© Brian Hooker 2006.
A Sharp rebuttal to the "Origins of
the first New Zealanders"
The purpose of this article is three-fold: to denounce some of the fallacious
assertions concerning Andrew Sharp and his views published in various papers in
The Origins of the First New Zealanders (1994), to enlarge on the central point
of Sharp's theory, and to briefly review the mathematical and astronomical
foundations of geography and navigation.
Some scholars believe that new research invalidates Sharp's theory but in
reality the crux of his statement, which is concerned with fundamental
navigational issues, is impossible to flaw. Geoffrey Irwin correctly sums up the
views of a number of recent writers as follows:
||The tide of information and opinion has moved against many of Sharp's views,
It is true that a new generation of researchers has moved away from many of
Sharp's beliefs but "the tide of information" is a misleading phrase. The
so-called information on ancient navigation methods consists of suggestions
built into old theories and put forward by modern experimenters who have no
comprehension of the state of geographical and astronomical knowledge, which
existed among Pacific peoples a thousand or more years ago. No firm evidence is
known which supports a theory that Polynesians engaged in long-distance
navigation. Sharp summarised the notion as follows:
||… I am driven to the conclusion that
most people who cherish this belief do so for unconscious emotional
rather than scientific reasons. These reasons are that the belief
appeals to the romanticism, that it was taught to them at school,
that it is flattering to the modern Polynesians, that many people
have propounded it in the past, and that the modern believers have
said it or written it. (Sharp 1970:19).
| Recent promotion of unrealistic views
Authors of papers in The Origins of the First New Zealanders are not the only
scholars to promote, in recent times, unrealistic views on long-distance
navigation by Polynesians. Anne Salmond, in her book Two Worlds, is cautious on
the subject but is obviously impressed by recent references to long-distance
navigated voyages (Salmond 1991:28). Not so cautious and a firm believer in the
long-distance navigation theory is Tom Davis who makes the following bold
statement in his autobiography Island Boy:
| The Polynesian navigator's starting
point was his reference point, which is just
as valid as using a Mercator chart and expressing one's
starting point in
Latitude and Longitude from Greenwich. (Davis 1992: 73)
If Polynesians understood basic geographic principles and the mathematics of the
problem, Davis' suggestion is sound but the discussion below under the
sub-heading "Latitude and longitude," exposes Davis' statement as meaningless.
Ranganui Walker, in his book Struggle Without End, expresses fanciful views and
credits Sharp with statements he never made. (Walker 1990:24-28)
In a book which has received a fair amount of favourable comment to date, Irwin
argues that Pacific people had a position-fixing system which did not need
instruments or mathematics; but Irwin's arguments become absurd when he explains
the supposed ancient system in mathematical terms and suggests that early
knowledge was ''esoteric and quite possibly secret." (Irwin 1989:173 and
1992:50). Thus, Sharp's words were prophetic when he wrote in his revised book:
|| If and when the fallacies inherent in the prevailing views of Polynesian
navigation to and from those [distant] islands become more apparent, there
will no doubt be an increase in statements that we do not know the methods of
prehistoric Polynesian navigators. … (Sharp, 1963:53).
Not only is there a lack of appreciation of the history of geographical
exploration in many of the recent publications but also there is a reluctance to
endorse certain astronomical and mathematical truths. In particular many of
Irwin's statements concerning position-finding at sea are based on assumptions
and are nothing more than sorties into fantasy land.
Before discussing the misleading statements it is necessary to briefly mention
Andrew Sharp was an outstanding New Zealander who graduated with an M.A. degree
in 1927 before winning a Rhodes Scholarship in 1928. At Oxford he obtained a
further degree in the social sciences. He served for a time in Upper Burma as a
member of the Indian Civil Service where he became interested in the lives of
primitive peoples. For a period he followed a career in the New Zealand
diplomatic service and later his main interests became scholarship and sport. In
1967 he took up a three-year Senior Research Fellowship in Arts at the
University of Auckland, and in 1970 had conferred on him the degree of Doctor of
Literature honoris causa. He directed his attention to New Zealand and Pacific
history with particular emphasis on maritime exploration. Sharp's publications
total sixty-four works including fourteen monographs. [For an extended biographical note
and a list of Andrew's publications go to Section J in contents]
It is extraordinary that a number of professional scholars believe that a sailor
is better qualified for studying the history of oceanic exploration than a
maritime historian. The historian has been trained to consider evidence
objectively and whether or not he is a practical seaman has no bearing on his
ability to interpret evidence. The above remarks do not preclude the fact that
some noted sailors have become eminent maritime historians. The use of the term
"landlubber" in uncomplimentary terms in describing Sharp emphasises an
inability on the part of some scholars to appreciate one of the basic maxims of
scholarship. (See Finney 1994:53).
