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An Introduction to Polynesian Anthropology

European Discoveries in Polynesia

European Discoveries in Polynesia


It seems fitting that the first authentic discovery in Polynesia should have been made by Mendaña, but it was more than 30 years after his discovery of the Solomons before the Spanish authorities acceded to his request to fit out an expedition to visit them. Finally, he was given four ships for the expedition. He put out from Callao on April 9, 1595, worked up the coast, and sailed from Payta. On July 28, he sighted an island which he at first thought was part of the Solomons. He named it Magdalena (Fatuhiva) and three other islands were successively named San Pedro (Motane), Dominica (Hivaoa), and Santa Christina (Tahuata). Recognizing the islands as a new discovery, he named the group Islas de Marquesas de Mendoza after the Marquis Mendoza, the Viceroy of Peru. The islands, which became more widely known under the shorter name of the Marquesas, formed the southeastern part of a much larger group.

Continuing west, Mendaña failed to reach the Solomons but landed farther south at the Melanesian group of Santa Cruz, where he died. The remains of the expedition found its way to the Philippines under the guidance of Quiros. After some time, Quiros found his way back to Acapulco by following the northern Spanish route in the vicinity of latitude 35° N. Thus Mendaña made the first discovery in Polynesia and his recorded description of the inhabitants of the Marquesas provides the first source material on the ethnology of a Polynesian group.


The second voyage of discovery was made by Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, who had accompanied Mendaña as his chief pilot. Quiros sailed with three ships from Callao on December 21, 1605. He took a more southerly course than that of Mendaña and encountered a number of atolls in the southern Tuamotus. Since longitude was determined by the dead reckoning of the daily sailings in those days, the identity of the atolls he discovered remains somewhat obscure. One of the islands, which he named La Sagittaria, some writers have identified as Tahiti, but his description of the island is evidently that of an atoll formation and could not possibly apply to a high volcanic island such as Tahiti. Continuing west, Quiros passed some small islands and then discovered page 19an inhabited island which he named Gente Hermosa. This has been identified as Olosega or Swains Island in the Tokelau group. He entered Melanesia to the south of Santa Cruz and reached an island in the New Hebrides group which he named Australia del Espiritu Santo, believing that it formed part of the long-sought southern continent. Contrary winds prevented him from reaching Santa Cruz and he returned to Navidad, Mexico, without making any other discoveries.


Organized Spanish expeditions into the South Pacific ended with Quiros. Apart from the coast of South America, Spanish interest was confined to the north Pacific and the routes between New Spain and the Philippines. However, an expedition was sent to Tahiti in 1772 under Boenechea, who, on his way, discovered two new atolls in the Tuamotus. On his second voyage, in 1774, he discovered two more. Boenechea died in Tahiti, and Gayanagos, who took command, discovered Raivavae in the Australs as he was returning to Valparaiso.


The most surprising Spanish discovery was made by Maurelle, who, on a voyage from Manila to St. Blaise on the North American coast, was driven so far south by contrary winds that he discovered the Vavau group of the Tongan Islands in February 1781.

Le Maire and Schouten

To return to the sequence of discovery after Quiros, the Pacific adventure was taken up by the Dutch. Between 1598 and 1616, a number of Dutch ships had sailed through the Strait of Magellan, but they worked north along the South American coast and then sailed west to the East Indies. The Dutch East India Company had established a trade monopoly, and no ships were allowed to pass through the Strait of Magellan without their permission. However, a new Dutch Company, calling itself the Southern Company and headed by Isaac Le Maire, obtained a charter to trade with countries they should discover by new passages. They fitted out an expedition consisting of two ships, the Eendracht and the Hoorn. William Schouten, an experienced navigator, commanded the Eendracht with the title of patron, and Jacob Le Maire, the son of Isaac Le Maire, sailed with Schouten as president of the expedition. The company, in consultation with Schouten, was convinced that there was a western passage into the Pacific other than the Strait of Magellan and that the expedition could thus avoid the restriction placed on the Strait of Magellan by the Dutch East India Company. The expedition sailed from Holland on June 14, 1615 for the eastern coast of Patagonia. While refitting page 20at Port Desire, the Hoorn was destroyed accidentally by fire. The expedition went on with one ship, and Schouten sailed south of the latitude to the entrance of Magellan Strait. A passage was found between Tierra del Fuego and land which they named Staten Land in honor of the States of Holland. The passage was named the Strait of Le Maire, and the most southerly point seen after passing through it was named Cape Hoorn (Horn) in honor of the town of Hoorn in Holland.

