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Fiji and the Fijians 1835-1856

Chapter II — discovery of the fijian islands

page 15

Chapter II
discovery of the fijian islands

The first European to see any of the islands of the archipelago was Abel Janszoon Tasman who came upon them by chance—or mischance—on 5 February 1643 when he was on the look-out for Verradors and Cocos islands which, however, lay far to the east behind him. Tasman had sailed many thousands of miles from Batavia over the open seas to the west and south of Australia till he reached Van Diemen's Land, as he called it (now more appropriately named Tasmania). Thence by way of New Zealand he passed to the Friendly Islands. After leaving them and sailing northwards till he reached the vicinity of the 17th parallel S. he turned to the west thinking that Verradors Island lay in that direction. On the evening of 5 February he saw a small sandy island (Nuku Mbasanga) in front of him, and resolved to tack about till daylight. Early next morning he steered in a west-south-westerly direction till he reached the angle where another reef throws back toward the east. He was caught in a trap, and his only chance of escape lay in shooting the Nanuku Reef at a place where the breakers appeared to be the least threatening. It was a nerve-wracking venture in which the chances were 100 to 1 against him. Nothing but dire necessity could justify such a desperate proceeding. By rare good fortune and his own skill he made his way through a channel four fathoms deep, and little wider than his ship the Heemskerck, and reached the lagoon from which escape to the westward was comparatively easy. He page 16called this place Heemskerck Shoals for the same reason that induced Dumont D'Urville one hundred and eighty-five years later to give its name to Astrolabe Reef, that stretches away to the north of Kandavu. From Nanuku Reef Tasman sailed toward the head of the passage (now called Tasman Straits) between Taviuni and Ngamia, and finally groped his way through a network of reefs toward Thikombia-i-ra. No landing had been effected, and for this Tasman was taken severely to task by the arm-chair critics in the Council of Batavia who in their Instructions had informed him that if he should find gold in any new-discovered lands he was not by any expression on his face to give the natives reason for believing that it was a matter of any importance! Tasman had good reasons for not landing on any of the Prins Wyllem's Islands: the weather was rough and foggy; he could find no suitable anchorage, and with a tangle of reefs about him the situation was too perilous to admit of delay.

The report which he gave of the dangers through which he had passed in these waters scared off navigators. No European commander visited any of the Fijian islands for over one hundred and thirty years, and the next discoverer who was certainly not wanting in daring kept as far away as he possibly could from the cluster which Tasman had described.

This was James Cook the most famous of all the navigators of the Pacific though I sometimes doubt whether for sheer daring, resourcefulness and endurance any ascendancy over the Spanish navigators of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century can be claimed for him, making due allowance for the difference in equipment and knowledge. But coming from an Australian and a native of New South Wales this is treason! After visiting the Friendly Islands in the course of page 17his second voyage Cook steered to the west and on 2 July 1774 came upon a small low-lying island which he called Turtle Island. He did not go on shore himself; but sent the master in a boat through the shallow passage to the north-west with some presents for the natives whom he saw on the reef and near a conspicuous rock on the shore. After determining the position of the neighbouring reef to the south, now known as Vuata Vatoa, he continued his course westward till he was well beyond the farthest western limits of the Fijian Archipelago; then he turned toward the northernmost island of the Great Cyclades which on account of his own observations and discoveries he renamed the New Hebrides.

Vatoa or Turtle Island and the reef to the south are the only discoveries made by Captain Cook in Fiji; and it is highly probable that he had been told by the natives of the Friendly Islands not only of the existence of the island, but also of the direction in which he must steer to find it.1 There was frequent intercourse between Tongataboo and the Lau group of Fiji from the middle of the eighteenth century. The canoes after passing over the open sea between the two archipelagos generally made for the passage between Ongea and Vatoa or a little to the north so as to get into safer water under the 1ee of the islands on the way to Lakemba, their main objective. The Tongans would certainly know of the existence and position of Vatoa or Turtle Island in 1774.

Cook tells us in his Journal of the second voyage under date 3 July 1774 when he was lying off Vatoa that the people whom he saw "may have come from some isle to fish for turtle; as many were seen near the reef and occasioned that page 18name to be given to the island." But the natives themselves have quite a different way of accounting for the name of the island. On my visit in 1929 they informed me that it was not only because of its shape which somewhat resembles a turtle, but mainly because it was hollow like the shell of a turtle. The water of the sea flows through underground channels, a fact which can easily be detected by beating the limestone surface in places with a stick: it gives back a hollow sound. Is it possible that Cook had heard it referred to as Turtle Island before he left Tongataboo, or have the natives found reasons of their own since Cook was there for the name he gave it?

