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Sailors and TradersA Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples$

Alastair Couper

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780824832391

Published to Hawaii Scholarship Online: November 2016

DOI: 10.21313/hawaii/9780824832391.001.0001

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The Arrival of Foreign Ships

The Arrival of Foreign Ships

Chapter Four The Arrival of Foreign Ships
Sailors and Traders

Alastair Couper

University of Hawai'i Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the arrival of foreign ships in the Pacific Islands, with particular emphasis on the relationships between foreign sailors and the local maritime communities. It first considers the perceptions and behavior of seafaring Pacific islanders and European mariners during their first contacts, as well as the role of European naval officers in the maintenance of law and order in the sea. It then discusses the arrival of Captain Samuel Wallis in the islands, followed by Captain James Cook and his sailors, along with scientists and artists who were part of the first exploration ships. It also assesses the social and economic effects of the first foreign arrivals on the Pacific and its people.

Keywords:   foreign ships, Pacific Islands, sailors, maritime communities, seafaring, naval officers, Samuel Wallis, James Cook, scientists

Until the voyages of Byron, Wallis, Carteret, and Bougainville, all in the years 1764–1769, and under Cook between 1768 and 1779, the arrivals of foreign ships at Pacific islands were few and sporadic. Some voyagers merely sighted islands, but when landings did occur, they were of short duration, although often traumatic for the inhabitants. The early European explorers were mainly naval. Most of them knew little about, and cared even less for, the cultures, religions, or achievements of the island societies they encountered. Their attitudes toward local people were, with few exceptions, imperious and predatory.

The First Encounters

Magellan, in his sixteenth-century voyage across the Pacific, was seeking an alternative route to the Spice Islands of Southeast Asia. On the ninety-nine-day passage from South America, he saw only two small islands until the landfall at Guam on 6 March 1521. On arrival, his ships—the Trinidad, Victoria, and Conception—were surrounded by local craft and the Chamorros clambered on board. In a confrontation of a type that was to be repeated in many parts of the Pacific, and that baffled and infuriated foreign captains, the islanders attempted pillaging anything they fancied before being driven back over the side.

The theft, as Magellan saw it, of his skiff from the stern of the Trinidad during the second day caused him to seek immediate retribution. A party of forty soldiers landed, burned a village, and killed seven men. After collecting fruit and vegetables, the Spaniards butchered the dead and carried buckets of intestines back on board to nourish the crew, who were suffering from scurvy and anemia. Such was the first encounter of Pacific islanders with European sailors.1

The Trinidad was eventually abandoned as unseaworthy and the Conception caught fire, but the Victoria completed the voyage to Seville (p.61) loaded with spices. This Spanish commercial success provoked the Portuguese in the Moluccas to explore and colonize eastward, taking possession of islands in the Carolines in 1526.2 In subsequent Spanish voyages local men at Guam were kidnapped to replace lost and sick crew, and in 1565 Guam was claimed for Spain and became the staging place for galleons sailing between Manila and Acapulco, although not before the islanders stoned the ships and killed seafarers ashore. To teach them a lesson, Admiral Miguel López de Legazpi burned villages and hanged several of the inhabitants.3 The route from Guam to Mexico was northward under the trades until the westerlies were reached. For over two hundred years, this passage took the ships beyond the visibility of Hawai‘i, while the more southerly return voyage passed through an almost empty area of the ocean.

During a more systematic search of the Pacific for new lands, people to convert, and gold, the Spaniards found the Marquesas Islands in 1595. On arrival the San Geronimo under Álvaro de Mendaña was surrounded, and people swarmed on board: “For a time there was merriment and a spirit of mutual curiosity, until the freedom with which islanders helped themselves to the odd gear about the ship became annoying.”4 The navigator Pedro Fernández de Quirós estimated that some two hundred Marquesans were killed during the two weeks they were there. Mendaña sighted Tuvalu and reached several Melanesian islands. He attempted religious settlements, with disastrous results for both the Spanish and the Melanesians.5