The Eendracht sailed west along the northern fringe of the Tuamotu Archipelago. The islands they discovered were named Honden (Dog), Sondergrondt (Bottomless), Waterlandt (Waterland), and Vliegen (Flies). These have been identified as Pukapuka, Takaroa and Takapoto, Manihi, and Ahe. Later, two islands north of the Tongan group were encountered and named Cocos and Verraders. They are better known by the names Boscawen and Keppel given to them by Wallis in 1767, but the Tongan names are Tafahi and Niuatobutabu. The island of Niuafoou was also discovered and named Good Hope Island. Five days later, the islands of Alofi and Futuna were discovered and named the Hoorn (Horn) Islands. This ended the Polynesian discoveries, which were made in the months of April and May 1616. The Eendracht reached Batavia, where the Dutch officials, disbelieving the report of a new passage, confiscated the ship and sent Schouten and Le Maire back to Holland under arrest. Jacob Le Maire died on the voyage.


Twenty-six years elapsed before the next Dutch voyage was made. It was organized by Anthony van Dieman, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, for the further exploration of the south land now known as Australia. Two ships, the Zehaan and the Heemskirck, were equipped and placed under the command of Abel Tasman, with Franz Jacobszoon Vissher as chief pilot and adviser. Tasman sailed from Batavia on August 14, 1642, rounded the southwest extremity of Australia, and encountered the land which he named Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania). He sailed east without knowing that his discovery was an island, and on December 13, 1642, he discovered a large, high land which he named Staten Land (New Zealand). He left the coast of New Zealand without landing, owing to an attack by Maoris on one of his boats which resulted in three of his men being killed and one wounded. Sailing north, Tasman discovered the most southerly island of the Tongan group, which he named Pylstaart. Two days later, he discovered the Tongan islands of Eua and Tongatabu and named them Middle-burgh and Amsterdam, respectively. He sailed on to Nomuka in the Haapai group, which he named Rotterdam. He passed on through the Fiji Islands and reached Batavia on June 15, 1643. Tasman was the first navigator to enter the Pacific from the west. His discoveries in Polynesia were New Zealand and the southern and middle groups of the Tongan Islands.

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Seventy-eight years passed before the third and last Dutch voyage, commanded by Jacob Roggeveen, sailed from Holland on August 21, 1721 to search for the southern continent. After passing through the Strait of Le Maire, Roggeveen and his three ships sailed south until the ice and rough weather convinced them that there was no useful continent in that direction. He came north to Juan Fernandez and, on sailing west, discovered an island on Easter Day, April 6, 1722 which he named Paaschen or Oster Eilandt (Easter Island). He sailed on through the northern islands of the Tuamotus and is credited with discovering six of them. Farther west, he discovered the Manua group of Eastern Samoa which he named the Bauman Islands after the captain of one of his ships. He saw two other islands but their identity is uncertain. Roggeveen reached Java in September where his ships were confiscated by the Dutch East India Company.

John Byron

The next country to take an interest in Pacific exploration was England. Commodore George Anson had made his notable voyage in 1740-1744, but as he was after Spanish galleons, he followed their path across the north Pacific and failed to touch Polynesia. The British Admiralty, however, had become interested and sent out their first Pacific expedition in 1764, under the command of Commodore John Byron, who had sailed with Anson. The expedition had two ships, the copper-sheathed Dolphin, commanded by Byron, and the sloop Tamar, under Captain Mouat. They sailed from the Downs on June 21, 1764, made some investigations in the south Atlantic, and entered the Pacific after spending seven weeks and two days in passing through the Strait of Magellan. From Masafuero, the ships sailed northwest to get the trade winds. On June 7, 1665, Byron made his first discovery, two islands in the northern Tuamotus which he named Islands of Disappointment (Napuka and Tepoto), because the inhabitants prevented his boats from landing. Two days later he encountered Takaroa and Takapoto, which he named King George Island as they appeared to him to be one island. These had been named Bottomless Island by Le Maire and Schouten. He also saw Manihi, the Waterlandt Island of Le Maire and Schouten. On June 21, he discovered Pukapuka in the northern Cook group and named it Danger Island, on account of the high surf, which made it too dangerous to land boats. Farther on, he found an uninhabited island with coconut trees which he named Duke of York Island. This has been identified as Atafu in the Tokelau group. Byron went on to Tinian in the Marianas and returned to England via the Cape of Good Hope. He was a good seaman, but he did not seem particularly keen to make new discoveries.

