Book Preview: ‘Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia’ by Christina Thompson

By Jillian Kravatz

Coming March 12 (HarperCollins)

Sea People

Photo courtesy of HarperCollins.

If our Bostonian winter has you dreaming of faraway lands, you’re in luck: Local author Christina Thompson’s new book can whisk you away to the most remote islands of the Pacific Ocean.

In a thorough and page-turning investigation, Harvard Review editor Thompson revisits the 18th century’s fascination and curiosity about Polynesia after Europe’s arrival there. Just how did anyone end up on those remote islands? Beginning with Captain James R. Cook’s landing on the Hawaiian archipelago in January of 1778, Thompson dives into what she describes as the “cryptic” history of the Polynesian peoples. This journey, we learn, has personal stakes for her family: Thompson’s husband, Seven, is M?ori, the Polynesian people who settled in New Zealand.

As Thompson and her family travel throughout what is known as the “Polynesian Triangle” (the 10-million-square-mile area of the Pacific Ocean in between Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island) she realizes firsthand how astounding it is that one group of voyagers managed to settle such a vast part of the world.

Apart from the stunning isolation of the people living on these islands, Thompson is fascinated—perhaps more than anything else—with how we’ve come to know what we’ve come to know about Polynesian history. Her book is as much about trying to piece together a picture of how ancient Polynesians lived, voyaged, and managed to spread as widely as they did as it is about how historians have managed to piece together that piecing together.

She breaks it down into four useful categories of evidence: eyewitness accounts by 16th, 17th, and 18th century European explorers, oral traditions from Polynesians themselves, scientific findings using radiocarbon dating and simulation, and what’s called “experimental voyaging.”

Part-memoir, part-investigation, part-history book, “Sea People” is an adventure itself: A fascinating collection of the stories Polynesians have been telling about themselves, the stories Europeans have been spinning since arriving on the islands, and the stories about how it all happened that are still being shaped. It’s a compelling read, and one that movingly reminds us that the world is much older and much bigger than we imagine.

This story originally appeared in the Free Time Fervor issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

Like what you’re reading? Consider supporting Scout on Patreon!