It is an appropriate point to mention an aspect of the argument, which is
without foundation. Some scholars have made quite caustic remarks about writers
with views opposite to their own. Hints that scholars who oppose the idea of
Polynesian long-distance navigation are denigrating a race, or are prejudiced,
surely have no place in a scholarly discussion. Any person who has studied the
literature on early Pacific voyaging and vessel construction cannot help but
marvel at the achievements of the Polynesians. Sharp's view, repeatedly given in
his books, was that the Polynesians were outstanding voyagers and deserved their
reputation as skilled and fearless seafarers. However, he summarized his views
on overstatements as follows:
||The view that they were supermen is not a satisfactory basis for a theory of
Polynesian navigation. The prehistoric Polynesians, ... could not extract from
the facts of nature more than was in them. (Sharp 1963:53).
It is reasonable to suggest that the average person and the average scholar fail
to appreciate that there are three separate subjects in a discussion of
Polynesian voyaging. One is related to seamanship; the second relates to
short-distance navigation and the third is long-distance position finding. The
three subjects should not be rolled into one; the proof be related to for
example to seamanship and the verdict given that because early Polynesians were
superb seamen that they understood long-distance position finding. Or that
because they were masters of the art of short-distance navigation that they
could also navigate long distances.
From 1956 until his death, Sharp regularly crossed swords with people who
misread, misunderstood, and misquoted his arguments. The situation has not
changed since Sharp died. For example, Sharp opposed a drift theory. The basic
meaning of drift is easily understood; "to be carried along by a current of
water or by wind." (Shorter Oxford Dictionary, 3rd ed). The following detailed
definition is more helpful:
We assume that navigated voyages are not drifts and vice versa.
Thus, drifts go
with the wind and current, resulting in a track not influenced by consciously
prescribed and enacted alternatives, which would be navigation.
Navigation implies setting a course or sequence of courses and is a
conscious activity directed to some goal, whether that goal is a
known landfall or the search for possible homelands across a stretch
of unknown ocean. In the drift situation the mariner is passive,
being active only to keep the craft seaworthy, sustain himself in
good heart and health, and act appropriately when landing becomes
possible. (Levison, Ward, Webb 1973:11).
Some of Sharp's comments on drift voyages follow:
They should not be described as drift voyages as the evidence will show. (Sharp
It might therefore be expected that experienced voyagers who were lost at sea
would sail across the wind rather than abandon themselves to the drift of the
wind and the set of the current. To call the incidents 'drift voyages' is
therefore an inadequate description. (Sharp 1957: 201).
No more unfortunate term than 'drift voyages' could be applied to these
processes of discovery accompanied by settlement. (Sharp 1963:4).
It cannot be too strongly emphasised that 'drift voyages' is a very inadequate
term for voyages arising either from storms or exile." (Sharp 1963:71).
Despite Sharp's emphatic rejection of the "drift-voyaging" theory some scholars
including Finney continue to credit Sharp as a supporter of the idea as the
following passages demonstrate:
At about this time [c. 1965] R. Gerald Ward and his colleagues in England were
starting a massive computer simulation study of Polynesian settlement that was
to show the limitations of Sharp's drift-voyaging hypothesis. (Finney 1979:326).
I did not take too kindly to Sharp's thesis that Polynesia had been settled
accidentally by a long series of random drift and exile voyages by people.
... is the one movement for which Sharp's drift hypothesis is most appropriate
... (Finney.1994: 67 )
Andrew Sharp ... concluded; ... that the islands had actually been settled
accidentally by a random series of voyages made by people drifting before wind
and current, ... (Finney 1994: 71)
Referring to Finney's comments on the computer simulation project there is
nothing in the published work of Ward and his colleagues that suggests they
tested Sharp's precise hypothesis which includes the idea that Polynesians
controlled their vessels (see Levison, Ward & Webb 1973).
