On July 2, 1792, the London Chronicle reported the arrival of one of King George III’s warships at Portsmouth on England’s south coast:
News from Botany Bay from His Majesty’s ship, the Gorgon. The infant colony is in greatest distress being in want of every necessity of life and by no means in that fertile state represented …
The following were [among] passengers on the Gorgon. Captain W. Tench … Captain Edwards of the Pandora, upwards of a hundred men, women and children of the Marine Corps, ten mutineers from the Bounty and several convicts that made their escape from [Botany] Bay to Batavia in an open boat though the distance is not less than 1,000 leagues …
As well as informing its readers of the precarious state of the convict colony founded four years before, this short account also brought together three of the greatest and most dramatic stories of survival at sea. The mutineers were some of those from the Bounty who, after they had put William Bligh over the side with members of his loyal crew to make his celebrated 3,600-nautical-mile, forty-seven-day, open-boat journey to Kupang on Timor, had returned to Tahiti and remained there when Fletcher Christian and the hard core of the mutineers headed for Pitcairn Island.
Captain Edward Edwards, dispatched aboard the Pandora to hunt down the mutineers, had seized them on Tahiti and imprisoned them in harsh conditions in a dark roundhouse on deck that had become known, perhaps predictably, as “Pandora’s Box.” When the Pandora was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef in August 1791, Edwards and the other survivors made a sixteen-day, 1,200-nautical-mile journey in four open boats to Kupang.
The convicts had “made their escape” from the penal colony in March 1791. They included—and some said were led by—a woman, Mary Bryant, née Broad. Their open-boat journey of 3,254 nautical miles from Port Jackson, modern-day Sydney, again to Kupang had taken sixty-nine days.
Here, in bitter irony, Captain Edwards had arrested them and shipped them home with the mutineers on the Gorgon to face trial. Captain Watkin Tench—referred to by the London Chronicle—was an officer who, with many other marines, was returning from service as one of the initial guards of the penal colony established in 1788. By coincidence, they found themselves aboard the Gorgon with the escaped convicts of whose fate they had until then been ignorant.
The ideas behind the penal settlement and the Bounty’s breadfruit voyage to Tahiti had a common origin: Britain’s attempts to exploit its discoveries made in the Pacific in the third quarter of the eighteenth century by Captain James Cook and others. At one stage they had been planned as a single venture—an idea only formally abandoned a week before the convict fleet’s departure.
The two stories would become further intertwined when, in 1805, Captain Bligh was appointed governor of the penal colony where in 1808 he would again suffer a mutiny. A verse circulating in Sydney would ask: Oh Tempora! Oh Mores! Is there No Christian in New South Wales to put A stop to the Tyranny of the Governor.
Cook’s first expedition, from August 1768 to July 1771—the many objectives of which had included observing the transit of Venus—had owed much to the enthusiasms of members of the Royal Society—then, as now, Britain’s foremost scientific institution. Leaders in the “Age of Enlightenment,” they were eager to understand the mechanics and geography of the universe, the earth’s place in them, and the reasons underlying their own existence.
Cook’s voyage was also one of discovery designed to reveal more about the Pacific and the possible existence there of a great southern continent, and, in so doing, to assess the scope for extension of British trade, forestalling French, Spanish, and Dutch rivals.
He surveyed New Zealand and made the first European landings there and on the east coast of Australia, which he claimed for Great Britain and named New South Wales, after Wales in his homeland.
The impetus for British attempts to exploit these discoveries was the American War of Independence and the subsequent loss of the American colonies. Britain no longer had priority in its trade with its former colonies, compelling it to seek new markets.
A particular problem was finding a source of sustaining cheap food for the slaves on the sugar plantations of the British West Indies, to which breadfruit from the Pacific, which the Bounty was sent to obtain, was believed to be the solution. The British government had also been accustomed to transport to the American colonies prisoners convicted of crimes not considered to merit death but too serious to allow them to return to Britain’s streets.
After exhausting other possibilities, the authorities turned to Botany Bay in New South Wales as a destination, which also offered opportunities for trade and use as a staging post for British merchantmen in the Pacific.
These decisions had a profound impact on the region’s people. Earlier British encounters with them in the Pacific, and in Tahiti in particular, had already significantly contributed to the discussion of “the noble savage” and whether a society based on man’s inherent moral qualities had advantages over those ruled by laws imposed by religious and social hierarchies. These debates, and descriptions of the undoubted beauty and charm of the Pacific islands, gave a not entirely accurate and highly romantic view of them as a Utopian paradise, later sustained by the Romantic poets and later still enhanced by Paul Gauguin’s paintings.
The story of the four decades between the first arrival of the British in Tahiti in 1767 and the arrival of William Bligh in New South Wales as governor is as much one of outstanding characters—sometimes heroic, sometimes flawed, and sometimes somewhere in between—as of ideas and of clashes between cultures and societies.