The Dutch in the Pacific were more secular and primarily in pursuit of trade. The expeditions of Willem Schouten and Isaac Le Maire in 1616 achieved little but are distinguished by being memorialized in the first painting of European mariners firing on a Pacific island vessel at sea (see figure 2.1). The Dutchman Abel Tasman in his voyages of 1642–1643 sighted Australia and Tasmania, called briefly at New Zealand, and sighted Fiji and Tonga. The major contacts with the islands came with British extensions of naval power and acquisition of territory following the Seven Years’ War with France, which ended in 1763. Commander John Byron made a long and largely inconsequential voyage in the Pacific during 1764 with the frigate HMS Dolphin. This was followed in 1767 by Captain Samuel Wallis, also on the Dolphin, accompanied by Captain Philip Carteret on HMS Swallow. Wallis revealed Tahiti to Europeans when he arrived there on 18 June 1767. The ship anchored for five weeks, and Wallis proclaimed Tahiti as British territory and changed the name to King George’s Island.

After the departure of Wallis, the French captain Louis de Bougainville (p.62) arrived on 4 April 1768 with the frigate La Boudeuse and the supply ship L’Etoile. He declared the island French and named it Nouvelle-Cyth-ere after the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, presumably to mark the kindness of island women to his sailors. Bougainville sailed past Samoa, which he also proclaimed as French, and did likewise in Melanesia, sometimes passing and occasionally landing on a few islands. Following Bougainville’s travels, the most eventful and wide-ranging voyages were those of Cook on the Endeavour in 1768–1771, the Resolution and the Adventure in 1772–1775, and the Resolution and the Discovery in 1776–1779, when Cook was killed in Hawai‘i.

These voyages are so well known that they need not be detailed further. What is considered in this account are the perceptions and behavior of two seafaring peoples, Pacific islanders and the European mariners, during these first contacts.

Officers and the Perspectives of Law and Order

The statement that “a ship is a social system, a moving world in miniature that reflects and perhaps exaggerates the larger social system from which it is drawn,” was never truer than on an eighteenth-century naval vessel.6 Most European naval officers were drawn from “good” families and carried their class prejudices and virtues with them. They had a firm belief in the sanctity of private property and the maintenance of law and order, and in their society theft could be a matter of hanging or transportation. They originally joined the navy to serve on warships for glory, prize money, and patriotism. There seemed little prospects of attaining any of these goals on the exploration voyages; however, it was peacetime and such voyages were better than being ashore, at best on half pay, and they did offer prospects of promotion, providing they had some influential preferment and obeyed the orders of commanders. A number of masters of naval ships had their origins in the merchant navy, and several rose to naval officer rank, including Wallis, Cook, and Bligh.

The commanders of the naval exploration ships had specific orders throughout the voyage regarding necessary achievements under the authority of the monarch. The vessels were in effect floating parts of their nation-states as they moved around the world. The captains of British warships had awesome powers vested in them, underpinned by the articles of war. They were responsible for the application of law, order, and punishments; the safety of the ship and all on board; actions at sea under rules of engagement; and the conducting of diplomacy ashore.

(p.63) One of the principles to be adhered to and maintained was freedom of the high seas, over which no single ruler could exert dominion. It was recognized also by customary law of the sea that a state could exert some jurisdiction over an area of sea bordering its coastline. This was ultimately acknowledged as the three-mile territorial sea, as determined by the “cannon-shot rule.” Foreign vessels could traverse this area only if their passage was considered innocent by the adjacent coastal state. When a ship left the territorial sea and entered the internal waters of a state (estuaries, lagoons, bays, ports), it passed under the laws of that state. Often naval vessels, as distinct from merchant ships, would claim sovereign immunity from local laws while in internal waters, but such immunity would not extend to the ship’s personnel ashore. They would come under the laws of the state they were in.

The customary laws of the sea have long antecedents and would have been respected at times of peace by European maritime powers during the eighteenth century.7 However, it would not have entered the minds of any of the commanders of the ships in the Pacific that customary rules held by indigenous people over coastal sea tenure, reef passages, or lagoons could have any validity in the islands they had “discovered.” These places were perceived as having no overall cohesive governments and therefore no civilized rules of law (other than when it suited the foreigners to create a monarch or exploit locally useful taboos). Furthermore, areas where there were no apparent fixed settlements or agricultural activities were considered terra nullius. It also followed that in all the countries of arrival the laws that pertained on board ship would be extended to the shore, not only to the ship’s company but to the local populations.

