I can’t even begin to tell you how good this book is, but let’s see how I go.
Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia is, as author Christina Thompson admits in the prologue, as “much a story about what happened as a story about what we know.”
In charting the story of Polynesian settlement in the Pacific, Thompson also charts the way Europeans have collected knowledge about the region, and have made meaning from it. Some of the European observers are well known – James Cook, Joseph Banks, Thor Heyerdahl – others are well-known only in their field. But Thompson brings them all vividly to life, along with their biases, errors, racism, judgements, and occasional sparks of genius and insight. She leads the reader gently through arcane but relevant science (who knew radiocarbon dating was so interesting?) and lovingly describes the islands and sea roads of this vast, and strangely culturally homogenous, region.
Best of all, Thompson introduces us to new people. Mua, the gifted navigator whose skills and intellectual concepts were quite alien to Western ways of thinking. Nainoa, who in 1980 sailed in a traditional vessel from Hawaii to Tahiti and in so doing inspired a huge wave of cultural pride. And my favourite, Tupaia, a Tahitian ‘Knowledge Man’ who sailed with Cook to New Zealand and beyond.
Thompson, a former editor of Meanjin and the current editor of the Harvard Review, is married to a Maori man called Seven. Her love for him, and for the people of Polynesia to whom he is distantly but irrevocably related, is clear. Thompson’s love of writing is just as clear. Sea People is as readable and enjoyable as the best fiction (but so much better, because… well, because some of love us just love non-fiction the best!)
Beautifully written. Compellingly told. You don’t have to care about Polynesian history to enjoy this book, although you certainly will by the time you’re done.
Want more? Christina Thompson’s website is worth a visit. You’ll find out how many prizes Sea People won (a lot) and there are links to essays that Thompson has written for various, prestigious online magazines. And yes, I disappeared down that delightful rabbit hole for quite a while.
Thompson’s first book, a memoir called Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, has just rocketed to the top of my TBR pile.
This sounds terrific! Do you think it would be a suitable addition to ‘Further Reading’ for the forthcoming Indigenous Literature Week that I’m hosting in July? (It’s the 10th anniversary this year, I hope you’ll join in!)
It really is terrific, and I think it would definitely be useful ‘Further Reading’. I’d love to join in your Indigenous Literature Week this year but (perhaps appropriately) I’ll be away – in the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula Area! Still, leave it with me and I’ll see what I can do.
Thanks, I’ve added it:)
What I want to know about the Polynesians is why they stopped at New Zealand. How come, even if only by accident, they didn’t chance on the east coast of Australia in their travels?
New Zealand was one of the last places in Polynesia to be populated. Once settlers arrived (in NZ and in other places) they tended to, well, settle. Maori seagoing vessels that were spotted by very early European travellers (prob several hundred years after the Polynesians arrived) were not there a few hundred years later, having been replaced by smaller coastal vessels. The book doesn’t discuss Australia much (if at all) but I’d guess that it’s entirely possible that the Maori did travel to the Australian mainland, and were either killed (en route or on arrival) or else absorbed into the population there. Or they simply visited and then returned home. There was a bit of that going on elsewhere. The book explores, in a really interesting way, that we know some things about how they travelled but much less about why they did so.
Your review inspired me to order the book. I grew up in New Zealand, among polynesian people. I also lived in the Solomon Islands, where there were groups of polynesian people, more in the east. I shall be most interested to learn ore.
I’m sure you’ll enjoy it – report back and let us all know what you thought!