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Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in Polynesia

James Wilson

James Wilson

1796 to 1798

The last important British voyage to the Pacific during the eighteenth century was for an entirely new purpose, the conversion of native peoples to the Christian religion. This objective was to bring about great changes in the native culture of the Polynesians. The Spaniards had used religion as an accessory to conquest for gold in the New World. Both Mendaña and Quiros had taken priests with them for the conversion of the heathen, but the priests did not remain on the islands when the ships left. The establishment of Spanish missionaries at Tahiti in 1774 by Boenechea had proved a failure, because the Spanish authorities had failed to provide the missionaries with an armed guard to enable them to deliver their message of peace in safety. The reports on the inhabitants of Tahiti and other islands of the south seas, made by Wallis, Cook, Banks, and others had created great interest in England. The interest extended to the churches, and it was felt that something should be done to convert the heathen of the south seas to the Christian religion. The London Missionary Society was formed in 1795, and funds were provided for sending missionaries into the field.

The ship Duff was purchased and placed under the command of Captain James Wilson, who was deeply religious. The party of missionaries selected consisted of thirty men, six women, and three children. Of the men, four were ordained ministers and the others were skilled craftsmen who would be of practical value in the manual requirements of the new homes as well as spreaders of the gospel. The Society's orders to Captain Wilson were to sail to Tahiti page 47via Cape Horn, unless circumstances made that route too difficult, and to establish missionaries at Tahiti, Tonga, and the Marquesas. If possible, the Sandwich Islands and the Palaus were to be considered. A Committee of the missionaries was to assist the Captain in the selection of the personnel to be taken to the various stations.

The Duff sailed from the Thames on August 10, 1796. She reached Rio de Janeiro on November 13 and sailed for Cape Horn. However, rough weather and contrary winds led Captain Wilson to change the original plan and to sail east, south of the Cape of Good Hope and south of Australia and New Zealand, until he reached the longitude of Tahiti and turned north. On February 21, 1797, the ship passed within sight of Tubuai, and it anchored at Matavai Bay in Tahiti on March 6. The missionaries received a friendly welcome. A house erected by Cook at Point Venus was still standing and was given over to them. It was decided that of the thirty men, eighteen should remain in Tahiti, ten go to Tonga, and two go to the Marquesas. The four ordained ministers and the women and children remained in Tahiti. One of the missionaries for Tonga and one for the Marquesas were ordained as ministers before leaving Tahiti.

A short visit was paid to Moorea, after which the ship sailed for Tonga on March 25, passing within sight of Tetiaroa and south of Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, and Borabora. Palmerston Island was reached on April 1, and boats went ashore to gather coconuts. Savage Island was passed, and Tongatabu was reached on April 10. The ten missionaries for Tonga were landed with their goods, the chiefs having provided accommodations for them. Wilson left Tongatabu for the Marquesas, but he kept well to the south to find westerly winds. On May 23 an atoll was sighted which turned out to be a new discovery and which was named Crescent Island (Timoe). A day later, he made the more important discovery of a group of high islands which he named the Gambier (Mangareva) Islands in compliment to Admiral Gambier whose department had attended to the equipment of the Duff. A high hill on the main island was named Mount Duff after the ship. No landing was made. On May 26 Lord Hoods Island (Marutea) was sighted, and on May 28 a new atoll was discovered and named Serle Island (Pukarua) after a friend of Wilson in the Transport office in England.

The Marquesas were reached on June 4, and the ship anchored next day off La Dominica (Hivaoa). The arrangements for housing the two missionaries were satisfactorily arranged, but the one who had been ordained in Tahiti complained that he could not eat the fermented breadfruit (mahi) which was the staple food of the island. He underwent a still greater trial when some of the women made a physical examination of his person to see whether his inhibitions were due to natural deformity. Horrified at the prospects before him, he quit the field and left his fellow worker to face the future alone. The Duff sailed on June 27, made observations at Huapu (Uapou) and Nukuhiva, page 48 Stepped Marae (Langi), Drawn by William Wilson, Who Accompanied James Wilson on the Duff. page 49 then sailed southwest for Tahiti. On the way, Tiookea (Takaroa) and some other atolls were sighted, and the ship anchored at Matavai Bay on July 6. During Wilson's second visit in Tahiti various observations were made including an estimate of the population of the island which was assessed at 16,050 including both sexes. A good sketch of a unique stepped marae was made.

On August 4 the Duff sailed for Tongatabu. The boats landed at Palmerston Island where thirty-four breadfruit trees, eighteen plantains, and several vi apple trees were planted, and they collected 600 coconuts for the ship. Anchor was cast in Tongatabu on August 18, and the missionaries were found to have established themselves with various chiefs. The Duff started her homeward voyage on September 7. She sighted Rotuma, and discovered various islands in Melanesia, including the Duff group. The course led through the Carolines and Palaus to Macao. Finally the ship anchored in the Thames on July 11, 1798.