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Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in Polynesia

Edmund Fanning

Edmund Fanning

1797 to 1799

Captain Edmund Fanning made a number of voyages in various ships, but his most interesting voyage, as far as Polynesia is concerned, was made on the Betsey from 1797 to 1799. Fanning entered the fur trade on the advice of Captain John Whetten, and the financing of an expedition was undertaken by Mr. Elias Nexsen of New York. The brig Betsey of less than 100 tons was fitted up and given a crew of twenty seven.

The Betsey sailed from Stonington, Connecticut, on June 13, 1797. She called at the Falkland Islands, where Fanning met Captain O. Paddock of the whaling ship Olive Branch from Nantucket, who told him that there was an abundance of fur seals at Masafuero Island. The Betsey rounded the Horn and reached Masafuero on January 19, 1798. In spite of the rough coast and the difficulties of landing boats, the ship was filled with skins. Not only the hold, but the cabin and forecastle were used for storage; and guards were left on the island to take charge of 4,000 skins which could not be shipped.

The Betsey sailed on April 5 for the Marquesas to obtain refreshments. Hoods Island was picked up May 19, and the ship anchored in Cooks Harbor (Resolution Bay) in Santa Christina (Tahuata) two days later. A canoe came out with a native and William Pascoe Crook, the missionary who had been landed there the year before by Wilson in the Duff. Crook was evidently in a depressed state of mind, for he called upon Fanning to preserve his life. He told Fanning that there was another group of four islands farther north which had been discovered by an American and named the Washington Islands. Supplies being difficult to obtain, Fanning sailed to the Washington group, taking Crook with him. The missionary, with his knowledge of the language, was page 66able to warn Fanning that a fleet of canoes near the ship meditated an attack. The ship's guns were run out and the attack aborted by the display of armed preparedness. At Nukuhiva, Fanning established friendly relations and obtained a sufficient supply of fresh food. Crook evidently decided to continue his work at Nukuhiva, and left the ship.

On sailing northeast from Nukuhiva on May 30, Fanning saw the other two islands of the Washington group; but as he had already seen four, the number described by Crook, he thought the two extra islands were new discoveries. He named the first, New York Island (Eiao) and the other Nexsen (Hatutu), after the owner of the ship.

The Betsey sailed on its voyage to Canton, and on June 11 a new island was discovered in latitude 30° 51′ 30? N. and longtitude 159° 12′ 30? W. Fanning landed and procured a good supply of coconuts, but the island proved to be uninhabited. He named it Fanning Island. On the following day, June 12, another new island was discovered and named Washington Island, after the President of the United States. On the night of June 14, a curious thing happened. After Fanning had retired, he walked in his sleep three times, going onto the deck, to the amazement of the officer of the watch. The third time, he found himself fully dressed. The ship was sailing under full sail at five to six: miles an hour, and Fanning, feeling that the occurrences were in the nature of a warning, ordered some of the sails to be taken in and the ship to make short tacks to retard her forward course. In the early morning of June 15, when breakers ahead were observed, the ship was able to avoid them. Had the ship continued her course during the night, she would no doubt have been wrecked. A long coral reef or shoal was observed, and after the ship got to the north of it, Fanning observed with glasses from the masthead that there was land to the south of the shoal. Fanning did not give a name to the land, but on November 7, 1802, it was discovered by Captain Sawle of the American ship Palmyra, whose name he gave to the island. As the island is on the direct course followed by Fanning and there is no other land in the vicinity, there can be no doubt that Fanning first discovered Palmyra.

After his fright, Fanning made north for the track of the Spanish galleons and, on July 14, reached Tinian in the Marianas where he was able to take off a shipwrecked crew. He reached Macao roads on August 13, disposed of his cargo, and loaded up with tea, silk, nankeen, and chinaware. On the voyage home, he successfully repulsed an attack by Malay pirates off the coast of Sumatra. He doubled the Cape of Good Hope on January 30, 1799, and anchored at New York on April 26, thus completing his first voyage round the world. The net profit of the expedition was $52,300.