Essential Information

Royal Observatory

29 Aug 2012

The Board of Longitude contributed to many Georgian voyages of 'science' and exploration, as did individual Commissioners including Astronomers Royal like Nevil Maskelyne and Presidents of the Royal Society like Joseph Banks. The surviving archives of the Board reveal much about the scientific and technological endeavours carried out at sea and on land during these journeys and a certain degree about the general conditions and experiences encountered by the crew. However, they shed less (and more biased) light on another important expedition variable - the interactions of the voyagers with the indigenous peoples whom they encountered.

The interactions between native peoples and Europeans were characterised on both sides by a frequent lack of linguistic and cultural understanding and were coloured by every emotion from interest and appreciation to fear and condemnation. Europeans and local inhabitants alike could see warm and curious interactions turn to disaster and even death at the drop of a hat as a result of unwitting cultural transgressions - in many cases only for relations to have regularised themselves again by the next time European visitors arrived. One striking instance of this which is recorded in the Board archives occurred during then-Commander Cook's second voyage, through the ice fields near Antarctica and then the islands of the South Seas. On a commission from the Royal Society, Cook travelled on the H.M.S. Resolution with the Board-appointed astronomer William Wales, while his sister ship Adventure commanded by Tobias Furneaux carried the astronomer William Bayly. Wales and Bayly were both already long-time collaborators of Maskelyne and of the Board of Longitude, and the latter man would serve again on Cook's third and final voyage. In addition to testing longitude timekeepers, the astronomers were directed to make astronomical, navigational, ethnographic and natural philosophical observations both aboard ship and on the islands which their vessels visited. On land, the astronomers employed temporary tent-like observatories, which Bayly had designed, to house their instruments and to facilitate observations. Joseph Banks, famous from Cook's first voyage to the South Seas but not yet President of the Royal Society, originally intended to make this journey as well but backed out after disagreements over the arrangements to house him and a larger entourage than the ship could safely hold. (Interestingly, Banks or one of his supporters turned to the newspapers to voice displeasure over this development, much as John Harrison and his supporters used them to air their disagreements with Maskelyne and the Board of Longitude. In a letter-to-the-editor in the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser of 23 June 1772, a correspondent with the pseudonym 'Detector' accused an unnamed senior Naval official of having purposely provided Banks with a ship that was poorly outfitted for a natural historical expedition while making it look to former supporters including Lord Sandwich as if the naturalist were responsible for the shortcomings. In reality, Banks appears to have tried to reorganise the entire expedition to accommodate an unusually large party including a valet thought to have been a mistress in disguise, upsetting even his friend and former patron Sandwich, a leading Commissioner of the Longitude, in the process.)

James Cook's second expedition to the South Pacific was mainly intended to search for an unknown continent ('Terra Australis') in the Southern Ocean by circumnavigating the globe eastward in a high southern latitude -- it was in fact the first expedition to cross the Antarctic circle -- and secondarily to the test marine timekeepers which had been made for the Board of Longitude by Larcum Kendall and John Arnold. The timekeepers were early attempts to move beyond the designs of John Harrison which, while brilliant and effective one-offs, were too complex and expensive to reproduce for the entire Naval and mercantile fleets. In addition, other staff including an artist and a natural historian joined the expedition to further examine and record the maritime and terrestrial sights.

Cook's two ships left Plymouth on 13 July 1772 but were split asunder by heavy fog in the southern Indian Ocean from February to May 1773, and then permanently five months later in storms near New Zealand. Bayly and the Adventure returned alone around Cape Horn and docked at Spithead on 14 July 1774, while the Resolution further explored the South Pacific and the Antarctic before returning home on 30 July 1775. While separated from Cook the first time, Furneaux and his crew explored much of Van Diemen's Land or Tasmania and produced the earliest British chart of its geography. During the second separation, the Commander ferried Cook's local interpreter and guide Mai (whom the British called Omai) of the Ulaietea or Raiatea people of Tahiti - the second native inhabitant of the Pacific to travel to Europe, who later returned home with Cook in 1776-1777.

Bayly's log book records a incident (horrific for both the British and Maori) which occurred after the Resolution and Adventure had been separated for the final time, and the latter ship was moored in what the British had named Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand, missing the Resolution there by just a week. The relevant passage stands out all the more for being longer and more vested with emotion than all of the dry surrounding records of course, wind, weather, geographical and astronomical and natural historical observations, and the readings from instruments and timekeepers. On the morning of 17 December 1773, a cutter or small boat had been launched from the Adventure in order to seek greens further up the Sound for the crew to eat. The next day, the astronomer recorded in his log that:

