If you follow Grays Harbor Historical Seaport, you probably already know that our vessel Hawaiian Chieftain is the largest vessel ever built in Lahaina, Maui. But did you also know about the historic role Hawaii plays in the story of the original Lady Washington’s voyages? In the 1788, Lady Washington became the first US vessel to ever visit the Hawaiian archipelago, and American sailors made routine stops to the Islands to stock up on fresh water and food, recruit new crew, and trade for valuable black pearls and sandalwood. More than three thousand years earlier though, the ancestors of modern Hawaiians developed their own sailing traditions which ushered in a period of exploration rivaling any in world history.
Early seafarers from Southeast Asia created swift sailing canoes to reach the islands of Samoa and Tonga. They arrived in small groups and lived on these islands in isolation for centuries, developing a unique cultural identity of their own. About 2000 years later, these islanders began sailing East into uncharted waters, discovering the Tahitian and Marquesas Islands. From these new homelands, these “Polynesians”, people of “many islands”, sailed to the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean, becoming the first inhabitants of Easter Island, New Zealand, and Hawaii. Long before Europeans and Americans first visited the Pacific, the Polynesian had already explored and settled much of it.
In Disney’s popular 2016 film Moana, the title character and her companion Maui are shown sailing a traditional Polynesian double-hulled outrigger canoe called a wa’a kaulua. Throughout the course of the film, Moana learns to navigate her way across the ocean, not with a compass or map, but instead by the cosmos. Using incredible knowledge of the stars, the horizon, and even the look and feel of ocean swells, Polynesian sailors could set a safe course towards their destination.
On our vessels we tell the story of how Lady Washington’s crew helped King Kamehameha develop his first fleet of Hawaiian tall ships which helped him conquer the whole of the Hawaiian archipelago. However the history of Polynesian sailing dates much farther back than that of Europeans, meaning the Americans likely had a lot to learn from King Kamehameha and his people! As our organization learns more about the maritime traditions of early Polynesians, we look forward to being able to bring new stories to the public during our programs. Stories like Moana, and the work of contemporary Polynesian voyaging canoes like Hokulea, inspire us to explore new perspectives on our familiar story.