Clouds on the hori­zon

Many of James Cook’s men found it hard to leave the is­lands of French Poly­ne­sia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - PETER WHIT­FIELD

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.

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