'The Cutter not being returned, the Launch was sent Armed (with the Second Lieutenant & Master & 15 Men) in search of Her. At 11 in the Evening our Launch returned to the ship having found some remains of the People which had been all Murdered, and the greatest part eaten by the Natives, some remains were brought on board which had been roasted except one foot and hand with the persons name Tattowed or marked on it, which they found in a Canoe in the adjoining Cove to where the Boat was ordered, they then went into the next Cove where they saw several hundreds of the Natives assembled, upon the side of a Hill (at a little Distance from the Beach) about a very large fire, round which they were dancing and having great demonstrations of Joy. Upon whom our People immediately fired. They stood two successive Vollies, but upon the third several of them dropping they retreated into the Woods. There were on the beach seven double Canoes, on searching them our People found a great many baskets of human flesh quite hot from the fire, At which they found the Heads, Harts, and Lungs of several of our People, one of which Heads was known to be the Captains Stewards. The People Murdered, were, Mr Rowe, Masters Mate, Mr Woodhouse Midshipman, the Captains Steward, and 7 Seamen. The Boat was carried off with her Oars, Masts, Sails, Grapnels, &c., & Ten Musquets, Bayonets, Cartouch boxes, and Ten Cutlasses.'

For the next four days, the Adventure was trapped in the Sound by alternating gales and complete stillness, during which time the crew 'neither saw Canoe or Indian'. Once the weather improved, they immediately set sail for England rather than making any further attempt to reunite with their sister ship.

When Cook and the Resolution reached New Zealand on 13 October 1774, Wales recorded in his own log book that it appeared the Adventure might have already visited. Someone had cut down trees that the astronomer had previously used while sighting, and a bottle containing instructions which Cook had left for Furneaux (under a stump carved with 'Look Underneath') had also disappeared. Wales then wrote a long entry describing the ill ease which built in himself and then in Cook and the crew as it became clear that the Maori on shore were trying to describe a terrible recent event to them:

‘I cannot help thinking it necessary to take Notice of a piece of Information we received here from the Natives, although not immediately relating to my own peculiar Business, more especially as I happened to be the Person to whom the Relation was made. On our arrival here we met with none of the Natives, nor indeed saw one of them untill [sic] Cap.t Cook happened to make an Excursion up the Sound & met with them A few Days afterwards. Many come down to the Ship & some came on Shore at the Tent, from whom I understood that a Ship like Ours had been lately either here or in the Strayhts, that some of the People got on Shore and that the Natives stole their things, for which they fired at them and killed many ; but that afterwards the Natives got the better, killed them all with their Pattoos [i.e. the short flat clubs known as patus or meres] and ate them. They stopped frequently in their Narration, which it may well be imagined was long & tedious enough on account of our not understanding one another, to assure us that none of them were concerned in the Affair [...]'

'They differed so much in their Account of the Time when, that I could make little of it, but I understood that it could not be more than two Months ago. I afterward received the same Information from two or three other, different Companies, either in the whole or in part, which made me think it necessary to acquaint Cap.t Cook, & he desired me either to send for him, or bring the next who mentioned it on board the Ship ; but when we got on board I found the very People who had been telling me the story & gone away but a very little while before he came on shore. On pointing them out, he questioned them concerning it, but could get nothing from them no[r] could I ever after induce them to talk on the subject.'

While disturbed by this revelation, the crew maintained normal relations with the local population and remained in the area for almost a month. This incident was not unique in the annals of early interactions between Britons and South Sea islanders. Europeans were largely ill-informed about the belief systems and perceptions of their indigenous counterparts, and vice versa. In her book The Trial of The Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas, Dame Anne Salmond provides endless examples of this, such as the British mistaking the Tahitians' gesture of dismissal as one of beckoning, and their expecting immediate reciprocity from the Maori who traditionally delayed return gifts 'in counterpoint of chiefly generosity'. Often when these interactions were not going the way the Europeans intended, they would employ a show of force. For example, in 1769 during Cook's first voyage, he directed that muskets be fired upon some Maori when they tried to claim a buoy he was not interested in trading and then had 'a great Gun' fired to make them move further away. Such actions sometimes backfired, setting off more violent confrontations like that involving the Adventure's cutter.