The primary objectives of the Cook expedition were to observe the transit of Venus, to facilitate the scientific work of Joseph Banks, to search for Terra Australis Incognita, “and with the consent of the natives to take possession of convenient situations in the country in the name of the King of Great Britain.”8 Cook possessed sympathetic insights toward other cultures and was at the same time an able officer who paid strict attention to orders and the exercise of authority. He tried to reconcile the guidance of the Royal Society, the sponsors of the expedition, for humane behavior toward native people and the Admiralty requirements to take possession of their territory.

The president of the Royal Society, James Douglas, Earl of Morton, wrote among other things that the captain and others in charge of the Endeavor expedition should “check the petulance of the Sailors and restrain the wanton use of Fire Arms”; that “shedding the blood of these (p.64) people is a crime of the highest nature”; that they are “the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit”; and that “conquest over such people can give no just title, because they could never be the Aggressors.” And, the Royal Society continued: “They may naturally and justly attempt to repel intruders, whom they may apprehend are coming to disturb them in the quiet possession of their country, whether that apprehension be well or ill founded.”9 Cook ultimately expressed his own balance of views: “We enter their Ports with-out their daring to make opposition, we attempt to land in a peaceable manner, if this succeeds it’s well, if not we land nevertheless and maintain the footing we thus got by the Superiority of our fire arms, in what other light can they than at first look upon us but as invaders of their Country.” Cook adds optimistically and mistakenly, but possibly with an eye on the Admiralty scrutineers of his opinions, that “time and some acquaintance with us can only convince them of their mistake.”10

Arrival of Wallis

The master of HMS Dolphin under Captain Wallis in June 1767 was George Robertson. He was typical in many ways of the normal run of career masters in the Royal Navy. Robertson was a good seaman who gave discreet guidance but showed suitable deference to the young gentlemen officers. He was also highly patriotic, with a firm belief in the rights of the British nation to take possession and rule over these “poor ignorant creatures,” as he described the Tahitians. In one respect he was less typical than the average master in that he kept a journal of his voyages.11 This is an important document recording the first relationships between sailors and Tahitians.

Robertson’s journal describes alternating scenes of violence and friendship. At one stage a large canoe approached, and at a signal its occupants launched a storming of stone missiles. The Dolphin replied with a volley of grapeshot from its great guns. Noting that this “carried all before it and drove [the canoe] in two,” Robertson added, “I believe few that were on her escaped with life.” The carpenters were also sent ashore and “cut in the middle” some eighty canoes. The attitude of the master was clearly one of exasperation that these “poor creatures” would have the temerity to challenge sailors of the Royal Navy “and put us under the disagreeable necessity of killing a few of them.” He was pleased that the Tahitians eventually recognized the error of their ways and that sailors and natives soon “walked arm in arm.”12

(p.65) The conversion to close friendships between the sailors and local people appears to have come about when the older men of the island discerned the obsession of the Dolphin sailors for women. The Tahitians were puzzled that the Dolphin had no females on board and may have assumed they came from islands with a dire shortage of women. In any event the Tahitians concluded that what they themselves regarded as normal relationships within society could be a means of obtaining iron from the Dolphin. For the sailors the availability of sex for payment was simply regarded as playing at, as Robertson puts it, “the old trade.” They did so with such enthusiasm that it threatened the integrity of the ship as iron and nails were drawn from it. When the Dolphin left, Robertson described the sorrow and weeping of the people.13

Sailors under Cook

Cook had read the accounts of Wallis before sailing for Tahiti, and the crew of the Endeavour was no doubt regaled with stories from the hands on board who had previously served on the Dolphin. Cook knew what to expect and established rules, fines, and floggings for theft. The Endeavour sailors established their trade and close attachments ashore. These were sufficiently strong for Clement Webb and Sam Gibson to jump ship in 1769—as generations of sailors did subsequently. They had, said a Tahitian, “gone to the mountains and … got each of them a wife and would not return.” Cook held a chief hostage until the Tahitians found and returned the deserters, although after meting out floggings, he expressed a wistful sympathy in his journal for these young men who preferred life on a Pacific island to that on a British man-of-war.14

