UNIVERSITY of Hawaii Professor Emeritus Ben Finney, who helped to show that ancient Polynesians sailing thousands of miles were capable of finding the Hawaiian Islands through non-instrument navigation, died on Tuesday at a nursing home in Kaimuki, Hawaii.
He was the last surviving founder and first president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, who helped to debunk the scientific theory that Polynesians had drifted to Hawaii by chance.
“The voyage changed the whole identity of the Hawaiian people. We went from being castaways…to being children of the world’s greatest navigators,” said Polynesian Voyaging Society President Nainoa Thompson.
“We owe it to our visionaries … and Ben was the first.”
Ben Finney earned a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Hawaii and a doctorate in anthropology from Harvard University.
He worked as a professor at the University of Hawaii from 1973-2000, including nine years as chairman of the Department of Anthropology.
For decades prior to the early 1970s, a popular assumption about migration was that Pacific islanders found islands such as the Hawaiian Islands by accidentally drifting as castaways in the currents — a theory supported by scientist Thor Heyerdahl aboard the experimental wooden raft Kon Tiki and writers like Andrew Sharp.
But Finney, waterman Tommy Holmes and architect Herb Kane thought otherwise. Kane had seen Hawaiian carvings of ancient petroglyphs of sailing canoes, heard of ancient chants about trips between Hawaii and Tahiti, and wanted to build a voyaging canoe.
Finney had heard from folklorist Katherine Luomala that Sharp’s theory was wrong and should be challenged and Finney was also aware of Pacific Island navigators who practiced non-instrument navigation in Micronesia and he sought to find one, friends said.
Together, the three founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society in 1973 and sought support to build a traditional Hawaiian sailing canoe to embark on a voyage of more than 3,200 km from Hawaii to Tahiti.
ALEX GOLUB writes on Ben Finney's PNG connection….
IN 1967 Ben Finney received a Fulbright award to go to Australia, where he joined the New Guinea Research Unit, a part of the Australian National University.
Between February and August 1967 he conducted fieldwork in Goroka. His topic was local entrepreneurs’ participation in cash cropping.
Australian colonialism in PNG was quite mild compared to colonial regimes elsewhere. In Goroka indigenous people were being encouraged to become entrepreneurs, growing and selling coffee and other crops, and the took to these practices eagerly. They were, it seemed, “pre-adapted” to capitalism, with a strong, culturally-specific drive to excel.
For Ben, Goroka must have seemed like heaven. Tahitians, he saw, were “vulnerable” (or “precarious” as we would say today) to economic and imperial power. Their traditions and customs were being eroded by capitalism, leaving them depressing lives of work on plantations and in town.
In PNG, in contrast, it appeared that economic development and traditional culture were leading hand-in-hand towards development (btw Goroka’s future was not as rosy as Ben predicted, and Tahiti’s was not so dire).
In addition to an open access report based on this research, New Guinean Entrepreneurs Ben’s fullest statement of this research can be found in his 1973 book Big Men and Business. His then-wife, Ruth Finney, also produced a report entitled Would-be Entrepreneurs? A Study of Motivation in New Guinea which deserves to be read as well.
Ben continued on as a research fellow at ANU’s Department of Pacific History until 1970, when he took a position as an associate professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
Ben became professor emeritus in 2000 but continued to come in to the department regularly. He had the office two doors down from me — he chose it shortly after our building had been built because it had an extra nook in it, which he used as a small private library.
I first met him in 2004. He made a big impression — he was tall, lean, and weather-beaten. Laconic but intelligent, you didn’t have to spend much time around him to recognize that his reputation was well-earned.
After his stroke, when he finally stopped coming to his office, I inherited his PNG books. I often come across his handwriting in the margins, and they are stuffed full of pieces of paper with handwritten notes on them, drafts of book reviews, and correspondence with publishers and authors.
It is sad to see Ben go. But he lived a good life. He found a career that made intellectual and emotional sense, knitting together disparate projects into a coherent whole. And, less we end on too pious a note, he enjoyed himself tremendously — and always found a way to do it without too much trouble.
Ben will be missed, but he lives on in so many of the people and institutions that he was part of here in Hawai‘i. His memory truly is a blessing.