Volume 86 1977 > Volume 86, No. 1 > Review article: Langdon, Robert. The lost caravel, by Bengt Danielsson, p 117-124
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LANGDON, Robert: The Lost Caravel. Sydney, Pacific Publications, 1975. 369 pp., illus., maps, figs., tables. Price NZ$17.95.

Let me begin with a brief outline of the new, truly sensational theory propounded by Robert Langdon in his book The Lost Caravel.

After Elcano's return on the Victoria, the King of Spain made, in 1524, a second and last attempt to ascertain his sovereignty over the Spice Islands, by sending out a fleet of seven ships. As usual, all sorts of disasters occurred, and only one of the ships reached her destination. Of the remaining six, one was lost in the Atlantic, one returned to Spain, one foundered on the coast of Patagonia, one ended up in Mexico and one was wrecked in the Philippines. As for the seventh ship, the caravel San Lesmes, she was last seen on June 1, 1526, striking out across the Pacific.

So much was known from historical records before the publication of Langdon's book, which tells the rest of the story. As the author has it, the San Lesmes ran aground at Amanu in the Tuamotus, where four cannons were jettisoned. This made it possible to continue to Hao, but the caravel had been damaged beyond repair. The crew therefore built a new ship and sailed over to Anaa. A certain number of the Spaniards remained there and married local women, but the main body of them sailed on to Raiatea. Again, some were happy to settle down peacefully among the islanders, whereas others, “after a lapse of several years”, tried to return to Spain via the Cape of Good Hope. However, having in the process discovered New Zealand, they decided very wisely to settle down there.

Most of their descendants inherited their restless, roving spirit. Those who were born on Anaa did not get further than the easternmost atolls in the Tuamotus. But the Hispano-Polynesians at Raiatea managed to reach not only Tahiti and Raivavae but also, incredibly enough, isolated Easter Island. Everywhere, the castaways and their descendants introduced new customs, ideas and techniques whose true origin and significance have so far escaped even the most learned specialists (such as Douglas Oliver, whom Langdon has taken severely to task 1 for failing to discover any Spanish elements in the Tahitian culture which he has analysed in such a masterly manner in his epoch-making 1420-page encyclopedia Ancient Tahitian Society).

There is, of course, much more in the book than this stark outline indicates. As a matter of fact, Langdon never misses an opportunity to tell a good story — and always tells it well — even when it has nothing to do with the main subject. - 118 There are also seven appendices, half a dozen chapters and numerous photographs which have little or no relevance to the demonstration of his thesis.

The first and easiest way to criticise Langdon's book is to use one's common sense, which makes it utterly impossible to accept his theories, simply because they are too fantastic. The tremendous popular success of the even more fantastic writings of Erich von Daniken and Francis Maziére shows, however, that arguments based on common sense have very little impact on the huge number of persons addicted to this sort of anthropological science fiction. In addition, there are many scientists who are singularly allergic to common sense and plain speaking.

A second approach would be to reject the book outright, because of the author's outrageously unscientific methods, representing a sudden throw-back to the times of Abraham Fornander, Edward Tregear and Percy Smith. At best, Langdon's speculations are of the type in vogue before the First World War among certain German and Austrian diffusionists, who combined the most disparate cultural elements into Kulturkreisen, which they moved across the map and through the centuries in a completely arbitrary manner. They had at least the excuse that there was no alternative, more reliable method for reconstructing prehistory. But today, to disregard, as Langdon does, all the precise archaeological and linguistic data accumulated in the Pacific field by modern scholars, is to deprive his “historical” reconstructions of all credibility.

However, considering the obvious good faith of the author and the wide interest the book has generated (albeit largely due to a well-conducted publicity campaign), I think that The Lost Caravel merits a less summary treatment, and I shall consequently do my best to scrutinise with an open mind the new facts Langdon presents and the conclusions he draws from them.

First of all, what evidence is there for Langdon's contention that the crew of the San Lesmes reached the Tuamotus alive? The fact that four old rusty cannons have been found on the reef of Amanu of course only proves that an unknown ship jettisoned them there at an unspecified date. Langdon boldly asserts (p. 47): “Two things, at least seem clear from the evidence that will be presented hereafter. The caravel's crew somehow reached land and established relations with the island's women.” The island was Hao, immediately south of Amanu. This sounds promising, but the footnote to which we are referred contains only a lengthy summary of the mutiny on the Bounty!