Sutton claims that Sharp's view was "that New Zealand had been settled by
chance, once and subsequently isolated." (Sutton 1994:6-7). In fact, Sharp
wrote: "settled by chance" but not "once and subsequently isolated"; he asks the
question: "Could there have been only one canoe with women aboard which arrived
in the formative Period?" (Sharp 1956:124). It should be noted that he refers to
the "formative period." He answers his own query in various chapters in his
books by referring to "later arrivals", the "rarity of arrivals of parties
including women'" and suggests:
It is possible that it was many centuries after the first party of permanent
settlers established itself before another party with women came, …" (Sharp
McGlone, Anderson, and Holdaway discuss the hypothesis of settlement "by one
canoe" (1994:147), and Law also misinterprets Sharp's arguments (1994:79).
Short navigation and long-distance navigation
David Lewis and Thomas Gladwin are two of several authors who have
satisfactorily explained early navigation techniques between Pacific islands a
short distance apart. (Lewis, 1972; Gladwin, 1970). And historical records show
that deliberate two-way voyaging took place between islands at least 300 miles
apart. In her book The Prehistory of New Zealand Janet Davidson explains that
Polynesians and Micronesians were skilled navigators and regular voyaging
occurred within the Fiji/Tonga/Samoa/Rotuma/Tuvalu region, with the Cook
Islands, and between the Society and Tuamotu Islands (1984:26).
The evolution of long-distance navigation is the story of the application of
mathematical theory to sea-going practice and the development of instruments.
The nub of Sharp's accidental voyages theory is that on long-distance voyages
early Polynesian sailors controlled their vessels but before the days of
navigation instruments deliberate navigation to and from distant islands was
beyond their ability. How long is a long distance? An example of a long distance
is the gap between Rarotonga and New Zealand's East Cape - 1500 nautical miles
(see Heyen 1962:9; Law 1994:82).
Since the correct relationship between two points on the surface of a sphere can
only be expressed in mathematical terms it is defying logic for some scholars to
suggest that Polynesians solved the problem of linking (to and from)
widely-separated points in the Pacific Ocean by some other method or by "a
Problems associated with set and drift, vessel construction, number of days at
sea, and sailing techniques were irrelevant if the ancient mariner was unable to
fix his position. Knowledge of the stars, the ability to determine direction and
a dozen or more other factors encountered on a voyage, were of no use when the
sailor eventually arrived at a point too remote for any of his skills and
knowledge to be of use in fixing his position, and he was lost. His most
important position was his departure point; and if he didn't know his starting
position in relation to the shape of the earth how did he know where to return
to? If he discovered a remote island, how did he relate the new position to his
The discussion below under the sub-heading "Latitude and longitude" exposes
Irwin's argument that "some Pacific people had a different but equivalent
system..." as fatuous. (see Irwin 1989:171). Irwin's expanded view that
" ... traditional navigators had different, equivalent or alternative
models, which, together, amounted to an integrated navigational system carried in the
mind and did not require instruments." is also ridiculous because there is no
equivalent or alternative solution to the basic scientific problem (see Irwin
Irwin's arguments, which are endorsed by authors of papers in
The Origins of the
First New Zealanders follow along the lines of earlier unrealistic views; Parsonson conjectured that "non-literate folk might easily read [complex data]
in the sky and carry [complex data] in their heads." (Parsonson 1962:59). Suggs
set the problem in reverse and suggested it was rather wilful assumption at best
that led some theorists to hypothesize that precise methods never existed.
(Suggs 1960:78). If there was any validity in statements that early Polynesians
bypassed the mathematically based system of determining position and employed
"alternative'" procedures then we might find examples where other ancient races
had solved complex scientific riddles by non-conventional methods.
