Almost eight months after setting sail from England, and some 15,000 nautical miles later, Captain James Cook and the crew of the HMB Endeavour finally confirmed their first sighting of Tahiti.
Having caught a glimpse of it in the distance the previous day amid the haze hanging around after a stormy night, a clear morning on April 11 presented the sailors with a clear view of the place they knew as King George’s Island.
As far as Cook and his men were concerned, this lush green paradise had been claimed in the name of their sovereign two years earlier by Samuel Wallis. They were unaware that in between times, the French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville had also paid a visit.
“At 6 AM saw King Georges Island extending from WBS1/2S to WBN1/2N it appear’d very high and Mountainous,” Cook wrote in his journal.
The naturalist accompanying him, Joseph Banks, was rather more descriptive in his own account, focusing first on identifying the sea creature that had been hauled aboard the previous evening.
“Up at 5 this morn to examine the shark who proves to be A blew Shark Squalus glaucus, while we were doing it 3 more came under the Stern of which we soon caught 2 which were common grey Sharks Squalus Carcharias, on one of whom were some sucking fish Echinus remora. The seamen tell us that the blew shark is worst of all sharks to eat, indeed his smell is abominably strong so as we had two of the better sort he was hove overboard,” Banks wrote.
“Little wind and variable with Squalls from all points of the Compass bringing heavy rain. Georges Island in sight appearing very high in the same direction as the land was seen last night, so I found the fault was in our eyes yesterday tho the non-seers were much more numerous in the ship than the seers.”
On shore, the Tahitians were already preparing for the Endeavour’s arrival. To them, sharks – in particular blue ones – were sacred, an ata, or incarnation of Ta’aroa, the pre-eternal red-and-yellow-feathered deity from which all of creation sprang.
The above pen and wash drawing of the peaks of Matavai Bay was done by Sydney Parkinson, one of the artists aboard the Endeavour, and comes from J.C. Beaglehole’s The Life of Captain Cook.