Having reached the end of the chapter, 14 pages later, the bewildered reader is forced to conclude that the “evidence” referred to by Langdon consists mainly of a paper by a Catholic missionary, Audran, who tells the story of a certain Hiva, who came ashore at Hao and for some time terrorised the local people by throwing stones at them and by cutting down their coconut trees. 2 Similar stories are known from all over the Tuamotus, and Father Audran, after having given the names of half a dozen other Hiva who landed at Ravahere, Marokau, Nihiru, Makemo and Fangatau, goes on to say “that there is no Paumotu island which has not had its Hiva”. Similar information was collected by the Bishop Museum team in 1929-30 and by myself on Raroia-Takume in 1949-51. There is no doubt that these Hiva (as Father Audran clearly states in his paper) were Marquesan warriors raiding the atolls. How can these stories be construed to refer to the arrival of Spanish castaways in 1526? The highly original but totally unconvincing explanations offered by Langdon (p. 48) are: (1) that the rocks were actually cannon balls; and (2) that only Europeans, who are unable to climb coconut trees, resort to the expedient of cutting them down in order to obtain drinking nuts.

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Langdon's “proof” that the main body of the castaways eventually left Hao consists of an equally vague reference to a great sea-going canoe that left Hao at an unspecified time and never returned to the island. The name of the canoe was Tainui, one of the most common canoe names in Polynesia. That is all. But Langdon joyously adds (p. 49): “As will later be shown there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that Tainui, Tianuia or Taunui-Atea was, in fact, a ship built or repaired by the San Lesmes's crew.” I must confess that, even after having read the whole book carefully three times, I have not yet been able to find the alleged evidence.

Having reached page 61, without offering any apologies, Langdon suddenly abandons his quest for positive proofs and decides to tackle the problem in another manner: “A careful reading of the Pacific literature of the past four and a half centuries” has convinced him “that there are, or were, many anomalies about the people and culture of the region which can only be explained by assuming the survival of the caravel's crew.” By “anomalies” Langdon of course means cultural traits, and what he proposes is, in other words, to array enough circumstantial evidence to confer a high degree of probability on his theory. Since he guarantees that the final result will be a complete vindication of his astounding and sesational theories, I have gladly pursued the rather arduous task of evaluating the tremendous amount of data found in the next 18 chapters. They will here be grouped into a few main categories, with Langdon's and my own conclusions.

Caucasian-like individuals in Polynesia

The “anomaly” which has struck Langdon so forcefully that it almost becomes an obsession is the existence of Caucasian-like individuals in certain Polynesian islands. Almost every page includes one or more references to fair-skinned, red-haired and blue-eyed men, women and children, and among the titles of the chapters one reads: “Blue eyes at Taiarapu”, “A gold ring, red hair and dogs of Castille”, “The great white chiefs of Opoa” and “The remarkably European people of Fangatau”. The implication is, of course, that all these “Caucasian” islanders were descendants of the 50 or so sailors on the San Lesmes (the exact number is unknown), of whom Langdon thinks 20 percent were blond Basques. Although the observations of many of the early visitors to Polynesia lack scientific stringency, there is no doubt that there existed, at the time of the discovery, a certain number of individuals with fair skin, reddish-brown hair and (to a lesser extent) blue eyes. Jean Poirier has, for instance, published an excellent survey of the available data (not used by Langdon), showing that genuinely blond individuals were found, at the time of the first European discovery, not only in Polynesia proper, but also in the Outliers and in Indonesia. 3 Heyerdahl covers the same ground even more carefully, and presents additional data from pre-historic South America, in his American Indians in the Pacific. 4 So there are certainly many other ways of explaining the composite racial make-up of the Polynesian people than the one proposed by Langdon. Moreover, if the Basque sailors of San Lesmes were the only source of “Caucasian” admixture, as he pretends, we must suppose that they visited all the Polynesian Islands, as well as Indonesia and South America — a hypothesis that even Langdon seems to find too absurd to entertain.

Rapid disappearance of the father tongue

Strangely enough, the linguistic “anomalies,” which are second in importance and bulk, follow a pattern which is very distinct from that observed in the field - 120 of physical anthropology. One would expect, if Langdon's basic assumption were correct, to find many words of Basque and Spanish origin in the various dialects of Eastern Polynesia, exactly as the numerous English words incorporated in the Tahitian language 200 years ago are still in use today. But this is a possibility which Langdon peremptorily rules out with the following motivation (pp. 59-60):

Any children they [the crew of the San Lesmes] had could only have learned the language of their mothers at their mothers' knees, and would have learned nothing of their fathers' languages, unless the castaways made special efforts to teach them. Thus within a single generation all trace of the Spanish, Basque or Galician languages would probably have been effaced. . . . However, as Tuamotuan has only fifteen sounds and Tahitian only thirteen, the Iberian words could easily have become modified virtually beyond recognition within only a day or two!

