Monday, October 6, 2014

The Kon-Tiki man

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Thor Heyerdahl, the great Norwegian adventurer who, by sailing primitive rafts and canoes, showed that ancient peoples could have made oceanic voyages, across the Pacific, and across the Atlantic. An archive of his papers, now registered of world importance by Unesco, holds some diaries, though there is no evidence of these ever having been published in their original form. Heyerdahl wrote several international bestsellers about his adventures, and these occasionally refer to the diaries.

Heyerdahl was born in Larvik, Norway, on 6 October 1914, the son of a brewer. He studied zoology and geography at the University of Oslo, but also became very interested in Polynesian culture and history. He was able to consult books and papers in the Kropelien Polynesian library, then the largest such collection in the world. In 1936, he married Liv Coucheron-Torp, and together they travelled to the island of Fatu Hiva, part of the Marquesan archipelago, in the Pacific. They remained a year studying the indigenous plants and animals, but Heyerdahl became more interested in cultural anthropology than zoology. They had two sons.

During the occupation of Norway by Nazi Germany, Heyerdahl served with the Free Norwegian Forces from 1944, in the far north province of Finnmark. After the war, he persisted with his anthropological studies, developing a theory that Polynesian people might have originated from South America, having travelled across the Pacific Ocean in pre-Columbian times.

To test his idea, Heyerdahl mounted an expedition - funded by private loans, with US army equipment, and the help of a Peruvian dockyard - which would become one of the most famous adventures of all time - the Kon-Tiki expedition. With a small team, Heyerdahl built a raft, named Kon-Tiki, out of balsa logs and other native materials with the design and know-how as recorded in illustrations by Spanish conquistadores. The trip began on 28 April 1947, and the raft sailed for 101 days, over 6,900km, before smashing into a reef at Raroia in the Tuamotu Islands - i.e. in Polynesia - on 7 August. Heyerdahl soon published a book on the experience; it became a best seller, and has been translated into many languages.

Following the Kon-Tiki success, Heyerdahl campaigned often on environmental issues, and undertook further adventures. In 1955–1956, he organised the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Rapa Nui, which uncovered much new, of scientific and popular interest. In 1969 and 1970, he twice tried to cross the Atlantic, from Morocco, in canoes built from papyrus based on Ancient Egyptian designs. The first expedition - in Ra - failed, but the second - in Ra II - made it from Morocco to Barbados, thus showing that seamen from long ago could have crossed the Atlantic using the Canary Current. He also undertook expeditions in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, as well as in Azerbaijan (searching for an ancient civilisation with links to Odin).

Heyerdahl married again in 1949, to Yvonne Dedekam-Simonsen, and they had three daughters. They divorced in 1969. Heyerdahl married a third time in 1991, to Jacqueline Beer, and they lived in Tenerife, Canary Islands, actively involved in archaeological projects. Heyerdahl died in 2002. He was given a state funeral by the Norwegian government. Indeed, he had been much honoured in his life, by state and academia, including being awarded the Grand Cross of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olav in 1987, and the UN International Pahlavi Environment Prize. More biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, the Thor Heyerdahl Institute, National Geographic News, the Kon-Tiki Museum website, or The Telegraph. For an alternative view of some of Heyerdahl’s theories, see The Maldives Royal Family website.

Many of the Thor Heyerdahl archives are kept at the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, and were recently included in the Memory of the World Register, a Unesco initiative to safeguard the documentary heritage of humanity. According to the Register, the Thor Heyerdahl collection of documents ‘encompasses diaries, original book and article manuscripts, private letters, expedition plans, articles and newspaper clippings.’

Although I have not been able to find any evidence online of Heyerdahl’s diaries being published, there are various references to such diaries in publications by him, or about him and his expeditions. A feature published by Business Insider earlier this year includes a photograph of a page from Heyerdahl’s diary on the day the Kon-Tiki expedition found land (held by The Explorer’s Club in New York). There are other documents about the expedition available online at the Kon-Tiki Museum, though these are largely log books rather than diaries.

Heyerdahl, himself, refers to something called ‘the diary’ in The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas (first published in Norwegian in 1948, and in English in 1950, but since republished many times, most recently by Simon and Schuster in 2013, titled simply Kon-Tiki - partly available online at Googlebooks). In the book, Heyerdahl writes about the marine life they saw, and caught and ate, and then says: ‘But we did not run up against acquaintances [i.e. fish they knew the names of] only, as we lay drifting over the sea’s surface. The diary contains many entries of this type:’

11 May 1947
‘Today a huge marine animal twice came up to the surface alongside us as we sat at supper on the edge of the raft. It made a fearful splashing and disappeared. We have no idea what it was.’

6 June 1947
‘Herman saw a thick dark-coloured fish with a broad white body, thin tail, and spikes. It jumped clear of the sea on the starboard side several times.’

