Transpacific Boats and Ships

They Came in Boats

The Polynesians had a variety of ocean sailing craft which they used to travel long distances across the Pacific. They inherited their seafaring culture from their Austronesian ancestors, who began their migration from Southeast Asia into the Pacific in ocean sailing craft thousands of years ago. To quote K.R. Howe: "Austronesian sailors began their explorations from Southeast Asia at least 4000 years ago. For thousands of subsequent years they had the world's only blue-water maritime technology and navigational knowledge. Over about a 2000-year period they covered the expanse of the Pacific Ocean to as far as Easter Island and probably the Americas, and they crossed the Indian Ocean to at least as far as Madagascar and probably Africa." (Vaka Moana: Voyages of the Ancestors | the discovery and settlement of the Pacific, edited by K.R. Howe, Auckland New Zealand: David Bateman, 2009, p. 272)

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Click here to view the website of the Vaka Moana exhibition at the Auckland Museum. Vaka Moana presents the story of the exploration of the Pacific Islands. It begins approximately 4000 years ago, when the ancestors of the peoples of the Pacific Islands "looked toward a never-ending horizon and launched the world's first sea-going craft into the greatest ocean on Earth."

Replicas of traditional Polynesian voyaging canoes have been constructed throughout contemporary Polynesia following the precedent set by the Hawaiians in the early 1970s with the construction and voyages of their now famous replica of an ancient voyaging canoe, named the Hokule'a.

Since the first voyages of the Hokule'a, these replicas of traditional voyaging canoes have been sailed throughout the Pacific. Click here to see a brief video on the arrival of a fleet of voyaging canoes from different part of Polynesia to Hawai'i in June 2011. These voyaging canoes then sailed to the west coast of North America. The photo below shows them arriving in the San Francisco Bay in August 2011.

In crossing the Pacific from Aotearoa (New Zealand) to Hawaii, these voyagers have sailed in their ancestors’ wake to learn from their ancient wisdom and to teach young people today about their ancestors' ancient bond with the sea. The fleet left New Zealand in April and was welcomed by residents and dignitaries on the Big Island of Hawai'i on June 21, 2011. The canoes represented Tahiti, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, New Aotearoa, New Guinea, Vanuatu, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands. More information on this voyage, its purpose and the canoes can be found at the Pacific Voyagers website (click here).

The Origins of the Pacific Peoples - Lost Maritime Cultures

Scientists at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawai'i have been in search of answers to the question of the origins of the Pacific people and cultures since the inception of the Museum in 1883. They have placed a few more pieces of the puzzle together with Lost Maritime Cultures: China and the Pacific, a groundbreaking exhibition of international significance. This landmark exhibition explores cultural and anthropological connections between ancient China and Oceania.

Included in the exhibition and the book published on this subject are the finest examples of the prehistoric seafaring civilizations of China, featuring many rare national cultural treasures that have never traveled outside of the country. Most scientists have determined that Southeast China is the original homeland of the Austronesians, which includes Polynesians, Melanesians, Micronesians and the indigenous people in the Southeastern Asian Archipelagos. Some of the maritime cultures featured in this exhibition and book are believed to be the ultimate source of the seafaring Austronesian culture that eventually spread throughout the Pacific, reaching as far as the Hawaiian Islands.

Click here to see video on the exhibit on Lost Maritime Cultures: China and the Pacific at the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, HI.

Click here to see video on Polynesian seafaring narrated by Napuanalani Cassidy for "Wayfinders: a Pacific Odyssey" PBS c1999.

European and Asian Sailing Craft:

Click here to view a website with background information on the history of sailing ships in Asia and Europe.

Ships of the world on the Fra Mauro map (1460 is an incorrect date; it should read circa 1450). Chinese junks are depicted as very large three or four-masted ships on this map. The Fra Mauro world map (see below) is typical of his portolan charts, in that the south is at the top of the chart, which was one of the conventions of Muslim maps at the time this map was made.

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This map was made around 1450 by the Venetian monk Fra Mauro. It is a circular planisphere drawn on parchment and set in a wooden frame, about two meters in diameter. A copy of this map was made by Fra Mauro and his assistant Andrea Bianco, a sailor-cartographer, under a commission by king Afonso V of Portugal. This copy was completed on April 24, 1459, and sent to Portugal, but it has not survived to the present day. The original map above was discovered in the monastery of San Michel in Isola, Murano, where the cartographer had his studio, and is now located in a stairway in the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice. The Fra Mauro map is one of the first Western maps to depict the islands of Japan (possibly after the De Virga world map). A part of Japan, probably Kyūshū, appears below the island of Java, with the legend "Isola de Cimpagu".Click here to read more information about this map.