The only thing one can say to this is that this rapid effacement of the Basque, Galician and Spanish tongue contrasts markedly with the strong tendency everywhere in the islands for the English and French languages to survive and dominate in families of mixed ancestry. Even on Pitcairn, where one single Englishman was left with eight Tahitian women, their descendants still speak English today!

Rapid political and cultural ascendancy of the castaways

Language is, however, the only field in which the castaways did not manage to leave their marks. Otherwise, socially and culturally, their impact has been tremendous, because of the amazing facility with which they installed themselves as rulers. This is how Langdon explains their rapid take-over (p. 54): “It is probably safe to say that a group of men who had battled halfway round the world would have been more aggressive than any community of insular sixteenth century Polynesians; and being in a desperate situation, they would have been more ruthless. The castaways may therefore have quickly attained positions of political power even in large communities.” The cultural “anomalies” in Polynesia that Langdon attributes to the crew of the San Lesmes well justify that name, for they are as follows (p. 61): handshaking, clothing and ornaments, dogs and pigs, boats and other maritime accoutrements, houses, furniture, tools, religion, morals, customs (?), dances, music, ability to sing and diseases. This is a mixed bag indeed, and very little or nothing is actually said in the book about such things as houses, furniture, dancing and music. The most puzzling aspect of this Hispano-Polynesian acculturation process, however, is its thoroughly capricious character. For although the agents are everywhere the same, and the Polynesian culture is strikingly homogeneous, the results vary widely from one island to another. But let us wisely leave all theoretical considerations aside and instead examine Langdon's facts and interpretations, area by area.

Early Spanish Catholic influences in the Tuamotus

In two chapters entitled “The ‘remarkably European’ people of Fangatau” and “Vahitahi: land of the holy trinity,” Langdon quotes at length from an article on Tuamotuan religion by the Catholic missionary Albert Montiton, published in 1874, and from two Bishop Museum bulletins by Frank Stimson dealing with the same subject, and concludes that many of the supposedly native religious beliefs described therein are, in fact, Christian. Of course they are, and the explanation is extremely simple. From 1817 onwards, native Protestant evangelists spread the gospel, both orally and with the help of books printed in the Tahitian language, through the Tuamotu Islands. They were followed, in the 1840s, by Catholic and Mormon missionaries, who rapidly converted the - 121 last pagans. As for the “remarkably European” people of Fangatau and Fakahina, many of them had been taken to Mangareva as early as 1863 by Father Bruno and initiated into the mysteries of the Catholic faith before being returned to their home islands. 5 For Langdon, all this proselytising during the last century counts for nothing, and the only possible explanation he can see for the Christian intrusions in the native religious texts, as recorded by Montiton in the 1870s and by Stimson in the 1930s, is the hypothetical arrival among the Tuamotuan heathens of Spanish castaways in 1526! The ultimate proof offered by Langdon (p. 209) is that the Spanish word for God, Dios, is still in use in the Tuamotus, transformed, in accordance with Polynesian phonetic laws, into Kiho. There are only two difficulties with this theory. In the first place, Dios can never become anything else, phonetically, than Tio. In the second place, the god Kiho has never existed outside the imagination of Frank Stimson's paid informants. Let me only add that Langdon indicates Raroia as a stopping place for “descendants of castaways” en route to Fangatau and states that some even settled down there for good (pp. 56-7). Since I have supplied some of the photographs in The Lost Caravel, and since Langdon makes numerous quotations from my various books, his readers may get the impression that I agree with his views. I would have loved to supply Langdon, for whose achievements in other fields I have the highest esteem, with some substantial proofs, but the sand truth is that nowhere in the hundreds of historical traditions, sacred chants and genealogies which I collected on Raroia in 1949-51 is there the slightest shred of evidence in support of his contention that Hispano-Polynesians settled or visited the island.

The great white chiefs of Opoa

In striking contrast to the strict orthodoxy observed by the Spanish castaways in the Tuamotus, they introduced in the Society Islands a bold new religious concept — the cult of Oro. This happened, according to Langdon, “a dozen or so generations before the arrival of Wallis, Bougainville and Cook,” (pp. 153-4), and the place they chose for their main settlement was, of course, Opoa, on the south-eastern side of Raiatea. Among their other achievements was the introduction of a superior canoe-building technique, although it would seem more logical for them to have taught the local population how to build Spanish caravels. For some strange reason, the castaways' chief did not have a Basque or Spanish name but was called Hiro. In exchange, his Polynesian wife was given a partly Spanish name: Vai-tu-maria!