The critics of Sharp and others are on unsafe ground when they refer to
"landlubbers" in unflattering terms. The long line of scientists who made major
contributions to the art of long-distance oceanic navigation were all
landlubbers; men like Aristotle, Eratosthenes, Marinus, Pythagorus, Euclid,
Copernicus, Claudius Ptolemy, Galileo, Mercator, Edward Wright, Tycho Brahe,
Cassini, Gilbert, Halley, Huygens, Isaac Newton, and John Harrison. Some of
these men are mentioned in the brief review of the mathematical and astronomical
foundations of geography and navigation that follows.
Ancient geographers, mathematicians, and the
In the early period of human progress all peoples believed that the earth
occupied the centre of the universe and there is no reason to think that
Polynesians held a different view. Everyone today knows the basic truths
concerning the earth and the universe but this majestic knowledge was acquired
in stages over at least five thousand years. It was not until the end of the
sixteenth century that the various pieces of evidence were pieced together to
provide a factual appreciation of the earth's form and movements and its place
in the heliocentric system.
The Greeks were the greatest geographers in the ancient world and by the
sixth-century B.C. they were engaged in intense intellectual activity. Greek
geography, both in mathematical theory and in the art of mensuration, drew on
the earlier contributions made by Babylonians, Persians, Chinese, Ancient
Egyptians, and Phoenicians. As a maritime people, the Greeks were suited by
situation for the furtherance of geographical knowledge and by their temperament
they brought to their task the twin attributes of theory and accurate
The Greeks adopted from the Babylonians the sexagesimal system and an ancient
tradition of grouping stars into constellations, which the Babylonians had
inherited from earlier peoples who lived near the eastern end of the
Mediterranean. The sexagesimal system emerged about five thousand years ago
probably from two earlier systems, one a decimal system and the other a
duodecimal method. The sexagesimal technique for the division of space and time
must be the earliest invention still in everyday use. By the adoption of 360
degrees for the measurement of the celestial sphere the Greeks established a
means of measuring not only the earth itself but also the relationship of the
earth to the celestial bodies.
That ancient geographical theory was geocentric made no difference to the
measurement of time. The apparent diurnal revolution of the sun around the earth
was used as the basis for timekeeping and of course for general purposes it is
the sun that has always regulated the lives of human beings. The day had been
divided into twenty-four hours each of 60 minutes with each minute subdivided
into 60 seconds according to the sexagesimal system. Time is essentially angular
measurement with 24 hours corresponding to 360 degrees; thus 1 hour == 15
degrees, one minute of time = 15' and 1 second of time = 15"; or: 360 degrees =
24 hours, 15 degrees = 1 hour, 1 degree = 4 minutes, and 1' = 4 seconds.
The early Babylonian astronomers knew the gnomon and the observation of the
sun's shadow by this means in order to determine time must be of great
antiquity. At night, astronomers used the clepsydra or water clock, which was
invented at a very early date probably in Egypt.
In the era of Western discovery up until at least the late sixteenth century,
the only ship's clock available was based on another ancient invention - the
sand clock, which was a half-hour glass containing enough sand to run from the
upper to the lower section in exactly thirty minutes. The only way the navigator
could mark correct sun time during this period, was to erect a pin on the centre
of the compass card, and watch for the exact moment of noon when the sun's
shadow touched the fleur-de-lis that marked north (or, if in the Southern
Hemisphere, south), and then turn the glass. But the method could not be counted
on to give true noon nearer than about 15 or 20 minutes.
For measuring short periods of time European navigators introduced, in the
1590s, short and long glasses, which ran out in a specified duration of time -
the long glass running out in 30 seconds and the short glass in half this time.
The ability to accurately measure - time removed a large part of the guesswork
from navigation by dead reckoning.
Although Irwin, Finney, Lewis and others claim that Polynesians were capable of
navigating by dead-reckoning they provide few details of the methods that might
have been used to obtain a reasonable degree of accuracy in measuring time and
Discovering the shape and size of the earth and the
Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) is usually given the credit for first demonstrating the
sphericity of the earth and the suggestion that the East could be reached by
sailing west. However, it is likely that the Babylonians arrived at the same
conclusion several thousand years before the time of Aristotle. The idea was
first brought to general attention through the writings of Plato (c.427-c.347
B.C.). And undoubtedly early Polynesians also knew the earth was a sphere.
