Do you linger by the poster in the travel agent’s, the one lit by the smile of the Polynesian girl? Does the image of water the colour of blue Cellophane call to you? Do palm trees under a fathomless arch of sky, shoals of neon fish, a thatched but on a white-sand beach fill you with longing?
If so, you are surely not alone. The islands of the Pacific are one of the most powerfully magnetic images in the geography of leisure. But our generation is not the first to have been so tantalised. The Pacific idyll has attracted Europeans for nearly 250 years. It was a dream that burst like a revelation upon Europe in the 18th century, and its allure has never diminished.
The first Europeans to fall under the spell of swaying palms—and swaying hips—were Captain Samuel Wallis and his crew on HMS Dolphin, sent to circumnavigate the globe by the British Admiralty in 1766 with orders to find something significant in the Pacific. When they dropped anchor in Tahiti they were certain they had reached Paradise. The scenery was magnificent, the climate delightful. The people were friendly, food was abundant and sex was available for the cost of a ship’s nail. The seamen pulled so many nails from the woodwork that Wallis was worried his ship might fall apart.
The Dolphin was not yet back in England before another European ship hove out of the Pacific vastness to anchor in Tahitian waters, this time a French vessel under the command of Louis de Bougainville, also on a voyage of Pacific discovery. While they were still lowering the anchor of La Boudeuse, a young girl came aboard and casually dropped her loincloth. She had the celestial form of the goddess Venus, wrote Bougainville. Historian John Dunmore says that this was the day the legend of Tahiti was born—a legend which in some respects remains to this day.
The Pacific was a promised land that Europeans were ripe for. It was the opposite of much that those in Europe endured—oppression, poverty, hunger, crime and cold. European societies were brutal and corrupt. Bodies swung from the gibbets outside London. People still died on the rack in France. The poor live jammed together, a dozen to a stinking room, in the London slums.
In Tahiti, on the other hand, Bougainville’s party was invited to sit under a tree by a native who serenaded them to the accompaniment of a nose flute. It was like a scene from classical Greece, an image of felicitous grace. That image was promptly transferred to other parts of Polynesia, and it was only later that Europeans found that life was different in each group of islands.
New Zealand, it should be noted, did not fall within the magical ambit of the Polynesian dream. Maori had traded the dolce vita of the tropics for the unpopulated spaces of chilly Aotearoa. The price was a loss of tropical langour and bonhomie: they became stern, dignified, touchy, military. When European explorers landed, they got a mouthful of words and haka. Europeans had a healthy respect for their prickly Spartan character.
To Europeans as late as 1770, the central and south Pacific was as mysterious as the moon. It was a vast and chartless nothing, a giant blank on the map. All that was known of New Zealand was a bit of western shoreline, unseen by Europeans since Tasman skirted it 120 years earlier, and the whole eastern seaboard of Australia was just a line of hypothetical dots.
Nevertheless, it is startling that so late in the scientific day the two leading geographers of France and Britain, Charles de Brosses and Alexander Dalrymple, could swear that a rich continent lay in the great empty gap south of the equator. There had to be one, they said, to balance the great land masses of Asia and Europe. Dalrymple still protested its existence even after Cook’s second journey in the Resolution left no great swathes of uncharted ocean.
The first serious step to filling the blanks on the map began at 2 P.M. on August 25, 1768, in Plymouth harbour, when the newly promoted Lieutenant James Cook gave the orders to raise sail and weigh anchors, and the blunt-built coal carrier Endeavour moved slowly out on its historic voyage to the Pacific.
Within just 30 years—in an unparalleled burst of exploration—the great riddle of what was in the Pacific was finally solved in Europe. It was a stunning achievement on two counts. It involved the most comprehensive piece of organised exploration in the history of the world and it was the biggest scientific effort ever mounted. New developments in human thinking and enterprise, initiated in far-off Europe, were being played out in the Pacific.
These voyages of discovery—the first to have deliberately formulated scientific objectives—paved the way for the more specialised expeditions of the 19th and 20th centuries. In the years between 1764 and 1800, 10 major expeditions were dispatched by European governments. Six were under the control of the British navy, including the three famous Cook voyages, three were sent by the French navy, and one, Malaspina’s expedition, was Spanish. Not included among this number are private voyages (such as that of de Surville), trading trips (such as Bligh’s, for breadfruit trees), the voyages which founded and supplied Sydney, or the early whaling and sealing trips.
