Book Review: Sea People by Christina Thompson

The story of the Polynesians, the famous sea explorers who explored and colonised the huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean from New Zealand, to Hawaii, to Easter Island, is awe inspiring – and hugely mysterious.

For centuries after the first contact, Europeans have spent countless hours trying to answer some key questions about these sea people. How did this culture without maps, writing or even a compass colonised islands over 10 million square miles? Where did they originally come from? Why did they so often leave the safety of their tropical oasis’ to travel the seas? And why, by the time the Europeans arrived, had they suddenly stopped?

Some of these questions are answered. Others are still waiting to be discovered like an island deep in an ocean fog. Europeans tried a lot of methods to unlock these mysteries of the past – from trying to build histories from the oral histories of the Polynesians themselves, to trying to recreate their incredible voyages and more recently to using technologies like carbon dating.

aerial view of green and brown mountains and lake
Hawaii

In this narrative, Thompson explores the mystery from the start. We begin with the voyages of Captain James Cook on the Endeavour as he visits Tahiti, Tonga New Zealand, uncovering the mystery of these islands through the eyes of those Europeans who first saw it as the explored the Pacific Ocean.

After the initial encounters we follow how the Europeans tried to uncover the mystery of Polynesia, including the misguided idea they came from India and the first attempts to scientifically document their origins.

landscape photography of seashore under cumulus clouds
Tahiti

The focus here is primarily on how European’s approach the question of Polynesia, but we learn of some fascinating figures from the islands themselves. The story of Tupaia is fascinating, a Polynesian priest form Tahiti who was an integral part of solving the mystery, joining Cook on his journey around Polynesia.

It’s is a deep and fascinating history, and a gripping narrative, fuelled by personal experiences and vivid imagery of the gorgeous tropical landscapes and scenery. Thompson brings the past to life, sprinkled with descriptions of the paradise where these explores and sailors first set sail, against the wind, towards the rising sun. Highly recommended.

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