The deaths in 1773 also point to another prominent and problematic theme in Britons' perceptions of and relations with the Maori and other island inhabitants - so-called cannibalism. As authors have explored in recent decades, the spectre of cannibalism haunted fiction, purported non-fiction and exploration as imperialism advanced in areas such as the Pacific islands. A number of anthropologists and legal historians now argue that it was largely a concept invented by Europeans, and that the ritual anthropophagy which may have taken place in a more limited fashion in some indigenous cultures, such as mortuary cannibalism, held different meanings for its practitioners than most Europeans could fathom or accept. The invention of widespread native 'cannibalism' seems to have mainly stemmed from factors including the popularity of literary accounts of such fearful practices and reactions against the savage, unknowable, un-Christian and potentially threatening native 'Other'. British explorers actively sought evidence of cannibalism among the peoples they encountered and reported back about their observations, including to the Royal Society. However, their means of identifying the practice were sometimes suspect. For example, on islands including New Zealand and Hawai’i, Cook and his men sometimes cooked some human flesh and offered it to the local inhabitants, judging them common practitioners of cannibalism (which practice the Commander called 'the horrid banquet of human flesh') if they accepted. Cook wrote during his second voyage that upon seeing a partial, dismembered skull in New Zealand, 'I concealed my indignation and ordered a piece of the flesh to be broiled and brought on the quarter deck where one of these Canibals eat it with a seeming good relish before the whole ships Company had such effect on some of them as to cause them to vomit [...] That the New Zealanders are Canibals can now no longer be doubted, the account I gave of it in my former voyage was partly founded on circumstances and was, as I afterwords found, discredited by many people'. There are other similar records of explorers miming flesh eating before indigenous people who then mimicked them, which was taken as proof of cannibalism. More often, evidence of the eating of human flesh appears to suggest limited ritual anthropophagy, sometimes clearly intended to honour and to incorporate the deceased. Cook himself was killed and dismembered in Hawai’i in 1779 as a result of cultural misunderstanding - and perhaps also, as Anne Salmond argues, as a result of the Captain having lost some authority when crew members judged him too lenient towards native islanders. Sections of his body were presented to the local kings and chiefs, apparently to incorporate him into their aristocracy, and to his Lieutenant. The British then tried to determine whether this was part of a cannibalistic practice, asking a number of Hawai'ians how they had disposed of the other deceased men: 'finding them very constant in one story, that, after the flesh had been cut off, it was all burnt; we at last put the direct question, Whether they had not eat some of it? They immediately shewed as much horror at the idea, as any European would have done; and asked, very naturally, if that was the custom among us?' (Interestingly, authors including Gananath Obeyesekere, Katherine Biber and A.W. Brian Simpson have addressed the relatively common occurrence of 'survival cannibalism' among Europeans lost on sea and land without sufficient provisions - sometimes comparing this with the perception and treatment of so-called native cannibalism.)

The accounts in the Board of Longitude archives about the incident with the Adventure in New Zealand in 1773, are also interesting because they may reflect the somewhat different approaches of the commanders and astronomers of the expedition to the indigenous populations whom they encountered and to possible 'cannibalism'. Cook and Wales were more interested in observing and interacting with the natives than were many crew members and were willing to continue meeting with them even after incidents such as that which befell the cutter crew. Unlike Bayly, Wales entered keen and often laudatory observations on the locals into his log book. For example, on 14 March 1774 the astronomer praised the abilities of the disappeared indigenous people who made the statues on Easter Island, describing how: 'On every part of the Coasts of this Island there are erected large stone Statues of human Figures, half lengths. Most of these stand in Groups ; but others singly ; the former stand on Platforms of Stone Work the Majority of which is very neat and Artful, scarce executed, I think, by any in England : no cement is used. [...] These stupendous Figures are far from being badly executed ; their features, in particular the Noses & Chins are well done, and no doubt the Persons who executed & errected [sic] them were no contemptable [sic] Artists and Mechanics. [...] It is impossible to guess for what purpose they have been made & erected : might I be permitted to hazard a conjecture ; it should be that they either denote the burying places, or, have been intended to preserve the Memories of their Chiefs.' Wales also praised the skills, appearance and behaviour of many extant populations, for example in the same year: 'The Inhabitants of these Isles and the neybhouring ones [...] are by far the most friendly and civillized [sic] People of any we have met with in those seas ; but are as great Thieves as any and, perhaps, the most dexterous. Their Complexion is a pretty dark Copper, and their hair in general black where it is not turned brown by the application of a very white Powder which Many of them use as plentifully as any Gentleman in England.' He also praised the ‘softness and delicacy’ of the Tongan women’s ‘Manner, Features & talk’ – ‘they are certainly the most lively, laughing, chattering Beings in the World’.

Of course, as can be seen in these excerpts, even more enlightened or engaged Europeans such as Wales and Cook as well as Joseph Banks -- who, on Cook's first voyage, eagerly immersed himself in Tahitian culture and returned to England with tattoos -- were still various shades of patronizing, exoticising and moralistic. Very few Georgian Britons would have questioned the ultimate superiority of their culture and religion to those of non-white populations or would have questioned their right to behave rather presumptuously, and at times violently, towards them. Captain Cook may not have tried to punish or to alienate the indigenous people whom he judged 'cannibals', but his writings show that not only was he horrified by and deeply censorious of their beliefs, but that he was mainly able to set them aside in the case of the Maori because he believed that these 'savages' were 'in some degree civilized'. He judged them somewhat civilised in part because of their 'readiness to oblige' and their being 'far less addicted to thieving than the other Islanders' and thought that they would abandon the presumed practice of eating their enemies as they became more 'civilized' and fought less among themselves. Unfortunately, the experiences and voices of the indigenous people who encountered the crews of well-known voyages of 'science' and exploration such as those of Captain Cook are largely absent from the archives of the Board of Longitude, as one might perhaps expect. However, it is important to remember that cultural intersections and occasionally conflicts were as elemental a part of such expeditions as were the 'scientific' and navigational activities with which one associates the Board - and that even the historical figures who are sometimes lauded today for their comparatively enlightened views on indigenous peoples were not entirely divorced from the cultures and times which produced them. Image sources: Bayly's log book - Alexi Baker / Cambridge University Library, Easter Island image and Death of Captain Cook - National Maritime Museum, all others - Wikipedia.