At least as much as Cook and Bligh, the naturalist Sir Joseph Banks stands out. He accompanied Cook on his first voyage, enjoying the amorous favors of Tahiti’s beautiful women, and searched so hard for botanical specimens that Cook named Botany Bay after his and his associates’ efforts there. For forty-two years he was president of the Royal Society and he was the key figure behind the eventual choice of Botany Bay as the destination to which British convicts should be transported, behind Bligh’s breadfruit expedition and—sixteen years after the Bounty mutiny—Bligh’s appointment as governor of New South Wales.
Another key figure was Captain Arthur Phillip, the phlegmatic son of a poor German immigrant to Britain, who became a naval officer, spied for Britain against the French, and then served as the commander of the first convict fleet and, following its arrival in 1788, as the first governor of the penal colony. There he displayed remarkable even-handedness in his treatment of guards and prisoners and attempted, if not always successfully, to maintain good relations with the local Aboriginals.
James Boswell spans events first as a commentator on the early parts of the story, describing his conversations with Dr. Samuel Johnson on the virtues of “civilization” compared to life in a more “natural” state, in his attempts to join Cook’s second voyage, and later as the champion of Mary Bryant and the other escaped prisoners.
Influence was exerted and positions and promotions obtained through many interlocking circles. As the achievements of Cook and Phillip—both from poor backgrounds—show, advancement was not always dependent on wealth and privilege, though these clearly helped. Those with influence promoted those with whom they had previously served and found able and congenial. Family links as well as those of education were valuable. Freemasonry, with its emphasis (despite its rituals) on rationalism as distinct from mystic explanations, was at one of its high points—Cook, Bligh, Banks, Boswell, and others were masons.
Regional links mattered: Cornishmen were especially prominent in the Bounty and Botany Bay stories, while close associations between families in Cumberland and the Isle of Man influenced the aftermath of the Bounty mutiny.
People from the Pacific are also major figures. Purea, “queen” of one of Tahiti’s clans, not only seduced Banks but immediately recognized the potential of Europeans to assist her in increasing her power. Tu, one of her successors as the dominant figure on Tahiti, brought such ambitions to fruition, profiting from his closeness to the new arrivals to secure muskets and in the end their active help in establishing his dynasty as paramount in Tahiti. Omai, a Tahitian, eventually visited Britain as did Bennelong, an Aboriginal, giving a human face to accounts of exotic new lands.
Jenny, a Tahitian woman, provided one of the few independent accounts of Fletcher Christian’s voyage to Pitcairn Island and his life and death there. Yet in 1767, as a British naval ship nosed through the reefs toward a mist-wreathed island, no one aboard or ashore could possibly foresee how profoundly both the Pacific and western worlds would change in the years that followed.
The name “Australia” was first used by Matthew Flinders in 1804 on a hand-drawn map.
I “NO OTHER GODS BUT LOVE”
Forewarned by swift-paddled canoes from outlying islands of the approach of what they would recall as an “amazing phenomenon,” the tawny-skinned occupants of a hundred outrigger canoes peered into a bank of thick morning fog. Slowly the outline of “a floating island” propelled by divine power and inhabited by gods appeared, filling them with “wonder and fear”: HMS Dolphin, a 24-gun, 113-foot-long, 508-ton British frigate under the command of thirty-nine-year-old Cornishman Samuel Wallis.
As Wallis strained his own eyes, a sweep of jagged green peaks emerged through the drifting mist. At the sound of breaking surf ahead he gave orders to begin depth sounding. He, like all his hundred-fifty-strong crew, was exhausted after months of scouring the South Pacific for the fabled continent “Terra Australis Incognita.”
Ship’s master George Robertson described how the glimpse of land “filled us with the greatest hopes imaginable … We now supposed we saw the long wished for Southern Continent, which has been often talked of but never before seen by Europeans.” In fact, that morning of June 19, 1767, they had just become the first Europeans to reach Tahiti, the largest of an island archipelago in the South Pacific.
When the fog cleared further the sailors lining the rails saw the high-prowed, thirty-foot-long Tahitian canoes festooned with red feathers racing toward the Dolphin through the surf, the islanders’ curiosity and wonder seeming to more than match their own. A Tahitian stood up in one of the leading canoes and hurled a plantain branch into the sea—unknown to Wallis’s men, a priest making a gesture of welcome.
Then as the canoes drew closer, “one fine brisk young man” leapt from one, seized hold of the Dolphin’s rigging, and scrambled aboard. Others quickly followed. Eager for fresh food, the sailors imitated the gruntings of pigs, the flapping and clucking of chickens, and the crowing of cocks. When the Tahitians failed to understand their antics the crew brought out the few turkeys, sheep, and goats they had aboard. The islanders had never seen such creatures. When a goat butted one of them from behind they all dived overboard in fear, one pausing to snatch from a midshipman’s head “a gold-laced hat.”