Langdon's sources for these amazing revelations, are the well-known accounts of Orsmond-Henry's Ancient Tahiti and William Ellis' Polynesian Researches. Angry with myself for having missed information of such capital importance, I have just reread the portions of these books dealing with Opoa, Taputapuatea and Raiatea. The result is entirely negative. Not only are these authors completely silent about the arrival at Opoa of white-skinned foreigners 12 generations before the discovery of Tahiti, but they also fail to mention any other Hiro than the Polynesian chief and culture hero who lived in Raiatea 18 generations before 1767. As to his wife, her name was Vai-tu-marie and not the Spanish-smacking Vai-tu-maria. But she was perhaps of French extraction. . . .

As supporting evidence Langdon offers quotations culled from Ellis, Huguenin and Handy to the effect that the ruling ari'i class in the Society Islands was fair-skinned. Whereupon he engages in the following extraordinary dialectic reasoning:

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Where could these fair-skinned supermen have come from?

Certainly not from Samoa-Tonga in the west, as Handy pretends, for then they would not have established their new settlement on the east coast of Raiatea.


. . . a study of geographical factors reveals that the east is the most logical homeland for those chiefly people. Not only are the nearest of the eastern islands closer to the Society Islands than any others, they are also windward of them. . . . Moreover, Opoa would have been a natural landfall for vessels involved in such a voyage, particularly if they originated in the western or central Tuamotus and could not make the land at Tetiaroa, Tahiti or Huahine.

In other words, the only possible founder of the royal family of Raiatea was a Basque named Hiro who lived six generations before the San Lesmes was lost.

The Spanish discovery and settlement of New Zealand

With the same supreme disregard for all archaeological evidence and the findings of all modern scholars in the fields of linguistics and anthropology, Langdon puts the prehistory of New Zealand into a new perspective:

. . . the ancestral Maori canoes were not built by Stone Age Polynesian sea-rovers, who, over the centuries, acquired skills that fitted them for daring voyages of exploration. Rather, they were the handiwork of expert Spanish seamen and shipwrights who were possibly trying to reach the Cape of Good Hope and so return to Spain when they chanced upon New Zealand. Finding their new discovery green and temperate, like the Cantabrian coast and mountains of their own Bay of Biscay, they decided, instead, to settle there . . . New Zealand was journey's end — the westernmost terminal point of the San Lesmes castaways. (p. 253)

As in eastern Polynesia, the Basques' and Spaniards' descendants are easily recognisable by their Caucasian features. One is, however, a little bit doubtful when Langdon, in support of the antiquity of the urukehu racial component, quotes Karl von Scherzer, an Austrian government official who, when visiting Auckland in 1859 (!) in the Novara, “believed that even the extensive facial tattooing among some Maoris did not obscure their European features.” (p. 249). More solid, or at least tangible, proofs are presented by Langdon in the form of the famous Tamil bell and (to use his own words) “the so-called Spanish helmet reputedly dredged up from Wellington harbour late last century.” Contrary to the naive belief that the Tamil bell came to New Zealand on board a derelict Tamil ship, 6 Langdon declares that it was brought back to Spain from the Moluccas in the Victoria by Elcano, and then transferred to the San Lesmes. As for the broken helmet (which could very well have been part of some garbage dumped into Wellington harbour), the specialists of Connoisseur magazine and the Victoria and Albert Museum, consulted by Langdon, date it from about 1570-80 which means that it could not have been brought by the San Lesmes castaways. Langdon's reaction to this is that these specialists are probably wrong, since they are British. But then, why has he not asked any Spanish specialists for advice?

Fortunately, there remains the linguistic evidence, which is unusually strong. No fewer than three Maori words are definitely of Spanish origin: pero (pero, dog), kaipuke (buque, ship) and Pani, a name that is a corruption “of the poetic name Hispani, meaning Spaniards.” (p. 247).

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A new key to an old Easter Island mystery

The mystery is of course that of the rongorongo “talking boards”, discovered in the 1860s. Can they really have anything to do with the Spanish caravel lost in 1526? Yes, says Langdon in a final chapter of wild surmises which constitutes an admirable crescendo furioso. The first and seemingly insurmountable difficulty is to find a Spanish prototype for the alleged Easter Island “script”. Langdon's solution is extremely ingenious. The mysterious signs are either a sort of mnemotechnical shorthand, invented by the San Lesmes castaways themselves, or imperfect imitations of such a system, made just for fun by their Hispano-Polynesian descendants. The second difficulty is how to explain the time gap of more than 300 years which elapsed from the presumed invention of the rongorongo signs in Raiatea, and the discovery of the first “talking boards” on Easter Island. It is disposed of by the following series of contentions:

  • 1. The great white chiefs of Opoa (Hiro's descendants) somehow managed to preserve the meaningless texts.
  • 2. Some of these texts happened to be on board a canoe which accidentally drifted to Raivavae.
  • 3. From there the same or other Hispano-Polynesians eventually sailed to Easter Island and taught the backward natives to make unintelligible signs on wooden boards.

