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Polynesia is the name for the “many islands” group of the Pacific Ocean Islands. Also called Oceana, the Pacific Islands are grouped into Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia. The islands near the Asian mainland-Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia are considered to be part of Asia and are excluded from the designation “Pacific Islands” as are the islands close to the North American (Aleutians) or South America (Galapagos).
Melanesia is located in the South Pacific and is populated by a different group of people from the Polynesians. Micronesia is south of Japan and north of Melanesia and west of Polynesia.
The Polynesian islands are scattered across the vast Pacific Ocean and number in the thousands although most are small and uninhabited. The islands of Polynesia are located in a rough triangle with its peak at Easter Island 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) east from New Zealand. The base of the Polynesian Triangle is a line between New Zealand and Midway, a distance of 5,000 miles (8,000 km). Fiji is west of the line, but it is usually included because the Fijians are culturally and linguistic Polynesian although racially they are Melanesian.
Some of the Pacific Islands of Polynesia are low islands that rise in elevation only a little above sea level while others are high island. The Hawaiians Islands for example rise thousands of feet above sea level. In the case of the big island of Hawaii its two highest volcanoes are snow covered year round. The low islands are usually coral reefs or sunken calderas, while the high islands are dominated by volcanoes.
The main Polynesian Island groups are the Cook Islands, Easter Island, Fiji, Futuna and French Polynesia, Hawaiian Islands, Kiribati, New Zealand, Niue, Pitcairn Island, Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Wallis. Rotuma is a Polynesian island group located north of the Fijian Islands. There are also “outlier” Polynesian enclaves in Papua New Guinea, the Solomons, the Caroline Islands, Vanuatu (New Hebrides) and the Lau group southeast of Fiji.
The term “Polynesian” was first used by Charles de Brosses in 1756 as a geographical term for all of the Pacific Islands. However, in 1831, Jules Dumont d’Urville in a talk before the Geographical Society of Paris proposed restricting the term to its current meaning of the islands scattered across the central and southern Pacific.
Polynesian is not only a geographic tern but also anthropological because it refers to the ethno-cultural family that settled these islands. The first Europeans who carried Polynesians with them on voyages across the Pacific were shocked to discover that Hawaiians or Tongans or Maori of New Zealand were able to understand each other. The Polynesian dialects they spoke varied some but were essentially the same language. Spelling differences for many words reflect only slight variation in pronunciation and little difference in meaning. They different Polynesian languages are believed to have developed from a common Malayo-Polynesian language. However, today English is the most widely spoken language.
The Polynesians are part of the Austronesian peoples who speak the languages of the Austronesian language family. The Austronesians include people on Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, in Malaysia, Thailand, areas of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Micronesia and Taiwan. The ancestors of the Polynesians probably sailed eastward from the Malaya Archipelago (Indonesia, Borneo and other adjacent islands).
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Language was not the only common feature among the Polynesians at the time of European contact they had similar customs, laws and religion. Culturally they are grouped as the Hawaiians, Maori (Aotearoa), Marquesas, Rapa Nui (Easter Islanders), Samoan, Tahitian, Tokelau and Tonga. Many words they use are similar such as “tapu” (Tongan) or “kapu” (Hawaiian). The dialectical differences were real but did not prevent the different Polynesians from communicating with each other as they sailed with Europeans in their first mutual contacts in some centuries. The cultural differences were real by not really enough to block understanding. In addition they all had similar practices such as those that were religious.
Racially they are lighter skinned than the Micronesians or the Melanesians and also taller than both of these groups. In addition they have intermarried with people of European and Asian stocks much more frequently than Micronesians or Melanesians creating blended multi-ethnic people. Recent genetic studies have found little in common between Polynesians and Melanesians.
However, current theories on the peopling of Polynesia have concluded that the Lapita culture developed in the Bismarck Archipelago in the northwest area of Melanesia. Some have argued that this culture was spread by non-Han immigrants to Taiwan from China. Sometime after 1300 B.C. the culture spread to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. In these areas the Polynesian culture developed by 2000 years ago.
The peopling of Polynesia began from settlements in Melanesia, spread to the most western islands of Polynesia. As raft and dugout technology developed it became possible to sail longer distances. The culmination of Polynesian sea craft technology was the outrigger canoe. It is possible that some sailed to Micronesia. Others from about A.D. 500 sailed across the Pacific to settle the Polynesian Islands.
Even after arriving in Tonga, Samoa or the Hawaiian Islands (first settled between 300-800) there were some cases of voyages that visited and returned. Most voyages ceased by 1200 after which European voyages began. Some scholars have argued that the first Hawaiians came from the Marquesas Islands between A.D. 300 and 800. They may have been conquered by others from Tahiti after 1300 if an ancient Hawaiian legend is correct. However, the last Hawaiian monarch, King David KalÄkaua, published The Legends and Myths of Hawaii (1888) in which he claimed that In Hawaiian lore the Menehune were the “little people” who already lived in the islands prior to Polynesian arrival.
European contacts with Pacific Islanders began after the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan begun in 1519. His voyage opened the Pacific to European exploration and later conquest. Magellan’s voyage was followed by other Spanish voyages and then by Dutch, French and English voyages. In 1642, Abel Janszoon Tasman, a Dutch explorer, discovered New Zealand. Others sailed the vast expanses of the Pacific, but the most famous was Captain James Cook of the British navy. Among his discoveries were New Caledonia and the Hawaiian Islands.