New Zealand’s first European connections were established during this period of history—not, as is often supposed, with Victorian England but under the reigns of George III and Louis XVI. It was Cook who drew New Zealand on the map. In a sense, we are children of scientific enlightenment, of the world of the Royal Society, of London and Paris in the late 18th century, of the prison hulks on the Thames, of the export of their contents willy-nilly to found a new colony in Australia, and of the ferment in art and publishing which accompanied the opening of the Pacific.
Fast-growing London had become the largest city in Europe, with a population of about 750,000. It was an intoxicating place, dynamic and culturally rich. Indeed, despite its roughly comparable size it was far richer in culture then than Auckland is now. Although yachting wasn’t an option, you could go to a public musical event nearly every night of the week.
There were more than 200 inns and 500 coffee houses, which did the work of the modern office as business and meeting places for authors, actors, stock traders, lawyers and politicians. Travellers from the continent hailed London as a modern city where one breathed the air of freedom. Yes, the Thames stank, the streets could be dangerous and the slums were vile, but that was city life everywhere (although the French had closed the main Paris sewer, and the Seine was cleaner.)
By the 18th century, Europe had begun to overwhelm the world with the power of its accumulating wealth, science and technology. The exploration of the Pacific and the charting of New Zealand are part of the story of the insuperable energy and confidence of Europeans of the time.
Before the wonders of the Pacific were discovered, magical products of Asia—cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, porcelain, silk, and more mundane items such as tea, copper and sugar—had flowed westward. Europeans were mad for them, and the trading companies of England, France and Holland were locked into savage competition. But extending the search for tradable commodities to the Pacific was not on the agenda of commercial companies; the Dutch East India Company had a look—witness Abel Tasman—but saw no investment potential.
The Pacific was placed seriously on the agenda only when France and Britain understood that they were really fighting about world dominance. Would the Pacific help either nation secure a strategic advantage? Both powers decided to probe the blue universe with naval expeditions to find out. It was the 18th-century equivalent of the space race.
The British began by sending two naval probes—one under Commodore Byron, in 1765, and the other commanded by Samuel Wallis and Philip Carteret, in 1767. Both were simple naval voyages which were home again within 18 months. Both traversed the Pacific close to the equator and didn’t attempt to answer the big question of what lay to the south.
In 1767, a French expedition under the popular Bougainville followed pretty much in the track of the English. The race was on.
Then another issue flared like a comet to light the Pacific, fueled by humankind’s age-old hunger to understand our place in the universe. Galileo had removed Earth from the centre of the solar system, and most of the other planets were known, but how distant were they? Kepler and others had produced astronomical tables and equations enabling relative distances to be calculated, but these did little to help. How far was the Sun from the Earth? If that distance were known, all the rest could be calculated. It became one of the questions of the age, so consuming and exciting that men would circle the globe to find the answer.
Cook’s first trip in the Endeavour was a key part of the English contribution to this new international science project. It was the Royal Society and not the navy which initiated the trip. The society required a site in the South Pacific for the observation of the transit of Venus, which was the key to a new method for determining the Earth-Sun distance, and Wallis’s happy encounter with Tahiti suggested the perfect venue. The king agreed to fund the expedition, and the navy was instructed to provide a ship.
Cook’s was a wholly new type of enterprise: a crown-funded scientific expedition. No scientists or artists were involved with the Byron and Carteret/Wallis expeditions. Now, for the first time, a purely scientific objective seemed important enough to be sponsored by the state.
The fever for astronomy teamed easily with the urge to find the Great South Land, or at least to clear away the mystery of the empty spaces on the map. The hunger to know the world paralleled our more recent hunger to know the universe. It suited both the navy and the Royal Society to have a ship go to the Pacific so that exploration could continue. For the powers of the day the trip was about astronomy and geography—and only secondarily about new lands to dominate.
It was not supposed to be about botany and art, and yet the expedition found itself stuck with these pursuits to the tune of eight extra people, including servants. One man, Joseph Banks, single-handedly imposed this purpose on the Endeavour expedition. He was a wealthy young landowner and scientific dilettante, with a special interest in botany, who went on in later life to become president of the Royal Society and an enormously influential consultant to the government on natural history and exploration. He was an interesting, charming, persuasive and charismatic young man used to getting his way.