Slowly Wallis’s men coaxed them back, offering beads and nails. Aboard once more, the Tahitians explored the ship, seizing anything they liked the look of; in Tahitian culture a successful thief was considered to have won the protection of Hiro, a powerful god. With those still in canoes also clamoring vociferously for goods and beginning “to be a little surly,” Wallis feared the situation might get out of control and ordered his gunners to fire a warning shot from the Dolphin’s cannon. The islanders, who were ignorant of gunpowder, cannon, and muskets, fled back to the shore.
With lookouts posted at the mast tops to watch for surf breaking on reefs and changes of color in the bright water indicating shallows, Wallis began navigating Tahiti’s southwestern coast, searching for a safe harbor. He quickly saw enough of the 120-mile-long curving shoreline to realize it was an island and not the much-sought-after great southern continent Terra Australis Incognita (the “Unknown South Land”).
However, he and his crew were already struck by the “most beautiful appearance possible to imagine” of Tahiti, its “fine pasture land,” rivers, waterfalls, neat settlements with thatched houses “like long farmers’ barns,” and lush palm groves.
Watching from the shore, some of the Tahitians recalled a recent prophesy by one of their priests following the chopping down of a sacred tree during an intra-island conflict that newcomers of an unknown kind would arrive and that “this land will be taken by them. The old order will be destroyed and sacred birds of the land and the sea will … come and lament over what the lopped tree has to teach. [The newcomers] are coming upon a canoe without an outrigger.”
The islanders grew so suspicious that when a shore party commanded by the Dolphin’s Virginia-born master’s mate John Gore tried to land from the ship’s cutter, they attacked with slingshots. Though Wallis, following his Admiralty orders to invite local inhabitants “to trade and show them every kind of civility and regard,” had given strict instructions that the local people were not to be harmed, Gore fired his musket loaded with buckshot at a Tahitian warrior before ordering the cutter back to the Dolphin.
On June 22, the winter solstice in Tahiti when—of course unknown to Wallis—custom forbade canoes to put to sea, Wallis ordered the ship’s boats to be lowered to take further soundings, and sailors and scarlet-jacketed marines to go ashore to search for supplies and water. The marines fired more shots at islanders they thought were threatening them in what was only the beginning of a series of further confrontations over the next forty-eight hours.
The Tahitians, after unsuccessfully trying to put back on his feet one of their fellows hit by a musket ball, began to believe that the scarlet-coated marines squinting down the barrels of their muskets might be blowing into their weapons and named the muskets pupuhi roa—“breath which kills at a distance.” Red was the color of their war god, Oro, who used thunder and lightning to enforce his power. Thus the red-clad marines, with the flash and bang of their weapons, seemed all too likely to be Oro’s minions bent on avenging the islanders’ disrespect to their gods.
Nevertheless, early on June 24 the Dolphin’s crew, by now seeking a safe anchorage in Matavai Bay and having grounded the Dolphin once already to the amusement of the islanders, saw several large war canoes approaching fast. As well as men each carried young women who, standing on high platforms, performed “a great many droll wanton tricks.” These included exposing their genitals while their companions shouted and chanted. Wallis’s crew, deprived of female company for months, interpreted the “so well proportioned” women’s gestures as sexual enticement and rushed to the ship’s rails but, in fact, Tahitians believed that by exposing themselves toward the Dolphin the women were opening a portal for their ancestral gods, allowing them to channel their power against the newcomers.
As the war canoes drew nearer, some of their occupants furiously whirled slingshots over their heads to discharge stones at the Dolphin and its now sexually aroused crew. Fearing his ship was again in danger, Wallis first ordered muskets to be fired and then, when the attackers persisted, the firing of cannon loaded with grapeshot and cannonballs. A cannonball split one great war canoe in half. Others were soon splintered and sinking and many aboard them were injured or dying, staining the translucent turquoise water red with blood.
Among the wounded, hit in the shoulder by a musket ball, was a young man named Omai, originally from the neighboring island of Raiatea, who would become well known to later European visitors. Ship’s master George Robertson wrote of how terrible those on shore must have felt “to see their nearest and dearest of friends dead and torn to pieces in such a manner as I am certain they never beheld before. To attempt to say what these poor ignorant creatures thought of us, would be taking more upon me than I am able to perform.” After this admission of the understandable mutual incomprehension that was so often to prevail between islanders and Europeans, he added “some of my messmates thought they would now look upon us as demi Gods, come to punish them for some of their past transgressions.”
Wallis now decided to claim Tahiti by right of conquest and went ashore with an armed party to hold a ceremony for the purpose. As the scarlet-coated marines began to drill, the islanders—now seemingly convinced that these new arrivals were indeed demigods—slowly approached waving plantain branches and making signs of submission. Members of the Tahitian aristocracy followed, including one white-bearded old chief crawling on hands and knees in abasement. Others offered gifts of pigs.
