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Beachcomber narratives


H. E. Maude made a particular study of the literature left by beachcombers, a group who were a significant feature of European presence in the Pacific from the late 18th to the mid-19th century. Largely English and American seamen and absconding convicts from the penal settlements at Sydney, Norfolk Island and Van Diemen's Land, they generally became temporary residents on the islands as a result of shipwreck or desertion, though some were paid off and landed at their own request and others were kidnapped by islanders who wished to obtain a status symbol or access to the known skills of the white man. Their journals and memoirs span the period from 1783 to 1855 and document experiences ranging from 10 days to nearly 20 years. The best of the beachcomber narratives contain perceptive and detailed accounts of the customs, way of life and often the language of the people with whom they lived.
Maude listed 21 of these beachcomber and castaway narratives in the Appendix to chapter four of his Of Islands and Men. Maude’s annotated list is reproduced below, along with call numbers for the 20 items held in the Pacific and Rare Books Collections, some in original editions and others as modern reprints. Additional copies and/or editions may also be held in other locations of the Library.

THE BEACHCOMBER BOOKS

(from H.E. Maude, Of Islands and Men (Melbourne: OUP, 1968), Appendix: p. 170-177.
Pacific Collection 996 M447

The following are annotated citations to the twenty-one works mentioned as having been written by, or from material obtained from, Pacific beachcombers and castaways:

(1) BAYS, PETER. A narrative of the wreck of the ‘Minerva’ whaler of Port Jackson, New South Wales, on Nicholson's Shoal, 24° S. 179° W .... Cambridge,
B. Bridges, 1831.
Rare Book Collection 910.4 B36
After their shipwreck in September 1829, Bays and the rest of the Minerva's crew stayed for ten days on Vatoa Island, in the Lau Group, where the natives treated them with kindness; with Twyning (q.v.) he gives the earliest description of the Lau Islanders and such customs as he observed. Leaving eight behind, Bays and six others then left by boat for Tongatapu, of which there is an informative account.

(2) BROWNING, GEORGE. Journal of a trip to the South Sea Islands in the schooner ‘Caledonia’ belonging to Sydney N.S. Wales. MS, n.d. Wellington, Alexander Turnbull Library, Micro. MS 34.
Not held
The Caledonia was captured by eleven convicts at Moreton Bay at the end of December 1831, and her crew put into a boat. Captain Browning was there-upon compelled to navigate her to Rotuma, two of the convicts, John Evans and John Imgan, acting as first and second mates, though neither could navigate.
Three of the eleven were shot and thrown overboard shortly afterwards and a fourth marooned on New Caledonia, where they had called for water. Reaching Rotuma in time to avoid being murdered himself by the suspicious convicts, the captain was ordered to make for Wallis, but deliberately missing the island he set the course for Samoa, where the remaining six (one had stopped on Rotuma) went ashore.(57)

(3) CAMPBELL, ARCHIBALD. A voyaqe round the world, (from 1806 to 1812 ... with an account of the present state of the Sandwich Islands, and a vocabulary of their language. Edinburgh, Archibald Constable and Company, 1816.
Pacific Collection 910.4 C18v 1967 (1967 reprint) 1816 edition held in Way/Larkin Collection Section: Voyages of discovery and survey
After being wrecked in the Aleutian Islands, where his frost-bitten feet had to be amputated, Campbell was brought to the Hawaiian Islands in January 1809. At Honolulu he was taken into Kamehameha's household and treated with great kindness; and in November the king gave him a 6o-acre grant of land at what is now called Pearl Harbour, with fifteen retainers. Here he lived, in the house of a neighbour, the escaped convict William Stevenson (the king's distiller), until he left the islands in March 1810.
Campbell gives an excellent account of the Hawaiians, their customs and way of life, in the early years of European contact and is the best source of information on the local community of beachcombers.

