Excerpt of The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes
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As the men walked back, feeling dangerously like royalty, the Tahitian girls draped them with flowers, offered all kind of civilities and gestured invitingly towards the coconut mats spread in the shade. Banks felt, reluctantly, that since islanders houses were entirely without walls it was not quite the moment to put their politeness to every test. He would not have failed to have done so had circumstances been more favourable.
Tahiti lies roughly eastwest just below the 17th parallel, one of the largest of what are now the Society Islands, roughly halfway between Peru and Australia. It is shaped not unlike a figure of eight, some 120 miles (40 leagues) in circumference. Most of its foreshores are easily accessible, a series of broad, curving bays with black volcanic sands or pinkish-white coral beaches, fringed by coconut palms and breadfruit trees. But a few hundred yards inland, the ground rises sharply into an entirely different topography. The steep, densely wooded volcanic hills lead upwards to a remote and hostile landscape of deep gullies, sheer cliffs and perilous ledges.
Contrary to legend, the Endeavour, commanded by Lieutenant James Cook, was not the first European ship to make landfall in Tahiti. Spanish expeditions, under Quiroz or Torres, had probably touched there in the late sixteenth century, and claimed it for Spain. A previous English expedition, under Captain Wallis of the Dolphin, had definitely landed there in 1767, when it was described as romantic, and claimed for England. A French expedition under Louis-Antoine de Bougainville had anchored there the following year, and claimed it for France.
The French had racily christened Tahiti La Nouvelle Cythère, the New Island of Love. Bankss opposite number, the French botanist Philibert Commerson (who named the bougainvillea after his captain), had published a sensational letter in the Mercure de France describing Tahiti as a sexual Utopia. It proved that Jean-Jacques Rousseau was right about the existence of the Noble Savage. But then, the French had only spent nine days on the island.
Cook was more sceptical, and had every member of his crew (including the officers) examined for venereal infections four weeks before arriving, by their surgeon Jonathan Monkhouse. He issued a series of Landing Instructions, which stated that the first rule of conduct ashore was civilised behaviour: To Endeavour by every fair means to cultivate a Friendship with the Natives and to treat them with all Imaginable Humanity.6 It was no coincidence that he enshrined the ships own name in this instruction.
Joseph Banks had his own views on Paradise. He gave a whimsical account of his first night ashore in his Endeavour Journal. He dined deliciously on dressed fish and breadfruit, next to a Tahitian queen, who did me the honour with very little invitation to squat down on the mats close by me. However, the queen was ugly enough in conscience. Banks then noticed a very pretty girl, with a fire in her eyes and white hibiscus in her hair, lingering in the common crowd at the door. He encouraged her to come and sit on his other side, studiously ignored the queen for the rest of the evening, and loaded the Polynesian beauty with bead necklaces and every compliment he could manage. How this would have ended is hard to say, he observed later. In fact the amorous party broke up abruptly when it was discovered that his friend Solander had had a snuffbox picked from his pocket, and a fellow officer had lost a pair of opera glasses. It is not explained why he had brought opera glasses ashore in the first place.
This thieving proved to be completely customary in Tahiti, and led to many painful misunderstandings on both sides. The first occurred the following day, when a Tahitian quite openly made off with a marines musket, and was immediately shot dead by a punctilious guard. Banks quickly grasped that some quite different notion of property must be involved, and noted grimly: We retird to the ship not well pleasd with the days expedition, guilty no doubt in some measure of the death of a man who the most severe laws of equity would not have condemnd to so severe a punishment. No canoes about the ship this morning, indeed we could not expect any as it is probable that the news of our behaviour yesterday was now known every where, a circumstance which will doubtless not increase the confidence of our friends the Indians. Nonetheless, to Bankss relief and evident surprise, good relations were restored within twenty-four hours.
Excerpted from The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes Copyright © 2009 by Richard Holmes. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.