Several arguments in favour of the sphericity theory were capable of being
tested by straightforward observations: the curved shadow of the earth's surface
on the moon during an eclipse, the passing of a vessel in any direction over the
horizon, and the appearance of new groups of stars as one travels north or
An idea that excited the attention of geographers from the fifth-century B.C.
related to the measurement of the circumference of the globe. It was realized
that the value of the circumference, divided by 360, would give the length of a
degree. With the aid of mathematics, and of accurate mensuration learned from
the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks evolved a method of measuring the
The earliest reliable account of how the earth was measured relates to
Eratosthenes (c. 276-194 B.C.), who measured the meridian arc between Alexandria
and Syene in Upper Egypt (modern Aswan). Eratosthenes, who was head of the
Alexandrian Library, found the distance between the base points as 1/50th of the
meridian, or the angle of subtension of the sun south of the zenith as 7 degrees
12 minutes (l/50th of 360 degrees). Although Eratostnenes' values for the
circumference and the degree were faulty, and some later measurements were less
accurate, the importance of the relationship between the circumference and the
length of the degree was firmly established.
Early units of distance - for example the Roman mile - were arbitrary
measurements but the nautical mile is a unit of distance related intimately to
the size of the earth. Every modern sailor knows that, if the earth is treated
as a sphere, the nautical mile is equivalent to the length of a minute of arc of
a meridian; that is to say, an arc of the earth's surface subtended by an angle
of one degree at the earth centre, contains sixty nautical miles.
That Polynesians used a single-dimensional measuring system and present-day
sailors automatically think in terms of nautical miles and degrees is one of
several reasons why replica voyages are of little scientific value.
The figure for a one-degree arc of the earth's surface adopted by Claudius
Ptolemy the last of the great astronomers of antiquity, and who flourished at
Alexandria in the second century of the Christian era, was 30,000. This gave
5,000 feet per minute of arc and equalled sixty-nine land miles per degree of
arc of the earth's surface.
Irwin's statement that latitude and longitude are "arbitrary Western scales"
does not square with the fact that an established reference datum is provided by
the axis of the earth. (see Irwin 1989). Everyone familiar with basic geographic
principles knows that the great circle on the earth's surface, lying in the
plane of the earth's spin, serves as the datum parallel of zero latitude; this
circle called the equator, divides the earth into northern and southern
hemispheres. Parallels of latitude are small circles that are parallel to the
In ancient times in the Middle East, the idea of an equator developed from
studies of the sun's shadow. When the spherical character of the earth was
recognised, and later the obliquity of the ecliptic, astronomers were able to
deduce latitudes from the proportions between the lengths of the shadow and the
pointer of the sundial.
Changes in latitude were also measured with the sand glass and clepsydra and
expressed in terms of the longest day of the year. Astronomers were familiar
with the fact that the number of hours of daylight on the day of the summer
solstice was a gauge of latitude; in fact it was just another way of recording
the angular height of the sun because the length of the longest day, in hours
and minutes, is directly proportional to the angular height of the sun.
The concept of longitude derived from understanding the idea of latitude and
through celestial observations. The north and south poles of the earth lie at
the extremities of the axis of rotation and the earth makes one revolution in a
day, more or less. That the ancient philosophers believed in the geocentric
system and were unaware that the earth spins on its axis made no difference to
the idea of longitude. It was early recognised that simultaneous observations of
a celestial phenomenon such as a lunar eclipse would, through the difference in
local times at the moment of observation, give a value for the difference of
longitude (as noted above - for example - 1 hour = 15 degrees of longitude).
Semicircles, which extend from any place on the earth's surface to the north and
south poles and cross the equator at an angle of 90 degrees, are called
meridians. Since no natural division relates to longitude, the first meridian is
an arbitrary semicircle, and over the course of two thousand years it has moved
from place to place until, in 1884 it settled on Greenwich by international
agreement. The longitude of a place is the arc of the equator or the angle at
the pole between the prime meridian, which is zero, and the meridian of that
place (Hewson 1951:223).
Irwin and others base many of their arguments on an assumption that Polynesians
understood the concept of latitude and longitude or of latitude alone and if in
fact they did not then entire theories disintegrate. It is worth noticing that
it is difficult to define the terms in nonmathematical language.