When he learned of the Royal Society expedition to the Pacific, he simply decided to tag along instead of pursuing the usual grand tour of Europe. He put together a team with the well known botanist Daniel Solander, the young artist Sydney Parkinson, plus two draftsmen, all of whose expenses were paid from his own pocket. Solander was a pupil of the great Swedish natural historian Carl Linnaeus, whose system of botanical classification underpinned the upsurge in plant studies at the time.
Banks was able to pull off this audacious coup because he was a friend of the First Lord of the Admiralty, John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. (Sandwich was a dedicated gambler who minimised unproductive time spent at meals by jamming pieces of salt beef between slices of toast—it immortalised his name).
Banks persuaded Sandwich to let him join the party, and the astronomical and geographical expedition was instructed to play host to this cuckoo of natural history. Banks’s privately funded operation was simply grafted onto the official expedition. It was a remarkable illustration of how things worked in the 18th century—astonishing for its, yes, dilettantism.
Although serendipity played a large part in launching the study of the Pacific’s fauna, flora and peoples, it was an idea whose time had come. Bougainville’s voyage also had a natural historian on board, and was backed by the French scientific community. Natural history and ethnology never looked back, and every official expedition thereafter had a team of scientists and artists, paid for by their respective governments.
Notwithstanding his last-minute inclusion, it was Banks who emerged from the Endeavour voyage as a celebrity, much sought after in London society as “Mr Expedition.” In the eyes of the public, Cook was just the driver.
Sandwich asked Banks if he would like to go again. Would he indeed! Although the second expedition was a navy project, Banks came to regard it as his own. It would be the conducted tour of the century—a scientific extravaganza—and everyone wanted to go on it or to have a say about it.
Banks collected a staff of 15 people, which, as well as scientific and artistic staff, included servants and two horn players to provide entertainment in the evenings. The selection was soon to end in chaos, farce and tears. Resolution was not much larger than Endeavour, and was designed for hauling cargo. Against the wishes of the naval staff, Banks airily got Sandwich to order drastic changes to the ship’s superstructure. The sailing date was put back for weeks.
Finally came the day for sea trials. What a disaster! The ship threatened to capsize even without most of its sails spread. The pilot refused to take it out to sea. At this, the order came to dismantle Banks’s additions and restore the ship to its original state.
Furious, Banks withdrew his team. But the navy did not consequently abandon the natural history and art components of the voyage. A new, though smaller, team was found, which included one of the most learned men in England, Johann Forster, from Danzig, in charge of natural history, a young landscape painter, William Hodges, and a competent astronomer, William Wales.
On July 13, 1772, the great expedition set forth. For three years, Cook relentlessly filleted the Pacific, completely destroying the Great South Land and leaving only ice, vast tracts of water and scattered islands in its stead. He spent two entire summers in the Antarctic, the first major probe of those frigid waters. The ships went where no man had gone before, and their discoveries were greeted with awe and wonder by the people of Britain and Europe.
Voyages such as Cook’s were fraught with danger. Sailing ships of the time were not the most manageable of vessels, and the risk of striking a reef or being blown ashore as they skirted uncharted coastlines was great. Even turning them around was a complicated business. A typical episode was recorded during the voyage of D’Entrecasteaux, in 1793. One of his ships, caught by currents and rising winds and seas, found reefs ahead and to each side in New Caledonia. A hair-raising two-hour ordeal ensued as each attempt to follow the strict sequence of orders failed to bring the ship on to the opposite tack before it lost way in the eye of the wind and had to be turned again toward the reef to regain momentum. The crew finally succeeded in bringing the ship about less than 200 metres from the reef.
Cook came within the circle of doom when, one quiet night, Endeavour smashed on to a reef on the Queensland coast and was holed. All the next day the crew pumped frantically, and only on the second high tide did they manage to haul the ship off. Their situation was dire. There was a strong prospect that, on pulling free, water would rush into the gaping hole and sink the ship. There were insufficient lifeboats, and the barren coast offered no succour for a bevy of castaways. By pure luck, a lump of coral partly blocked the hole, and Endeavour was able to limp to a sandy beach, where weeks were spent in repairs.
