Clouds on the horizon
Many of James Cook’s men found it hard to leave the islands of French Polynesia
ONhis first voyage of 1769, [James] Cook spent three months on Tahiti, far longer than [Samuel] Wallis and [Louis] Bougainville combined.
The object of the expedition was to search for the great southern continent and to chart the Pacific. To this end a group of scientists and naturalists sailed on board the Endeavour, headed by the young, rich and ebullient Joseph Banks, who had partly financed the whole trip; Cook’s job was merely to sail the ship. The call at Tahiti had the specific purpose of observing the transit of Venus on June 3, for which the island’s position was ideal.
In spite of the full records that he kept throughout his career, Cook is a difficult man to know. He was highly intelligent, a firstrate navigator and surveyor, a leader who commanded universal respect, but there always remains something hidden about him: there is a sense of reserve, a lack of charisma and idiosyncrasies.
He was so constantly correct in all that he did that we feel an air almost of infallibility. As a writer he is lucid, observant and informative, yet he conveys a sense of impersonality in his role as a commander and as a writer.
James Boswell, a sharp judge of character, met Cook in London and found him a ‘‘grave, steady man’’ and his wife ‘‘a decent, plump Englishwoman’’.
Having anchored and been surrounded by the indigenous people in the usual way, the first cloud in the sun-filled skies of Tahitian warmth and friendship appeared in the form of stealing. The islanders, wrote Cook, were ‘‘prodigious experts’’ in picking pockets; they simply could not keep their hands off the Europeans, their belongings and their equipment. The Europeans were at first amused, then annoyed, then outraged; again and again hostility would erupt, and peace and friendship had to be restored.
In a culture where artefacts, possessions or intricate things simply did not exist, the contents of the Endeavour and the complex belongings of its men proved absolutely irresistible.
But when a gun was snatched from a marine, things became serious: an officer ordered his men to open fire and the thief was shot dead, to the shock of both sides. Even the quadrant, without which the transit of Venus could not be observed, was stolen from the special encampment built to house the scientists.
Cook was preparing for possible battle when Banks and a well-disposed Tahitian chief succeeded in cornering the thief and reclaiming the quadrant.
The other thing that they noticed fairly quickly was that Tahitian society was certainly not classless, not egalitarian. The chiefs had many servants, whose duties included placing the food in their superiors’ mouths; this level of servility should surely have cast a shadow over the island’s idyllic image.
But still, in spite of the theft problem, Banks was in ecstasies over the beauty of freedom of life on Tahiti, and especially of its women. ‘‘Such the Grecians were, from whose model the Venus of the Medicis was copied’’; their physical beauty ‘‘might even defy the imitation of the chisel of a Phidias or the pencil of an Apelles’’; Tahiti was the ‘‘truest picture of an Arcadia of which we were going to be kings that the imagination can form’’.
This admiration was not only intellectual, for [Tahitian queen] Purea, now referred to as Obarea, and her handmaidens became favourites of Banks and the other officers; [Sydney] Parkinson, the artist, thought her ‘‘a fat, bouncing, good-looking dame’’, and Banks described her as ‘‘about 40, tall and very lusty, her skin white and her eyes full of meaning’’.
Banks is circumspect about what took place between them, but he spent many nights ashore in the Tahitians’ huts and there does not seem to be much doubt that he succumbed, if not to Obarea then to the girls in her entourage. What struck the Europeans perhaps more than anything else was that the Tahitians regarded it as perfectly natural for sex to take place in public.
Even the rough sailors found this extraordinary and disconcerting.
While Cook made no attempt to prevent his men going to the women, he had no hesitation in ordering a flogging when, for example, one seaman stole a large quantity of nails from the store, thus endangering the ship and its mission.
Cook did hint at disapproval of the Arioi, a class of people who formed a kind of priesthood, but whose chief public function was to organise dances and exotic semitheatrical entertainments.
When Cook and the Endeavour departed in mid-July, the observation of the transit of Venus completed, he and colleagues took with them a considerable enigma as to the truth about Tahiti. That departure had to be delayed as two seamen deserted during the last night: Cook was told that ‘‘they were gone into the mountains and that they had got each of them a wife and would not return’’.
Cook’s response was ruthless: he took half a dozen chiefs hostage, including Obarea, until the missing men should be found, which they soon were. They were given two dozen lashes and confined below decks until the ship was well out to sea. Cook was besieged by young Tahitians wanting to sail away with him, and he chose a chief named Tupaia with his servant boy.
Tupaia was clever, proud and unpopular, while the boy, Tayeto, was the reverse and became a well-loved cabin boy; both died of sickness during the voyage.
The Endeavour did not reach England until July 1771, having charted New Zealand and the eastern coast of Australia but having failed to find the great southern continent. It is not too much to say that Cook’s return, and that of Bougainville to France, were the signal for the emergence of a ‘‘Pacific industry’’ in the intellectual and social life of both countries. This is an edited extract from Travel: A Literary History by Peter Whitfield (Bodleian Library Publishing, $54.95). Distributed in Australia by Inbooks: inbooks.com.au.