In this case, Langdon's extravagant hypotheses can rapidly be disposed of, for he cites as his crown witness Hapai, a native “sage” from Raivavae who gave Frank Stimson “esoteric information” about the existence on his home island in pre-European times of a script identical with that on Easter Island. I have personally known Hapai, who up to his death worked as a paid informant for my friend and neighbour Frank Stimson. While filling the notebooks that Langdon refers to with drawings of “prehistoric Raivavae glyphs”, Hapai not only consulted the numerous books on Easter Island in Stimson's office, but also studied the copies of rongorongo talking boards on display in the Papeete Museum. The reason Stimson never published anything about Hapai's revelations is that he little by little realised that he had been taken in. So it is extremely unfair to Stimson to dig up belatedly these manuscripts that he never wanted to publish himself.

As usual, Langdon quotes an array of authors impressed by the unusually high number of Caucasian-like individuals, the trump card being a recent study showing that Easter Islanders and Basques have the same high percentage of HLA-12 and W19.1 proteins in their blood (pp. 265-6). The 49 Easter Islanders who supplied the blood samples were of “reputedly pure descent”. In order to appreciate the true value of this study, made in 1970-72, it is enough to recall that in 1877 there were only 110 islanders left, and that the subsequent foreign admixture has been so comprehensive that none of the present 1,500 individuals classified as Easter Islanders can claim to be of pure descent.

Why are there no Dutch windmills in the Tuamotus?

Having reached the end of this dizzying and highly entertaining voyage through time and space, it occurs to me that I should not lay down Langdon's book without adopting temporarily his point of view and examining whether he has himself realised all its implications.

What I feel impelled to criticise in this case is, above all, Langdon's timidity when it comes to drawing interesting and sensational inferences from the disaster that overtook Roggeveen in the Tuamotus in 1722, and which, contrariwise to the uncertain fate of the San Lesmes, is well documented. Not only did one of Roggeveen's ships founder on the reefs of Takapoto, but five Dutch sailors - 124 voluntarily chose to remain on the island, whose population probably did not exceed 200. (In addition there were probably 300-400 on the neighbouring island of Takaroa, mostly ruled by a common chief.) If Langdon were right in his basic contention that a small band of Europeans were immediately able to assume leadership and introduce new customs and beliefs among the islanders, then Byron, who called at Takapoto and Takaroa only 43 years after Roggeveen, should have found a flourishing Dutch settlement, complete with canals, tulip fields and windmills. And, of course, a great number of Hollando-Polynesians wearing Dutch costumes and wooden shoes (at least on Sundays, when attending the church service). As we all know, the only vestige of the Dutch landfall that Byron found was a worm-eaten rudder.

I think that we can safely conclude that what had happened was simply that the five poor Dutchmen had encountered the fate that befell all castaways in these cannibal islands well into the second half of the last century. Nor is there any reason to suppose that the Basque or Spanish crew of the San Lesmes would have fared better, if they ever reached the Tuamotus alive — which still remains to be proved.

  • AUDRAN, Hervé, 1927. “Les Hiva.” Bulletin de la Société des Etudes Océaniennes, No. 22:317-8.
  • HEYERDAHL, Thor, 1952. American Indians in the Pacific. London, George Allen and Unwin.
  • HILDER, Brett, 1975. “The Story of the Tamil Bell.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 84:477-83.
  • LANGDON, Robert, 1975. “Ancient Tahiti, without benefit of a lost caravel.” Pacific Islands Monthly, 46:9 (September):48-50.
  • LAVAL, Honoré, 1968. Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de Mangareva ère chrétienne, 1834-1871. Publications de la Société des Océanistes 15. Paris, Musée de l'Homme.
  • POIRIER, Jean, 1952. “L'elément blond dans l'ethnie polynesiénne.” Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 8:81-116.
1   Langdon 1975.
2   Audran 1927.
3   Poirier 1952.
4   Heyerdahl 1952.
5   Laval 1968:374-7, 381-4. This work also contains much interesting information about early missionary work on Vahitahi and among the Vahitahi people.
6   Hilder 1975.