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Easter Island


To Reinhold Forster, the innumerable gannets, noddies, and man-o'-war birds accompanying Resolution were unmistakable signs that land was not far ahead. Cook was following a course due west in the neighborhood of the 27th parallel, which he judged to be the latitude of Easter Island, named by the Dutch navigator Jacob Roggeveen in 1722.1 When land rose dead ahead on 11 March 1774 no one doubted the ship's location.

For Reinhold, the prospect of any landing was always a tonic, and he took to his journal concerning all the "many new things" he expected to investigate, especially those "upright standing pillars" that came into view. They were the gigantic statues that today make Easter Island famous, and had been well publicized after Roggeveen's visits. For three days the ship slowly approached before light winds. When Cook found a suitable anchorage off the southwest corner of the island, all aboard had an opportunity for a close look. But the first thought was for something fresh to eat. After being at sea for fifteen weeks since leaving New Zealand and crossing the Antarctic Circle twice during that time everyone was famished.



On other Pacific islands Cook was caught up with the present, but at Easter Island the past began to unfold as soon as the hungry sailors set foot on shore. Late on a Monday afternoon they were met by a hundred friendly inhabitants and near the landing they came upon several of those "Colossal Statues" lying in ruins. Suddenly the past became as alive as the inhabitants themselves. Even the paltry sugar cane and sweet potatoes they were given seemed worth the effort. The island had scarcely any food to spare and because the ship lay unprotected offshore, Cook sailed away the following Wednesday morning. Yet he drew a vivid picture of Easter Island of that time.

The natives were hospitable, but they were all expert thieves. They had a liking especially for hats which they would snatch whenever they could. While the artist William Hodges sat sketching quietly someone grabbed his headgear and ran off. William Wales the astronomer lifted his musket to reply but then "began to think his life worth more than a hat."2 Curiously, this incident might be the basis of a tradition that has survived by word of mouth. In the year 1970, Father Sebastian Englert, long-time resident who became an authority on local history, wrote that the inhabitants can identify the place where long ago the hat of a foreign was snatched.3 Hodges might have been that person of tradition. The appearance and behavior of milling spectators reflected the influence of previous visits by Europeans. For one thing the natives were afraid of muskets. "This they probably learnt from Roggewein," wrote Cook, "who left them sufficient tokens." And he attributed several articles of clothing - a broad-brimmed hat, a hooded jacket, and a red silk handkerchief - to a Spanish visit (in 1770).4

On Tuesday morning Cook sent Pickersgill and marine lieutenant Edgecumb to lead an excursion of twenty-seven people, including Hodges, Wales, botanist Anders Sparrman, and Reinhold Forster for a look at the small island and if possible to procure more provisions. Cook himself, still ailing and weak from his recent illness, remained in the vicinity of the landing to engage in trade. He wrote his account primarily from the reports of Pickersgill and Wales, "men on whose veracity I could depend."5 The members of the party were in far from robust health, but they made for the monuments as fast as they could. A man tattooed from head to foot appointed himself marshal to keep order among about one hundred fifty of his countrymen, leading with a white flag.

They walked among nine of the gigantic statues, fallen and broken in disarray amid lava fragments along the southwest coast.6 Three monoliths brooded in place on huge stone platforms and two other masonry platforms were empty. The scene of ruin suggested why the natives liked hats. "Each Statue had on its head a large Cylindric Stone of a red Colour worked perfectly round." The unknown stone masons of the past had carved out hats and somehow set the huge weights on the heads of the statues; Reinhold measured a stone bonnet five feet across. Farther along the coast cultivated fields of sweet potatoes, sugar cane, plantains and yams broke the otherwise bleak landscape.

Toward the northeast the coast was "full of those Colossean Statues." Most of them were toppled over and broken, but some still stood erect on masonry platforms, one of them thirty feet long, and all of them were faced with hewn stones joined closely together without cement.7 One fallen and neglected statue was twenty-seven feet long and eight feet across the shoulders; another giant cast a shadow large enough to shelter thirty people. Each monolith was a lengthened torso with well-executed facial features, elongated ear lobes, and a separate conical cap of red stone set on its head. Some of the statues were fixed erect in the ground; these are the ones that make the island famous today. Pickersgill and his companions were correct in surmising that the statues were effigies of ancient leaders rather than of local deities, and a few skeletons did suggest a burial site. At lunchtime, Wales painted a scene of disaster and mystery. The only method Wales could imagine for the way the statues could have been upended was by gradually raising one end little by little on piles of stones that would make a kind of removable scaffolding.8 Poor Reinhold's rheumatism returned during the excursion; he had all he could do to get back aboard where he went to bed early without supper, taking only a little tea and punch.9

Apparently Cook did nothing about the lascivious behavior of the sailors; quite possibly because of his own ill health he lacked the energy to supervise them. George Forster tells us that the sailors carried on with a few of the local girls right at the landing. "Nothing but the shadow of the gigantic monument screened them from the sun," he explained, adding that the married women kept out of sight. A lady came aboard, he continued, and in exchange for a few English and Tahitian rags "visited several of the inferior officers, and then addressed herself to the crew."10 Cook himself could not have been far away. His efforts at restraint seemed to wax and wane during his years in the Pacific.



