Humboldt Forum: Conference “Te Ara Vaka Moana” on Vessels and Navigation in Oceania on 16/17 February 2023

Humboldt Forum

On 16 and 17 February 2023 the conference “Te Ara Vaka Moana” will be held at the Humboldt Forum on ancestral voyaging vessels and navigation in Oceania.

In presentations, panel discussion and film screenings, the event wishes to complicate some of the received narratives of the voyaging revival in Oceania. It wishes to foreground and set into conversation traditions and projects that are otherwise not given a lot of prominence in current debates, in order to address some of the persisting open questions around precolonial Oceanian voyaging and world-making. Finally, the conference wishes to bring knowledge, reverence, and life to the major Oceanian vessels that are on display in the heart of Berlin: The Papuan ‘Luf-boat’, the Taumakoan Te alo folafolau, the Micronesian Walap, and the new Fijian Drua.

The two-day Te Ara Vaka Moana conference is built around the invitation to Berlin extended by a team of researchers at the University of Potsdam to a delegation of Oceanian scholars and practitioners engaged in the voyaging revival. The delegation from Taumako in the Santa Cruz Group of the Solomon Islands, from Polowat and Saipan in Micronesia, from Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Hawai‘i will visit and study the Oceania collections of the Humboldt Forum and Ethnologisches Museum. These studies will feed into the Te Ara Vaka Moana conference hosted in collaboration with the Humboldt Forum and Ethnologisches Museum.

Precolonial Oceanian Seagoing Vessels

The largest ocean of the planet has for many centuries been the home of the most accomplished builders of seagoing vessels and the world’s finest navigators. Their vessels came in many different forms, using either twin hull or outrigger designs and a range of different shapes of sails. They are referred to as proa or wa in Micronesia, vaka, va’a or pahi in Polynesian contexts, drua in Fiji or sailau in Milne Bay Papua, among others. When Europeans began venturing into the Pacific from the 16th century onwards, they did not find a single archipelago that was not inhabited or had been visited before them. Wherever Europeans began to settle over the coming centuries, however, Oceanian ancestral traditions were in jeopardy. The so-called ‘civilising’ mission, settler colonialism and imperial capitalism thoroughly displaced Oceanian craftsmanship and wayfinding knowledge. Over time, Western scholars began to systematically belittle the accomplishments of precolonial Oceanian peoples, discrediting their capacity to purposefully settle and voyage within the largest ocean of the planet.

Reconstructing Knowledge and Traditions

Over the past few decades, projects all over Oceania have attempted to reconnect with ancestral traditions, to reactivate the knowledge of constructing sea-going vessels, and to study the arts of wayfinding and navigation. These projects have already successfully countered many prejudices of Eurocentric scholarship. They are also part of a future-oriented politics that seeks to re-establish voyaging networks that are at both independent from imperial powers in the region and ecologically sustainable.

Complicated Renaissance of Oceanian Vessel Construction and Navigation

However, the renaissance of Oceanian vessel construction and navigation is complicated. The disruption of colonialism has been so thorough that access to past knowledge is often difficult. The voyaging renaissance therefore ironically relies on living traditions as much as on a critical revaluation of the colonial archive. This includes, for instance, construction plans of vessels, colonial records of voyaging knowledge, and, not least, the material archive of Western ethnographic museums. This archive is a problematic legacy. It was overwhelmingly amassed by colonial and neo-colonial actors in often highly asymmetrical constellations of power. Its injustices must be called. And yet, it also offers a valuable window to the past, not least for those engaged in the Oceanian renaissance of vessel construction and navigation.