It is, however, rarely called Turtle Island now; but the natives are pleased that so famous a man as Toote made their little island known to the big world, and they have contrived to associate him with the native name Vatoa in a way that does credit to their ingenuity though it may leave a doubt in the mind of the historian. The word Va-toa means four fowls, and the natives of the island to-day affirm that among the presents which Toote sent on shore were four fowls! But unfortunately Cook does not mention fowls in the list of presents which he sent in the boat—only medals, nails and a knife.

As usual Cook's description of the island and of the surrounding seas and neighbouring reef is remarkably accurate, so far at least as We were able to test his statements by personal investigation, and the use of up-to-date instruments on board H.M.C.S. Pioneer. It was particularly interesting to find that the small but very conspicuous objects which he had selected for comment—sometimes mere rocks—were such as none who followed him could fail to detect.

Fifteen years later, in the year 1789, Captain Bligh sailed right through the archipelago from south-east to north-west in his famous voyage in the launch of H.M.S. Bounty. The page 19mutineers under Fletcher Christian had turned him and his companions adrift in an open boat with little food or water, a few crude instruments for navigation and no firearms. These facts should not be overlooked. Bligh was no gentleman if tested by the definition of that word which Chaucer gives in his Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; but it is clear also that Fletcher Christian had no bowels of compassion for his fallen foe. An open boat crowded with nineteen persons, scant allowance of food and water and no firearms, turned adrift in the middle of the Pacific! The repetition is deliberate, lest the impression made by Lady Belcher in her book should sink too deep for want of weight on the other side of the scales.

After leaving Tofoa Island Bligh crossed the open water and entered the Fijian Archipelago through the passage between Mothe and Yangasa Levu which from a distance has a top that appears as flat as a table. Here He saw eight islands and soon after a few more. He took their bearings, guessed at their distances and turned his boat toward the north-west, crossing a stretch of open water till he reached Nairai where another group of islands came gradually into full view. Rounding Makongai and passing very close to Passage Islet he. sailed on between Vanua Levu and Viti Levu both of which he believed to be of great dimensions. Here he was beset with dangers from hidden shoals and pursuing natives; but he got safely away and, passing Round Island, regained the open ocean. A welcome storm brought a supply of water to the inexpressible relief of all on board.

Whatever may have been his temperamental defects Bligh was undoubtedly a navigator of very exceptional ability. Notwithstanding the crudity of his instruments, and the fact that he had to use them in an open boat tossed about by the waves that continually broke on board, his observations were wonderfully reliable. His distances are of course wrong: he page 20could only use his eyes and guess at them; but his bearings are so accurate that it is possible to follow him from Yangasa Levu to Round Island without a doubt as to the course he took or the islands he discovered. In trying to fix beyond any possibility of doubt the place at which Bligh entered the Lau Group I had the good fortune to be sailing on H.M.S. Veronica with Commander R. H. De Salis, R.N., having with me a copy of Bligh's log. After testing his bearings at three different stations I heard the commander say "Splendid work considering the disabilities under which Bligh made his observations." Words to the same effect were used by Captain J. Mullins of H.M.C.S. Pioneer when we were testing his bearings in the vicinity of Nairai and later on at Makongai. I shall be dealing at length with the discoverers of the islands of the Fijian Archipelago in a book which I hope to publish when my researches on that subject are completed. It is sufficient to say here that the credit for the discovery of the greatest number of islands in Fiji including the largest of them belongs to Captain Bligh.