European discoveries brought a variety of people from Europe and the United States in the 1800s. Some were saints and others were sinners. Among the first to arrive were whalers off of Hawaii. The whalers recruited Polynesians as sailors and later brought others who supplied cheap labor for the industry. It went into decline after the invention of kerosene.
Others European and later American sailors came seeking sandalwood, coconut oil, and other valuable goods. Among the worse were the slavers (“blackbirders”) who carried whole shiploads of islanders to plantations in Australia, the Americas or elsewhere to do gang work.
After contact European diseases such as measles and small pox also began to kill large numbers of Polynesians. In 1919 the great Influenza Pandemic struck many Polynesian islands. Over 7,500 Samoans died which was about one-fifth of their number because the New Zealand authorities permitted the New Zealand ship, SS Talune, to dock with many of its passengers and crew ill with influenza. Whole families in Western Samoa died so rapidly that bodies were cast into mass graves. A plague ship it was allowed to sail to Tonga and to other islands where there was a great loss of life.
Missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic arrived in Polynesia in the early 1800s. Their ministries had a profound effect upon the natives most of whom became Christians by the early1900s. In the Hawaiian Islands King Kamehameha I united the islands following several bloody battles that he won with the firearms supplied by his two Western advisors. Following his death his successors abandoned the traditional Hawaiian gods, shortly afterward missionaries arrived who converted most of the Hawaiians to Christianity.
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Throughout the Nineteenth Century and well into the Twentieth Century missionaries, especially Protestant missionaries, converted most Polynesians to Christianity. Roman Catholicism was also successful in many areas. The influence of the missionaries was so powerful that there was a moral transformation of the Polynesians. For example Tonga is virtually closed on Sundays as its keeps the Commandment to remember the Sabbath.
During the late 1800s the French, British, Germans and Americans made an effort to take control of the islands of Polynesia as colonial possessions. Economic motives were important factors in the calculations to make the expenditures to take over the islands. In many places pineapple, coffee, sugar cane, coconut and other tropical products grown on plantations were very marketable products that brought Polynesia into a global trading system. However, geopolitical considerations were also at work. For example the United States took over the Hawaiian Islands partly out of concern that they not fall into Japanese hands.
By the outbreak of World War I Germany held parts of Nauru, New Guinea, Western Samoa and other islands in Micronesia and Melanesia. The French controlled New Caledonia, French Polynesia, and shared control of the New Hebrides. The British were governing New Zealand, Papua, Tonga and other islands in Melanesia.
World War II put vast stretches of the Pacific onto the map for millions of American, British and French average citizens. Until this time it has been a region most familiar as the home of writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson (Samoa) or painters such as Paul Gauguin as an idyllic place of quiet living quite unlike that of the crowded European or American life. However, many Polynesian islands such as Samoa either became important naval bases or battle sites such as Oahu. Many Polynesians also enlisted and served with either the Americans or their allies.
Following World War II some Polynesians became independent. Tonga had always been independent, while Western Samoa achieved independence from New Zealand and the Ellice Islands from Great Britain. The Hawaiian Islands became the fiftieth American state. Others such as those of French Polynesia, the Cook Islands and Easter Island have remained territories. The Hawaiians have been greatly outnumbered by the immigration of many different people from around the world. The bulk of the population is Caucasian, African-American, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino, Portuguese or others. The Polynesians are a diminished minority; however, their cultural influences are very significant. In addition there are many Polynesians from other Polynesians islands who immigrate to other islands. Samoan are holders of American passports so they can easily come to Hawaii.
In New Zealand the Mori are now a small minority. In recent years an independence movement has developed among the Hawaiians and the Mori. Neither is likely to be very successful given their minority status. Some seek to maintain the traditional culture while accepting modern conveniences.
Many Polynesians still live by farming or fishing. Tourism plays a major role in the Hawaiian Islands as well as in some other parts of Polynesia.
References and Future Reading
Cordy, Ross. Exalted Sits the Chief: The Ancient History of Hawai’i Island. Honolulu, HA: Mutual Publishing, 2000.
Grant, Glen. Fornander’s Ancient History of Hawaiian People to the Times of King Kamehameha. Honolulu, HA: Mutual Publishing, 1996.
Heyerdahl, Thor. Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island. NY: Pocket Books, 1958.
Kane, Herb Kawainui. Ancient Hawai’i. South Kono, HA: Kawainui Press, 1997.
Kirch, Patrick Vinton. On the Road of the Winds: an Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.
Lay, Graeme. Samoa: Pacific Pride. Kealakekua, HI: Pasifika Press, 2000.
Morris, Rod and Alison Balance. South Sea Islands: A Natural History. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2003.
Oliver, Douglas. Polynesia: In Early Historic Times. Honolulu, HA: Bess Press, 2002.
Russell, Michael. Polynesia: A History of the South Sea Islands, Including New Zealand : with Narrative of the Introduction of Christianity. Charleston, SC: BiblioBazaar, 2010.
Swain, Tony and Garry Trompf. The Religions of Oceania. NY: Routledge, 1995.
Turner, George. Samoa, A Hundred Years Ago And Long Before. Teddington, Middlesex, UK: The Echo Library, 2006.
Watson, Robert Mackezie. History of Samoa. 1918. Breinigsville, PA: Bibliobazaar, 2009.
Andrew J. Waskey
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