Encountering Tahiti: Samuel Wallis and the Voyage of the Dolphin

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Encountering Tahiti: Samuel Wallis and the Voyage of the Dolphin


During the seventeenth century scientists made significant discoveries in the fields of mathematics, physics, and astronomy—fields necessary for the improvement of navigation. These advances led to the development of the chronometer (a timepiece used to determine longitude), modifications in ship design, and increased accuracy in navigation. The result was a blending of science, exploration, and economics that culminated in the Pacific explorations of the eighteenth century.

In 1766 the British Admiralty appointed Samuel Wallis (1728-1795) to command a voyage of exploration to the South Pacific, continuing the search for the elusive terra australis—the great southern continent and huge, theoretical landmass then thought to occupy much of the largely unexplored Southern Hemisphere. While Wallis did not find the continent of Australia, he did land in Tahiti, bringing this lush island's inhabitants perhaps their first contact with European society.


By 1766 European explorers had searched for new lands for nearly 300 years, driven primarily by the desire for new trade routes or territory that might provide new wealth. These voyages revolutionized European understanding of world geography—discovering North and South America, charting the coasts of Asia and Africa, and dispelling myths about boiling temperatures near the equator and ferocious sea monsters in distant parts of the ocean.

England, Spain, Portugal, and France had all established colonies in the New World, and voyages across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope to Asia and the East Indies had become relatively uneventful. But the Pacific Ocean remained largely unknown apart from a handful of Spanish settlements along the west coast of South America and ports on the mainland of Asia that were occasionally visited by trading ships. Spanish and Dutch explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had stumbled across a few islands in the South Pacific and the coasts of Australia and South Island of New Zealand. But these discoveries were vaguely documented and woven into the myth and mystery of the times.

Lack of knowledge, however, did not mean a dearth of theories about what might exist on the fringes of the known world. The notion that a great continent existed at the bottom of the world dated back to ancient times, when the Greeks argued that a landmass around the South Pole must exist to balance the continents in the Northern Hemisphere. Most Europeans of the eighteenth century still believed a continent had to exist somewhere in the yet unexplored regions. Mapmakers and geographers of the time called it terra australis incognita—the unknown southern land, or terra australis nondum cognita—the southern land not yet known.

For more than a century, despite occasional voyages into the Pacific, England had concentrated its colonization efforts in North America. However, in the mid-1760s England decided to pursue new markets in the unexplored Pacific, hoping to find the lost southern continent. The first expedition sailed secretly in March 1764 under the command of John Byron (1723-1786). The Dolphin completed her clandestine voyage, and brought back useful information suggesting that terra australis incognita did indeed exist. With this information, the British government decided to send the Dolphin out again under the command of Captain Samuel Wallis.

Wallis sailed from Plymouth on August 22, 1766, accompanied by the Swallow, commanded by Philip Carteret (1733-1796). Wallis had orders to first establish a base in the Falkland Islands to give England a political advantage in their further exploration of the Pacific. Then, he was to continue sailing until he reached 100–120° longitude—the possible site of terra australis. If land was found, he was to return to England. If land was not found, the Dolphin was to continue exploring in search of islands and return to England by way of China and the East Indies.

The Dolphin was outfitted with a still for producing fresh water, a forge for ship repairs, and 3,000 (1,361 kg) pounds of "soup" (a concentrated syrup of oranges and lemons) for preventing scurvy. The crew of 150 included many seasoned and experienced men from the first voyage of the Dolphin, as well as the usual assortment of uneducated men from England's lower classes. One sailor named George Robinson kept a journal that is one of the best travel accounts kept by eighteenth-century explorers. The Swallow, however, was not as lucky. The ship was already 30 years old, and poorly provisioned, relying on the the Dolphin for most of her supplies. Accompanying these two ships was a store-vessel that was to drop supplies at Port Egmont on the Falkland Islands before returning to England.

Three months after leaving England, the group reached the Atlantic entrance to the Strait of Magellan. During the next four months, fierce, frigid winds and rough seas slowed their pace. Both the Dolphin and the Swallow were in serious trouble many times. After struggling to stay together, the ships became separated in heavy fog just as they entered the Pacific. The Dolphin, a much faster and better built ship, sailed ahead while an easterly current sucked the slower Swallow back into the strait. The two ships did not meet again; the captains pursued the search for a southern continent independently. Wallis, instead of following the well-established sea route northward along the coast of Chile, headed northwestward, traversing a vast, little-known area of the South Pacific. Carteret, upset at Wallis for what he thought was a deliberate desertion, sailed farther to the south.

