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Niuē-fekai (or Savage) Island and its People

Captain Cook's visit to Niue, 1774. — Vol. II, 1777

Captain Cook's visit to Niue, 1774.
Vol. II, 1777

“Thursday, 16th June, 1774 (page 2).—From this day to the 16th, we met with nothing remarkable, and our course was West southerly; the winds variable from North round by the East to S. W., attended with cloudy, rainy, unsettled weather, and a southerly swell. We generally brought to, or stood upon the wind, during night; and in the day made all sail we could. About half an hour after sun-rise this morning, land was seen from the top-mast head, bearing N.N.E. We immediately altered the course and steering for it, found it to be another Reef Island, composed of five or six woody islets, connected together by sand banks and breakers, inclosing a lake, into which we could see no entrance. We ranged the W. and N. W. coasts, from its southern to its northern extremity, which is about two leagues; and so near the shore, that at one time we could see the rocks under us; yet we found no anchorage, nor saw we any signs of inhabitants. There were plenty of various kinds of birds, and the coast seemed to abound with fish. The situation of this isle is not very distant from that assigned by Mr. Dalrymple for La Sagitaria, discovered by Quiros; but by the description the discoverer has given of it, it cannot be the same. For this reason I looked upon it as a new discovery, and named it Palmerston Island, in honour of Lord Palmerston, one of the Lords of the Admiralty. It is situated in latitude 18° 4′ South, longitude 163° 10′ West.

(Page 3). At four o'clock in the afternoon we left this isle and resumed our course to the W. by S. with a fine steady gale easterly, till noon on the 20th, at which time, being in latitude 18° 50′, longitude 168° 52′, we thought we saw land to S.S.W., and hauled up for it accordingly. But two hours after, we discovered our mistake, and resumed our course W. by S. Soon after we saw land from the masthead in the same direction; and, as we drew nearer, found it to be an island which, at five o'clock, bore West, distant five leagues. Here we spent the night plying under the top-sails; and, at daybreak next morning, bore away, steering for the northern point, and ranging the West coast at the distance of one mile, till near noon. Then, perceiving some people on the shore, and landing seeming to be page 81 easy, we brought to, and hoisted out two boats, with which I put off to the land, accompanied by some of the officers and gentlemen. As we drew near the shore, some of the inhabitants, who were on the rocks, retired to the woods, to meet us, as we supposed; and we afterwards found our conjectures right. We landed with ease in a small creek, and took post on a high rock to prevent surprise. Here we displayed our colours, and Mr. Forster and his party began to collect plants, &c. The coast was so overrun with woods, bushes, plants, stones, &c. that we could not see forty yards round us. I took two men, and with them entered a kind of chasm, which opened a way into the woods. We had not gone far before we heard the natives approaching; upon which I called to Mr. Forster to retire to the party, as I did likewise. We had no soon joined, than the islanders appeared at the entrance of a chasm not a stone's-throw from us. We began to speak, and make all the friendly signs we could think of, to them, which they answered by menaces; and one of two men, who were advanced before the rest, (page 4) threw a stone, which struck Mr. Spearman on the arm. Upon this two musquets were fired, without order, which made then all retire under cover of the woods; and we saw them no more.