Cook had the same problems in 1777. Sixteen-year-old midshipman Alexander Mouat of the Discovery declared that he had fallen in love with a girl and wanted to stay in Tahiti. He and the gunner’s mate Shaw deserted. When the two were retrieved, the ship’s company appealed to Cook against rigorous punishment, and the captain made concessions. He had been even more sympathetic in 1774 when an older sailor, John Marra, slipped over the side as they were leaving Tahiti and swam toward a prearranged canoe. Cook brought the ship about and sent a boat after him. Afterward he wrote, “I never learned that he had either friends or connections to confine him to any particular part of the world, all nations were alike to him, where then can such a man spend his days better than at one of these isles where he can enjoy the necessaries and some of the luxuries of life in ease and plenty.” Cook later added, “I know not if he might (p.66) not have obtained my consent if he had applied for it in proper time,”15 to which his biographer Beaglehole comments, “This is an unusual mood for a person commanding one of the vessels of the Royal Navy.”16

The attachments of several sailors who spent longer periods ashore were deep and genuine, as were those of the women and children to them. After the mutiny of 1789, Morrison lived about eighteen months in Tahiti, along with sixteen other seamen from the Bounty who elected not to go with Christian to Pitcairn. Morrison described the scene when fourteen of them (two having been killed previously) were taken as prisoners on board HMS Pandora in May 1791: “[Their women,] several big with child[,] and four girls and two boys, cried and cut their heads until blood discoloured the waters.”17

Most of the ordinary sailors one way or another integrated well with island people, and there were many pregnancies and surviving children. The sailors learned the language and conformed to local customs, including tattooing. However, they were not always aware of the cultural nuances. For many of them the material exchanges made for sex were the normal ways of a sailor’s life, and there is little doubt that these more commercial transactions became increasingly adopted by some island women. A related legacy was sexually transmitted diseases. Several of the seven hundred or so sailors on the ships of Wallis, Carteret, Bougainville, and Cook who went ashore at Matavai Bay in Tahiti in 1767–1769 carried syphilis, gonorrhea, and other communicable sexually transmitted diseases, and some must have had what sailors term “a full house.” When they left for other islands, many more were infected as the diseases passed around between sailors and their sweethearts. Cook wrote that “this distemper very soon spread itself over the greatest part of the Ship’s company.” It appears to have been the first entry of venereal disease into the Pacific Islands, and although Cook tried to contain it by keeping infected sailors on board, he realized that “it may in time spread itself over all the islands of the south seas, to the eternal reproach of those who first brought it among them.”18 The disease reached Hawai‘i with the Resolution in 1778.19

There were both health and social impacts to the spread of venereal disease. Gonorrhea may have caused some sterility and miscarriages in women, and syphilis could mean dangerous long-term effects on men, although it is thought that the disease yaws, endemic on humid high islands, may have exercised a modifying immunity. The venereal diseases were new and feared by many people and soon carried a social stigma. Morrison records attitudes toward infected people in Tahiti: “No person (p.67) will touch them nor theirs, no one will bath[e] near them in the river.”20 Possibly worse in the long term than the venereal diseases in morbidity were tuberculosis and other contagious diseases brought by the ships, for which there were no immunities in the populations. Lieutenant Zachary Hicks joined the Endeavour already suffering from consumption and died at sea; there must have been others that carried this killer to the islands.

The Scientists

The other members of the first exploration ships were the scientists and artists, whose perceptions were more politically influential. The second half of the eighteenth century was the age of the European Enlightenment, exploration, and science. The sciences involved in the voyages were primarily astronomy, botany, geography, and zoology. The period was characterized by systematically classifying plants in order to advance the universal botanical taxonomy developed by Linnaeus. During the first voyage of the Endeavour, Joseph Banks and the Swede Daniel Solander, a pupil of Linnaeus, collected thousands of plants, along with bird and marine species. These were accompanied by drawings and watercolors, mainly by Sydney Parkinson.

