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The Friendly Isles

 

The fabled land of Quiros (New Hebrides) was Cook's ultimate destination, far to the west of the Tonga Islands which by choice lay next in his track, as he turned again to the consolidation of former discoveries. Raiatea (Cook's "Ulietea") was two days astern when Resolution skirted the coral speck which in 1767 the navigator Samuel Wallis had called Lord Howe's Island (now Mopelia). On June 16 she raised land again, a new discovery which Cook named Palmerston Island (in the Northern Cooks). Everyone had another look at a coral atoll, this one a lovely gem typically "composed of six small Islets connected together by Sand banks and breakers and incloseth a Lake."

When a third landfall appeared on June 20 Cook decided to go ashore. But the inhabitants took umbrage. The landing party was quietly raising the British flag, Hodges was just beginning to sketch, and Reinhold was looking after his plants when suddenly a crowd of naked men came charging out of the bush hurling stones and curses. A rock struck Sparrman and frightened Pickersgill. Nervous sentries fired small shot without waiting for an order. At a second landing the natives raced at them again "with the ferocity of wild Board." Reinhold nearly received a spear which whizzed past Cook. They all scrambled for the boats under musket fire overhead. "Savage Island" was the proper name, Cook decided. Reinhold summoned the Aenead again: "sclerata excedere terre" - to quit the accursed land. Now called Nieu Island and inhabited by quite peaceable folk, it is another of the Cook Islands.

But the sudden hostility did not dampen Cook's curiosity about the structure of this small island. The coral was easily visible, but what aroused his interest was that the island was nothing like Palmerston or the Tuamotus. It had no central lagoon and the coral was raised some distance above sea level.47

 

If these Coral rocks were first formed in the Sea by animals, how came they thrown up, to such a height? has this Island be raised by an Earth quake or has the Sea receded from it? Some Philosophers have attempted to account for the formation of low isles such as are in this Sea, but I do not know if any thing has been said of high Islands or such as I have been speaking of.

 

TONGA BIDS COOK WELCOME

Early on June 25 Resolution raised the northern group of the Tonga Islands. She was coming in about sixty-five miles north of her position the previous October when Cook called at Eua and Tongatapu in the southern group. Friendly canoes crowded alongside as he threaded a passage among clusters of islets and breakers. The natives excitedly pointed out where to land and even shouted for Cook by name, probably "Toote," which meant they knew of his visit to the south. Two days later he landed at Nomuka, at the same anchorage used in 1643 by Tasman, who called the island Rotterdam. Diversions, pleasant and otherwise, strengthened Cook's earlier high regard for the Tonga Islands.

Work parties commenced at once, since Cook intended to be off within two days. A profusion of roots and fruit came aboard in exchange for nails and old rags as the friendly reception continued. The natives assisted at rolling the water casks up and down the beach. "The expense of their labour was a bead or small Nail." The courteous but light-fingered natives lost no time in bettering themselves. Someone took a liking for the sounding cable but it was fastened down. Tools for repairing the casks were stolen, then Patten's fowling-piece was snatched, an adze disappeared, followed by Clerke's musket. Cook made haste to set things right. He had the sailors seize two large sailing canoes to show he meant business. When someone objected he gave him a charge of buckshot which brought back the muskets, whereupon he released the canoes. Gratified at the progress, he then demanded the adze. But this time there was a little misunderstanding. The islanders instead brought aboard the wounded man and laid him at Cook's feet feigning death. He saw through the trick, had Patten bandage the superficial wound, and demanded his adze of a garrulous old woman who he remembered had a lot to say the year before. "She gave her tongue free liberty." Not one word in fifty could he understand, he said, but her meaning was clear - he was a mean creature to make such a fuss about so trivial a matter as an old object like that. Seeing that she could get nowhere with him she finally sent him back his adze. Affairs were thus restored to their former state, but Cook was not through with this matron.