(4) [CARY, WILLIAM]. Wrecked on the Feejees. Experience of a Nantucket man a century ago, who was sole survivor of whaleship ‘Oeno’ and lived for nine years among cannibals of South Sea Islands. Nantucket, Mass., The Inquirer and Mirror Press, 1928.
Pacific Collection 919.61 C333
Cary was wrecked off Vatoa Island on the Oeno in April 1825, the rest of the crew being massacred by natives from Ono-i-lau a few days later. After about a month on the island he left for Lakemba with a tribute party and joined the chief's household, later going with him to Mbau, where he met David Whippy.
Cary stayed at Mbau and Rewa, or with Whippy at Levuka, until October 1827, when he began work as an agent and interpreter for vessels collecting sandalwood, bêche-de-mer and tortoise-shell. He finally left Fiji in June 1832, having (apart from two brief visits to Manila) spent seven years in the Group.
Though not so useful to the historian or anthropologist as Twyning’s book (q.v.), Cary gives valuable information on early trading procedures and a good picture of the everyday life of the beachcomber hanger-on in the retinue of a Fijian chief. His narrative is now being edited for re-publication.

(5) DIAPEA, WILLIAM, pseud. [William Diaper]. Cannibal Jack: the true autobiography of a white man in the South Seas. London, Faber & Gwyer Limited, 1928. (For a note on William Diaper's earlier work see under Jackson, John.)
Pacific Collection 919.6 D53
This book continues his autobiography from 1843 to the end of 1847, covering his life as a beachcomber on Vanua Levu, where he lived with his four wives at Natewa; on Futuna Island; in the Lau Group and Tonga; with a voyage to Manila to sell tortoise-shell. The latter part deals with his three attempts to sail from Fiji to Tonga by canoe and events in Ha’apai and Vava’u.
Like Jackson's first work, Cannibal Jack is written from the standpoint of a natural mediator with a tolerant understanding of the native viewpoint, whether that of the cannibals of eastern Vanua Levu, the christianized and acculturated Tongans, or the Lau Islanders half-way between.

(6) HOLDEN, HORACE. A narrative of the shipwreck, captivity and sufferings of Horace Holden and Benj. H. Nute; who were cast away in the American ship ‘Mentor’, on the Pelew Islands, in the year 1832; and for two years afterwards were subjected to unheard-of sufferings among the barbarous inhabitants of Lord North's Island. By Horace Holden. Boston, Russell, Shattuck, and Co., 1836.
Pacific Collection 919.6 H726n
Holden, with the rest of the Mentor’s crew, was wrecked on the Palaus in May 1832. They were well treated and assisted to build a canoe in which to leave the Group. After six months eight of them set out in the canoe, which subsequently foundered, and a boat, in which they succeeded in reaching Tobi Island, where Holden and his companion remained until rescued by the barque Britannia in November 1834.
At the best of times Tobi is a minute and rather barren coral island, and until recently the inhabitants were ‘barely kept from actual death by famine, but on the very verge of starvation’. Furthermore, while Holden was there a storm destroyed most of their food supplies and many died from hunger and disease, including four of the Mentor's crew (two having escaped in a passing ship).
This account of two years spent among probably the most isolated and primitive people in Polynesia or Micronesia, before they had been affected by European contact and while living under disaster conditions, is harrowing but unique in Pacific literature.

(7) IM THURN, SIR EVERARD, and WHARTON, LEONARD C. (eds.). The Journal of William Lockerby, sandalwood trader in the Fijian Islands during the years 1808-1809 .... London, Hakluyt Society, 1925.
Pacific Collection 910.806 H15.2 52
Lockerby arrived in Fiji as a sandalwood collector for an American vessel and was intentionally, or by mischance, marooned at Mbua in July 1808. With his crew of six he thereupon went to live with the local chief, who treated them hospitably and accorded Lockerby chiefly rank. Lockerby's narrative covers a critical period when Mbua was preparing for an attack from rival states, including Mbau, jealous of their sandalwood monopoly. He had good qualifications as an observer from his knowledge of the Fijians and fluency in their language. Though his experience as a castaway extends for only nine weeks of his year in Fiji, it is probably the most interesting period.

