no metal tools, none of the things that later navigators would depend on, and yet they explored and colonized a region of more than ten million square miles. They were, I think it is safe to say, the greatest seafarers of all time.
I have known about this story for a while, but a few years ago I began to think seriously about it, which in turn prompted me to think about trying to get funding for a sustained period of research. In my experience, research funding is like rain in the desert: nothing, nothing, nothing, and then a whole lot all at once. And so it was this time: after several vain attempts with various institutions, I got two grants at once, one from the Literature Board of the Australia Council and one from the NEA.
So that is how we come to be making this mad dash across the Pacific: 5 people, 8 weeks, 11 islands. For me, it’s a chance to see places I’ve never seen and to gather material for Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia. For Seven and the boys, who are after all Polynesian, it’s maybe even more intriguing: a chance to see what the term “Polynesian” might actually mean. What they make of the places and people we meet is one of the mysteries of the journey. Personally, I think they have one of the coolest histories out there, but who knows how persuasively being there will actually bring that home.