The classifying of flora and fauna was extended on a more speculative basis to the human species by Banks and others. The criteria they used to place people at various levels of civilization were highly Eurocentric and included skin color, physical characteristics, and cultural attributes such as morals, work ethics, clothing, and music; the eating of human flesh immediately relegated groups to the lower orders. Banks observed that “in the admirable chain of nature … Man … justly claims the highest rank.” He considered that, because of cannibalism, the Maori as a race was “so infinitely below us in the order of Nature.”21

The European scientists were so ethnocentric that they were unable to learn much from the skills and knowledge of Pacific people. When the Ra‘iatea island priest-navigator Tupaia joined the Endeavour in Tahiti in 1769, Banks considered that he might well be useful and was certainly an interesting natural history specimen to take back with the rest of the collection. Banks thought Tupaia might even be worth keeping on his estate “as a curiosity, as well as some of my neighbours do lions and tygers at a larger expence than he will probably ever put me to.”22 This proud and intelligent Pacific navigator must have carried enormous indigenous knowledge, most of which remained unrecorded. He very quickly learned English, acted as interpreter, explaining customs and essential procedures; (p.68) saved the ship from grounding and the lives of parties ashore; and debated the ethics of cannibalism, which was not practiced in Tahiti, with the New Zealand Maori.

Banks, with his passion for collecting and classifying, seemed unaware of the extent of the science of marine ecology, which Pacific islanders had acquired and practiced for conservation purposes over many centuries. Island people knew the relationships between tides, currents, phases of the moon, spawning, fish behavior, and the webs of intricate relationships between living organisms and their physical and biological environments. Only in the twentieth century did this knowledge become more clearly recognized by Europeans as the essential basis of marine science. In the 1960s it was conceded by ecologists that “the Hawaiians of Captain James Cook’s time knew more about the fishes of their islands than is known today.”23

The Pacific island understandings of the marine environment also passed unnoticed by Banks’ successor on the second voyage, the outstanding but prickly scientist Johann Reinhold Forster, who was accompanied by his seventeen-year-old son, George. The elder Forster continued the work on botany and zoology and also speculated on the causes of the physical and cultural differences between people in the Pacific region. He placed the Tahitians much higher than the Maori in his scale of humanity and formulated stimulating concepts of environmental determinism that were adopted and refined later by the German school of geography. Forster’s son contributed to the 1777 observations and other joint publications and was particularly incensed by the perceptions presented by Europeans of the Pacific peoples.

Philip Edwards has identified and abstracted the views of George Forster from publications. Among his critical remarks, the younger Forster wrote, “I fear that hitherto our intercourse has been wholly disadvantageous to the natives of the South Seas; and that those communities have been the least injured, who have always kept aloof from us.”24 He went on to comment on the revulsion expressed by Europeans about those engaged in cannibalism, pointing out that “though we are too much polished to be canibals, we do not find it unnaturally and savagely cruel to take the field, and to cut one another’s throats by thousands.” On the condemnation of the immorality of Pacific women, he wrote, “It is the women who are the victims, caught between the brutality of importunate sailors on the one hand and their greedy men folk on the other—which are more guilty, those who make demand or those who provide the supply.”25

(p.69) George Forster took a jaundiced view of Cook, which was not justified, given that Cook expressed similar views on the degraded condition of women on his return visit to Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand in June 1773. Previously he had found these women “chaste,” but on this second visit he noted, “Whatever favours a few of them might have granted to the crew of the Endeavour it was generally done in a private manner without the men seeming to interest themselves in it, but now we find the men are the chief promoters of this Vice, and for a spike nail or any other thing they value will oblige their Wives and Daughters to prostitute themselves whether they will or no.” Cook went on to deplore the way “we debased their morals” and posed a rhetorical question regarding what natives “have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans.”26

The acts of debauching female morals in Tahiti by commerce in iron was echoed by the bosun’s mate James Morrison when he reminded the more high-minded about corresponding effects of gold in his own country, where, he observed, “as fine a woman as any in Europe are said to prefer it to virtue.”27 George Forster continued to rage against European imperialism, which in his view was degrading and destroying the culture and well-being of Pacific people in the 1770s. Later his outspoken radicalism lost this talented young scientist his academic position at a German university, and he died in poverty at the age of thirty-eight.