(8) JACKSON, JOHN, pseud. [William Diaper]. ‘Jackson's Narrative’, in J.H.
Erskine, Journal of a cruise among the islands of the Western Pacific, including the Feejees and others inhabited by the Polynesian Negro races, in Her Majesty's ship ‘Havannah’. London, John Murray, 1853.
Pacific Collection 919.6 E7
John Jackson (alias Cannibal Jack and Silver Eyes), whose real name was William Diaper, was on a whaling voyage when kidnapped in 1840 by the Samoans of Manu’a, who wanted a resident white man. After staying in Samoa for several months, he left for Fiji, where he resided from 1840 to 1847. He then lived in Tonga, New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, and again in Samoa and Fiji, before settling on Mare, in the Loyalty Islands, where he died in 1891.
Jackson was a born writer and claimed to have completed his autobiography ‘in nineteen common copybooks’. The narrative reproduced by Erskine covers the first period of his life as a beachcomber in Samoa and Fiji from 1840-42, when he visited Manu’a, Tutuila, Taveuni, Mathuata, Natewa, Mbau, Viwa, Rewa, Lomaiviti and Kandavu.
In Fiji, after staying with Tui Thakau, Jackson was adopted by a Mathuata chief and accompanied him through parts of Vanua Levu never before visited by a European. He lived throughout with the Fijians as one of them and thus, in reading what is essentially a record of personal adventures, one gains a vivid inside impression of life in Fiji at a time when the European (outside a few centres) was still a curiosity, and on sufferance.
For the continuation of Jackson’s narrative see under Diapea, William.

(9) KEATE, GEORGE. An account of the Pelew Islands, situated in the western part of the Pacific Ocean; composed from the journals and communications of Captain Henry Wilson, and some of his officers, who, in August, 1783, were there ship-wrecked, in the ‘Antelope’, a packet belonging to the Honourable East India Company, by George Keate, Esq., F.R.S. and S.A. London, printed for Captain Wilson, 1788. 2nd ed., 1788; 3rd ed., 1789; 4th ed., 1789; 5th ed., 1803.
Pacific Collection 919.66 K25
A detailed account of events in the Palau islands from 10 August 1783, when the Antelope was wrecked there, to 12 November, when the crew left for China on the locally-built Oroolong, with a sympathetic if somewhat idealized account of the islanders, their system of government, customs, religion and character. As stated in the supplement, Keate’s ‘goodness of heart may be most clearly seen on every page’, which at times detracts from its objectivity.(58)

(10) LAMONT, E. H. Wild life among the Pacific Islanders. London, Hurst and Blackett, 1867.
Pacific Collection 919.6 L23
Lamont, a Californian business man prospecting the South Seas market, was wrecked on Tongareva, one of the northern Cook Group, in January 1853, and with his companions remained on the island for many months. Owing to the reputed ferocity of the inhabitants, Tongareva was at the time still avoided by Europeans, and Lamont was thus able to record a detailed description of a Polynesian atoll culture as it functioned in pre-contact times.
Lamont was adopted into the Tongarevan community, lived as an islander and married three times while on the island. Being observant and very interested in all that was going on, particularly in local politics, he has written what the anthropologist Sir Peter Buck has described as ‘the best first-hand account of an atoll community’.(59)

(11) MARTIN, JOHN. An account of the natives of the Tonga Islands, in the South Pacific Ocean. With an original grammar and vocabulary of their language. Comp. and arranged from the extensive communications of Mr. William Mariner, several years resident in those islands. By John Martin .... 2 vols. London, printed for the author, 1817. 2nd ed., 1818.
Pacific Collection 572.99612 M338 2nd ed.
Mariner was a well-educated, 15-year-old Englishman acting as captain’s clerk on the privateer Port-au-Prince when she was captured by the Tongans under the Vava’u chief Finau on 1 December 1806, for the sake of her armament. Mariner was taken into Finau’s household and became a close friend both of the chief himself and his son Moegagogo, who succeeded his father in 1809.
Intelligent and observant, treated with indulgence and happy in his personal relations, Mariner assimilated the Tongan culture as naturally as he would have his own at the same impressionable age. It may be questioned, in fact, whether any other European in the Pacific Islands has achieved an equivalent degree of identification.
After four years in Tonga, Mariner returned to England where he fortunately met his gifted literary ghost, John Martin, a London doctor. With Mariner producing the facts and Dr Martin the editorial expertise, a two volume classic eventuated which includes a history of the islands, a narrative of the political and other events which occurred during Mariner’s stay, an epitome of Tongan society, including the social structure, material culture, economy and customary observances, and a grammar and vocabulary.

(12) MELVILLE, HERMAN. Omoo: a narrative of adventures in the South Seas. New York, Harper and Brothers, 1847, 26 American and 19 British editions to 1938.
Pacific Collection 813 M53o.O 1924 reprint
Herman Melville deserted from the Sydney whaler Lucy Ann at Papeete on 23 September 1842, and stayed on Tahiti and Moorea for three and a half mouths. Omoo, the story of Melville's life ashore, is the most autobiographical of all his works and, despite all its embellishments and borrowings from William Ellis and other authorities, it remains substantially a record of the personal experiences of a beachcomber at a time when they had ceased to be regarded as anything but vagrants and nuisances.