16 June 1947
‘Curious fish sighted on the port bow. Six feet long, maximum breadth one foot, brown, thin snout, large dorsal fin near head and a smaller one in the middle of the back, heavy sickle-shaped tail fin. Kept near surface and swam at times by wriggling its body like an eel. It dived when Hermann and I went out in the rubber dinghy with a hand harpoon. Came up later but dived again and disappeared.’

18 June 1947
‘Knut observed a snakelike creature, two to three feet long and thin, which stood straight up and down in the water below the surface and dived by wriggling down like a snake.’

There are slight references, also, to diaries kept during the Ra and Ra II expeditions, but actual extracts from such diaries are elusive, at least online. In The Kon-Tiki Man - Thor Heyerdahl by Christopher Ralling (BBC Books) which accompanied a documentary in 1990, or thereabouts, Ralling employs texts from Heyerdahl’s own books. And, indeed, the book’s blurb says it is ‘profusely illustrated with photographs’ and ‘the text includes many excerpts from Heyerdahl’s diaries and published works’.

Personally, I could find only one reference to a diary in this book, as follows: In writing about the first attempt to sail west from Morocco in a papyrus boat, Ralling says Heyerdahl and his team made ‘remarkable progress’ but ‘Thor was much more worried than he was prepared to admit. He had sent radio messages to Yvonne to send out a photographer in a motor vessel in order to take some shots of Ra at sea. In his heart, he confided to his diary and later recorded in The Ra Expeditions, he knew that this might turn into a rescue mission, for the hurricane season was beginning.’

And Rawling then quotes an extract dated 9 July and other dated extracts as though they were quotes from a diary (i.e. the date on one line, and the quotes starting on the next). Reference, however, to Heyerdahl’s original book The Ra Expeditions shows that the quotes by Ralling were actually taken from Heyerdahl’s continuous narrative (written up later, possibly from his diaries, but not actually quoting them). Here is part of that narrative for 9 July - it would be only days before he and his crew abandoned Ra to the waves (and soon after that, they would be starting work on Ra II).

‘On July 9th we had just discovered that the sea which had gone over the cabin roof had also forced its way through the lid of a cask containing almost two hundred pounds of salted meat, which soon rotted. It was during this morning inspection that an agitated Georges came to report something much worse. All the main ropes which secured the outermost papyrus roll on the windward side to the rest of Ra had been chafed through as the floor of the cabin shifted to and fro under the onslaught of the waves. Georges was pale and almost speechless, In one leap I was on the other side of the cabin with Abdullah. The boat was split in two lengthwise. The big starboard bundle, supporting one mast, was moving slowing in and out from the rest of the boat down its entire length. The roll was attached to Ra only at bow and stern. Every time the waves lifted the big papyrus roll away from the rest of the boat we stared straight down into the clear blue depths. Never had I seen the Atlantic so clear and so deep as through that cleft in our own little papyrus world. Abdullah would have turned pale, had he been able. With stoic calm, and without a tremor in his voice, Abdullah said coolly that this was the end. The ropes had worn away. The chain was broken. The rope links would unravel themselves one by one and in an hour or two the papyrus reeds would be drifting away from each other in all directions. [. . .]

Then Norman was suddenly standing beside us, glaring like a tiger about to spring.

“Let’s not give up, boys,” he said through clenched teeth.

Next moment we were all on the go. Carlo and Santiago pulled out coils of rope and measured and chopped up lengths of our thickest cordage. Georges plunged into the waves and swam crosswise under Ra with a thick rope end. Norman and I crawled all over the boat examining the chafed lashings to find out how long it would be before we fell apart. Papyrus stems were floating in our wake, singly and in sheaves. Abdullah stood with the sledge-hammer, driving in Ra’s huge sewing needle, a thin iron spike with an eye at the bottom, large enough to take a rope one quarter of an inch thick. With this needle, we were going to try to sew the ‘paper boat’ together. Yuri stood the gruelling turn at the rudder-oar alone, hour after hour. First Georges swam crosswise under the boat four times with our thickest rope, which we cinched up on deck like four big barrel hoops, in the hope of holding the bundles together so that the straddled mast would not burst open at the top. Then he ducked under the papyrus bundles to the spot where Abdullah’s big sewing needle had been pushed through. In the depths Georges had to pull the thin rope out of the needle’s eye and re-thread it a moment later when Abdullah pushed the needle down again empty in another place. In this way we got the fatal gap ‘sewn’ up again to some extent, but we had lost a lot of papyrus on the starboard side and were consequently lying harder to windward than ever before. The straddled mast was askew, but Ra was still sailing so fast that Georges had to be held on a rope. We were delighted to be able to haul him on board for the last time without his having been spiked through the head by the sharp giant needle.

Carlo apologized for the meal: spume was constantly washing into the galley chest and putting out the fire.’

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