Views from the Beach

Pacific island people would always have expected arrivals from the sea. Many knew there were other ships and beings, from the exotic timbers with iron nails found from time to time on reefs and beaches, especially in the Hawaiian Islands. Spanish galleons made at least 450 crossings of the North Pacific between the mid-sixteenth and early eighteenth centuries, and some 12 of these ships went missing. In addition, shipwrecked sailors may also have survived and been assimilated into island populations and folk memories.28

Stories of European arrivals spread among the islanders after initial sightings or landings were made. When Cook missed the island of Rarotonga, a chief on hearing of the calls of ships elsewhere prayed:

  • O, great Tangaroa, send your large ship to our land,
  • Send us a dead sea, send us propitious gale,
  • (p.70) To bring the far-famed Cookies to our island,
  • To give us nails and iron axes,
  • Let us see these outriggerless canoes.29

Some recollections of the first arrivals were also preserved in Pacific songs. A Fijian song expresses approval of the careful seamanship of the foreigners:

  • A lookout man climbs aloft
  • To be quite sure how the ship must steer
  • Nairai lies right ahead
  • Koro is away to leeward
  • And the ship is sailing downwind towards Bua
  • The foreigner is a wide-awake person
  • And takes care to follow the open channel.30

In some islands there was still uncertainty about the origins of European ships, as well as the status of foreign sailors. Deryck Scarr writes of a Mangaian song as that expresses profound ambivalence in its verses “Tangaroa has sent a ship, which has burst through the solid blue vault,” and the chorus, “A ship full of guests is here. What gibberish they talk.”31 The word “burst” relates to the appearance of the great white sails, as they topped the horizon. I. C. Campbell points to the Polynesian word for Europeans, “papalangi,” which means “heaven bursters,” and to the Maori “pakeha,” which has a similar meaning. Soon the Europeans were recognized as mere human beings with accomplishments, but who some-times were lacking in understanding and whose skills could be learned.32

Twist tobacco was the first item of trade to Kiribati. It is recalled in a song still remembered to this day, though its age is unknown. It shows also some ambivalence to new arrivals and trade, as it warns people, in vain, about the dangers of smoking:

  • What is this thing which has come up into our country
  • We are dying for love of it
  • A thing with an odd sort of body
  • It is black
  • And what is its name
  • It’s tobacco
  • (p.71) How strong the love for smoking
  • We die if it goes away
  • A white man’s thing which is black
  • And twisted round every strand
  • Go easy on this love of smoking.33

The island communities that received the foreign ships had their own well-established laws and customs, which, like their navigational and ecological knowledge, the Europeans failed to recognize, partly because they was transmitted orally. It was customary in places for communities to exercise rights to take possession of uninvited foreign vessels and anything else arriving from the sea. William Mariner records an example from the voyage of the Tongan chief “Cow Mooala.” Variable voyaging conditions brought Chief Kau Moala to the islands of “Footona,” where his vessel, property, and cargo were taken by the people. Mariner points out that this behavior was consistent with the laws of the islands. They nevertheless gave him hospitality and within twelve months built him a new ship. He then sailed for Fiji, loaded sandalwood, and returned to Tonga.34 Attempts to confiscate the ships of strangers or remove material from the ships appear to fall within at least some indigenous customs. Underlying this may have been implied reciprocity.

Several island laws were less welcoming when it came to shipwrecks. When David Whippy, the part-Fijian son of a famous sailor, shipbuilder, and vice-consul for the United States, was shipwrecked on Vanua Levu, he knew that “by the sanguinary laws of Feejee the penalty of escape from shipwreck is death and conversion into food, he exerted himself to make it appear that he was but a casual traveller requiring hospitality.” The people recognized he had “salt-water in the eyes,” and he was saved only by a chief who was under obligation to his father.35

Where demand increased was for firearms and ammunition. Wars appeared to be common enough in most parts of the Pacific before the foreign ships came, but they increased in ferocity when the European weapons were acquired. The attack in 1806 on the British privateer Port au Prince at Ha‘apai in Tonga was primarily motivated by an immediate need for guns. William Mariner, who was one of the survivors of the massacre of most of the crew, describes how he and fifteen other European sailors subsequently took part in a naval attack by Ha‘apai warriors on the fortified town of Nukualofa on Tongatapu in 1807. The bombardment with four carronades was followed by the further slaughter of men, women, and children, and scenes of cannibalism.36

(p.72) As more formal trade emerged, people began to recognize that they were losing their own things of value, which could not be replaced, and it was evident that the Europeans were insensitive to this. Nicholas, in his Narrative of a Voyage to New Zealand, describes his dealings with a Maori chief for a special comb worn by him, for which Nicholas offered a billhook: “The chief, it would appear, attached to the comb no ordinary degree of sacred importance; and fearful of incurring the guilt of profanation by parting with it in the same precipitate manner as with any other article of less awful attributes, he deemed it expedient to wait a certain time, and then transmit it to my hands with proper solemnities.”37 In this and other ways, innumerable parts of the Maori cultural heritage in greenstone and other materials disappeared from society before resentment surfaced in violence.