(13) MELVILLE, HERMAN. Typee: a peep at Polynesian life. New York, Wiley and Putnam, 1846. 34 American and 25 British editions to 1938
Pacific Collection 813 M53t 1900 (London : Collins Clear-Type Press, [1846])
Though often described as fiction the final judgement of C. R. Anderson, after an exhaustive examination of contemporary authorities and later anthropologists, is that ‘in general this volume presents a faithful delineation of island life and scenery in precivilization Nukuhiva, with the exception of numerous embellishments and some minor errors’.(60) It is, however, only partly autobiographical since, while Melville did live on Nukuhiva in the Marquesas from the beginning of July to the middle of August 1842, most of his information on the island and people was gained from earlier travel books, and in particular those of Langsdorff, Porter and Stewart. Suggs, the most recent authority on the Marquesans, sums up Typee as ‘still valuable reading for anthropologists working in Polynesia’.(61)
The New York edition is actually the second, as the book was first published in London by John Murray, also in 1846, as Melville's Marquesas; it was accepted as genuine ethnographical travel literature at the time.

(14) MORRISON, JAMES. The Journal of James Morrison, Boatswain’s Mate of the ‘Bounty’, describing the mutiny and subsequent misfortunes of the mutineers, together with an account of the island of Tahiti. London, The Golden Cockerel Press, 1935.
Pacific Collection 996.1 M879
After the mutiny on the Bounty, Morrison accompanied the mutineers first to Tubuai, in the Austral Group, and later to Tahiti, where he remained after Fletcher Christian’s departure for Pitcairn. Nearly two years were spent on the two islands and the daily events ashore are described with the precision of a born observer and recorder possessing a genuine interest in the island peoples.
Owen Rutter speaks of ‘the meticulous detail, the niceness of observation and the accuracy of the dates’ in the journal, and one feels that with a little training Morrison would have made a good anthropologist.(62) In addition to the journal proper, he gives extensive notes on Tahitian society and customs.

(15) O'CONNELL, JAMES F. A residence of eleven years in New Holland and the Caroline Islands: being the adventures of James F. O'Connell. Edited from his verbal narration. Boston, B.B. Mussey, 1830.
Pacific Collection 994 O18 (1972 reprint)
It is difficult to estimate how long O’Connell was actually on Ponape, since he is (I suspect deliberately) misleading on the events which led to his stay on the island. It seems almost certain, however, that he was on the whaler John Bull, which left Sydney in May 1830, and was subsequently wrecked in the vicinity of the Caroline Islands. He was taken off by the brig Spy in November 1833, so the probability is that his stay ashore was approximately three years.
O'Connell gives a good description of the people of Ponape: their character, social and political organization, rites de passage, religious beliefs, recreations, medical skill, warfare and material culture. This information, together with his narrative of life ashore as the son-in-law of a prominent chief, would seem to be in the main reliable. The ethnologist Hale questioned him extensively in 1837, and was able to compare his statements with information obtained from two other castaways, Punchard and Dr Smith. As a result Hale recorded that ‘with the usages and institutions of the islanders he appeared perfectly familiar, and was able to render a clear and satisfactory account, the general correctness of which has been fully confirmed’.(63)

(16) PATTERSON, SAMUEL. Narrative of the adventures and sufferings of SamueI Patterson, experienced in the Pacific Ocean, and many other parts of the world, with an account of the Feegee, and Sandwich Islands. Palmer, from the Press in Palmer, 1817. 2nd ed., enlarged: Providence, printed at the Journal Office, 1825.
Pacific Collection 910.45 P318n (1967 facsimile)
Patterson’s narrative covers periods spent in Hawaii from 1803 to 1807, interrupted by two trips to the north-west coast of America, and in Fiji during 1808. In Hawaii, after six weeks on the main island he left for Oahu to visit Kamehameha, who gave him land, with tenants to work it. Settling as a landed proprietor, he married and had two children, before finally leaving for China on the Maryland.
In June 1808, Patterson was wrecked off Nairai island, and lived with the Fijians there, and on Mbatiki and Vanua Levu, until rescued by the brig Favorite of Port Jackson four months later. Unlike Lockerby, who was in Fiji at the same time, he was treated as a commoner, which adds to the value of his observations.
There are minor differences in the text of the two editions, the narrative of Patterson’s stay in Fiji reproduced by Im Thurn and Wharton being taken from the second.(64)

