The Art of Finding a Way: Blind Wayfinder of Tonga

Blind Navigator of Tonga

In 1820, homeward bound from Samoa where the young King Taufa’ahau had endured a tattooing ceremony that marked his coming of age, the Tongan fleet was struck by storms and blown off course. When the weather cleared, the king’s navigators (or wayfinders) admitted that they were lost. Short of food, the fleet was in peril.

In another canoe, an old and blind wayfinder of lower rank, Tuita Kahomovailahi, heard of the trouble. He asked that their canoe be turned into the wind, luffing the sail and bringing it to a stop. Then he asked his son to lower him over the side. He felt the water, smelled and tasted it. He asked if fishing birds were in sight, and the direction of their flight.

Then he said, “Tell the king we are in Fijian waters.” When the king asked for sailing directions, the old man asked his son for the position of the sun in the sky. He suggested a course, saying “When the sun is in the middle of the sky you will see land.” At noon, they raised Lakemba, a Fijian island in the Lau group.

The grateful king raised the old man to noble status, and his descendants have since been known as Fafakitahi, “feelers of the sea.”

Painting by legendary Hawaiian artist Herb Kawainui Kane for National Geographic.