Eratosthenes was the first to devise a grid of latitude and longitude lines
through known localities both in and outside the Mediterranean area. He laid
down a map with a line roughly parallel to the equator through places he
supposed were in the same latitude. A hundred years or more previously
Dicaearcnus of Messana (died c. B.C. 285), first laid down the base parallel of
latitude from the Pillars of Hercules (the Peaks of Gibraltar and Ceuta) to the
Following on from Eratosthens, Hipparchus (fl. 160-125 B.C.), developed a method
of measurement based on the sexagesimal system whereby east and west of the
prime meridian the two sections of the sphere were divided into 180 meridians,
and similarly 180 parallels of latitude stretched from the equator to the north
pole with another 180 parallels reaching from the equator to the south pole.
Plotting the positions of places on a map with reference to an agreed meridian
of longitude and the equator enabled localities to be truly related to one
another. Hipparchus, the inventor of trigonometry, drew parallels additional to
Eratosthenes' main parallel, computed from the length in different places
between the equator and the pole of the longest day on the date of the summer
solstice. Marinus of Tyre (c. A.D. 100), one of the founders of mathematical
geography, was the first to provide practical expression to the discovery of Hipparchus that a place could be fixed on a map by the intersection of its
Claudius Ptolemy introduced the plan of designating the position of places by
stating the numbers, which represent the latitudes and longitudes of each. He
also attacked the problem of projecting the earth's surface on to a plane in
order to arrive at an orderly graticule. Through his two great studies,
Almagest, and Geographia, Ptolemy maintained an influence over geography and
astronomy that lasted for almost fifteen hundred years.
Since a great deal of the current argument concerning Polynesian
navigation focuses on the reckoning of latitude it is necessary to dwell for a
few moments on the latitude errors in Ptolemy's world map. (See the
accompanying map - click on the thumbnail.)
Although the foundations for position finding had been well established by the
time of Ptolemy, errors were still of major proportions. Ptolemy's best known
parallel, 36 degrees North, is not a parallel at all as drawn on his map and if
in Polynesians understood the idea of latitude they must have also incorporated
enormous errors in any mental concept they employed. In a present-day map the
thirty-sixth parallel passes over the Strait of Gibraltar, touches the northern
tip of Malta, passes over the southern part of Rhodes and then continues over
the most southern part of 'Turkey. Ptolemy's parallel is 3 degrees 12 minutes
too far north at Sardinia, Carthage is placed 1 degree 20 minutes south of the
parallel at Rhodes when it should be 1 degree north of it. Byzantium is placed
more than 2 degrees above its true position.
It is unrealistic to believe that pre-literate people could have collated
star-data obtained from a number of widely separated places and then converted
it into a mental concept of parallels of latitude. Likewise it is absurd for
anyone to think that without maps and instruments, and lacking in mathematical
ability, early Polynesians were in advance of the Greeks in scientific
endeavour. Yet, lrwin, McClone, Anderson & Holdaway, and others, including Davis
support the idea that early Polynesians developed a system of '"altitude
sailing". This procedure, developed by Europeans in the fifteenth century
involved steering as directly as possible for a destination whose latitude was
known, making of course the best use of the wind, and then altering course east
or west until land was made.
It is interesting to compare Irwin's statement that Polynesians could have
determined approximate latitude, with the view of a number of eminent scholars
including J.H. Parry a noted maritime historian (see Irwin 1989:174). Parry
explains that by the late sixteenth century western navigators arrived at the
stage, whereby in good weather, with open-sight instruments, they could observe
altitudes to within half a degree, and could hope to sight land within thirty
miles north or south of their destination (Parry 1963:99). Yet, Irwin claims
Polynesians could have obtained the identical degree of accuracy without
For the determination of latitude at sea, an instrument was required for
measuring the altitude of the sun or a star. The idea came only after the
establishment of the principles by the ancient schoolmen and the development of
the mariner's astrolabe and later the seaman's quadrant. By the middle of the
sixteenth century there were two established methods of finding latitude at sea
in the northern hemisphere. The first was to establish the height of the sun
above the horizon at the place of observation; the second was to determine the
height of the Pole Star. For navigation near the equator or in the southern
hemisphere a rule had been formulated for using the Southern Cross in
determining latitude. Angle-measuring instruments were required in all cases and
the navigator, having determined the observed height of the celestial bodies,
had to make certain corrections aided by mathematical tables.