After waiting some little time, and till we were satisfied nothing was to be done here, the country being so overrun with bushes, that it was hardly possible to come to parly with them, we embarked and proceeded down along shore, in hopes of meeting with better success in another place. After ranging the coast, for some miles, without seeing a living soul, or any convenient landing-place, we at length came before a small beach, on which lay four canoes. Here we landed by means of a little creek, formed by the flat rocks before it, with a view of just looking at the canoes, and to leave some medals, nails, &c., in them; for not a soul was to be seen. The situation of this place was to us worse than the former. A flat rock lay next the sea; behind it a narrow stone beach; this was bounded by a perpendicular rocky cliff of unequal height, whose top was covered with shrubs; two deep and narrow chasms in the cliff seemed to open a communication into the country. In, or before one of these, lay the four canoes which we were going to look at; but in the doing of this, I saw we should be exposed to an attack from the natives, if there were any, without being in a situation proper for defence. To prevent this, as much as could be, and to secure a retreat in case of an attack, I ordered the men to be drawn up upon the rock, from whence they had a view of the heights; and only myself, and four of the gentlemen, went up to the canoes. We had been there but a few minutes, before the natives, I cannot say how many, rushed down the chasm out of the wood upon us. (page 5). The endeavours we used to bring them to a parley, were to no purpose; for they came with the ferocity of page 82 wild boars, and threw their darts. Two or three musquets, discharged in the air, did not hinder one of them from advancing still further, and throwing another dart, or rather a spear, which passed close over my shoulder. His courage would have cost him his life, had not my musquet missed fire; for I was not five paces from him, when he threw his spear, and had resolved to shoot him to save myself. I was glad afterwards that it happened as it did. At this instant, our men on the rock began to fire at others who appeared on the heights, which abated the ardour of the party we were engaged with, and gave us time to join our people, when I caused the firing to cease. The last discharge sent all the islanders to the woods, from when they did not return so long as we remained. We did not know that any were hurt. It was remarkable, that when I joined our party, I tried my musquet in the air, and it went off as well as a piece could do. Seeing no good was to be got with these people, or at the isle, as having no port, we returned on board, and having hoisted in the boats, made sail to W.S.W. I had forgot to mention, in its proper order, that having put ashore a little before we came to this last place, three or four of us went upon the cliffs, where we found the country, as before, nothing but coral rocks, all over-run with bushes; so that it was hardly possible to penetrate into it; and we embarked again with intent to return directly on board, till we saw the canoes; being directed to the place by the opinion of some of us, who thought they heard some people.

The conduct and aspect of these islanders occasioned my naming it Savage Island. It is situated in latitude 19° 1′ South, longitude 169° 37′ West. It is about eleven leagues (page 6) in circuit; of a round form and good height; and hath deep waters close to its shores. All the sea-coast, and as far inland as we could see, is wholly covered with trees, shrubs, &c.; amongst which were some cocoa-nut trees; but what the interior parts may produce, we know not. To judge of the whole garment by the skirts, it cannot produce much; for so much as we saw of it consisted wholly of coral-rocks, all over-run with woods and bushes. Not a bit of soil was to be seen; the rocks alone supplying the trees with humidity. If these coral-rocks were first formed in the sea by animals, how came they thrown up to such an height? Has this island been raised by an earthquake? Or has the sea receded from it? Some philosophers have attempted to account for the formation of low isles, such as are in this sea; but I do not know that any thing has been said of high islands, or such as I have been speaking of. In this island, not only the loose rocks which cover the surface, but the cliffs which bound the shores, are of coral stone, which the continued beating of the sea has formed into a variety of curious caverns, some of them very large: the roof or rock over them page break page 83 being supported by pillars, which the foaming waves have formed into a multitude of shapes, and made more curious than the caverns themselves. In one we saw light was admitted through a hole at the top; in another place, we observed that the whole roof of one of these caverns had sunk it, and formed a kind of valley above, which lay considerably below the circumjacent rocks.

No. 10—Niue. Captain Cook's landing place at Opahi

No. 10—Niue. Captain Cook's landing place at Opahi

I can say but little of the inhabitants, who, I believe, are not numerous. They seemed to be stout well made men, were naked, except round the waists, and some of them had their faces, breast, and thighs painted black. The canoes (page 7) were precisely like those of Amsterdam (Island); with the addition of a little rising like a gunwale on each side of the open part; and had some carving about them, which shewed that these people are full as ingenious. Both these islanders and their canoes, agree very well with the description M. de Bougainville has given of those he saw off the Isle of Navigators, which lies nearly under the same meridian.”

The place of Captain Cook's second landing where he had the affray with the natives is at Opāhi, about a mile west of the mission house at Alofi. The accompanying picture shows his landing place and the rock (on which the people are) where the marines were drawn up. At the present day the people can tell very few particulars of Captain Cook's visit; but they insist that their object in opposing him was to prevent the introduction of disease.