Other situations of stress arose when island people realized that the sailors did not understand the social complexities of sexual relationships. They could not distinguish between those females who were available to them, seemingly at a price in iron and tobacco, and those who were not, because of status and marriage. Cook began to discern these differences and warned of fatal mistakes. There were in various Pacific societies differences in levels of sexual freedom. In some traditional Polynesian societies, independent women of lower ranks were free to form temporary liaisons, not motivated by economic considerations, with men visiting their settlements. Also described were the “strolling players,” who were, according to Beaglehole, the “less restricted young women of this social order who provided seamen with such advantageous entertainment.”38 These girls “toured the island group in fleets of consecrated canoes [and] were met with gifts and with joy; their god was the god of peace and fertility.”39 Morrison also shows some of the complexities of class and sexuality when he refers to the Areeuoy of Tahiti as “ladies of pleasure,” of whom Queen Pbooraya was one.40 These ladies were, like the mahoo (male transvestites), highly regarded in society.

The women of Micronesia as a whole were also given a reputation for prostitution by the commanders of visiting ships. They described husbands and fathers coming on board and offering their women for tobacco. In practice, chastity was valued in many parts of Micronesia, where “if the girl was not a virgin her parents would take her back and cancel the marriage.” Those who came on board were in the traditional category of nikiranroro, “single women who are not virgins and married women who are not living with their husbands,” women “who even in pre-European times supported themselves partly with gifts from lovers and were, (p.73) in some measure, free agents.” The men who were with these women were not necessarily related.41 There were numerous instances, in several places, of sailors and traders being killed for illicit sexual transgressions.

The Exploring Ships—An Appraisal

The first encounters were full of ambiguities. Sailors were accustomed to going ashore in foreign places and forming temporary liaisons. For them a Pacific island was only another such place. Many of these British naval ratings and marines had experienced violent and victorious actions at sea. They regarded themselves as a superior breed entitled to take possession and to kill when necessary. Typically, when the Tahitians launched a surprise attack on the Dolphin, Richardson the barber penned a long, doggerel poem regretting having to kill them:

  • Poor simple men, to late you’re taught
  • That Britons ne’er are easily caught.42

The officers and scientists shared this simplistic view, alternating with perceptions of Arcadian nobility and treachery, according to their mood and circumstances. Cook took a more balanced approach, while George Forster was outraged at the arbitrary shootings of people. The other scientists brushed aside the depth of indigenous knowledge of geography, navigation, and ecology in the belief that only Europeans could formulate scientific principles. Even Cook, who respected the information given by Tupaia, seems not to have inquired closely as to how he actually navigated.

Island people for their part had few illusions about the visitors. They valued the iron as a marked improvement on stone, shell, and wood and respected the firearms, if not the contagious diseases they acquired. The chiefs soon considered themselves at least the class equals of the ship commanders and regarded drunken and impolite sailors with “disdainful tolerance.”43 Tupaia as a chief made it plain that he was a cut above the European seamen on the Endeavour. Cook wrote that Tupaia “was proud and obstinate which often made his situation on board both disagreeable to himself and those about him.”44 Anne Salmond concludes that when the people of Hauraki first encountered the Endeavour, they “had no notion of these strangers as superior—quite to the contrary.”45 Several years later Captain Turnbull (see chapter 5) still got the impression that the Tahitians were “fully persuaded Tahiti is the first country on the face (p.74) of the globe.” He added that they “were persuaded that we have no other purpose in visiting them but that we are half starved at home.”46

Several of the first foreign arrivals had concerns over their effects on the people. Cook was particularly worried by their introduction of venereal disease. By the time the Resolution and Discovery reached Kaua‘i Island, Hawai‘i, in January 1778, he knew the disease had been spread widely elsewhere. He tried to keep infected sailors on board and women ashore for the fourteen days they were there. When they returned again to Hawai‘i in November 1778 and lay off Maui, some young men came out on a boat and showed them the results of the new disease on their penis and asked for treatment. Lieutenant James King of the Resolution wrote in his journal that “the manner in which these innocent people complained to us seem’d to me to show they considered us the original authors.”47 There is no doubt that this contributed to a subsequent drastic decline in the population.

