The voyaging knowledge and traditions of the Pacific islands are a rich and exceptional example of intangible cultural heritage. Covering one-third of the globe’s surface, the Pacific Ocean is home to numerous archipelagos that were settled as long as 40,000 years ago in the case of Papua New Guinea—a continental island in Melanesia, and as recent as 800 years ago, in some of the farthest flung archipelagos in Polynesia, which makes the Pacific the last region of the world to be settled by humans and the largest maritime diaspora in the world. Evidence points to the island archipelagos in Southeast Asia, including the continental island of Taiwan, as launching points for settling the remote Pacific Ocean, beyond Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands, into what is today called Polynesia and Micronesia. Current thinking places Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji as the landing point for voyagers who came from Vanuatu in the Western Pacific about 3,500 years ago.
The Tongan archipelago, today consisting of about 175 islands linked together by immense waterways, ensconced by coral reefs sitting atop vast volcanic mounts, some of which are still producing new islands today, was several hundred years ago the center of a vast maritime network that extended between Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, Rotuma, Uvea (Wallis), and Futuna, and some theorize as far as Tahiti and Hawai‘i, constituting the largest “voyaging sphere” in the Pacific Ocean. According to archaeologists, the Tongan maritime empire wielded immense power over the maritime areas between the tenth and sixteenth centuries, as Tonga, Samoa, and to some extent Fiji became increasingly interlinked by boat building industries that required cooperation and resource sharing.
The traditional double-hulled boats called tongiaki from Tonga belong to the classical open sea boats that the Polynesians used when exploring the vast Pacific Ocean. Willem Schouten, a Dutch explorer who circumnavigated the globe in 1616, saw a double-hulled tongiaki on long-distance journeys and wrote about them: “[T]hey are navigating so fast with sails, that there are just a few boats in Holland which were able to overtake them.”)
Tongiaki were constructed by master builders called tufunga fo‘u vaka who worked in service of their chief. The boats built were mighty and essential to the survival and political dominion achieved. They often measured up to twenty-five meters and could carry over two hundred people on local journeys, who rode on a solid platform-like connection between the two big hulls.
Like the rest of Oceania, metal nails were unknown in Tonga, and the structural pieces were connected with coconut fiber rope called kafa and organic caulking made of plant gum. Sails were woven from plant fibers and, as historical evidence shows, were possibly decorated with designs.
The boat building industry required close cooperation among Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji. Tonga did not have the forests and hardwoods necessary for building seagoing vessels. Hardwood trees were sourced from Fiji. Boat builders from different families or clans, such as the Lemaki Clan of Samoa, came to preeminence in the years before indigenous boat building and navigation in the Southwestern Pacific went into decline with the European “discovery” of these vast archipelagos. By the nineteenth century, the influence of European trade and shipping networks began to shift the balance of power of these Oceanic maritime cultures. With the introduction of the steam engine and its ability to sail faster than wind-powered vessels, a great decrease in traditional navigation and building occurred across the islands.
Today, navigation and sailing are becoming powerful political and material forms of cultural identity. Tonga has joined other robust seafaring and traditional navigation revitalization movements like those in Hawai‘i, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Palau, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Samoa, and Fiji among others who are reclaiming “Moana,” an indigenous Oceanian word for the Pacific Ocean. Regional Pacific cooperation in preserving and perpetuating indigenous knowledge and intangible heritage of seafaring cultures is a way forward into a more sustainable and climate-challenged Pacific island region.