Later on shore, Cook was thoroughly shaken when the old woman and a gentleman friend showed up to offer him the company of a young lady. Ordinarily such declarations left him imperturbed, but in this case he was not prepared for the zeal of their sales pitch. Never in all his years in the Pacific did he experience the tirade that followed his refusal. The sailors, of course, thought the whole affair was hilarious, but Cook's dignity was utterly demolished. When he fled to the safety of his cabin he dashed it all down with even more lapses of punctuation and spelling. The young lady, it appeared, had required a "Handsel," which was a down payment of:

 

...a Shirt of a Nail, neither the one nor the other I had to give without giving her the Shirt on my back which I was not in a humour to do. I soon made them sencible of my Poverty and thought by that means to have come of with flying Colours but I was misstaken, for I was made to understand that I might retire with her on credit, this not suteing me niether the old Lady began first to argue with me and when that fail'd she abused me, I understood very little of what she said, but her actions were expressive enough and shew'd that her words were to this effect, Sneering in my face and saying, what sort of man are you thus to refuse the embraces of so fine a young Woman, for the girl certainly did not [want] beauty which I could however withstand, but the abuse of the old Woman I could not and therefore hastned into the Boat, they then would needs have me take the girl on board with me, but this could not be done...

Teenaged midshipman John Elliott informs us that he often saw various ladies laugh at Cook behind his back, calling him old and good for nothing. In all the commotion, everyone forgot to wind the Kendall watch. Cook, Wales, and first lieutenant Cooper were supposed to be on hand at the stroke of noon when a careful record was made. But the boat by which Cook made good his escape did not collect Wales in time. No harm done; Wales was minding his own business and had taken several altitudes of the Sun by which he made a new setting.48

On June 30 Resolution stood away north toward two cone-shaped islands about thirty-five miles away. Both peaks had already caught everyone's curiosity even before leaving Nomuka because their considerable height contrasted with the low-lying islands, and from one of them smoke rose through clouds that obscured the summit. A lively discussion centered on whether the smoke came from a live volcano or from burning vegetation along the slopes. Reinhold, thinking it was a volcano, was especially anxious to have a look. Cook, who was not sure, intended to sail close by to settle the question.

The day was altogether pleasant for sailing. The Sun glistened on a calm sea. Throughout the morning paddle canoes scampered about to engage in trade, this time mostly for local crafts. Among these were an ornament made of red feathers, some baskets, a musical instrument made of reeds, a quite deadly lance with a fire-hardened wooden tip, a comb, and a murderous-looking club. These were exchanged for left-over rags. Wales might have bought the musical instrument because he had admired the "sweetness, softness & Melody of their singing and playing on their flutes & ten reed pipe." Cook noticed that "the Passion for Curiosities was as great as ever," but Clerke thought they were all as worthless as the rags. These artifacts bought with rags became priceless additions to the foundations of Tongan ethnology.49

 

OF MOUNTAINS AND MYSTERY

Nomuka slowly dissolved astern in a blur of green and purple as the two cones grew ominously in size. By late afternoon the next day, July 1 (1774), Resolution was close enough so that everyone could see that the "Brow of the Hill had been consumed by fire," leaving, as far as Cook was concerned, the question undecided and opinions divided. Was it lava or burned grass? The elder Forster picked up the correct name of the peak as "Tafooa" from a canoe alongside. This was the present Tofua which rises to one thousand six hundred feet.

Tofua was of more than passing interest. Forster knew that European speculation was groping toward an understanding of the large-scale changes that somehow had shaped the surface of the Earth.50 Floods and earthquakes were well known, and so were volcanic eruptions. Geology was not yet a science but those who were interested in such matters were beginning to say that these "revolutions" had carved out the topographic features of the globe.51 Of course, not many volcanos were known, and even Etna and Vesuvius were thought by some not to be as important as the great deluge, which, they claimed, had thrown up entire mountains. But in the 1750's and 1760's various conical peaks in Italy and France were identified as extinct volcanos.52