Falling foul of native populations was another risk. Cook was the most famous, but not the only, victim. In 1772, Marion du Fresne was killed in the Bay of Islands for wilfully flouting a tapu on a bay where men had drowned.
A more chilling tragedy overtook La Perouse. La Perouse’s expedition from 1785 to 1788 was modelled on Cook’s, with massive input from the French scientific community. Since Cook had settled the main issues in the south, La Perouse focused on the perimeter of the North Pacific, and especially on the Siberian coastline.
He was a fine and efficient naval commander, and his expedition deserves to rank alongside those of Cook, especially in lifting the mystery from the shoreline of northern Asia. Instead, La Perouse’s name is synonymous with nautical disaster. After calling at Botany Bay, where the first fleet from Britain had arrived a few days earlier, his two ships simply vanished. Anxiety mounted in France when they failed to show up, and in 1791 the revolutionary government sent a search party commanded by D’Entrecasteaux. This party learned nothing, and the mystery of his whereabouts haunted France until 1828, when Peter Dillon, an Irish trader who had sailed the New Zealand coast, found the ships’ remains at Vanikoro, a remote island in the Solomon Islands. It is thought that some of La Perouse’s crew survived the shipwreck and left the island, but if so they were almost certainly killed on the coast of New Guinea. Exploration came with a high price tag.
The clear winner in these early voyages was science. Precise observations were made of plants, animals and the way of life of the peoples encountered. Thus Johann Forster hauled aboard buckets of phosphorescent water as the Resolution approached Cape Town, and tried to examine the tiny glowing organisms under his microscope.
Each day brought new things to be identified, measured, drawn. The success of this new enterprise was really underwritten by technology which, for the first time in history, made it possible to record locations with real precision. New mathematical tables and the new chronometer meant that maps bore some relation to reality.
Europeans reacted with particular enthusiasm to the news of the Polynesian island dwellers. The circle of humanity had seemingly been enlarged by peoples whose existence was undreamed of. The outcome was a flourishing interest in all things Pacific.
One of the great scientific treasures to come from the 18th-century expeditions was the botanical drawings of Sydney Parkinson. There were nearly 750 of them, including some 200 from New Zealand. Tragically, Parkinson was one of a number of crew who died after contracting tropical diseases on the way home.
Banks had 743 copperplate engravings prepared from the drawings, at huge expense to himself—about $NZ3 million in today’s currency. For an unexplained reason he did not have them published. It was not until the 1980s that a limited edition of 100 copies of the 738 surviving plates was published in colour, with enormous labour and care. All copies were subscribed for in advance, with the Alexander Turnbull Library taking a set.
Banks’s Florilegium excepted, a publishing frenzy followed the return of the various expeditions. By the 1760s, over half the population of Britain could read at least simple material, such as almanacs. Literacy was at a similar level in France. Among the most popular books were travel accounts, a tradition which went back to Richard Hakluyt, the indefatigable Elizabethan who compiled the multi-volume The Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation.
Members of the Endeavour expedition were forbidden to publish personal accounts until after the official version had appeared, but an anonymous writer, believed to be James Matra, an American hand on the Endeavour, authored a brief book within months of Cook’s return.
The navy owned the journals not only of Cook but of Byron, Carteret and Wallis. Sandwich decided that these should all be issued in one popular omnibus edition. The job of writer went to Sir John Hawkesworth, a columnist and friend of the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson. Hawkesworth was paid a massive £6000 by a publisher for the copyright—probably the biggest payment in the history of publishing to that time.
Hawkesworth knew how to write a bestseller. The massive three-volume work, entitled An Account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His Present Majesty for making discoveries in the southern hemisphere, and successively performed by Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret and Captain Cook, in the Dolphin, the Swallow, and the Endeavour, was a huge public success. The first two editions of 4500 copies soon sold out, and a third edition followed in 1775. There was an American edition, a Dublin edition and translations into German, French and Dutch. However, the critics panned it, and Cook was angry with its inaccuracies. Sandwich was not a happy man.