George Forster, and to a lesser extent Cook, also appreciated the longer-term social and economic effects of their arrivals on Pacific society. Philip Edwards discerned the perception of Forster to the introduction of iron. This undoubtedly was the beginning of a new iron age, with some advantages, but with related moral corruption. Forster emphasizes that the contact between sailors and islanders was most evident in the sexual coupling for which payment was made in iron nails. Iron took on mystical properties in some islands, and certainly in the long term this altered divisions of labor and reduced effort and time in the construction of vessels and other building activities. Forster saw the further portents of change in the acquisition of new luxuries by chiefs that would move the communities toward the more acquisitive inequality of a class-based society.48 This became more evident with the adoption of European commercial practices by paramount chiefs, which are discussed in chapter 5. (p.75)


(2.) Ibid., 9–10.

(3.) Ibid., 28.

(6.) A. D. Couper, “Islanders at Sea: Change and the Maritime Economies of the Pacific,” in The Pacific in Transition, ed. Harold Brookfield (London: Edward Arnold, 1973), 246.

(7.) A. D. Couper, “Historical Perspectives on Seafarers and the Law,” in Seafarers’ Rights, ed. D. Fitzpatrick and M. Anderson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3–39.

(9.) Ibid., 82.

(10.) J. C. Beaglehole, ed., The Voyage of the Resolution and Adventure 1772–1775 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), 493.

(12.) Ibid., 139, 154, 155.

(13.) Ibid., 123, 229.

(14.) Beaglehole, Journals of Captain James Cook, 1:114–116. See also Edwards, Journals of Captain James Cook, 61–64.

(21.) J. C. Beaglehole, ed., The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768–1771 (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1962), 2:130.

(24.) Philip Edwards, The Story of the Voyage: Sea-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 115–117.

(25.) Ibid., 118. For a detailed appraisal of George Forster, see Nicholas Thomas, Discoveries (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 275–278.

(28.) Robert Langdon, The Lost Caravel (Sydney: Pacific Publications, 1975).

(29.) The Reverend Thomas Williams, quoted in Dorothy Shineberg, They Came for Sandalwood: A Study of the Sandalwood Trade in the South West Pacific 1830–65 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1986), 14.

(30.) William Lockerby, The Journal of William Lockerby, Sandalwood Trader in the Fijian Islands during the Years 1808–1809 (London: Hakluyt Society, 1925), 11:xiii.

(31.) Deryck Scarr, “European Visitors: First Contacts,” in Lal and Fortune, Pacific Islands, 149.

(p.219) (32.) I. C. Campbell, “Polynesian Perceptions of Europeans in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Pacific Studies 5, no. 2 (1982): 64–79.

(33.) A. D. Couper, songs collected in the Gilbert Islands and translated by Paul Laxton, from the author’s field notes (Canberra, 1964).

(34.) John Martin, ed., An Account of the Natives of the Tongan Islands, by William Mariner (London: Hakluyt Society, 1817–1818), 1:256.

(36.) A. H. Wood, History and Geography of Tonga (Nukualofa: Tupou College, 1952), 35–36.

(37.) John L. Nicholas, Performed in the Years 1814 and 1815 in Company with the Rev. Samuel Marsden (Auckland: Wilson and Horton, 1971), 2:19.

(41.) Barrie MacDonald, Cinderellas of the Empire: Toward a History of Kiribati and Tuvalu (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1982), 19.

(42.) J. Lamb, V. Smith, and N. Thomas, A South Seas Anthology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 65–66.

(46.) John Turnbull, A Voyage round the World in the Years 1801–1804 (Philadelphia: Benjamin and Thomas Kite, 1810), 1:133.

(47.) King’s journal, entry for November 1778, in Beaglehole, Journals of Captain Cook.