Gradually more amicable relations were established, helped by the Tahitian women, encouraged by their menfolk, offering their favors to the sailors. George Robertson wrote, “All the sailors swore that they never saw handsomer made women in their lives and declared they would all to a man live on two thirds allowance rather than lose so fine an opportunity of getting a girl apiece … We passed this night very merry supposing all hostilities were now over and to our great joy it so happened.”
Wallis and his men were successful in bartering for fresh food and water, offering the islanders in return knives, hatchets, and iron nails. The only iron the islanders had seen before was from a ship wrecked without survivors on a reef off a distant outer island. Such was the islanders’ passion for anything iron that Wallis’s men were soon extracting nails surreptitiously from the Dolphin’s hull to reward sexual favors. So great was their commander’s concern that their depredations would irrevocably weaken his ship, they risked flogging if caught.
When they arrived, many of the sailors had been sick with scurvy, their gums black and bleeding, their teeth loose, their nails cracked, their urine green, their joints aching and stiff, and purple oozing ulcers covering their limbs. Others, including Wallis and several of his officers, had serious stomach disorders. Now with fresh food and the warmth of the island all began to recover.
One of the island’s noblewomen, named Purea, befriended Wallis, ordering him to be given food and carried by her servants to her home, a large thatched dwelling one hundred and twenty feet long and supported on fourteen carved pillars. In its shade she put four young women to gently massaging his limbs and those of other suffering officers. When in the process the ship’s surgeon removed his wig, the surprise of the Tahitians was immense.
Later Purea would dine aboard the Dolphin—unlike Tahitian women of lower status, custom permitted her to eat with men. During her visit Robertson described her as “a strong well-made woman about five foot ten inches high … very cheerful and merry all the time she was on board.”
On a later visit she asked Robertson to strip so that she could examine his body and, when he did, was surprised by his pale skin and “my breast being full of hair.” She probed and felt the muscles of his thighs and arms as if testing his strength. “This seemed to please her greatly and she eyed me all round and began to be very merry and cheerful and, if I am not mistaken by Her Majesty’s behaviour afterwards, this is the way the ladies here try the men before they admit them to be their lovers.”
After five weeks, Wallis prepared to sail home. Despite the initial violent deaths, relations between his crew and the islanders had become so close that many on both sides were in tears. Aboard the departing Dolphin were many ceremonial gifts, including a plaited string of her hair Purea had presented to Wallis as a symbol binding him to her and a string of pearls she had given him for the British queen.
As Purea watched the final preparations for leaving, Robertson recalled, “This great friendly woman took no manner of notice of what she got from us but shaked hands with all that she could come near. She wept and cried, in my opinion with as much tenderness and affection as any wife or mother could do, at the parting with their husband or children.” Despite her grief she took care to stash away safely a red pennant from the Dolphin given to her by Wallis. She intended to have it sewn on to a sacred banner made of bark and banyan and flown with great ceremony on her clan’s marae—a sacred meeting and worship place consisting of a raised stone platform—as a symbol of the earthly power she hoped to obtain through Wallis for herself and her clan when he returned, as he promised he would.
When the Dolphin reached England in May 1768, Wallis learned that Philip Carteret, commanding HMS Swallow, which had originally been part of his own expedition but had become separated from the Dolphin, had also returned having discovered, among other places, Pitcairn Island (some 1,200 nautical miles southeast of Tahiti), which he named after one of his midshipmen.
Wallis quickly submitted to the Admiralty his meticulous charts and in his report eulogized the beauty of Britain’s lush, fertile new possession and suggested further exploration of the region. Yet the accounts of Tahiti’s beautiful and sexually available women published in the newspapers and in pamphlets—despite the Admiralty’s attempts to keep Britain’s discovery secret—most caught the public imagination. In one a sailor described how “ the [Tahitian] men brought down their women and recommended them to us with great eagerness which made me imagine they want a breed of Englishmen amongst them.”
Interest in Tahiti grew further as the reports of a French expedition filtered through to Britain. While Wallis had been homeward-bound, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville—navigator, diplomat, and mathematician—had also reached Tahiti.
In tribute to Tahiti’s “celestial women” he named the island New Cythera after the island near where the goddess Venus (Aphrodite) reputedly sprang from the sea, and he in turn claimed it for France. His two ships, the Boudeuse and the Etoile, arrived early in April 1768.
The Tahitians had quickly realized both the futility of opposing the occupants of “floating islands” with force and that the attractions of their beautiful women were one of the best ways to please and placate them and secure the iron goods they wanted.
De Bougainville wrote that as his ships approached the shore the number of canoes shooting through the surf and thronging around the vessels made navigation difficult. “The canoes’ noisy occupants were crying out “taio” which means friend and gave a thousand signs of friendship; they all asked nails and earrings of us. The canoes were full of women who for agreeable features are not inferior to most European women and who in point of beauty of the body … vie with them all. Most of these fair females were naked … The men … pressed us to choose a woman and to come on shore with her; and their gestures which were by no means ambiguous denoted how we should form an acquaintance with her. It was very difficult amidst such a sight to keep at work four hundred young French sailors who had seen no women for six months.