Such dramatic news could only reinforce the prevailing attitude toward mountains, which in the public mind had generally been looked upon with horror and dread. For the ancients, mountains were places of worship, whether at Olympus or at Sinai. For centuries afterwards, remote and lofty peaks had evoked legends and images of antiquity, aroused fears of the unknown, and inspired the pious. These feeling also would change. In the eighteenth century mountains were no longer the abode of the gods, but the mystery remained and in some quarters they still could arouse the kind of awe that flows from religious faith. Because in our age the fear of God has sunk from the public consciousness it is difficult to appreciate such a religious response to nature. Mountains were the reminders of a lost paradise, sublime and majestic no doubt, but ruins all the same because they shared in the fatal sequel to the fall of man. Mountains were symbolic of hopes and fears, of longings for a lost innocence, of the Creator at work. Volcanos represented a threat of strange, primeval forces; sailors might still tremble at portents. To the learned, mountains were like the ruins of Roman amphitheaters, the wrecks of a pristine creation. They were useful, yes; sheep grazed on their slopes. But on the whole a traveller had best keep his distance. It was not yet the age of mountain climbing.53

Indeed, the Cook voyages occurred on the eve of fundamental transformations of thought in geology and of attitudes toward nature as a whole. Forster was well aware of these currents of change. Whether rocks were the products of chemical changes occurring in ancient seas or the leftovers of fiery cataclysms became the subject of professional debate.54 In the late eighteenth century, the feelings of dread and horror toward mountains were giving way to a kind of mystical reverence, and in the nineteenth century the traditional religious element gave way to a deification of nature, as paradoxical as that would be in the coming age of science.

For Resolution, all those later developments remained veiled, and to the sailors such ideas surely would have been even more mysterious than the plume of smoke issuing from Tofua. Cook might be steering too close for comfort. That plume might be a warning of Volcan's wrath or of divine judgement. But Forster was not the sort to quake at portents; he realized that finding live volcanos in the South Pacific would be a discovery of startling proportions. They would mean that subterraneous fire had played an even greater role in forming the surface of the Earth than anyone had thought.

More than anyone else aboard ship Reinhold Forster understood how important it was therefore to make first-hand observations of any live volcanos he saw, because they "deserved the attention of the learned who make the revolutions which our globe has undergone the object of their useful and curious enquiries."XX Realizing that a close-up look would help to decipher how Nature had operated in the past, he wanted desperately to make a brief landing on Tofua to find out whether it was indeed volcanic. Late in the afternoon he thought a splendid opportunity was at hand when Cook steered directly through the narrow, mile-wide strait between the two islands. Cook, as curious as anyone else, stared up at the cone. The shore of Tofua beckoned from only about six hundred feet off the port beam. Forster was beside himself waiting for the Captain to put a boat over the side. But just at that moment Cook suddenly turned around and gazed astern at a large sea-going, double canoe that had been chasing Resolution all day, and the opportunity vanished. Cook lost interest and did not seem to care.XX

Cook was curious about many things, but he was most curious about techniques of seamanship. Tongan navigation at that moment became more interesting to him than any fiery catacombs, and that was that. Resolution losing way in the failing breeze gave him an opportunity to watch the maneuvers of the canoe as it approached. On his visit in Tonga the previous October he had examined the details of construction of these double sailing canoes, some sixty-nine feet long, but he never had seen any under sail. Here was an opportunity he did not intend to miss. There was no landing, Cook being the boss. All Forster could do was cool his heels with Tofua big as life before him, its summit with the answer to his question shrouded in clouds. Cook, with a seaman's eye, wanted to find out whether Tongan sailors put about in tacking or whether they shifted their sails so that either end of the canoe could serve as the bow. In this case he saw that "they must put about." Tongan double sailing canoes were especially impressive for their sturdiness, two canoes made of planks tied together, separated by a platform six feet wide, the masts held in place by hefty ropes. Some canoes were of "two or three hundred Tons."57 (Resolution was 468 tons.") In construction and maneuverability the canoes of the Southern Ocean were in fact the highest form of Polynesian art. Hodges sketched rapidly. A fresh breeze sprang up and Resolution bore away into a copper Sun.

Notwithstanding the sudden chill on the quarterdeck occasioned by Forster's disappointment, Cook was in a good humor. The agreeable day at sea brought forth a graceful gesture toward these islands he had twice visited. "This groupe I have named the Friendly Archipelago as a lasting friendship seems to subsist among the Inhabitants and their Courtesy to Strangers intitles them to that Name."

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