That it is possible for an astute and experienced sailor today to find his
approximate latitude at sea without scientific equipment is not surprising,
since every modern mariner knows the basic geographical, astronomical, and
mathematical principles and is aware of the precise latitude of his departure
point. He also knows the principles for making a basic angle-measuring device.
Every proficient sailor has studied charts and navigation theory and is most
likely familiar with the night sky in both the northern and southern
hemispheres. He is aware of the apparent diurnal movement of the heavenly bodies
caused by the earth rotating slowly and uniformly about its polar axis. Wherever
he is, he has a rough idea of the answers to many of the questions relating to
Hilder ridicules the idea of early Polynesians developing an "atitude
sailing system" (1962:93-95); and Akerblom points out 'it is unlikely that
the navigational method us latitude sailing' (1968:47).
It would take too long to rehearse the history of the long struggle which
finally overcame the difficult problems associated with measuring longitude at
sea but it is worth mentioning that the perplexities of longitude were beyond
the comprehension of most western sailors up till at least the end of the
Taking into account the above explanations the following statements by recent
writers make no sense:
The essential point about longitude and Pacific voyaging is that since
navigators could not control longitude they must have developed a system free of
its control (Irwin 1992:49).
Navigational skills permitted accurate calculation of latitude; with increasing
geographical information longitude could also be roughly determine (McFagden, Anderson, & Holdaway 1994:141).
Upon return to the source island group, the essential information was
transmitted about the new land to the south. Potential migrants would therefore
have instructions on how to get to New Zealand. (1994:147).
From the time the term was invented, dead reckoning has meant the estimation of
a ship's position solely from the distance run by the log, and the courses
steered by compass, corrected for variation current and leeway, and without
reference to astronomical observations (see Hewson 1951:176).
Irwin correctly interprets the definition but adds the following comment in a
futile attempt to by-pass the mathematics of the problem:
Dead-reckoning does not mean fixing one's position in any absolute sense, such
as by latitude estimations, although this can be done, but simply knowing where
one is in relation to some other known point, such as an origin or destination
or some intermediate reference island along the way, or all of these things
In theory it is possible by dead reckoning alone to establish a remote position
in relation to a departure point or another position with great precision. The
concept is straightforward but the practical difficulties in keeping track of
direction and distance travelled, and allowing for set and drift, without
sophisticated equipment, are enormous. The inertial navigation system developed
after World War II, which enables submarines to cruise underwater over very long
distances and determine their precise position, is an advanced type of dead
According to Lewis and Finney errors due to fluctuation in current set and in
navigation by dead reckoning in general tend to cancel out (see Lewis
1972:104-05; Finney 1979:334). However, arguments about ancient dead-reckoning
techniques lose credibility when theorists discuss methods in mod terms
including nautical miles and knots.
After western navigators first ventured south from ports on the Iberian
Peninsula in the early part of the fifteenth century, navigation out of sight of
land was a matter of dead-reckoning checked and supplemented by observed
latitude. Martin Cortes who published his famous sailing manual, at Seville, in
1551, is explicit on this aspect (see Parry 1963:98). Parry emphasises the point
that the navigator kept a careful 'account' but on long voyages the errors of
dead reckoning were cumulative; therefore he checked his account by daily
observations of latitude (Parry 1963:98).
The common log used for measuring a ship's speed through the water did not come
into general use until the middle of the seventeenth century. 'The associated
equipment consisted of a log-ship. -reel, -line and ~glass. We noticed above
that the figure of sixty-nine land miles per degree of arc of the earth's
surface was the figure adopted by European seamen as a basis for marking their
log lines when navigating by dead-reckoning. Using a 30-second glass, the
distance between the knotted cords on the log-line was reckoned to be 41 2/3
feet; this distance in 30 seconds being equivalent to 5,000 feet per hour as a basis for marking their log lines when navigating by dead-reckoning.
Lewis has proved it is possible for a perceptive sailor to navigate long
distances by dead-reckoning with the aid of astronomical observations but
without instruments (see Lewis 1972). However, this doesn't prove that
early Polynesian sailors either navigate- long distances by dead reckoning with
or without observed latitude.
