National Geographic : 1943 Jan
War Finds Its Way to Gilbert Islands rout to win new homes in the Gilbert Islands. This is a race of seamen. There are still graybeards in the group who have made voyages of more than a thousand miles in canoes sewn together with string. Until 30 years ago interisland trips of 250 miles and more were regularly made in these frail craft for the purpose of exchanging dances! Only the night sky gives the brown man his sense of direction in the huge emptinesses of the Pacific. He navigates as we do, by the stars. He has a general knowledge of the heavens that many of our own skilled navi gators might well be proud to possess. My old friend Biria of Makin (Butaritari) has told me how, 60 years ago, as a boy of about 14, he was instructed in astronomy. His lessons did not begin under the stars of heaven, but in the village Maneaba. He was made to sit at the base of the central pillar that supported the ridgepole, facing the eastern slope of the roof. The eaves repre sented the eastern horizon, the upward slope of thatch the eastern sky, and the ridge pole the meridian. The summit of the cen tral post by which he sat represented the star Rigel, and from that central point in the heavens began the boy's instruction. Just as the roof was divided by lines of rafters, so the heavens were plotted out for him in lines of principal stars. Every con stellation of the Gilbertese chart was allotted its imaginary place in the thatch, according to what we would call its angular distance from Rigel, and its declination north or south of that star. The Gilbertese Knows His Stars Line by line he learned them: first the mid dle rank with its leader Rigel; then a line to the north, led by the Pleiades (Seven Sisters); and after that, a southern rank led by Antares and so on. Before the pupil was allowed to identify a single star in heaven, he had to name word perfectly a list of no fewer than 178 stars, constellations, and nebulae; to indicate their relative positions with precision in the rafters; and to say at what height above the eaves (i. e., the horizon) any one of them might be observed at sunrise or sunset during any given season of the year. When these elements were firmly fixed in his mind, he was made to memorize separate and individual lists of stars by which courses might be steered to the lands included in his tutor's geography. He learned, for example, how to navigate to and from Samoa, 1,200 miles to southeast; and Truk in the Caro lines, more than 1,400 miles to northwest. There was talk of other lands, too, the ex istence of which was less well authenticated. For instance, there was Naba-naba to west ward, the Island of Breathing Bones, inhabi tants of which were animated skeletons. Farther still to westward was Onouna, sur rounded by whirlpools, and by caves that were the gullets of man-eating hags. To southwest lay Kabintongo, the Island by the World's Edge, where ocean plunged down in one vast cataract into unfathomable abysses. Of all these lands of tradition, Maiawa should be the most interesting to Americans. It is described in travel stories as the "Wall at the side of the world, four moons' sail to eastward." It was discovered by one Raakau, the greatest of all Gilbertese navigators, who lived in the dim ages before the coming from Samoa. Did Gilbert Canoes Reach America? He reported it as a land that stretched along the "eastern edge of the ocean, to north ward without end, and to southward without end." "Beyond the farthest eastward islands it lies," he said, "a wall of mountains up against the place where the sun rises, stand ing over plains full of fertility." There is only one littoral in the Pacific that can be said to fit this description, and that is the western coast of the American Continent. Nowhere else in the world may travelers find a sport finer than the canoe racing in these lagoons of the central Pacific. The craft used for racing is the veriest knife-blade of a vessel, some 30 feet long and under 30 inches in beam amidships, built up of planks lashed edge to edge with string of coconut fiber, and stabilized by an outrigger. Not a nail or a piece of metal is used in its con struction (pages 75, 82, 84, 89). Under the pressure of its enormous tri angular sail, such a vessel, on a calm day with a smart breeze, will attain a speed of 18 miles an hour. She reaches her maximum with the outrigger float poised a couple of feet clear of the water. It is the object of the man at the sheet to keep his sail just so full of wind as to heel his craft over to leeward, heave the float above the lagoon's surface, and keep it sway ing there for miles at a stretch. Helping him is a special outrigger expert, whose sole duty it is to watch that float. When it rises dangerously high, out he flings himself upon the outrigger, so that his weight, acting as a lever against the sail's pull, de presses it again toward the water and thus saves the canoe from capsizing.