Fra Mauro put an inscription by the southern tip of Africa, which he names the "Cape of Diab", describing the exploration by a ship from the East around 1420. It reads: "Around 1420 a ship, or junk, from India crossed the Sea of India towards the Island of Men and the Island of Women, off Cape Diab, between the Green Islands and the shadows. It sailed for 40 days in a south-westerly direction without ever finding anything other than wind and water. According to these people themselves, the ship went some 2,000 miles ahead until - once favourable conditions came to an end - it turned round and sailed back to Cape Diab in 70 days". "The ships called junks (lit. "Zonchi") that navigate these seas carry four masts or more, some of which can be raised or lowered, and have 40 to 60 cabins for the merchants and only one tiller. They can navigate without a compass, because they have an astrologer, who stands on the side and, with an astrolabe in hand, gives orders to the navigator". (Text from the Fra Mauro map, 09-P25.) Click here to see more information.

Below is a close up of the legend on the Fra Mauro Map that describes the construction of the junks that navigated in the Indian Ocean at the time this map was made.

These ships were superior to those used by Columbus to discover the Americas.

The book by Marco Polo on his travels to the East was likely one source of information used by Fra Mauro to make his maps. He also appears to have relied on Arab sources as suggested by the South inversion of the map, an Arab tradition exemplified by the 12th century maps of Muhammad al-Idrisi. The detailed information on the southeastern coast of Africa was brought by an Ethiopian embassy to Rome in the 1430s.

It is interesting to compare the Fra Mauro map with the Korean Kangnido map (1402) below. (Click to enlarge)

The Honil Gangni Yeokdae Gukdo Ji Do ("Map of Integrated Lands and Regions of Historical Countries and Capitals.", often abbreviated to the Kangnido, is a world map created in Korea in 1402. The Kangnido is one of the oldest surviving world maps from East Asia, along with the Chinese Da Ming Hun Yi Tu. It is considered one of the most important materials for reconstructing the lost 14th-century original made by the Chinese. As a world map, it reflects the geographic knowledge of China during the Mongol Empire when geographical information about Western countries became available via Islamic geographers. For more information on this map, click here.

Junks were ancient Chinese sailing vessels whose design is still in use today. They were developed during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) and were used as sea-going vessels as early as the 2nd century AD. They evolved in the later dynasties, and were used throughout Asia for extensive ocean voyages. The 3rd century book "Strange Things of the South" (南州異物志) by Wan Chen (萬震) describes junks capable of carrying 700 people together with 260 tons of cargo ("more than 10,000 "斛"). He described one of these ships as follows: "The four sails do not face directly forward, but are set obliquely, and so arranged that they can all be fixed in the same direction, to receive the wind and to spill it. Those sails which are behind the most windward one receiving the pressure of the wind, throw it from one to the other, so that they all profit from its force. If it is violent, (the sailors) diminish or augment the surface of the sails according to the conditions. This oblique rig, which permits the sails to receive from one another the breath of the wind, obviates the anxiety attendant upon having high masts. Thus these ships sail without avoiding strong winds and dashing waves, by the aid of which they can make great speed—Wa Chen, A 260 AD book by Kang Tai (康泰) also described ships with seven masts.

Starting off first with a dugout canoe, the Chinese joined two canoes with planking, forming a square punt, or raft. They built up the side, bow, and stern with planking to form a large, flat-bottomed wooden box. The bow was then sharpened with a wedge-shaped addition below the waterline. At the stern, instead of merely hanging a steering oar over one side as did the Western ships, Chinese shipbuilders contrived a watertight box, extending through the deck and bottom, that allowed the steering oar or rudder to be placed on the centre line, thus giving better control. The stern was built to a high, small platform at the stern deck, later called a castle in the West, so that, in high seas, the ship would remain dry. Thus, in spite of what to Western eyes seemed an ungainly figure, the “Chinese junk” had an excellent hull for seaworthiness as well as for beaching in shallow water. The principal advantage of these ships, however, was their great structural strength. In order to support the side and the bow planking, the Chinese used solid planked walls (bulkheads), running both longitudinally and transversely. They divided the hull of the ship into 12 or more compartments. This produced not only strength but also protection against damage.

In terms of their rigging the Chinese junks were far ahead of Western ships, with sails made of narrow panels, each tied to a sheet (line) at each end so that the force of the wind could be caught in many lines rather than on the mast alone. Also, the sail could be hauled about to permit the ship to sail somewhat into the wind. By the 15th Chinese century junks had developed into the largest, strongest, and most seaworthy ships in the world. Not until the 19th century did Western ships catch up and overcome them in performance.

In the mid 1400s, the Chinese appear to have built very large ships that were capable of sailing long distances and carrying a large cargo of men and merchandise. The following Hong Kong stamp commemorates the large treasure ships of the legendary Admiral Zheng He.

The following picture compares one of Zheng He's Treasure Ships with the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama's ship from approximately the same time period.

Click here to read a brief article on Zheng He's [Cheng Ho's] Treasure Ships by Kallie Szczepanski, About.com Guide

Click here to read more about Zheng He in the article entitled "Ancient Chinese Explorers" by Evan Hadingham, at the website of the PBS NOVA program on this topic.

Click here read information on Zheng He at the online New World Encyclopedia

Click here view an informative 6 minute YouTube video on Zheng He and his treasure ships.