Meanwhile, Cook was principally grateful for the small amount of food he was able to buy for his sailors, even though it was no more than a stopgap that came in the nick of time - a few items of sugar cane, yams, plantains, "Taro or the eddy root," and two or three small fowl, certainly far from enough to fill one hundred thirty-five empty stomachs.

Cook had no doubt that the natives, of a yellowish-brown complexion like islanders elsewhere, were related to the Tahitians, New Zealanders, and the Friendly Islanders. The language similarity was sufficient evidence. On climbing aboard, the first thing a native did was to pace off the length of the deck while calling out numbers like those heard at Tahiti. And Pickersgill and Reinhold brought back a list of words with their Tahitian equivalents, while noticing the distinctive local variations.11 But how the natives reached Easter Island and developed a separate culture Cook had no idea. Somehow islanders there and elsewhere had developed unique customs and habits, he mused; "never the less a careful observer would soon see the Affinity each has to the other." The language was not the only affinity. Tattooing was familiar, and so were the gourd utensils and tools made of stone, bone, and shells. Preparing food in underground ovens and making bark cloth from the "Cloth Plant" (the paper mulberry, Broussonetia papyrifera) were reminiscent of Tahiti, and the club-like weapons were "made of wood like the Patoo patoo of New Zealand."

Yet puzzles abounded. The whole island teemed with mystery and unanswered questions. The people were as fascinating as any silent statue, if only because of what Cook could not learn from them. They numbered only six or seven hundred, he thought, of which three-fourths were men; perhaps women were kept hidden, he guessed.12 Especially distinctive were their lengthened ear lobes with prominent slits, a curious feature found nowhere else in the South Pacific. The distinctive huts were thatched over and shaped like "a large boat turned bottom up." Three or four canoes were seen, one with a plank eight feet long, yet "we did not see a stick on the island that would have made a board one half this Size," for the island had no trees. Maybe the wood was washed ashore, he thought. And try as he did he could not learn the local name of Easter Island. One thing was sure; there were no giants twelve feet tall on the island as Roggeveen's sailors had claimed.13

The gourds (Lagenaria sicereria) and the sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) were more significant than Cook had ever imagined; they might have come from South America. Although the Polynesian origin of the Easter Islanders, first suggested by Cook, is still widely held today, the Norwegian archaeologist Thor eyerdahl argued persuasively for an alternative interpretation involving two distinct periods of colonization.14 The megaliths were not the work of wood carvers from the western islands, he claimed, but were done by Inca sculptors with generations of experience in working in stone. To that Cook would have replied that the Tahitians also worked in stone when they built their marais, although certainly not on such a massive scale. After the stone masons, continued Heyerdahl, came a wave of Polynesians who absorbed this earlier civilization. At any rate, the oral tradition kept alive the hat-snatching story but not the history of the megaliths. That particular record was broken in the nineteenth century by Peruvian slave ships, smallpox, and by intra-tribal warfare which toppled the remaining megaliths seen by Cook and his observers along the coast.15

Cook was at the eastern corner of the Polynesian triangle. "It is extraordinary that the same Nation should have spread themselves over all the isles in this Vast Ocean from New Zealand to this Island which is almost a fourth of the circumference of the Globe." He again discerned the affinities binding together the various island groups and the adaptations they had made to separate environments. But Easter Island left him disgruntled. "Nature has hardly provided it with any thing fit for man to eat or drink." As for any fresh water, his sailors might as well drink from the ocean, he thought. The food was insufficient and plain but it did have one result; his sailors again relished their salt beef and pork, for which they had lost their appetite. Reinhold, too, thought it was time to hasten away to "some more happy spot" for refreshment.16 On March 17 Cook began to shape a course north-west for the Marquesas Islands, about two thousand miles distant.

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it was good and taught me a lot of things
By Zulmary Cordero on 5/14/2020 9:37:14 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Good, thanks
By Toulik Ghosh on 2/7/2019 4:18:37 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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This is the tale of a man who found the other natural way of living.The first is walking.But maybe is not so familiar than the water.Very nice report.
By angel on 5/1/2015 10:11:02 PM Like:0 DisLike:0

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