Despite the fuss, the book bears the first detailed account of New Zealand—including the buzz of excitement as the high hills of Poverty Bay drew close, with Banks and most of the others (though probably not Cook) thinking they had found the Great South Land. There is a riveting freshness in the observations of these first Europeans to set foot on our shores. They admired both the land and the people. Through nearly 200 pages runs the story of their six months around the coast, and there is a three-chapter appraisal of Maori and their way of life. The visitors left with the clear impression that both Maori men and women were mild and gentle, and treated each other with the tenderest affection.
This was just the start of the Pacific publishing frenzy. Cook’s second and third voyages were even more popular with the reading public. Sandwich and Banks, unhappy with the quality of the artwork in the volumes of the second expedition, were determined that the account of the third would do full justice to the glory of this amazing British undertaking which had gone so far to define the Pacific.
The result was meticulous and magnificent. It took four years, mainly because of the work involved in producing 68 engravings that comprise the third volume of the publication. Illustrations by the expedition artist John Webber were contracted to 25 engravers. Paper for the printing of 2000 copies of the engravings was especially imported from Paris. The engravings were paid for by the navy and not included in the price of the set. The 2000 copies sold in three days, and a second edition of 2000 was needed. The fame of Webber’s plates soon spread throughout Europe, and copies of his prints and drawings continued to sell for over 30 years.
The fever of interest in the Pacific also made it a box office winner in the flourishing theatre world of London. On December 20, 1785, the curtain rose upon a romantically moonlit scene in Tahiti, part of a lavish Christmas pantomime at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Realism of scenery and costume were combined on a scale never before attempted on stage—a spectacle staged at tremendous cost, in a production of such splendour that it lingered in the minds of theatregoers for many years.
The Parisians copied the London example three years later with a pantomime based on the death of Cook, again with spectacular natural settings of Hawaii. This was also enormously popular, was translated into English and played at Covent Garden as well as in a number of provincial centres. Images of the Pacific became firmly embedded in the European mind.
The first play to boast a New Zealand setting was produced even earlier, in October 1782, in Paris. The leading character, Zorai, has returned to his New Zealand home from a stay in France, while the villain has spent time in London. Any resemblance to the real New Zealand was accidental—the play was a thinly disguised attack on the government and was promptly banned.
The play was based on the historical fact that two Polynesians had visited Europe. Bougainville had brought Ahu-toru to Paris with him in 1769, and Omai came with Furneaux on Adventure, which accompanied Resolution on Cook’s second voyage. Both were worthy ambassadors for Tahiti—quiet and dignified. Each was a social sensation, met the reigning monarch of the respective states and dined with the leading figures of society. They were walking evidence for Rousseau’s “noble savage.”
That image, however, was soon challenged. Skeptics demonstrated that Polynesians were not exempt from human frailty. La Perouse was among those who rejected the idea of natural innocence and nobility. The Easter Islanders were the first Pacific people he encountered, and he noted their capacity for duplicity. His skepticism about Polynesian goodwill was strengthened when a party of his men was ambushed and murdered in Samoa. Even Tahiti fell from grace—later expeditions discovered this Arcadia besmirched by civil war. Most heinous of all, inhabitants of some islands were found to be cannibals.
La Billardiere, in his Relation du voyage a la recherche de La Pirouse (1800), wrote: A revival of evangelical Christianity in Britain found the way of life of Polynesians deplorable and in urgent need of salvation. One Thomas Haweis, preaching in 1795 to the London Missionary Society, said: ” A new world hath lately opened to our view—New Zealand and the innumerable islands which spot the bosom of the Pacific Ocean, many of them full of inhabitants, where the fragrant groves afford them food and clothing whilst the sea offers continual plenty, and the day passes in ease and affluence, and the night in music and dancing. But amid these enchanting scenes, savage nature still feasts on the flesh of its prisoners—appeases its gods with human sacrifices, while men and women live promiscuously and murder every infant born amongst them.” The setting might be sublime, but human nature was as corrupt as elsewhere.
More disillusionment followed as the expanding influence of Europeans brought Polynesia into the world. Petty tyrants abounded in the islands, and they quickly included guns within their strategies for dominance. In Tonga, the bodies were stacked neatly into cross-hatched piles. New Zealand chiefs such as Hongi Hika acted like little Napoleons.