The next discoverer was Captain Wilson of the missionary ship Duff who left the Friendly Islands for China in 1797. He had evidently made up his mind to enter the archipelago close to the passage through which Bligh had passed; but he was a little to the north of it. After beating about in the vicinity of dangerous reefs for some time he decided that it was too perilous to go on, and turned back to the open sea. He then sailed north to a point a little beyond the latitude of Vanua Mbalavu, and turning to the west passed between Look-out Reef and the sand cay on Duff's Reef,2 thence southward till he had passed the northern end of Vanua Mbalavu, close to which are the Three Brothers to which he makes special reference in his Journal. Thence he page 21steered north past Naitamba, and up through the passage immediately to the west of Nanuku Reef, crossing the track of Tasman. It was near the north-western end of this reef, and not on Duff's Reef, that he struck the rock; and but for a rapid and decisive swinging of the sails would have lost his ship. The site of the accident is about a dozen miles north of the place where Tasman crossed the reef. Fortunately the plank of the hull that struck the rock was immediately over one of the ribs, and not in the space between: "The violence of the blow had beat in the copper, deeply wounded the plank, and beat it to shivers. Had the stroke been between the ribs of the ship it must have gone through." 3 After threading his way to the north through coral patches, and between two dangerous reefs, Scylla and Charybdis, he was again in the open sea, as much relieved as Tasman had felt one hundred and fifty-four years before. To Captain Wilson belongs the credit for discovering a large number of the islands and reefs of the northern part of the Lau group from Vanua Mbalavu to Naitamba.

The little cluster of islands at the other end of the archipelago known as Ono-i-lau which occupy such an important place in the history of the Methodist mission in Fiji was discovered in 1820 by a Russian commander named Fabian von Bellinsgauzen.4 Little is known in Great Britain, Australia or Fiji about this distinguished navigator, because his book has never been translated into English. I understand however, from Mr T. Heawood, M.A., Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society in London, that a translation has just been completed by an English scholar. The date of page 22its publication is uncertain; but the sooner the better for students of the South Pacific and the Antarctic regions. Bellinsgauzen made extensive voyages in the South Pacific and the ice-bound regions far to the south, and has some discoveries to his credit.

The account which he published under the title Voyage round the world in the ships Vostock and Marnye 1819-21 in vol. ii, pp. 69-81, is a most creditable piece of work. His description of the islands, reefs and people of Ono with charts, plates and drawings (those in the Admiralty library are done in colour) is indispensable to the student of the Fijian Archipelago; the plates and sketches display the artistic quality of the work done at that time by Russian publishers, and the map is clearly and accurately drawn. I feel sure that when the translation of Bellinsgauzen's Journal is before the British and American public it will be generally recognized that this commander has not hitherto received the attention he deserves.

With Bellinsgauzen the era of discovery in the Fijian Archipelago closes. In making this statement I am not unmindful of the claims that have been made on behalf of Captain Barber who approached Viti Levu from the west in the snow Arthur in 1794 and landed either on one of the Yasawas or the mainland of Viti Levu; of Captain Christopher Bentley of the Ann and Hope who sighted Kandavu in 1799; of Dumont D'Urville who sailed within a cable's length of the Astrolabe Reef, before he was aware of his danger, and thought he was its discoverer. A study of the Journals of the voyages of Captain Bligh in 1789 and 1792 disposes of the idea that there is sufficient warrant for placing any one of the three among the discoverers of Fiji. Bligh sighted the northern Yasawas in 1789, and in the course of his voyage of 1792 while advancing toward the page 23south he fell in with some rocky islets and "dangerous breakers extending 6 leagues to the north." That was on 10 August and next day we find him off the east coast of Kandavu. I have no doubt whatever that those "dangerous breakers extending 6 leagues to the north" marked the eastern edge of the Astrolabe Reef. Bligh continued his course to the south on the 1lth and on the 12th was off the southern end of Kandavu close enough to see a small island "lying to the south-east of the mountain" (Mount Washington).

1 It is certain that Captain Cook interviewed several Fijians at Tongataboo on his third voyage, and that he paid particular attention to them. See the Journal of his third voyage for July 1777. Captain Fabian von Bellinsgauzen recalls Cook's observations on the Fijians in vol. ii, pp. 74-5 of the Journal of his own voyage 1819-21. But he thought the word "Fiese" (no doubt Peejee) referred explicitly to the inhabitants of Ono (which he had just discovered), whose king was called Fio.

2 I give this position on the authority of Commander R. H. De Salis of H.M.S. Veronica.

3 See A Missionary Voyage to the Southern Pacific Ocean in the Ship Duff: Captain James Wilson (London, 1799) under date 13 September 1797.

4 The name is usually spelled Bellingshausen. I have adopted the spelling sent me by Mr Leonard C. Wharton who has kindly translated for me the portion of Bellinsgauzen's Journal dealing with Ono-i-lau and the neighbouring reefs and islets. In a later letter he informs me that Bellinsgauzen is the Russian form of the Baltic name of Bsellingshausen, and that both forms are correct.