In spite of all our precautions, a young girl got on board and stood on the quarterdeck near a hatchway open to give air to those heaving the capstan below it. The girl carelessly dropped a cloth which covered her and appeared to the eyes of all beholders such as Venus showed herself to the Phrygian shepherd having indeed the celestial form of that goddess … The capstan was never heaved with more alacrity than then.”
De Bougainville’s cook, who had slipped ashore against his orders, returned “more dead than alive.” As soon as his feet touched the beach, the Tahitians seized and undressed him so that “he thought he was utterly lost, not knowing where the [actions] of those who were tumultuously examining every part of his body” would end. However, they soon returned his clothes and his possessions and beckoned a girl to him, “desiring him to content those desires which had brought him ashore. All their persuasive arguments had no effect; they were obliged to bring the poor cook on board who told me that I might reprimand him as much as I pleased but that I could never frighten him so much as he had just now been frightened on shore.”
Even though he described the Etoile as a “hellish den where hatred, insubordination, bad faith, brigandage, cruelty and all kinds of disorders reign,” the botanist Philibert Commerson had less reason to feel a lack of female companionship than any other man aboard de Bougainville’s ships. He had smuggled on to the Etoile his mistress and housekeeper disguised as his valet, Jean Baret. By dint of restraining her breasts and pushing cloth down the front of her breeches she had not been detected during the long voyage to Tahiti. However, some of the islanders quickly grew suspicious and surprising her on the beach collecting shells with Commerson stripped her, as they had done the cook, and revealed her sex much to their amusement. Recovering from her ordeal, “Jean Baret” would continue the voyage, becoming the first woman known to have circumnavigated the globe.
Despite his mistress’s attractions, Commerson was smitten with Tahiti and its people during the French vessels’ stay of only thirteen days. He painted a beguiling, sensuous picture and compared the island to Thomas Moore’s Utopia:
“The Tahitians were free of any vice and prejudice, without any requirements and dissensions … Born under the most beautiful of skies, fed on the fruits of a land that is fertile and requires no cultivation, ruled by the heads of families rather than by kings, they know no other Gods but love. Every day is dedicated to it. The entire island is its temple, every woman its altar, every man its priest. And what sort of women? you will ask. The rivals of Georgians in beauty, and the sisters of the utterlynaked Graces. There neither shame nor modesty exercise their tyranny … the action of creating a fellow human being is a religious one … Strangers are all welcome to share in these delightful mysteries … so that the happy Utopian continually enjoys both his own feelings of pleasure and the spectacle of those of others.”
Even though the Tahitians were as skillful “as the pickpockets of Paris” he questioned whether they were thieves at all. “Is the right of ownership a natural one? No, it is purely a convention,” he wrote, and continued that Tahitians were simply following the laws of nature, citing philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s views in support of his own.
Accounts such as those of Commerson and de Bougainville, who himself referred to Tahiti as “the true Utopia,” ascribed to the Tahitian islands many of the virtues of natural law based on man’s innate and unconscious sense of morality, compared to laws dictated by religious leaders or secular rulers for their own benefit, a distinction then being debated animatedly in Europe by Denis Diderot, Rousseau, and others.
To some, Tahiti represented a lost golden age and the Tahitian people epitomized “the noble savage”—a term first coined in 1672 by the English poet and playwright John Dryden in these lines from his play The Conquest of Granada:
“I am free as nature first made man, Ere the base laws of servitude began, When wild in the woods the noble savage ran.”
Rousseau suggested Robinson Crusoe as the first book a child should read because its hero Crusoe discarded western self-consciousness in favor of survival on his deserted island.
Diderot wrote A Supplement to de Bougainville in which fictional characters including a South Sea islander debated. The work criticized European society and questioned institutions such as marriage and the family which Diderot thought designed to safeguard and retain property through man’s control of woman’s fertility rather than for the happiness of society. He also queried the benefits of European intrusion into the islanders’ lives, suggesting that if European ideas and religion were introduced the islanders would soon become “almost as unhappy as they [the Europeans] are.”
Not everyone agreed with such radical views. Many continued to support the thesis propounded by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his 1651 book Leviathan that if man had remained in the savage state without institutions, law and government there would be no industry, no navigation, no trade, “no knowledge of the face of the earth …no arts, no letters, no society and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Debate, whether at the philosophical level about the relative virtues of Tahitian and European society, or on the more popular one about the island’s life of ease and titillating sexual freedom, drew added attention to the Pacific. Its sixty-four million square miles covering a third of the earth’s surface and containing 45 percent of the planet’s total surface waters still remained to Europeans a region of almost unimaginable vastness and mystery.
