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The Cook Islands: Captain Bligh’s Log of First Contact on Aitutaki

January 28, 2010

1) Near Bligh’s first landing site, Aitutaki

When Captain William Bligh let go the anchor of the Bounty off the west coast of Aitutaki a few days before the famous mutiny, he beheld an island and a culture far different than we can possibly understand today.  He did not visit the whole island, but rather only the area loosely termed Arutanga.  Always a meticulous diarist, he recorded some interesting facts.  Of the natives in Tahiti he had written, “Inclination seems to be the only binding law, marriage in this country for a woman will get her a husband if she pledges…”

He continues about the inhabitants of Aitutaki, “The people are just the same as those of the…Isles…  but are more docile and inoffensive.”

The account from his logbook of the discovery reads as follows:

“At daylight however we discovered an island of a moderate height with a round conical hill…A number of small Keys were seen from the mast.”

2) Maungapu, the “round conical hill”

3) View from hilltop lookout.  Note small islands or “motus” in distance

“They were all around with trees and the large island had a most fruitful appearance.  The shore was bordered with flat land, with innumerable Cocoa Nut and other trees.  I saw no smoke or any sign of inhabitants.”

4) “…all around with trees…” one of the motus

He writes that, “(T)hey called this island Whytootackee, ” and that upon his first meeting with the natives, “I was however agreeably surprised by a visit from four men in a single canoe… Two of the men had each a large Mother of Pearl shell hung on their breasts… On being told I was the Erree (chief), the principal person immediately came and joined noses with me and presented me his shell and tyed it around my neck… Notwithstanding they said there were no Hogs, Yarros, of tarrow… they called them by name, and I rather inclined to believe they were imposing upon me… The Chief of the canoe took possession of everything I had given… a knife, some nails, Beads and a looking glass.”

He goes on to say that two locals wished to overnight on his ship.  Apparently some of his crew took the idea of immediate friendship in a rather liberal sense.  “After the natives were gone I heard that some of my johns had engaged to bring women off in the morning, and it was therefore the reason perhaps that two of them designed to sleep on board.”

We have no reason to disbelieve his observations.  Any navigator who sailed in an open boat, as Bligh did after the mutiny, over several thousands of miles of the unexplored open Pacific to safety at the nearest European settlement, Batavia,  now the capital city of Jakarta in Indonesia, deserves respect and validation. Regardless of the circumstances that resulted in his being tossed from the Bounty with scant provisions by a crew that had become enchanted with the terrible beauty of Polynesia, he was a man who set forth to record all he saw.

But life on this tranquil outpost of Oceanic civilization received the first of its death blows at his hands, although Bligh could not have understood the tragedy about to unfold when he touched shore. The story of the coming of the missionaries in 1821 is well known and does not need to be repeated here.  The tales of forced conversion, the bringing of diseases and epidemics that the “Christians” blamed on the Polynesian gods, the later blackbirding of the population and the relentless efforts of the Europeans to stamp out the old ways — these stories are horrific and yet accepted today as a matter of course.

With their bodies’ physical beauty covered by the whites in heavy nineteenth-century civilized clothing, the essence of the pre-contact natives was smothered irrevocably.  Today no oral traditions remain of that first contact, and the missionaries did nearly a complete job of eliminating the old spirituality and the old ways.

The author Jared Diamond has noted that perhaps the biggest mistake humankind ever made was to quit the hunter/gatherer way of life and settle into towns and cities, where manipulative leaders were then able to force stifling societal rules and repression on hapless clans of formerly free people.

Whether or not this generalization holds much truth is still a matter of debate, but in Aitutaki the answer is painfully obvious.


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