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The Marquesas Islands


Discovered and named in 1593 by the Spanish navigator Alvaro de Mendaña, the Marquesas are composed of ten islands, some of them formed by ancient volcanos rising to 3,500 feet, while others are low, coral islets. Mendaña saw only the four islands that constitute the southern group, which he charted as best he could with the instruments at his disposal.17 Cook intended to touch there next in order to continue his task of establishing the exact positions of former discoveries.

The second day out of Easter Island, Cook again fell ill. Overexertion on the beach and the lack of any decent food for too long brought on his old intestinal ailment. There was absolutely no fresh food. Reinhold knew that something had to be done, and quickly. He stepped in with his pet Tahitian dog, which was killed, skinned, and taken to the galley to become a canine stew, enough to restore Cook's strength. "So true is it that necessity is govern'd by no law," he sighed.18 Aside from the poor health conditions on the ship, life continued with its accustomed routine of duties and punishments. The caulkers worked the seams, the blacksmith set up his forge to make hatchets for the coming trade, and a marine, William Wedgeborough, was given a dozen lashes and confined in irons for drunkenness and relieving himself on deck.

On March 30, when Resolution reached a point well to the east of the Marquesas and rather near the latitude given by Mendaña, Cook altered course due west to run down the latitude in the old fashioned way. He came in from the east because he knew the islands would be somewhere near or on that parallel, but just where he could not be sure; Mendaña's error in longitude would likely be greater than in latitude. After all, Cook's objective was to sort all that out. Actually he could not have thought much of Mendaña's longitude because of the wide margin he allowed - about six hundred eighty-five miles. But he did not know how far east he had been until April 7, when the low, rocky islet now called Fatu Huku appeared, then Mendaña's southern islands.19

Locating a tolerable anchorage was a tricky business. Using Mendaña's chart, Cook guided Resolution without hesitation through the narrow strait between the cliffs of Santa Christina and Dominica. Schools of flying fish escorted the ship on either side, and flocks of frigate birds, boobies, and terns followed overhead. On the west coast of Santa Christina he found Mendaña's unprotected mile-wide anchorage, now called Vaitahu Bay, where a sudden squall from the open sea nearly threw the ship on the rocks. Resolution anchored on April 8. About a dozen canoes, some of them with lateen sails, came alongside bearing fresh breadfruit and inquisitive islanders who were the handsomest anyone had yet seen.



Sudden death marred Cook's first day among the Marquesans. Trade was proceeding nicely with nails and spikes going over the side in return for breadfruit, chickens, coconuts, pigs, plantains, taro, and yams, all eagerly devoured by the famished sailors. This was the first decent food they had eaten since leaving Ship Cove one hundred thirty-three days before. When the natives began running fearlessly about on deck Cook shouted a warning to "look well after these people or they certainly will carry off some thing or other." Scarcely were the words out of his mouth when one of them made off with an iron stanchion near the gangway. Cook ordered an officer to fire over the departing canoe carrying two adults and a youth. But the aim was more accurate than intended, and the fleeing thief was killed, still clutching his booty, leaving the other man bailing out blood and laughing hysterically. The youth, wrote Cook, "looked at the dead man with a serias and dejected countinance and we had after wards reason to believe that he was son of the disceas'd." Odiddy burst into tears. This tragedy was the first experience the Marquesans had of firearms, for they could have had no memory of Mendaña's deadly arquebuses. Shortly afterward several islanders tried to tow away the buoy to which the kedge anchor was secured. An overhead shot frightened them off, and no more lessons were needed.

Determined to restore harmony, Cook chose "a man who seem'd to be of some consequence" and plied him with presents. Through his cooperation, Cook the next day did not take long to locate the local chief and to secure his cooperation. "A good under Standing Seemed to be settled" through this chief's friendship. Desiring to make amends with the son, Cook also found the hut of the man who was killed, but the boy had fled.


I wanted much to have seen him to have made him a present and by other kind tretment convinced him and the others that it was not from any bad design we had against the Nation we had killed his father.

The Marquesans could see that Cook was the leader and that he came in friendship.

With amicable relations re-established, a brisk trade resumed and at moderate prices. Wales reported that one six-penny nail purchased four breadfruit. Whenever Cook was present the islanders crowded about without fear. When he was absent they flew off at the first sight of the musket-toting marines. Everyone was quite taken by these good-looking Marquesans. Cook thought "the Inhabitants of these Isles are without exceptions as fine a race of people as any in this Sea." Clerke, always the young man of experience, found them "the most beautiful race of People I ever beheld," and Wales tried to wax effusive: "all fine tall stout-limbed, and well made People, neither lean enough for scare-Crows, nor yet so fat as in the least to impede their Activity."20

Because the steep mountain sides hemmed in everyone along the shore, Cook wisely ordered that no one should climb the heights where he could make out what he thought were "Strong holds." (They were religious shrines.) Reinhold found enough to do among people and plants along the bay. The bark cloth and matting were "Otaheitean" whereas the amulets, tattoos, weapons, and tools were local. The Marquesans built their huts on raised, stone platforms. As usual, Cook was confident that the language and customs revealed the affinity of the Marquesans with the same peoples he had met hitherto all over the South Pacific. One day George Forster, Sparrman, and the ship's doctor James Patten took it upon themselves to ignore Cook's order and climbed far enough into a rocky defile where, until forced back by the midday heat, they caught glimpses of enticing dark-green valleys beyond, sealed off by wild ridges.21 Despite the initial tragedy Cook had reason to think that his landing at Santa Christina (now Tahu Ata) was turning out to be altogether agreeable and pleasant. Then things took a sour turn.