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Contemporary Painting of Admiral Zheng He and his fleet

Manila Galleons:

The Manila Galleons have been credited with the “Birth of World Trade,” linking the continents of Asia and the Americas in a continuous system of transpacific trade that would last from the sixteenth century until the present. The Spanish explored and colonized significant parts of the Pacific Region and there is a possibility one or more of the Spanish galleons made contact with the Hawaiian Islands long before the English explorer Captain James Cook "discovered" them in 1778.

The Manila Galleons or China Naos (nao de la China) were the first European ships to establish a regular transpacific trade route across the Pacific Ocean between Asia and the Americas. Spain controlled this commercial 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 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. The usual transpacific route from Manila involved heading north to San Jacinto Port, where the galleons took supplies before crossing the Pacific ocean. They passed through the San Bernardino Straight towards the Marianna Islands from where they then sailed on the favorable currents heading east, then south along the coast of California and Mexico until they reached Acapulco.

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 on 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.

See also Renaissance ships and navigation, from The Spanish Lake by O. H. K. Spate.

"Click here to view the 50 minute video of the presentation by Dr.Tom Lucas on Galleons and Globalization at the University of San Francisco (September, 2010)

For information about The Spanish in Hawaii, Click here. David Cutter, "The Spanish in Hawaii: Gaytan to Marin" (paper presented at the American Historical Association Pacific Coast Branch meeting in Honolulu, August 1979)

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The original ships used by the Spanish were called naos. They were used largely for exploration and on the first transpacific trips between Mexico and the Philippines, but they were quickly displaced by the larger galleons which had much more storage space and defensive capacity. Many of these ships were built and crewed by Chinese and Filipinos and they were able to carry up to 50 cannons. The Manila Galleon transpacific trade stopped with the independence of Mexico from Spain. In 1821, the new Mexican government ended commercial activity with the Philippines (which remained under Spanish colonial domination until 1898).

The Manila Galleons (also called "Nao de la China" and "Nao de Acapulco") brought porcelain, silk, ivory, spices, and a myriad variety of exotic goods from China to Mexico in exchange for the silver mined by the Spanish in New Spain (Mexico) and Peru. It is estimated that as much as one-third of the silver mined in the Americas was sent over the transpacific route between New Spain (Mexico), Peru and the Far East, particularly China. On the return leg of the transpacific route, precious Asian wares traveled across the Pacific to the port of Acapulco on Mexico's west coast, where they were then transported overland to the port of Veracruz for shipment across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain. However, a good portion of the Chinese porcelain and carved ivory remained in the Americas and, in many cases, influenced local artisans. Thus, traditional Mexican ceramics clearly display the impact of the Galleon transpacific trade.

In recent years, replicas of these transpacific galleons as well as the Polynesian ocean sailing canoes and Chinese ocean sailing junks have been built and sailed across the Pacific using the traditional nautical technology and navigation.

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In 2010, the Philippines celebrated the first International Día del Galeón Festival, commemorating the cultural exchange that took place during the Galleon Trade and highlighting the Filipino and indigenous influence in this historical trade route. Filipinos built many of the galleons and provided up to 80% of the crew on these ships. The Galeon Andalucia below is a replica of the 17th century Galleon that sailed from Spain around the world and arrived in Manila on October 6, 2010.

For more information, click here. "The Intersections & Beyond: The Galeon Andalucia in Manila (Oct 6-9, 2010)"

Meeting of Replicas in Hawai'i: The Princess Taiping and the Hokule'a

Two ancient ship replicas from Hawai'i and China, the Hokule’a (background) and the Princess Taiping (foreground), sailed together in January, 2009 near Waikiki Beach in Oahu, Hawaii. Hans Van Tilburg, Maritime Heritage coordinator for the NOAA Sanctuaries Pacific Region, provided logistical and safety support for the crew of the Princess Taiping. Photo credit: Hans Van Tilburg, NOAA. Click here to see "Asian-Pacific Ships Celebrate Heritage and Goodwill," by Stan Lum, National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration)

The wooden, 54-foot-long Princess Taiping was built by traditional methods in Jinjiang, China’s historic seafaring center, and began its transpacific voyage in January 2008. The vessel and its voyage recalled the technical achievements of Chinese maritime traditions and the rich maritime heritage of the Ming Dynasty.

The Hawai’iloa canoe was built using traditional Hawaiian methods and materials. Because no traditional Kao trees large enough could still be found in Hawai'i, the twin hulls of this replica were carved from two massive spruce logs towed from Alaska.

Transpacific Trade between the United States of America and China:

More than two centuries ago, a U.S. merchant ship – the “China Queen” arrived in Canton (Guangzhou) from the other side of the Pacific. (Click on picture to enlarge. Note the size of the Chinese junk in front of the China Queen.)


The 1784 maiden voyage of this ship from the new United States of America, one of the world’s youngest countries at the time, to China, one of the oldest, was the beginning of what has become a historic transpacific relationship between the Chinese and American people. On February 22, 1784, the China Queen set sail from New York bound for China, loaded with ginseng, fur and pepper. On May 11, 1785, it returned to New York with tea, porcelain and silk from China.
See Celebrating 30 Years of Sino American Relations at Georgetown University

(To be continued....)