Tahiti, 1802: Hogs for Firearms

From Sailors and Traders: A Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples, by Alastair Couper (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2009), pp. 78-79, 81:

When Captain Wallis arrived at Matavai Bay in 1767, he assumed that the formidable woman Purea was queen. When Cook came in 1769, he also had the European predilection toward identifying a single ruler. He met with the Otou (Tu), who ascended to the chieftainship of the northwest of the island of Tahiti, in which lies Matavai Bay. According to H. E. Maude, “Cook seems to have been the originator of the myth of Tu’s kingship.” Tu was accorded favors, gifts, and guns by all subsequent arrivals and from 1790 was acknowledged as King Pomare I.

Pomare was able to extend his territories. He recruited European sailors as mercenaries, including several Bounty mutineers during 1789–1791, and in 1792 the crew of the whaler Matilda wrecked in the Tuamotus, and the crew of the Norfolk grounded at Matavai Bay in 1802. In addition numerous ship deserters and many convicts who escaped from Botany Bay were available. The relative political stability of Tahiti under Pomare I, the apparent abundance of foodstuffs, and the general friendliness of the people came to the attention of Governor King of New South Wales. He studied Cook’s account of the islands and received reports from missionaries who arrived in Tahiti during 1797, as well as from whalers calling at Sydney. The penal colony required regular provisions, and following a trial shipment, Governor King dispatched HMS Porpoise in 1801 to obtain salt pork under a formal contract with Pomare I. The king imposed taboos on the consumption of pork by the common people and tried to concentrate all trade through royal channels.

In a short time Pomare I emerged as an astute business entrepreneur who recognized the forces of supply and demand in establishing exchange values. His son Otoo (Tu), under the complicated system of inheritance in Tahiti, ascended to power before Pomare died in 1803. Pomare II was less efficient, but more ruthlessly dedicated to the nascent new economic order based on foreign trade. The journal of Captain John Turnbull of the brig Margaret provides accounts of the commercial milieu of the time. The journal gives an understanding of the complexities of the trade and the hazards involved. It thereby shows the difficulties that the chiefly entrepreneurs faced when they entered the established shipping business, despite their strengths from the control of island resources and labor.

The voyage of the Margaret over the year 1802–1803 was, in brief, from Port Jackson to King Island in the Bass Strait to land a gang of sealers. From these the ship went to Norfolk Island for victuals that were unobtainable at Port Jackson. The seafarers arrived at Matavai Bay, Tahiti, on 23 December 1802. At this anchorage Turnbull spoke with Lieutenant William Scott of HMS Porpoise, who was on his second voyage for salt pork. He learned then of the internecine war raging in the group. On his first voyage in 1801, Scott had carried many iron tools and clothing, plus a few “old arms.” In 1802 there were major changes in the types of goods carried for trade; he delivered a formidable array of muskets, pistols, ammunition, bayonets, and even military jackets, reflecting something of the support that Governor King was giving to Pomare. When Turnbull started to trade his general cargo, which included domestic items and axes, he was ridiculed. It was made clear to him that hogs could be obtained only in exchange for armaments….

Wars led by chiefs against the despotism of the Pomares increased in Tahiti. In 1808 Pomare was forced to evacuate Matavai Bay with his forces and take refuge on Moorea Island. The chiefs who now occupied Matavai Bay rashly raided the ship Venus from Port Jackson to obtain cannons. Unlike Pomare, they failed to appreciate that, in order to continue trading with the New South Wales colony, they had to guarantee the safety of vessels. Pomare reiterated such a guarantee from his base in Moorea. This appeared in the Sydney Gazette of 5 May 1810, after the ship Mercury arrived from Moorea. Pomare also made the judicious decision to embrace Christianity in 1812 and obtain the support of the missions. The latter were not only engaged in religious conversions but also traded armaments for food at this time. Captain Thomas Hanson of the mission ship Active even exchanged two cannons for 126 hogs.

This account leaves me thinking how little has changed for strong men ruling weak states between 1800 and 2000. Nowadays they trade oil and other natural resources for weapons of all kinds.

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Filed under Britain, economics, Europe, military, nationalism, Pacific, Polynesia, religion, war

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