Pacific Paradises. The Discovery of Tahiti and Hawaii.
The foreword reads "Even today Tahiti and Hawaii have remained fixed as ‘Paradise Islands' in the popular and the artistic imagination. When they were discovered by Europeans - Tahiti in 1767 and Hawaii in 1776 - the image of paradise must have been even stronger. The indigenous societies enjoyed free and open sexuality, easy living and an abundance of leisure, in stark contrast to Europe. Yet, within a lifetime, all this was destroyed." Trevor Lummis tells the powerful and moving story of the discovery of the islands and the lasting impact this had on both Polynesia and Europe. I was hooked.
The opening chapters deal with the discovery of Tahiti by Wallis, the history of the Polynesian Pacific and the visit by Cook for the Transit of Venus of 1769. I found much of the information about Cook's first visit accurate and known to me. I can forgive the odd minor slip.
Lummis makes the comment Cook had given no sign of being religious as he rarely held services on his ships and would not have priests on board. This comment is at odds with my personal view of Cook. He came from a respected family and worshipped at All Saints in Great Ayton. He was apprenticed to a Quaker ship owner who would have treated their charges with respect and taught and expected high standards of moral behaviour. It was here that Cook's character was forged. He married a respectable lady of some standing and I have never read anything to suggest he did anything he would have been ashamed of as a loving family man.
I love to learn new information and Lummis did not disappoint. I now know the nails used for barter cost 3s 4d per 100 and were 4½" long. Philibert Commerson, a medical doctor and naturalist who had served with Bougainville as the botanist aboard La Boudeuse suffered an embarrassment on Tahiti. He had a young assistant who had robustly performed his manly duties throughout the voyage. The moment he stepped ashore however the Tahitians immediately identified him as a woman. The assistant, Jeanne Baré had in fact shared Commerson's cabin as his valet and he made the unbelievable claim he was unaware of the deception. She is thus the first European woman known to have sailed around the world. She was described as being 26 years old and neither pretty or ugly. She stayed with Commerson as his companion and assistant until his death on the island of Mauritius in March 1773 after which she retired to France.
Lummis is described as the author of a number of books on maritime and social history, most recently Life and Death in Eden: Pitcairn Island and the Bounty Mutineers. A former seaman who returned to education as a mature student, he was a senior research officer at the University of Essex, where he specialised in social and oral history. He now lives in France.
He does seem to have done his research homework well! In the following chapters he recounts the history of the two Islands up to the time they become part of the modern world. Tahiti as a French Protectorate and Hawaii as an American state. Their contrasting fortunes are clearly recounted. The impact of sailors bringing European diseases for which the Polynesians had no resistance is clearly documented as is the role of the missionaries who deepened internal dissent. The journals of the missionaries on Tahiti are quoted as an invaluable quarry of historical information on culture and history even if reflecting their own biases. The arrival of large numbers of visitors had a profound effect on the fragile infrastructure of the islands that were self sufficient and had to cope with extra demand for scarce food resources.
Lummis states human activities can degrade any environment. These activities took place long after Cook had left their shores. The consequences and blame can not be laid at Cook's door!
Overall I found the book informative, well structured and it contains a good insight into the dramatic changes which followed the first visits by the Europeans. A good read from start to finish. My last word is that I found it an essential addition to any library.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 43, volume 29, number 2 (2006).