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Byron's voyage was immediately followed by one under Captain Samuel Wallis, who took over the Dolphin, her copper sheathing having been considered a success. With him sailed the sloop Swallow, commanded by Philip Cartaret, who had been first lieutenant of the Tamar in Byron's expedition. The Admiralty orders were that Wallis should search for the southern continent and, failing that, search for land in the Pacific on latitude 20° S. The ships sailed from Plymouth Sound on August 22, 1766. After passing through the Strait of Magellan and entering the Pacific on April 11, 1767, the Swallow parted company with the Dolphin during a storm and was considered lost. Wallis sailed northwest to latitude 20° S. and then sailed west along it. His course was farther south than that of Byron, with the result that he sailed through the middle of the Tuamotu Archipelago. His first discovery was Pinaki on June 6, 1767, and as the day was Whitsunday Eve, he named the island Whitsunday. He discovered five more atolls, which he named as follows: Queen Charlotte (Nukutavake), Egmont (Vairatea), Gloucester (Paraoa), Cumberland (Manuhangi), and Prince William Henry (Nengonengo). He then came to Osnaburgh (Meetia), the most easterly island in what came to be known later as the Society Islands. His greatest discovery occurred the next day, June 18, when he reached the large volcanic island of Tahiti, which he named King George III Island. He anchored in Matavai Bay, which became the anchorage for subsequent voyagers until the passage through the reef near Papeete became known. His first reception was hostile, but the most friendly relations were established later with Queen Oberea (Purea) and her people. A month's stay cured the sick and provisioned the ship.

Wallis sailed past Moorea, which he named Duke of York Island, and then encountered three more islands belonging to the group. He named them Sir Charles Saunders Island (Tapuaemanu), Lord Howe Island (Mopiha) and Scilly Islands (Fenuaura). Proceeding west, he encountered Tafahi and Niuatobutabu, previously discovered by Le Maire and Schouten, and named them Boscawen and Keppel. Turning northward, he discovered Uvea, which his men named Wallis Island in his honor. He left Polynesia and touched at Tinian, Batavia, and the Cape of Good Hope on his way home to England, arriving at the Downs on May 30, 1766.


The sloop Swallow under the skillful seamanship of Captain Cartaret had survived the storm but sailed west on a latitude farther south than the 20° S. followed by the Dolphin. On July 2, 1767, the rocky island of Pitcairn was sighted but no landing made, as the sea was rough. Sailing west, Cartaret discovered Mururoa, which he named Bishop of Osnaburgh Island, and next page 23day, he discovered a group which he named Duke of Gloucester Islands. Cartaret sailed on to the western Pacific, where he made some new discoveries. He finally anchored at Spithead on March 20, 1769. The Swallow should never have sailed in her bad condition, and Cartaret's circumnavigation of the globe in such a vessel in a voyage lasting two years and seven months is a record of courage, endurance, and skill.


