Several days after returning to Tahiti from Mo‘orea following the 3 June transit of Venus, the Endeavour’s naturalist Joseph Banks took a walk in the woods, as he often did.
While some of the men already suspected that another foreign expedition had been to the island since Samuel Wallis’s first visit aboard the Dolphin (above), there was still a lack of solid evidence to support the theory. On this occasion, however, when Banks spied one of the Tahitians using an adze and quizzed him about its origins, he was told categorically it hadn’t come from either of the British ships, rather from “two others which came here together.”
After “much difficulty and labour” he managed to extract the following information: that these ships had arrived in Tahiti in January 1768 (in fact they had dropped anchor on 6 April that year); that they were Spanish (they were in fact French and were named La Boudeuse and L’Étoile); that they were commanded by a man whom they called Otterah (this was Louis-Antoine de Bougainville); they lay for eight days in the bay (it was actually ten); that they had on board their ships a woman (this was true, though she had come disguised as a man); that they had sailed away with one of the chiefs’ younger brothers (this was also true – his name was Ahutoru and he enjoyed celebrity status in France after La Boudeuse arrived back with him on 16 March 1769); and that they promised to return him nine months later (this never happened – Ahutoru died in Mauritius on the journey home in October 1771).
While Banks noted in his journal that he was “very particular” in his inquiries and spares the reader an exposition of his interview technique (“the methods I took to gain this account would be much too tedious to mention”), he does offer an insight into how he came to the conclusion that the mystery visitors had been Spanish.
“I opend a large sheet of Flaggs and askd which of them they had: Tubourai lookd stedfastly over them and at last pitchd upon the Spanish ensign and to that he adhered tho we tryd him over and over,” he wrote.
Tubourai was one of the Tahitian chiefs but his choice of the Spanish flag was perhaps based on his own cultural interests rather than offering a reliable identifier of others.
Ta‘aroa, the Tahitian god who created the cosmos, was covered with red and yellow feathers, red- and yellow-feathered birds were his messengers, and girdles made of red and yellow feathers were handed down from generation to generation as symbols of ancestral power, representing the gods ‘Oro and Teva respectively (according to Tahitian mythology as retold by Anne Salmond in Aphrodite’s Island).
So it’s not surprising perhaps that Tubourai chose the Spanish flag over the French one, even though the ensign of the time (right) hadn’t yet transitioned to the all-red-and-yellow design of 1785 onwards.
The Endeavour’s captain James Cook gave a similar account to Banks in his own journal the same day, though he clearly wasn’t as convinced about the nationality of the unknown adventurers since he made no suggestion of them being Spanish or otherwise. He also went into details Banks left out about another facet to their visit.
“These Ship[s] brought the Venerial distemper to this Island where it is now as common amongst them here as in any part of the World and which the people bear with as little concern as if it they had been accustom’d to it for ages past. “We had not been here many days before some of our people got this disease, and as no such thing happen’d to any of the Dolphins people while she was here that I ever heard off, I had reason (notwithstanding the improbability of the thing) to think that some in the Endeavour had brought it here with us, which gave me no small uneasiness.”
Cook went on to add that despite his best efforts to stop the spread of the disease, he faced an almost impossible task.
“I did all in my power to prevent its progress, but all I could do was to little purpose for I may safely say that I was not assisted by an one person in ye Ship and I was oblig’d to have the most part of the Ships Compney a Shore every day to work upon the Fort and a Strong guard every Night and the Women were so very liberal with their favours, or that else Nails, Shirts &Ca were temptations that they could not Withstand, that this distemper very soon spread it self over the greatest part of the Ships Compney.”
While Cook may not have been convinced about the nationality of the visitors who had preceded him, he was, however, now satisfied that neither the Dolphin’s men, nor those of the Endeavour had been the source of the disorder.
“However this is little satisfaction to the poor Natives them who must suffer by it in a very great degree and may in time spread it self over all the Islands in the South Seas, to the eternal reproach of those who first brought it among them.”