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Navigation: Kupe & Cook by Kingsley Smith

In Navigation: Kupe & Cook, Kingsley Smith takes a deep dive into the history of navigation.

Over many centuries two very different navigational technologies arose. One grew out of an Orality society, the other out of a Literary society. Kingsley Smith sees the navigators Kupe (1150-1200) and James Cook (1728-1779) as pinnacles of these two technologies up to the time of their Pacific journeys.

Kupe was the product of an Orality society. Without writing, navigation systems in Orality societies were based on memorizing all the celestial and natural phenomena that would be encountered on the way. Navigators became experts at using the stars and planets, sea life, weather, ocean swells and colour to find their islands.

Intricate methods, such as the star compass, were devised to teach them to remember these navigational systems. This knowledge was passed on to small numbers of specially chosen people at navigation schools, or through families. They kept this knowledge to themselves so it was presumed lost until the 1960’s when Dr David Lewis rediscovered and documented ancient Polynesian navigational skills. This sparked a renewed interest in canoe building and voyaging.

In various parts of the Pacific different methods of navigation were devised. Kingsley Smith provides a detailed description of two of them, the Vaeakau-Taumako system, the oldest in the Pacific, and the Tahitian system which uniquely allows latitude and longitude navigation through using Rua and Ana stars and the Pou pillar of navigation. The Tahitian system is especially relevant to Kupe’s story as he was a great chief of Hawaiki (Tahiti).

Cook was the product of a Literary society. Kingsley Smith makes the succinct comparison that:

‘Unlike Kupe, he and his fellow navigators required complicated instruments and many charts and almanacs to reach their destinations.’

But the instruments Cook had to hand, particularly the accurate chronometer, enabled precise latitude and longitude navigation.

In the nineties I took a group of Māori Art students to the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. They were visibly upset and angry when we stood in front of ‘The Arrival of the Maories in New Zealand,’ a famous 19th Century history painting by artists Charles Goldie and Louis Steele which they had modelled on a famous French painting ‘The Raft of the Medusa” by Gericault.

They found it very insulting to see the heroic legendary Pacific explorer and navigator Kupe and his crew portrayed as emaciated and despairing survivors whose arrival in Aotearoa was accidental.

I didn’t voice my opinion but am embarrassed to admit that this scenario didn’t look entirely implausible to me as like most New Zealanders at that time I knew virtually nothing about Pacific navigation.

For many years, in our schools, only Cook’s journeys of exploration were hailed as great achievements and no credence was given to the extraordinary navigational skills of Pacific Navigators such as Kupe. By his very insightful and scholarly look into the navigational technologies of both Orality and Literary Societies, Kingsley Smith has contributed to setting the record straight showing that both Kupe and Cook were highly skilled navigators.

I would recommend School Libraries to acquire this book for their senior students, and think that anyone who is fascinated by the history of navigation would also enjoy it very much.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Mary Egan Publishing