Six weeks into the Pacific, the Dolphin had encountered no signs of land, and the months aboard the ship with little in the way of fresh food or exercise began to take its toll on the crew. Wallis was unusual among ship captains in his attention to the health and well being of his men. However, in spite of the crew washing down the ship everyday with vinegar and airing the hammocks, the crew "looked very pale and Meager," and many were suffering from scurvy.

During the following weeks, islands were sighted. Many were inhospitable coral atolls or guarded by hostile natives. On occasion they were able to land and trade nails and beads for water and coconuts. The crew's desperation rose as their food and water dwindled. One day, however, they spied a mountain in the distance, shrouded in clouds. Beyond it, far to the south, rose what appeared to be a mountain range. The elated men believed they had reached the fabled terra australis and sailed on through the night thinking they had made the most important discovery since Christopher Columbus (c. 1451-1506) landed in the New World.

The next morning Wallis's crew sighted a massive mountain that looked to be 7,000 feet (2,133 m) high, stretching for several miles. The landscape was thickly covered with trees, contained brilliant green flora, and had many streams entering the ocean. Wallis assumed that the mountain was just the tip of the southern peninsula, or perhaps an island off the sought-after southern continent's coast. Recognizing the importance of this find, Wallis named it King George's Island in honor of the British king. The island's native name was Tahiti.

As the Dolphin sailed closer, dozens of canoes paddled out from shore. Robinson noted, "they lookt at our ship with great astonishment holding a sort of council of war amongst them." The Dolphin crew showed their friendly intentions by dangling beads and trinkets over the side, while the islanders waved plantain branches. Nearly 800 men and 150 canoes lined up alongside the unfamiliar vessel. Finally, a party came aboard the ship. The encounter ended with Wallis firing a canon over the ship and the delegation jumping overboard.

After a few more skirmishes during the next few weeks, Wallis was eventually able to establish friendly relations with the islanders and anchor in one of the island's bays. Wallis himself was personally welcomed by Obera, the Queen of Tahiti, and from that point on a brisk trade ensued, exchanging nails, clothing, and pots and pans for fresh food and water. Although Wallis soon realized that Tahiti was probably not the southern continent, the crew spent another five weeks in Tahiti resting, repairing the ship, and planting a garden before continuing their voyage. The men, aided by Robinson's sensitivity to the local inhabitants, were able to leave a positive impression behind, an unusual occurrence for the times.


Having found a place of such beauty and abundance, Wallis decided to return to England to report his findings rather than continuing his search for terra australis. On the return trip the Dolphin made stops in present-day Tonga and Indonesia, and also located a group of islands west of Samoa and north of Fiji now known as the Wallis Archipelago. The Dolphin completed her circumnavigation by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, arriving back in England on May 20, 1768.

Wallis's news of Tahiti aroused the interest of the British government, which decided that the island would be a suitable spot to send scientists to observe the Transit of Venus, a major astronomical event whose measurements would help determine the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Later that year Captain James Cook (1728-1779) was sent to Tahiti with scientists and naturalists on the first of his three voyages in search of the elusive southern continent. In 1773 Wallis published his Account of the Voyage Undertaken for Making Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, detailing his circumnavigation of the world.

The Swallow also eventually made it to Tahiti, nearly four months behind the Dolphin and after an arduous journey filled with extreme hardship. The crew was assisted by the French, who repaired damage to the ship, gave them food and water, and offered navigational help. After landing in Tahiti and discovering that Wallis and his crew had already sailed back to England, Carteret and the Swallow did the same.

Although the voyages of the Dolphin and the Swallow failed to prove the existence of terra australis, their voyages opened a previously unknown part of the South Pacific. Thanks to improved navigational capability, the ships safely traveled thousands of square miles of open sea, and brought back to European society the news of previously unknown lands and peoples.


Further Reading

Beaglehole, J.C. The Exploration of the Pacific. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1934.

Sharp, Andrew. Discovery of the Pacific Islands. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Withey, Lynne. Voyages of Discovery. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1987.