France, recognizing the justice of Spain's protest against their establishment of a French colony in the Malouines (Falkland Islands), in 1764, delegated Louis de Bougainville to officially return the colony to Spain. Bougainville, in command of the frigate Boudeuse, sailed from France in November 1766. He was to be joined by the store ship l'Etoile which was to accompany him across the Pacific to the East Indies. Having handed over the settlement in the Falkland Islands on April 1, 1767, Bougainville was delayed by the l'Etoile, which did not arrive on time. Finally the Boudeuse and l'Etoile passed through the Strait of Magellan and entered the Pacific on January 26, 1778. Bougainville, after a vain search for the land reported by Davis, the buccaneer, sailed west between the courses followed by Byron and Wallis and consequently discovered a new series of atolls in the Tuamotus. He named his first discovery Les quatres Facardins after four islets in Vahitahi. Farther on, he discovered Akiaki, which he named Isle de Lanciers because the natives were armed with spears. The next day, Hao was sighted and named Isle de Harpe after its supposed resemblance in general shape to that instrument. Cook later named it Bow Island because of its resemblance in shape to the bow. Bougainville saw other islands to the west and designating them, collectively, the Dangerous Archipelago, he veered south to avoid them. On April 2, he sighted the peak of Meetia and made Tahiti. He was hospitably received and, accordingly, named the island La Nouvelle Cythere. After a stay of a fortnight, he continued west, passing Tapuaemanu, and reached the three Samoan islands of the Manua group which Roggeveen had named the Baumann Islands. The next day he sighted Tutuila, and farther on he sailed along the south coast of a large island which must have been Upolu. A limited trade was carried on with the canoes which came out. As some of them sailed around the ship while she was under way, Bougainville named the group the Navigator Islands. Bougainville passed on through Melanesia to New Britain, Batavia, and the Cape of Good Hope, and anchored at St. Malo on March 16, 1779.


Captain James Cook made three voyages, which, with those of Byron and Wallis, covered a continuous period of British exploration in the south Pacific from 1764 to 1780.

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Cook's first expedition (1768-1771) was sent out under the auspices of the British Admiralty and the Royal Society, primarily to observe the transit of Venus from the newly discovered island of Tahiti. Cook was given command of the bark Endeavour, which weighed 368 tons and had a crew of 94. He sailed from Plymouth on August 26, 1768 and rounded Cape Horn on January 27, 1769. Sailing west, he adopted a course between those of Byron and Wallis and, unknowingly, followed the course of Bougainville. He thus encountered the three islands in the Tuamotus which were discovered by Bougainville and named them as follows: Lagoon (Vahitahi), Thrum-cap (Akiaki), and Bow (Hao). However, instead of avoiding the islands farther west which Bougainville had named the Dangerous Archipelago, Cook kept straight on and discovered the following islands: The Groups (Marokau and Ravahere), Bird (Reitoru), and Chain (Anaa). From Anaa, he had a clear run to Meetia and Tahiti, which he sighted on April 10. Friendly relations were established with the people, an observatory was set up at Point Venus, and the transit of Venus observed under a clear sky on June 3.

Cook sailed north with a native named Tupaea who had stated that there were islands in that region. Cook adopted the native names as given to him and his spellings are given here. The first island discovered was Tetiroah (Tetiaroa) which completed the windward group discovered by Wallis. Cook discovered the leeward group as follows; Huaheine (Huahine), Ulietea (Raiatea), Otahau (Tahaa), Bolabola (Borabora), and Maowrooah (Maurua). He named them the Society Islands in honor of the Royal Society, and he applied the name of Georgian Islands to the windward group in recognition of their discovery by Wallis.

He was informed by Tupaea that there were other islands some days' sail to the south, and sailing in that direction, he discovered Oheteroa (Rurutu) in the Australs. Sailing southwest, he reached the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand in the vicinity of Poverty Bay. He spent six months in making a complete survey of the coast of both islands and showed that they were separated by the strait which bears his name. He thus proved that they had no connection with Staten Land or a great south continent. After surveying the east coast of Australia, Cook sailed on to Batavia and returned to England via the Cape of Good Hope. He anchored in the Downs on July 13, 1771 after a voyage of two years and ten and a half months.