In 1513 Spaniard Vasco Núñez de Balboa tramped over the Isthmus of Panama and, standing on a peak in Darien, was the first European to sight the ocean that he named the Mar del Sur, the “southern sea.”
Seven years later Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese captaining a Spanish fleet, became the first European to sail across what he named the Mar Pacifico, the “peaceful sea,” for its favorable winds.
Like many of the voyagers who ventured after him, Magellan’s fleet of five vessels was riven by dissent and mutiny. Even before he had sailed through the straits that now bear his name from the Atlantic into the Pacific, he had put down a full-fledged insurrection, killing two of his captains and marooning a third. He spared most of the other mutineers since he needed them to work his ships.
One of those mutineers—the Basque pilot Juan Elcano, commanding the only remaining ship of his fleet—completed the first circumnavigation of the world after Magellan had been killed in a skirmish with the local people in the Philippines.
For two hundred years, Spain dominated the Pacific, dispatching lumbering annual treasure galleons from its possessions in the Philippines across to its settlements in Mexico. Even in Wallis’s time, Spain still claimed the Pacific, citing the treaties of Tordesillas, brokered by the Pope in 1494, and of Zaragoza in 1529 that had divided the “new world” between Spain and Portugal.
Britain had first ventured into the Pacific in 1578. In what became the second circumnavigation of the world in a single vessel, Elizabethan adventurer Francis Drake rounded the Horn in the Golden Hind to attack Spanish possessions in the Pacific. Like Magellan, he too suffered mutiny in the Atlantic. The leader was Thomas Doughty, one of his captains, who resented the authority of Drake—a simple mariner—over himself, “a gentleman,” and attempted to usurp Drake’s position. Drake tried Doughty on a charge of seeking to overthrow the voyage, found him guilty, and sentenced him to death. He allowed Doughty the gentleman’s privilege of being beheaded rather than hanged. Afterward he mustered his company and addressed them:
“Here is such controversy between the mariners and the gentlemen, and such stomaching between the gentlemen and the mariners, it doth make me mad to hear it. But, my masters, I must have it left. For I must have the gentleman to haul and draw with the mariner, and the mariner with the gentleman. Come, let us show ourselves all to be of one company and let us not give occasion to the enemy to rejoice at our decay and overthrow.”
Drake went on to wreak havoc among the Spanish possessions in the Pacific and when he returned home in 1580 his booty was rumored to amount to half a million pounds and even to have funded the fleet in which he and others defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588.
Vestiges of the distinction between gentlemen born to command and mariners would persist into the times of Cook and Bligh in the tensions between officers, such as lieutenants and captains holding the king’s commission, and warrant officers. The latter included the sailing master (often simply known as “the master” and responsible for the ship’s navigation), the bosun or boatswain (responsible for the rigging, sails, and all the ship’s gear), the gunner (responsible for the guns and powder), and the carpenter (responsible for the maintenance of the hull, masts, and spars), all possessed of essential skills but usually of a lower social status.
A century later, English buccaneer and naturalist William Dampier became the next Briton to circumnavigate the world. In the intervening hundred years Abel Tasman had on two expeditions between 1642 and 1644 sailed without landing along parts of the north Australian coast, which he named New Holland. He did land on the southern island now named Tasmania after him, but which he named Van Diemen’s Land. He also became the first European to sight New Zealand.
However, after a deadly attack by Maoris on a boat that he had tried to send ashore he veered away, again without landing, believing New Zealand to be a single island.
Dampier initially started his voyaging as a buccaneer, crossing the Pacific from Mexico to Guam in 1686 in the Cygnet. There he saw breadfruit and, a meticulous recorder of the natural world, gave the first description in English of these trees “which I did never hear of anywhere else.” They were “as big and high as our largest apple trees” with glossy dark green leaves and fruits “as big as a penny loaf.” He also explored the process that metamorphosed the fruits into bread: “When the fruit is ripe, it is yellow and soft: and the taste is sweet and pleasant. The natives of this island use it for bread: they gather it when full grown, while it is green and hard; then they bake it in an oven, which scorcheth the rind and makes it black: but they scrape off the outside black crust, and there remains a tender thin crust, and the inside is soft, tender and white, like the crumb of a penny loaf. There is neither seed nor stone in the inside, but all is of a pure substance like bread.”
After a series of adventures, the Cygnet’s exhausted, fractious crew, including Dampier, landed on January 4, 1688, on the northwestern coast of New Holland (Australia) in what is now known as King Sound to repair and careen their vessel.
They became the first Britons to step ashore, while Dampier was the first to give the world detailed impressions of the new land. He thought it an unforgiving landscape in which none of the few trees “bore fruit or berries.” The men briefly encountered some Aboriginal people carrying lances and pieces of wood “shaped like a cutlass”—probably boomerangs.
