by Abellio

Bangkok, 22 November 2015

I was in Vanuatu recently, which, for those readers not familiar with the Pacific, is one of those many little island states that dot the Pacific Ocean, like Tuvalu or Palau or Kiribati. I was there on business, for reasons which are too long to explain here. In any event, as is my habit, when I had a little bit of spare time I went down to the local market in the capital, Port Vila, to see what fruits, veggies, and other local delicacies they might be selling.

market port vila

Much of what I saw was familiar, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen taro before (those neat little bunches behind the potatoes)


and I’ve definitely never seen sea grapes, which is a kind of seaweed if I’ve understood correctly (no idea how you eat them).

sea grapes

Sweet potatoes fall into the category of the known. Nevertheless, I did pause in front of them and go dreamy.

sweet potato market port vila

It wasn’t so much for the sweet potatoes – I’m not a great fan of this tuber, to be honest – but rather for its story here in the Pacific. Let me explain.

As previous posts attest, I have a great interest in the movement of foodstuffs around the world, so whenever I go to markets I always mentally map how the fruits and vegetables (and sometimes meat) must have originally ended up on the counters before me. True to form, I went through the same exercise in that market in Port Vila. Much of what I was seeing was brought into the Pacific Islands from the West, either brought along for the ride by the original inhabitants of the islands when they migrated out of South-East Asia, or through later regional trade between the Pacific Islands and South-East Asia, or even later through the colonial masters when they took over the islands. But the sweet potato was different. As I’m sure my readers know, the sweet potato originally comes from northern South America and possibly Central America. So how did it make it to the Pacific Islands? Well, it could definitely have come with the Spaniards after they conquered Latin America and set up a long distance trading system between Mexico and the Philippines – and in fact, at least one type of sweet potato was introduced to the Pacific Islands this way. It could also have come from the other direction, via Europe – and this is indeed the way that the Portuguese introduced the sweet potato to this part of the world, mostly to the islands of South-East Asia rather than the Pacific itself, as they sniffed around the area for spices. But there was another route of introduction of the sweet potato to the Pacific Islands, one which is much more fascinating, and this was by the Pacific Islanders themselves, who sailed all the way to South America and brought the sweet potato back with them (and may have left the chicken, although this is much debated). Since I’ve been talking about maps, here’s one which summarizes nicely the spread of the sweet potato in the Pacific:

map of sweet potato spread

The blue line is the Spanish introduction, the yellow line is the Portuguese introduction, and the red line is the introduction by the Polynesians. The evidence for a Polynesian introduction is archaeological (remains of sweet potato in Polynesian tombs datable to a time long before the colonial period), linguistic (as the map shows, there is a definite similarity between the Polynesian/Melanesian name of the sweet potato and its original South American name), and more recently DNA-related, through comparison of gene sequence mappings of the DNA of South American varieties with old specimens kept in European herbariums collected during the first trips of exploration by James Cook, Louis de Bougainville, and others.

The map also shows the most probable route taken by the Polynesians to reach South America, via Easter Island. But now, let me tell you, East Island is far away from South America. It’s about 3,500 km far away. And on the other side it’s far away from other Pacific Islands. It’s about 3,600 km far away from the islands of French Polynesia, which are the closest biggish islands. Yet, the Polynesians sailed these vast distances – and not on some big comfy ship running on oil and crammed full with the latest navigation equipment but on a boat like this, powered by sail, and where they could only rely on their reading of stars, cloud formations, sea swells, and bird flight patterns to navigate.

polynesian ship

This picture clearly romanticizes the vessel. It must have been a cramped, dangerous voyage. Many times, the ships must have got lost at sea – James Cook writes of coming across a boatful of Polynesians in the middle of nowhere, who had been driven off course by a storm and were asking where they were.

This is a modern version of one of these ships, built in the 1970s,

modern polynesian ship

which clearly shows the unique aspect of their design, the use of two hulls. In fact, this design inspired modern ocean-going catamarans and eventually the truly amazing catamarans that now race in the America’s Cup.


These beauties can go up to 80 km/hr, but a more typical speed on a modern ocean going catamaran would be 15 km/hr. Doing a little maths here, it would therefore take a modern catamaran about 10 days to sail from Easter Island to South America. So if luck was with them, if the winds stayed steady and did not get too boisterous, if there were no nasty storms to drive them off course, the Polynesians probably would have had to last 10 days-two weeks out in the Pacific before hitting South America, which seems doable. Getting back, though, must have been considerably harder. I mean, on the way there, the Polynesians just had to hit South America, which is kinda big. On the way back, though, they would have had to hit these tiny specks in the ocean, specks which on top of it were much further away – taking the trade winds out of South America would have meant their having to aim for the French Polynesian islands for their first landfall, and these are 8,000 km away, or something like three weeks’ sailing if all went well.

But some Polynesians made it to South America and a few others made it back, with the sweet potato in tow. Because of these very skillful and very courageous sailors, I was looking at sweet potatoes in the market at Port Vila. No wonder I paused and smiled when I saw these not very tasty tubers.


Port Vila market: https://scottmathiasraw.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/img_4446.jpg (in https://scottmathiasraw.com/vanuatu-welcomes-australian-raw-food-chef/)

Taro, Port Vila market: http://www.asiapacificnazarene.org/wp-content/uploads/s_Market-food.jpg (in http://www.asiapacificnazarene.org/five-months-post-cyclone-pam-vanuatu-recovering-thank-you-for-your-prayers-and-partnership/)

Sea grapes: http://photos1.blogger.com/img/164/977/1024/IMG_0110.jpg (in http://becksposhnosh.blogspot.com/2005/09/nama.html)

Sweet potato, Port Vila market: http://c8.alamy.com/comp/DFEN99/purple-colored-sweet-potatoes-in-a-basket-made-of-palm-leaves-on-a-DFEN99.jpg (in http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-purple-colored-sweet-potatoes-in-a-basket-made-of-palm-leaves-on-a-61174997.html)

Map of spread of sweet potato in Pacific: http://www.pnas.org/content/110/6/2205/F1.large.jpg (in http://www.pnas.org/content/110/6/2205/F1.expansion.html)

Polynesian ship: http://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/kane_waa_small10-640×422.jpeg (in http://arstechnica.com/science/2013/01/polynesians-reached-south-america-picked-up-sweet-potatoes-went-home/)

Modern Polynesian ship: http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/images/canoes/hokulea_circa_1975.jpg (in http://pvs.kcc.hawaii.edu/index/founder_and_teachers/nainoa_thompson.html)

America Cup boat: http://www.examiner.com/article/america-s-cup-event-authority-launches-new-sailing-simulation-app