Cook's second voyage (1772-1775) was for the purpose of searching for the south continent. He had two ships, the Resolution, 446 tons, and the Adventure, 336 tons. The ships sailed to the Cape of Good Hope and then explored the Antarctic between the meridians of the Cape of Good Hope and New Zealand. Cook sailed north to New Zealand and then eastward along the parallel of 40° S. without encountering any land. He turned north into the Tuamotus and discovered three more atolls, which he named Resolution page 25(Tauere), Doubtful (Takokota), and Furneaux (North Marutea). He arrived at Tahiti and visited Raiatea, where Omai was taken on board the Adventure. The ships sailed for the Tongan group and on the way discovered the small island of Manuae, which was named Hervey Island. After visiting the Haapai and Tongatabu groups, Cook sailed east and visited Easter Island. From there he went to the Marquesas of Mendaña and discovered Fatuhuka, which he named Hood Island. From the southeast group of the Marquesas, Cook directed his course to Tahiti and thus missed discovering the northwest islands of the Marquesas. In passing south through the western end of the Tuamotu chain, he grouped the four new islands of Apataki, Toau, Kaukura, and Arutea under the name of the Palliser Islands. From the Society Islands, Cook sailed west and discovered Palmerston and Savage (Niue) Islands. He visited the New Hebrides and, on his way to New Zealand, discovered New Caledonia and Norfolk Island. He continued his search in the Antarctic between the meridians of New Zealand and Cape Horn.

Cook then sailed north and surveyed the coasts of Tierra del Fuego and Staten Land. He explored the south Atlantic, discovering South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. After passing the meridian where he had commenced his Antarctic exploration, he came to the conclusion that there was no great south continent though there might be land in the vicinity of the South Pole. He thereupon sailed home and anchored off Spithead on July 30, 1775, after a voyage of three years and 18 days which had covered between 60,000 and 70,000 miles.

Cook's third voyage (1776-1780) was for the purposes of returning Omai to his home in the Society Islands and seeking a northern passage from the Pacific to the Atlantic. The Resolution was refitted for her second voyage and the Discovery, under Captain Clerke, was added to the expedition. The ships sailed via the Cape of Good Hope to New Zealand, whence they sailed northeast. Cook discovered the two islands of Mangaia and Atiu in the Cook group and then sailed west to Tonga. From Tonga, he sailed east, and on turning north for Tahiti, he discovered Tubuai, his second discovery in the Austral Islands. Having returned Omai to Raiatea, Cook sailed north on his way to search for the northern passage to the Atlantic. He discovered an atoll on December 24, 1777 and named it Christmas Island. He continued north, and on January 18, 1778, he discovered the first islands of a group which he subsequently named the Sandwich Islands. The islands seen on this occasion were Oahu, Kauai, Niihau, and the small islands of Lehua and Kaula. The ships sailed north eventually through Bering Strait in search of the northern passage. Cook returned to winter at the Sandwich Islands and, in January 1779, discovered Maui and Hawaii. After being treated with the most lavish hospitality at Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii, Cook sailed to continue his survey of the islands. However, a storm forced him to return to Keala-page 26kekua Bay for repairs, antagonisms arose, and Cook was killed. The expedition sailed north under the command of Captain Clerke and discovered Kahoolawe, Lanai, and Molokai, the remaining Sandwich Islands. The expedition resumed its northern survey and search for a northern passage. Captain Clerke died, and the ships returned to England under the command of Captain Gore. They anchored at The Nore on October 4, 1780, after a voyage of four years, two months, and 22 days.

Later Discoveries

At the end of Cook's last voyage, nearly all the important islands in Polynesia had been discovered. Between the years 1780 and 1800, Vavau was discovered by Maurelle (1781), Aitutaki in the Cook group by Captain Bligh in the Bounty (1789), the northwest group of the Marquesas by Joseph Ingraham on the American ship Hope (April 1791), and the Mangareva (Gambier) Islands by James Wilson on the London Missionary Society's ship Duff (1797).

In the early part of the nineteenth century, the Russian voyagers Kotzebue and Bellingshausen added a number of atolls in the Tuamotu Archipelago to the list of discoveries. Captain Beechey in H.M.S. Blossom checked up on the position of a number of islands in the Tuamotus and found three others not previously discovered. Rarotonga was officially credited to the missionary John Williams (1823), and though other navigators, Goodenough for one, had evidently called there before Williams, they had not made any claim. In the course of time, the remaining islands in the Tuamotus were discovered and some were rediscovered. Isolated islands of little importance at the time, such as uninhabited islands near the equator and in the Phoenix group, were added to the chart of the Pacific. Even the United States Exploring Expedition under the command of Commodore Wilkes discovered, as late as 1838 to 1842, islands in the Ellice, Tokelau, and Phoenix groups.