It is pleasing to report that the Captain Cook Society’s website continues to attract visits from around the world. Some of these visitors take advantage of the site’s facility to leave comments, and/or ask a question. The questions have covered a wide range of issues.1
However, in the past six months, three visitors to the website have posed exactly the same question—“Did Captain Cook bring any Polynesians back to England?”
When I asked them why they were seeking this information, they all gave me the same reply; they were intrigued to know about their ancestry and had had their DNA analysed. They had seen the adverts which appear on television, and in genealogical magazines. These adverts claim that DNA analysis can show the percentage arising from ancestors of different ethnic populations.
The organisations providing this DNA service offer analyses at different levels of examination. Those offering the highest level of analysis claim to be able to identify strains of DNA from over 150 ancestral regions of the world!
The results can be quite surprising. I have heard of people who believed that they were British through and through. They were amazed to find that their DNA showed a small percentage of their ancestry originated in the Iberian Peninsula, with some from Scandinavia. Hence, the three people who had posted the same question on our website had discovered to their surprise that their DNA showed that they had ancestors from Polynesia.
In researching how Polynesians might have made their way to the UK, they encountered the story of Captain Cook and his three voyages to the Pacific.
In answering their direct question I told them how Omai had been brought to London in 1774. But he was here for only two years before being returned to Polynesia by Captain Cook on his Third Voyage.
The most likely explanation for Polynesian ancestry in the UK is as follows. When the accounts of Cook’s voyages were published, news of whales occurring in the Pacific Ocean came to the attention of whaling companies. Ships that had previously headed north for the “Greenland trade” were now sent south, and around Cape Horn to the new hunting grounds. When some members of the company died through accident or disease, a ship’s captain maintained the numbers of his men by recruiting from those Pacific islands that he visited for provisions. It was these islanders who returned to the UK on the whaling ships, who were the most likely source of the Polynesian DNA found in today’s population.
The appearance of Polynesians in the UK must have been a rare occurrence in the early 1800s as local newspapers sometimes reported their arrival in town. Here is an example of one such report.
A few days ago the youngest son of Crang-a-low, King of Easter Island, was baptized at Rotherhithe Church, in the name of Henry Easter, after the Island. This Prince came to England six years ago, in the ship Adventure, Capt. Page, South-whaler, who touched there to refresh the crew, they having the scurvy.2
Here is another example.
There is now at Plymouth a native of Owhyhee, who came over to see this country, son of a man of rank there. He came over in the Isaac Tod, free ship, from Nootka Sound, with peltry, for London. He much amused the Plymouth audience at the Theatre, on Barnes’s night, by the expressive astonishment he evinced while the performance was going on. He has the exact countenance, and bushy hair, described in the plates in Captain Cook’s last voyage.3
The topic of Hawaiian emigration has also come to the attention of academics. In 1973, the Hawaiian Historical Society published an article that reviewed those who had left Hawaii in the late 1700s to early 1800s.4 It included a long section on Nuakane, the Hawaiian who arrived in Plymouth as described in the example newspaper report above.
As more people decide to investigate their ancestry via their DNA, I expect more questions about Polynesians will appear on the Society’s website. This article will provide a useful start in replying to such enquiries.
1.See Cook’s Log, page 39, vol. 38, no. 1 (2015).
2.The Royal Cornwall Gazette. Saturday, 9 November, 1811.
3.The Lancaster Gazette and General Advertiser. Saturday, 28 November, 1812.
4.Duncan, Janice K. “Kanaka world travellers and fur company employees 1785-1860” in Hawaiian Journal of History. Vol. 7. 1973. Online at https://evols.library.manoa.hawaii.edu/handle/10524/133
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 20, volume 41, number 2 (2018).