Exploration and Colonization

The Exploration and Colonization of Oceania and Polynesia

The history of the human exploration and colonization of the Pacific Basin is one of the most important subjects in human history and anthropology. Recent advances in archaeology, historical linguistics, genetic research and bio-anthropology have produced new knowledge and new theories about population movements and interactions in Oceania and Polynesia. According to the current state of knowledge in this field, the migration of the first humans into what is called Near Oceania began around 40,000 years ago and over time produced considerable cultural, linguistic, and genetic diversity in Oceania and Polynesia

About 4,000 years ago, the migration of what are now called Austronesian speakers from the Asian mainland led to the development of the so-called Lapita culture in the area referred to as Near or Western Oceania. The subsequent expansion of these Austronesian speakers into Remote or Eastern Oceania began around 1200 BC and led to the colonization of the islands in the eastern Pacific Ocean. This expansion ended with the settlement and colonization of New Zealand around 1250 AD.

It is possible that Polynesians reached the coast of the Americas during or after this period, returning to Polynesia with the sweet potato from South America, coconut palm trees from Central America and possibly the bottle gourd as well which were then spread throughout the Pacific Basin. However, Polynesian contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas remains a controversial issue, which the Transpacific Project is investigating in detail.

For more information, Click here to read "Peopling of the Pacific: A Holistic Anthropological Perspective," by V. Kirch Patrick, University of California, Berkeley, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 39, pp. 131-148, 2010

As a brotherhood of experts who were trained to have acute powers of observation and memory, the Polynesian navigators were also priests responsible for conducting the rituals of their profession and invoking spiritual help in their voyages.The early European explorers who first encountered the Polynesians could not believe that a stone age people, with only sailing canoes and no navigational instruments, could themselves have discovered and settled the mid-Pacific islands.

As a result, they came up with elaborate theories to explain the presence of the Polynesians in the middle of the Pacific, while denying to them the ability of having reached there through their own sailing abilities. For example, in 1595 the Spanish explorer Quiros imagined a great "Southern Continent" stretching from Asia far into the Pacific across which their ancestors walked to a point from which, by a short canoe crossing, they could reach the Marquesas in the mid-Pacific Ocean. Other early explorers invoked sunken continents, transport by the first Spanish voyagers, and even the special creation of the islands to explain the presence of Polynesians in the middle of the Pacific.

Not until the late eighteenth century with the coming of the second wave of European explorers did a reasonable thesis about where the Polynesians came from, and how they managed to discover and settle their island world, begin to emerge. Whereas the first wave of European explorers were primarily searching for new routes to the riches of Asia, those of this second wave sailed the seas primarily, in Braudel's words, "to obtain new information about geography, the natural world, and the mores of different peoples."

In the Pacific, the leaders of this new wave of exploration criss-crossed the Pacific Ocean, finding and mapping the locations of many of its islands, cataloguing the plants and animals they found, and studying the islanders, their language, and customs. Only then did they realize the true extent of Polynesia, and did they give credence to the idea that the ancestors of the Polynesians could have intentionally sailed into this great ocean to find and settle so many scattered islands.

Whereas the modern navigator is equipped to fix his position without reference to his place of departure, the Polynesian navigators used a system that was home-oriented. They kept a mental record of all courses steered and all phenomena affecting the movement of the canoe, tracing these backwards in their minds so that at any time they could point in the approximate direction of their home island and estimate the sailing time required to reach it—a complex feat of dead reckoning. This required careful attention. It also meant insufficient sleep. It’s been said that the navigator could always be distinguished among his companions on a canoe by his bloodshot eyes.

Sensitivity to dominant ocean swells enabled them to hold a steady course when under cloudy skies. Clouds building over a sun-heated island, and the home-bound or out-bound flight paths of land-based birds fishing far out to sea were among the many phenomena that could lead navigators to islands below the horizon.

After the discovery of a new island, the position of stars passing overhead and the places on the horizon of rising and setting stars would be carefully observed and incorporated into the lore of the navigators. Such knowledge would enable them to find the island again. Places for astronomical study were built, often as rock platforms oriented in relationship to certain celestial events.

The following map depicts the colonization of the Pacific from 60,000 BCE to 400 AD (click on map to enlarge it).  Note the rapid expansion after 1500 BC and the relatively recent colonization of Hawai'i, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and New Zealand (Aotearoa).

A Canoe of the Era of Polynesian Exploration (Painting by Herb Kawainui Kane)

The Tongiaki was the double canoe used during the period of Tongan expansion from the 16th through the 18th centuries when adventurers from the small islands of Tonga established what has been called the “Tongan Maritime Empire” — a network of political and social influence with other island groups, most notably islands of Fiji, Uvea, Tuvalu, and Samoa. The first recorded European contact with this type of vessel was made by the Dutch explorer Schouten in 1616. He wrote: “The rig of these vessels is so excellent and they go so well under sail that few ships in Holland could overtake them.”