Astronomical facts and the firmament
Irwin's claim that Pacific peoples 'knowledge of the sky astronomical' is not
disputed (see Irwin 1.992:45). In his book Astronomy and Navigation in Polynesia
and Micronesia Kjell Akerblom provides an immense amount of information on
Polynesian knowledge of the heavens. The Polynesians, the Phoenicians, the
Babylonians, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Arabs, and many other ancient races
studied the firmament intently but before the important basic principles
mentioned in earlier sections were understood, scrutiny of the sky was little
more than observations. Undoubtedly, Polynesian seafarers used the stars for
setting a course and steering at sea but techniques used in direction finding
were of limited assistance in fixing a position.
One further assumption worth mentioning is Irwin's remark concerning the
north/south axis from the Pole Star (x Ursa Minoris) to the upright Southern
Cross (1992:217). There are parts of the central Pacific Ocean where both the
Southern Cross and the Pole Star are at times visible simultaneously but without
knowledge of latitude and lacking the compass it would have been beyond the
ability of Polynesians to appreciate the facts, which are useful and obvious
today. In any case the exact relationship across the hemispheres is not
straightforward (see Dekker 1990:545).
The earliest known reference to the interesting fact of the north/south axis
from the Pole Star to the Southern Cross is recorded in the Tratado da ulha de
ma rear de Joao de Lisboa of 1514:
I have considered to make a statement about the Southern Cross which is the most
striking sign [constellation] for the navigators; and many times Pêro Anes ...
and we have compared this sign with that of the North, and we have
found when we were at a place from which one could see both signs
well, that they are on the same line over the poles of the world
[meridian]; and this was done at Cochin with the aid of a [compass]
needle (de Albuquerque).
The facts reviewed in this paper confirm that the Western development of
long-distance navigation engaged the best minds of the Eastern and Western world
for more than five thousand years. Success with position-finding techniques at
sea resulted from the application of mathematical theory to ocean-going practice
and the development of instruments.
Authors of papers in "The Origins of the First New Zealanders," Finney, Irwin
and others, base many of their arguments on assumptions not only that
Polynesians understood a number of facts relating to natural phenomena, but also
that they had the ability to collate data gained through observations and reach
scientific conclusions. There is no evidence to support a view that they
comprehended the concepts of latitude and longitude or that they had an
elementary understanding of the mathematical rules needed for calculating with
the circle or the sphere. It is easy today to assume that ancient people knew
about some or many of the seemingly straightforward facts of geography and
astronomy but these truths were only discovered as the result of intense and
prolonged human endeavour.
The idea that Polynesians navigated long distances by dead reckoning assumes
that they were capable of making precise measurements. Whether or not errors
tended to cancel out it would have been necessary to make calculations and keep
accurate records. When it is considered that early Western explorers often
introduced errors of hundreds of miles it is unrealistic to believe that a
pre-literate people without instruments could have achieved results in advance
of the scientific endeavours of European navigators.
Some writers believe that the discovery of New Zealand-type obsidian flakes in
the Kermadec Islands proves that long-distance navigated voyages took place to
and from New Zealand. There are a number of riddles throughout the Pacific in
regard to ancient objects found in unlikely places and obsidian flakes found
remote from their place of origin is a puzzle but nothing more (see
Anderson & McFagden, 1990:37). If the obsidian flakes originated from Mayor
Island then a straightforward explanation would be that they reached the
Kermadecs on a vessel following an un-navigated voyage.
There is no evidence, which confirms that Polynesians discovered a remote
island, returned to their homeland and then relocated their original discovery.
That descendants of ancient Polynesians were found living in remote islands
including New Zealand at the time of first European contact proves that their
ancestors were fearless and skilled seafarers who survived long-distance voyages
to arrive at distant lands.
It is appropriate to conclude with Sharp's words:
Because overstatements of Polynesian long navigation nave obscured the issues,
the ancient voyagers are not given due credit for their ingenuity and daring in
establishing contact with islands several hundred miles away (1963:35).
Most people believe what they want to believe, and most people want to believe
that the Polynesians sailed back and forth to their distant islands without
quadrant, compass or chart (1963:53).
[Bibliography will follow shortly.]