The natives had no monopoly on savagery. At the British death camp of Norfolk Island, foul crimes against humanity continued for a generation. In the meantime, Sydney rapidly became a commercial centre for the Pacific and a base for whaling and sealing, while escaped prisoners fanned out across many islands.
Despite such detractions, the mystique and glamour of the Pacific still seduced Europeans, some of them notable and famous. Robert Louis Stevenson preferred the islands to his Scottish homeland. “The sea, islands, the islanders the island life and climate make and keep me truly happier,” he wrote from his Apia home. By contrast, the exploitation of the local people by corrupt European commercial interests enraged him, and he became a vociferous advocate for them.
Paul Gauguin, the French painter, was a romantic who saw himself as a savage and a child, and chose Tahiti to shake off the evil effects of civilisation—Rousseau’s point again—and provide him with silence and oblivion, so he could hear more clearly his inner voices. He stayed 10 years and incorporated in his Tahitian paintings images not only of Tahitian origin but also some incorporating Maori artifacts which he had noted during a stopover in Auckland.
It is hard to believe that the idea of the noble savage would live into the 20th century, but it did, under the patronage of Margaret Mead, the most famous anthropologist of the century. Her 1928 classic, Coming of Age in Samoa, was a prescribed text in universities, including those in New Zealand, until at least the 1960s. It presented a widely accepted view that Samoan people were a relaxed people who did not experience strong feelings. Among Mead’s claims was that young people were able to indulge in free love with few inhibitions or family prohibitions.
Given her huge reputation, it is astonishing that Mead’s description of Samoan society has now been dismissed as something akin to fiction. In fact, Samoan society is highly structured (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 33), with strong discipline and harsh punishment for children. Samoans are intensely emotional, and virginity is prized.
Margaret Mead is now regarded as the last purveyor of the great South Seas myth. The nail in the coffin of her theory was driven by an old Samoan woman who announced in 1987 that she was one of Mead’s key informants and that she had comprehensively misled Mead as a joke. Even before this revelation, however, Mead’s work had been deconstructed by New Zealand anthropologist Derek Freeman, an authority on Samoan society.
Mead may have been a good woman who fought on the side of the people, but she was doing what European observers had done since the 18th century—projecting myths of the Pacific into arguments about the nature of their own society. Her real concern was a debate in the United States about the basis of human nature, and her view of Samoa was intended to advance her side of the argument, and had little to do with the truth about Samoa.
So we come back to the magnetic pull of the palm-fringed blue waters to our north.
Why do we feel it? Temperature, for a start. In the northern hemisphere, Scandinavians head for Italy and the Greek Islands, the English for the south of Spain or the West Indies.
Tropical regions have a special pull for those in cooler climates. In the heat we relax, unwind, bask. Some make the holiday into a permanent lifestyle—drawn by the slow rhythms and the simplicity and ritual which attend daily life.
Pacific peoples, for their part, have been quick to select from the offerings of Europe: religion, techniques of government, the cash economy, the accoutrements of technology. And they have shown themselves ready to migrate in large numbers. Employment, the cultural diversity of the city, and freedom from a stifling village life entice them.
We are coming to understand that each region needs the other, that each has distinctive offerings. And if European heritage is still an anchor for some of us—as the village is for others—we are beginning to find a new and shared identity in this corner of the South Pacific.
Our writers of the 1940s—Sargeson, Glover, Sinclair, Curnow—discovered that New Zealand was not just a lonely outpost of England. As R. M. Chapman explained: “New Zealand was a community and a good one. Life here was no endless second best at the periphery of other people’s culture but a life led at the centre of a new variant of western civilisation, small but growing.”
In this millennium we are moving even further. We are becoming integrated into the wider Pacific neighbourhood, with aspects of Maori and Pacific culture becoming cherished as distinguishing features of our homeland. There are the little things—taro in the shops, “Kia ora” greetings in the street, coconut cream in our recipes.
At a deeper level, one can cite a work such as Gareth Farr’s visionary Te Papa Suite, incorporating a European symphony orchestra, a Maori karanga, urgent and impassioned as it rises over the orchestra, and Polynesian log drum hammering out an insistent rhythm. There is something in the music that makes the scalp prickle, and we know in our heart that what it is telling us is true—that we have arrived at our new home in the South Pacific.