European Exploration and Colonization in the Pacific Basin

European explorers, traders and colonizers were "late comers" to the Pacific Basin. Early European travelers to Asia such as Marco Polo reported a large ocean off the coast of Asia, but it was not until the late 15th century that European explorers and trading ships succeeded in sailing around Africa and then sailing to the western rim of the Pacific Ocean.

European recognition of the Pacific Ocean as a distinct ocean dates from the Spanish conqueror and explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa's 1513 sighting of its eastern shore on the coast of modern day Panama. However, it was Ferñao de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan) and Juan Sebastian Elcano's transpacific voyage (1520–21) that initiated a series of subsequent European explorations, and by the end of the 18th century the major Pacific islands and the Pacific coastlines of Asia, Australia, North, Central and South America had been explored.

During the 16th century, the European presence in the Pacific Basin was largely confined to explorers, missionaries, merchants and conquerors from Spain and Portugal. They were joined by the English and the Dutch, who established commercial and colonial footholds in the Pacific Basin during the 17th century. France and Russia followed in the 18th century, and Germany and the United States of America in the 19th century. The USA did not enter the Pacific Basin until the early 19th century, initially to engage in whaling and trade with China, but by the end of the 19th century it became a colonial power in the Philippines and the Pacific Islands. Click here to read more on the exploration and colonization of the Pacific.

The following map depicts the routes of the more well known European transpacific explorers. Click on the map to enlarge it.

Ferñao de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan) and Juan Sebastián Elcano are the two most famous leaders of the first European transpacific voyage and circumnavigation of the world. For a brief video overview of the around the world voyage led by Magellan and Elcano (sometimes spelled El Cano), click here.

In fact, it was Juan Sebastián Elcano or El Cano (1486 - 1526), a Basque subordinate officer in Magellan's expeditiion, who led the expedition that completed the first circumnavigation of the world.  Elcano took over the expedition after Magellan was killed in the Philippines.

For more information on Elcano, click here.

Ferñao de Magalhães, better known as Ferdinand Magallan (c. 1480 – April 27, 1521) was a Portuguese adventurer who participated in the Portuguese colonial conquests in India and Malacca. He and his partner, the cosmographer Rui Faleiro, were placed in charge of a fleet of five ships by King Charles I of Spain to find a westward route from Spain to the "Spice Islands" or Moluccas (modern Maluku Islands in Indonesia), which was the original objective of Christopher Columbus' exploration.

Magellan's and Faleiro's expedition of 1519–1522 was the first expedition to sail from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific Ocean (Magellan named it the "peaceful sea"). The passage of their fleet around the tip of South America was made via what subsequently was named the Strait of Magellan. However, Magellan did not complete the voyage and return to Spain, since he was killed in the Philippines by the warriors of Datu Lapu-Lapu, one of the local chiefs of Mactan Island. 

For more information on Ferdinand Magellan, click here.

Click on map to enlarge

For more information on the Megallan/Elcano expedition, click here.

English Explorers in the Pacific Basin

It was not until the late 16th century that the English began to venture into the Pacific Basin. The first expedition was led by Sir Francis Drake (1540 –1596), who was an English sea captain, privateer, navigator, slaver, and politician of the Elizabethan era. Drake was awarded a knighthood in 1581 by Queen Elizabeth after he had completed the first English circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580. He was later appointed Vice Admiral and was the second-in-command of the English fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. He died of dysentery in January 1596, after unsuccessfully attacking the Spanish fortress at San Juan, Puerto Rico. He survived the attack, but died while his ship was anchored off the coast of Portobelo, Panama. Before dying, he asked to be dressed in his full armor and buried at sea in a lead coffin. Divers continue to search for his coffin in the waters near Portobelo.

His exploits were legendary, making him a hero to the English but he was considered a hated pirate by the Spaniards to whom he was known as El Draque -- 'Draque' being the Spanish pronunciation of 'Drake'. His name in Latin was Franciscus Draco ('Francis the Dragon'). It is claimed that King Philip II of Spain offered a reward for his life of 20,000 ducats ($6.5 million USD by modern standards).

Click on the following map of Drake's circumnavigation of the globe to enlarge it.

Portrait of Sir Thomas Cavendish "The Navigator"

Sir Thomas Cavendish (1560 – 1592) was an English explorer and a privateer known as "The Navigator" because he was the first who deliberately set out to circumnavigate the globe. While members of Magellan's, Loaisa's, Drake's, and Loyola's expeditions had preceded Cavendish in circumnavigating the globe, it had not been their intent at the outset to do this. Cavendish's first trip and successful circumnavigation of the globe, made him both famous and rich from the Spanish gold, silk and treasure he captured while in the Pacific. His richest prize was the 600 ton Manila Galleon Santa Ana, which he captured and destroyed off the coast of Baja California.

After a several hour chase Cavendish's two English ships caught up with the Santa Ana, which had no cannons on board so it could carry more cargo. After several hours of battle in which Cavendish used his cannons to shoot fire balls and grape shot into the galleon while the ship's crew tried to fight back with small arms, the Santa Ana started to sink and surrendered.