On April 11 all trade came to an abrupt halt when the natives utterly refused to accept nails as tender for their produce. This market was ruined when some of the "young gentlemen," whom he did not identify, began to use red feathers in trade, one of them "giving for a Pig a very large quantity" brought from Nomuka in the Tonga Isles the previous year. Having an eye for souvenirs, they picked up intricately workepaddles, war clubs, and bowls, all fine examples of Marquesan carving quite unexcelled anywhere else in Polynesia. Cook had not realized that the red feathers were highly prized by the Marquesans for whom the color had religious significance, otherwise he would have forbidden their use. Because of this thoughtless and impulsive action the nails completely lost their value as an article of trade. The minute Cook turned his back those who should have known better thwarted his efforts to restock the ship and restore the health of his crew. More annoyed than angry, he wrote:22


Thus, was the fine prospect we had of geting a plentiful supply of refreshments of these people frustrated, and which will ever be the case so long as every one is allowed to make exchanges for what he pleaseth and in what manner he pleas'd.

He saw no recourse but to cut short the visit and make for Tahiti.22 It is strange to find him suddenly deciding to leave after only three days, even though the rugged terrain did prevent his going beyond the beach. At New Zealand and Tahiti no mere stoppage of trade ever deterred him. But he had accomplished what he had intended. The islands were accurately located. The same day Cook gave the order to weigh anchor.



When Cook landed at Tahu Ata the Marquesans had possessed no experience of Europeans. By that time he and his people had acquired considerable skill in dealing with native populations in order to satisfy the ship's requirements while avoiding violence. The journals give us a glimpse of the Marquesans' initial reaction to this sudden intrusion into their way of life for which they had no preparation. It was a view from outside Marquesan culture of the fast-moving events that the Europeans brought to pass and controlled - the use of firearms, the landings through the surf, and the trade for food and souvenirs - to which the natives reacted as best they could. Cook had no time to essay an interpretation from the inside, from the Marquesans point of view, as he was doing with such ingenuity in New Zealand and Tahiti. The reactions of the Marquesans - thefts, expressions of grief, and the stoppage of trade - give us no hint of the internal organization of their society. But their reactions do show the universality of human emotions; those unsophisticated islanders could behave as would an Englishman under like circumstances. And they found means suited to the occasion of asserting their independence over the strange newcomers in their midst. The business of the red feathers in fact represented a victory of local custom over alien influence. On one occasion the Forsters did probe somewhat below the surface. When the natives saw Cook strike a sailor for misbehaving, an incident that Cook neglected to mention in his journal, Reinhold heard them say, "Taiberahai te Taina," meaning that he beats his little brother; they thought that the mariners were all members of the same family.23

Cook was pleased that on arrival at the Marquesas no one was on the sick list. This was all the more remarkable, he thought, in view of the long passage from Ship Cove "after having been 19 Weeks at Sea (for I cannot call the two or 3 days at Easter Island any thing else) living all the same on a Salt Diet." He was rather sanguine if we may judge correctly from George Forster's statement that perfect health had not been restored even by the time that Resolution put to sea, and that various "noxious distempers" were still present among the crew. While Cook's statements on health cannot always be taken as precisely correct, it does not follow that he was given to dissimulation when he wrote for the eyes of the Admiralty. Possibly in this case he was technically accurate; sailors could walk around in bad shape without reporting themselves to the ship's doctor who might dock their pay. George was sure the Marquesan stop came none too soon; he wrote of the "wan look" of the sailors, of their "stagnant and putrid blood" that was driven into a "state of fermentation." He praised Cook for leaving "no experiment untried which was proposed to him" for the health of the crew, and he credited James Patten the ship's surgeon for "watching over us with unremitted assiduity."24 Despite the voluminous journals much is unknown of health conditions on that epic voyage; Patten's report, if he wrote one, did not survive.

Cook never learned of Marquesan intertribal warfare and cannibalism, for the hidden valleys kept their secrets. He carried off the beach a high regard for his hosts and left behind his usual reservoir of good will. Other travelers would come with their own separate purposes, and in due course the secrets were yielded up to the diaries of missionaries and whalers. In future, the northern group of islands drew more attention. There the youthful Herman Melville in 1846 centered the events of his novel Typee in which he developed a sympathetic treatment of Marquesan culture from the inside, which Cook missed.

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John, thank you for your interesting question. I cannot recall ever reading about sailors on Cook's voyages having their pay reduced due to their sickness. Maybe that is because of the care that Captain Cook took in maintaining the health of his crew. He returned home from his first voyage after 3 years at sea without losing a single man to Scurvy. He lost plenty of men to dysentry at Batavia due to the polluted fresh water which was taken on board. So not all of his crew returned home from that voyage. Before leaving Plymouth his crew were paid 2 months wages in advance, so I do not think that Cook was expected to reduce his mens' wages due to sickness.
By Cliff Thornton on 7/14/2019 9:51:34 PM Like:1 DisLike:0
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Would sailors unable to work because sick habitually have their pay docked?
By John Mullen on 7/9/2019 3:03:52 PM Like:0 DisLike:0

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