Digital History of the Pacific
WisdomMaps: The Future of the Past
Experience our digital history of the Pacific with WisdomMaps!
Human migrations occurred in the Pacific in prehistoric times, and modern humans first reached the western Pacific around 70,000 years ago. The first oceanic migration was that of the Austronesians, who originated on Taiwan, where they invented outrigger boats and catamarans that proved capable of traversing vast stretches of open ocean as far as Polynesia.
Around 1200 BCE, the Austronesian Lapita culture settled the islands of the southwest Pacific, which included the Bismarck Archipelago, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and New Caledonia. From there, they reached Tonga and Samoa by 800 BCE. This was as far as the Austronesians ventured into Polynesia until around 700 CE, when another surge of exploration took them as far as the Americas.
European navigators first arrived in the western Pacific with the Portuguese expeditions that discovered the Lesser Sunda Islands and the Maluku Islands, in 1512. From there, the Spanish admiral Afonso de Albuquerque directed an expedition to southern China in 1513.
Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovered the eastern Pacific in 1513 when his expedition crossed the Isthmus of Panama and reached a new ocean, which he named Mar del Sur, the “South Sea”.
In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan and his crew became the first to cross the Pacific in recorded history. They were part of a Spanish expedition to the Spice Islands that would eventually circumnavigate the globe. Magellan stopped at Guam and then the Philippines, where he was killed by hostile natives. The expedition continued on to Spain, completing the circumnavigation in 1522.
In 1564, five Spanish ships carrying 379 soldiers arrived to colonize the Philippines and Mariana Islands. This began nearly 400 years of Spain’s occupation, and its Manila Galleon sailed back and forth between South America and the Philippines in a trade route that stretched more than 7,000 miles.
The Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernandes de Queirós sailed through the treacherous Torres Strait that separated Australia from New Guinea to discover the Pitcairn and Vanuatu islands. Other explorers sailed around Africa’s southern cape in search of trade. Willem Janszoon made the first European landing in Australia in 1606 at the Cape York Peninsula, and Abel Janszoon Tasman circumnavigated Australia to discover Tasmania and New Zealand in 1642.
Spain increasingly came to regard the Pacific Ocean as its own domain. It guarded the Strait of Magellan to prevent entrance of non-Spanish ships into the Pacific, although at the other end of the Pacific, the Dutch continued to menace the Spanish Philippines.
The 18th century brought Russian explorers in the First Kamchatka and Great Northern Expeditions, which brought Alaska and the Aleutian Islands into the Russian sphere. Spain explored the Pacific Northwest as far north as Vancouver Island and Alaska. The French discovered their “Island of Love” at Tahiti, and England’s Great Navigator James Cook undertook several explorations of the Pacific before meeting an untimely end in Hawai’i.