After breaking from the buccaneers, Dampier reached Britain again in autumn 1691. With the benefit of his copious notes, he wrote a book entitled A New Voyage Around the World followed by A Discourse of Trade Wind, Breezes, Storms, Seasons of the Year, Tides and Currents of the Torrid Areas throughout the World. The latter included the first global wind maps incorporating the Pacific as well as the other oceans. The New Voyage itself described much new flora and fauna and introduced to the English language words such as avocado, barbecue, breadfruit, cashew, and chopsticks.
The New Voyage, which Cook, Banks, and Bligh would carry on their expeditions, also contained the first published description of the Aboriginal people of New Holland, characterizing them as “the miserablest people in the world.” Apart from their human shape, the Aboriginals differed “little from brutes.” They were “tall, strait-bodied, and thin, with small long limbs.”They had “ great heads, round foreheads, and great brows.”Their eyelids were “ always half-closed, to keep the flies out of their eyes; they being so troublesome here, that no fanning will keep them from coming to one’s face.” He described them as “long visaged and of a very unpleasing aspect, having no one graceful feature in their faces” with their “great bottle noses, pretty full lips and wide mouths.” Their hair was “black, short and curled like that of a negroe.” Their speech was gutteral, rising from “deep in the throat.”
Yet the unpublished draft of Dampier’s book presented a different, more objective picture with no comments about “brutes” or “unpleasing aspects.” The people were “of good stature but very thin and lean,” which he attributed to “want of food.” Their hair was “matted-up like a negroe’s” but this was “for want of combs.” It would be long if combed out.
Perhaps when Dampier’s journals were being readied for publication he was encouraged to “sensationalize” his physical descriptions of a people inhabiting a land so remote and unknown, or perhaps an editor did so for him. Dampier shows compassion, even admiration, for a people whose existence seemed hard. He looked on their landscape through European eyes. Not realizing that it was rich in “bush tucker” if, like the Aboriginals, you knew where to seek it, he wrote that “the earth affords them no food at all …neither herb, root, pulse nor any sort of grain for them to eat …nor any sort of bird or beast that they can catch, having no instruments wherewithal to do so.”
He believed they depended for their food on the sea but that apart from dugong and turtle the sea did not appear “very plentifully stored with fish.”
Following the bestselling success of his books, Dampier was taken up by society and in particular by the Royal Society, Britain’s first and still premier scientific institution, founded in 1660. As a result, in a highly unusual move in 1698, the Admiralty, acting in conjunction with the Royal Society, commissioned Dampier into the navy to return to New Holland to undertake discoveries “for the good of the nation” and to bring back natural history specimens.
For what was to be the English government’s first expedition officially to combine exploration and science Dampier was allotted a 292-ton, fifth-rate warship named the Roebuck already not in the best condition. He set out in early 1699 and was soon quarreling with his second in command, Lieutenant Fisher, who suspected Dampier intended to seize the Roebuck and return to piracy. At Tenerife, according to one crewman, “upon a very frivolous occasion” Fisher “gave the captain very reproachful words and bade him kiss his arse and said he did not care a turd for him.”
He apologized but the truce was short-lived. By the time the Roebuck reached Salvador de Bahia in Brazil the two had come to blows and Fisher was in irons. When Dampier asked Fisher to moderate “his scurrilous language” and false abuse of him, he yelled that “the captain might kiss his arse for while in confinement he would speak as he pleased.” Abuse and bad language either by a commander, as in the case of Bligh, or against him as here, were frequently cited as a major grievance in court-martials about disputes on British naval ships in the eighteenth century.
Dampier meanwhile challenged the rest of his crew. Were they planning to mutiny? Of course, they answered “no.” Dampier nevertheless slept “with small arms upon the quarterdeck” with those officers he trusted, “it scarce being safe for me to lie in my cabin, by reason of the discontents among my men.”
After putting Fisher ashore in Bahia, Dampier continued his voyage. He had intended to round Cape Horn and approach New Holland from the east but the season and weather prevented him. Had it not, he might have discovered the east coast of Australia long before Cook.
Instead, traveling around the Cape of Good Hope he once more reached its western coast, where he assiduously recorded what he saw and collected numerous botanical specimens, many now preserved in Oxford University.
On the way back to Britain, the leaking Roebuck foundered off Ascension Island. Dampier saved all his crew and many of his specimens.
On his return he faced a court-martial for his treatment of Fisher. The court believed Fisher’s charge of ill-usage but not Dampier’s countercharge of “mutinous behaviour” and fined Dampier his entire salary for the voyage. His book on the expedition, A Voyage to New Holland, contained much new information about the lands he had visited. However, neither it nor his oral reports encouraged further British expeditions to New Holland, considered a barren land, or to the Pacific.
The next British venture into the region was in 1740 when the Admiralty dispatched a squadron of seven ships commanded by Commodore George Anson to attack the Pacific coast of Spanish South America. In the interim the lure and romantic mystery of the South Seas had led foolish British investors to pile their money into the stock of the chimerical South Sea Company, leading to the financial crisis known as the “South Sea Bubble,” which in 1720 almost brought down the British economy.
