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Conjuring a lost world

Still, lies and misdemeanours, guesses and hypothesis, speculations and proofs, big theories and successful demonstrations – all pertaining to the mapping of the Pacific, the movements of people into it, their material and linguistic communalities – are the breadfruit of this instructive book.

Thompson is especially interesting on ethnographic pioneers such as the Swedish-born sailor Abraham Fornander, whose great work on The Polynesian Race, its Origins and Migrations and the Ancient History of the Hawaiian People was published (1878-85) at a time of population collapse, of “death coming in like a tide”, as Robert Louis Stevenson put it.

Fornander collected 2000 years of genealogies, customs, legends, place names, numerals and mythological traditions from all over the Pacific and found ways of connecting them to Indian, Iranian and European traditions. He posited different waves of migration from the north-west.

His methods did not yield historical dates as we understand them. And it eclipsed the significance of the oral nature of Polynesian traditions that were, in Thompson’s terms, “densely poetic, elliptical, evocative and occasionally obscure”. Voyaging stories, however, there were aplenty, even if they were propelled by winds in magic bags or talking stars. In this part of her book Thompson is allowing us to appreciate the resonances of a Polynesian Cosmos that defined itself without writing.

The universe began in something known as Te Po, typically described “as a period of chaos or darkness or a kind of night”. The darkness is both literal and metaphorical, a grand catch-all dualism that issued forth in elaborate and powerful chants, many of them expounding on the procreational fecundity of a world of “abundance in multitude”. The result was a cosmic genealogy where rocks and fish, corals and trees were part of a family tree.