Strangers in Otaheite

Tahiti, James Cook, Joseph Banks, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell, Prince Nassau-Siegen,

On April 24, 1769, Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander went off to explore. They headed east away from the place where the Endeavour’s men had begun to establish Fort Venus at the northern tip of the island the locals called Otaheite.

They crossed the Vaipopoo River and went for about two miles across land Banks described in his journal as “flat and fertile” to a point where “the hills then came very near the waters edge and soon after quite into the sea so that we were obliged to climb over them.”

On the other side, the land was barren again and the two men continued for a further three miles more where they came to a “large flat full of good houses and wealthy looking people”.

“Here was a river much more considerable than our own, it came out of a very deep and beautifull valley and was where we crossd it near 100 yards wide tho not quite at the sea. About a mile farther than this river we went when the Land became again as barren as possible, the rocks every where projecting into the sea, so we resolvd to return,” wrote Banks.

But just as they were about to head back to their own camp, they had a surprise.

“Soon after this resolution one of the natives made us an offer of refreshment which we accepted. He was remarkable for being much the whitest man we had seen. On examining him more nearly his skin was dead pale without the least signs of Complexion in any part of it, some parts were lighter than others but the darkest was lighter than any of our skins, his hair and eyebrows and beard were as white as his skin, his eyes bloodshot, he apeard to be very short sighted, his whole body was scurfy and maybe disease had been the cause of his colour; if not we shall see more such.”

This wasn’t the most striking of encounters Banks and Solander had had in the days since arriving at Otaheiti but it was noteworthy nonetheless.

The previous day, the Endeavour’s men had begun to suspect that other foreigners had perhaps visited since fellow British explorer Samuel Wallis had ‘discovered’ the place they knew as King George’s Island when he arrived in 1767 aboard the Dolphin.

“We had this evening some conversation about an ax which was brought in the morning by Hercules, it wanting grinding,” Banks wrote, referring to the Tahitian chief he had christened.

“Its make was very different from that of our English ones, several gentlemen were of opinion that it was a French one, some went so far as to give it as their opinion that some other ship had been here since the Dolphin. The difficulty however appeard to me at least easily solvd by supposing axes to have been taken in the Dolphin as trade, in which case old ones might have been bought of the make of any countrey, for many such I suppose there are in every old iron shop in London.”

Above image: A Map of King George’s Island or Otaheite, 1769, by James Cook and Charles Praval, via the Royal Museums Greenwich.

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