Because of the great disparity in size the between Cavendish's two ships and the Santa Ana, he and his men had to pick and choose what cargo they transfered to their ships. One hundred ninety Spaniards (including Sebastián Vizcaíno who later explored the California coast), and Filipino crewmen were set ashore in a location where they had water and some food. Cavendish kept with him two Japanese sailors, three boys from Manila, a Portuguese traveler familiar with China and a Spanish pilot (navigator).

His men loaded all the gold (about 100 troy pounds) and then picked through the silks, damasks, musks (used in perfume manufacture), spices, wines, and ship's supplies for what they could carry. In Mexico, it was claimed that the total value of the cargo was about 2,000,000 pesos. After setting fire to the Santa Ana, the Desire and Content sailed away on November 17, 1587. The Content was never heard from again. The Santa Ana, while burning, drifted into the coast where the Spanish survivors extinguished the flames and refloated the ship which they use to sail back to Acapulco.

Like Drake, Cavendish was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I of England after his return. He later set out for a second raiding and circumnavigation trip, but he was not as fortunate as his first expedition and he died at sea at the age of 32. The following 1707 map shows the route of Cavendish's circumnavigation of the globe. Click to enlarge

The Manila - Acapulco Transpacific Trade Route

Spain's exploration and colonization of the Americas as well as the Philippines and Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific led to the development of a transpacific trade route between Asia and the Americas which was dominated by Spain for three centuries.  In fact, Spain's Manila - Acapulco Galleons have been credited with the "birth of world trade", since they linked the continents of Asia and the Americas in a continuous system of transpacific trade that lasted from the sixteenth century until the present.
The Manila Galleons or China Naos (nao de la China) as they were called were the first European ships to establish a regular transpacific trade route across the Pacific Ocean between Asia and the Americas. Spain controlled this transpacific trade route between the Philippines (Manila) and Mexico (Acapulco) for almost three centuries. The first Spanish ship to sail this transpacific route left Mexico in 1564. It sealed the destiny of the Philippines over the next three centuries since it kept the Philippines under Spanish colonial domination.
The annual voyage generally began in July, and involved transporting between 500 and 1,500 tons of silver between Acapulco and Manila. The transpacific voyage lasted on average about five months from the Philippines to Mexico and four months from Mexico to the Philippines. There is a good possibility one or more of the Spanish galleons made contact with the Hawaiian Islands during the 16th and/or 17th centuries long before the English explorer Captain James Cook “discovered” them in 1778.

In the Philippine archipelago, the galleons had to avoid Chinese, Japanese and Malayan pirates, as well as the Dutch and English pirates that waited for them in the open waters. In the early 1600s, the Dutch attempted to take this valuable transpacific route away from the Spanish, but were unsuccessful.

For information on the Manila Galleon transpacific trade, click here to read the following: Dennis O. Flynn, Arturo Giráldez, “Born with a Silver Spoon”: The Origin of World Trade in 1571,” Journal of World History 6 (1995):201.


European Imperialism in the Pacific Basin 1500s - 1900s
European colonies were first established in the western part of the Pacific Basin in the 16th and 17th centuries by the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch. They established these colonies to gain control over the maritime trade with India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), China, Japan, the Philippines and the so-called Spice (Moluccan or Maluku) Islands in what is today Indonesia.
(Click on map to enlarge it)
At the same time, these European countries were exploring and conquering large areas of the eastern Pacific Basin and the Americas - the so-called New World. They were later joined by British, French and Russian traders and colonizers.

The map above shows the European colonization of the eastern Pacific Basin -- the Americas -- around 1763. By this time, European colonies covered extensive areas in North, Central, and South America. Spain, Portugal, France and Britain controlled the greatest amount of territory. This period of colonization ended in the late 1820's as a result of a series of successful armed rebellions (so-called wars of independence) by the colonial populations against the European colonial governments that had been in control over most of these colonies.

The map below depicts the various colonial empires and spheres of imperialist influence that had been established in Asia by 1900.  By the late 19th century, the European colonial powers in Asia were joined by Japan and the United States of America as they took possession of colonial territories in Asia and the Pacific Islands.

The following 2 maps depict the imperialist expansion of the United States of America in the Pacific Basin during the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Japanese imperialist expansion took place during approximately the same period as US imperialist expansion and ultimately brought Japan into armed conflict with both the United States of America and the European colonial powers in this part of the world. This conflict culminated in the Pacific War of 1941-1945.


To be continued..........


For more information, see the following:

Brief Overview of European Exploration of the Pacific, 1600–1800.

Timeline of European Exploration of the Pacific from Magellan to Cook.

Summary information on European History/Exploration and Discovery (Wikipedia)

Information on the Manila Galleon Trade, 1565-1815

The Spanish Lake: The Pacific since Magellan, Volume I, by O. H. K. Spate

The Manila galleons or Manila-Acapulco galleons and the first Filipinos in America.

Foreign Contact With Hawai'i Before Captain Cook