Although Anson enjoyed some initial successes against the Spaniards, scurvy quickly became rife, killing some 1,300 crewmen compared to four who died in action. The vessels of Anson’s fleet lost contact with each other. Eventually he reached home in his own ship the Centurion, having circumnavigated the globe and captured the annual Manila galleon that took treasure from the Philippines to the Mexican coast for transhipment to Europe.
The crews of Anson’s other ships were much less fortunate, in particular that of HMS Wager, which lost a mast in a storm and was wrecked on rocks just off the Chilean coast. Most of the crew got ashore but, once there, morale and discipline began to disintegrate even more quickly than the wreck of the Wager. The ship’s commander, Lieutenant David Cheap, had with him only two commissioned officers but several warrant officers, including the sailing master, the gunner John Bulkeley, and a number of midshipmen, among them John Byron (the Romantic poet’s grandfather) and Henry Cozens. Soon quarrels broke out, with ordinary sailors arguing that since their pay had stopped with the loss of their ship so had the authority of their officers.
Copious amounts of alcohol seem to have been recovered from the wreck. Three weeks after the Wager hit the rocks, Cheap accused Cozens of being drunk and, after an argument, struck him. A few days later Cozens, again drunk, complained to the purser about the allocation of rations. The purser believed he was acting mutinously and cried out. Cheap rushed up and shot Cozens, wounding him in the head, and thereafter refused him any medical care from the surgeon. Cozens, who was popular, died in agony some days later, leading to a breakdown of relations between Cheap and most of his men.
Nevertheless, the crew continued strengthening the Wager’s longboat and two other small boats rescued from the wreck with a view to sailing to civilization.
Bulkeley proposed to lead the boats back through the Magellan Strait to Portuguese Brazil. Cheap would have none of it although he had no plan of his own. A few weeks later most of his crew colluded in Cheap’s arrest and imprisonment.
Subsequently they abandoned him and his few loyalists and set out south in the boats for Brazil. After navigating the Strait of Magellan during a hazardous voyage of two thousand miles, they reached the Rio Grande in Portuguese territory. During the voyage the Wager’s purser had died.
Bulkeley commented, “He died a skeleton for want of food. This gentleman probably was the first purser belonging to His Majesty’s service that ever perished with hunger.” Pursers were notorious for profiteering from food supplies and keeping the best for themselves.
Allegations of profiteering would feature large in the claims of the mutineers against Bligh, who acted as the Bounty’s purser as well as its commander.
Cheap and three others, including John Byron, eventually reached Britain after traveling up the coast of Chile to Santiago. After their return and that of Bulkeley’s party, there was an expectation that Bulkeley would be court-martialed for mutiny. However, the Admiralty preferred not to act either on this or on charges that Cheap had killed Cozens without due cause, showing a leniency it would later display toward actions of others in distant oceans such as some of the Bounty mutineers. Shortly afterward, Parliament passed a new act that clarified that the crews of wrecked naval vessels remained subject to naval discipline.
John Byron’s naval career thrived. In 1764, the Admiralty entrusted him with the command of a voyage of exploration to the South Pacific with the aim of locating Terra Australis Incognita.
He was given HMS Dolphin and completed the first circumnavigation of the world in less than two years (July 1764 to May 1766) but made few discoveries. Byron missed the chance of being the first European to land on Tahiti, sailing just north of it and acknowledging on his return to Britain that he might well have passed close to a significant body of land: “We saw vast flocks of birds which we observed towards evening always flew away to the southward. This is a convincing proof to me that there is land that way and, had not the winds failed me in the higher latitudes I make no doubt but I should have fell in with it and in all probability made the discovery of the southern continent.”
Encouraged, in 1767 the Admiralty dispatched Samuel Wallis to make a further search for the continent in the Dolphin, which thus became the first ship to circumnavigate the world twice.
The mythical Terra Australis Incognita had been believed to exist since antiquity and thought to be a great and probably fertile landmass balancing, as on a pair of scales, the lands of the northern hemisphere. It appeared as such on early maps.
II “THE TRUEST PICTURE OF ARCADIA”
Before the Dolphin and Wallis returned on May 20, 1768, the Royal Society and the Admiralty had already been planning for some time an expedition to the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus across the face of the sun, due in June 1769. They believed that these observations, together with those of the transit made elsewhere, would be important in calculating the distance between the earth and the sun and other planets. They had, however, decided no specific location for their Pacific observation. Wallis’s report of his discovery of Tahiti with its “safe, spacious and commodious harbour” changed all that. Tahiti seemed an ideal, not to say heaven-sent, location for their celestial observations.
Paradise In Chains. The Bounty Mutiny And The Founding Of Australia
by Diana Preston.
get it at Amazon.com