(17) ROBARTS, EDWARD. Journal of Edward Robarts, who sailed from England in 1797 on a whaling expedition to the South Pacific: with a vocabulary of the Marquesan language. MS, 1824. Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates MS 17/1/18.
Pacific Collection 919.6 D394 (1974 edition)
Robarts deserted from the whaler Euphrates in the Marquesas Islands in December 1797 and remained there until February 1806. For a period of over seven years, therefore, he was living as a solitary beachcomber among people regarded as the most ferocious savages in the South Seas.
His journal, written in Calcutta about the year 1810, has been discovered in the Advocates Collection of the National Library of Scotland, and is destined to become one of our main sources of information on early Marquesan society. It is now being edited for publication by Father Gregory Dening, S.J., of Harvard University.

(18) SHAW, LEONARD. ‘A brief sketch of the sufferings of Leonard Shaw on Massacre Island’, in Benjamin Morrell, Jr, A narrative of four voyages, to the South Sea, North and South Pacific Ocean, Chinese Sea, Ethiopic and South Atlantic Ocean, Indian and Antarctic Ocean. From the year 1822 to 1831 .... New
York, J. & J. Harper, 1832.
Pacific Collection 910.4 M873n
Shaw was captured by the natives of Kilinailau Island, in the Northern Solomons, and remained with them for three and a half months while Captain Morrell sailed to Manila for replacements for thirteen of his crew killed. He was treated as a captive and after undergoing great privations was about to be eaten when rescued.
Morrell states that Shaw’s narrative, as reproduced in his book (presumably in abridged form), was taken from a pamphlet published by the sailor himself. Attempts to trace the publication have so far, however, proved unsuccessful; it does not appear to be in the British Museum or Library of Congress.

(19) THOMPSON, HAROLD W. (ed.). The last of the ‘Logan’. The true adventures of Robert Coffin mariner in the years 1854 to 1859 wherein are set forth his pursuit of the whale, his shipwreck on Rapid Reef, his life among the cannibals of Fiji, and his search for gold in Australia, as told by himself and now first published.
Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1941.
Pacific Collection 910.4 C6754l
Robert Coffin was a castaway from the New Bedford whaler Logan, wrecked on the Conway Reef, Fiji, in January 1855. The twenty-nine survivors landed at Ngau, whence they were taken to Levuka on Thakombau's schooner, where he stayed with the ex-beachcomber David Whippy and later visited the Lau Group, Kandavu and other islands.
Coffin, who spent three and a half months in Fiji, gives a not very perceptive account mainly of Levuka at a time when the beachcomber was being supplanted by the trader. He lived for choice with Europeans and part-Europeans, and gives a good description of the Whippy ménage.

(20) TWYNING, JOHN P. Shipwreck and adventures of John P. Twyning among the South Sea Islanders: giving an account of their feasts, massacres, etc., etc. ... 2nd
ed., enlarged. London, printed for the benefit of the author, [1850].
Pacific Collection 919.61 T975s
Twyning was boat-steerer on the Sydney whaler Minerva, wrecked on a south-east of the Tonga Group. With the rest of the crew he landed on Vatoa, in the Lau Islands, on 24 September 1829, but unlike Bays (q.v.), he stayed on the island for four months before being taken to Lakemba, where he became one of the Tui Nayau's retainers. Adopted by a Tongan chief who lived at Lakemba he remained based there until the end of 1834, when he left for Wallis Island in a schooner built by his friend and partner John Jones and himself.
For most of the following four years Twyning was cruising between Wallis, Futuna, Tonga and Fiji with relatively brief stops ashore. From 1839 to January 1845 he was on Futuna (where he married), apart from a seven months visit to Wallis. He then revisited Lakemba, Vava’u and Futuna, arriving in Auckland during June 1848. Twyning was therefore nearly twenty years in Fiji, Wallis, Futuna and Tonga, and as he was interested and observant his account of native customs and techniques, and his graphic descriptions of local events in the 1830s and 1840s, are probably unequalled by any other contemporary writer. The narrative is being edited for re-publication.

(21) [VASON, GEORGE]. An authentic narrative of four years’ residence at Tongataboo, one of the Friendly Islands, in the South-Sea, by ________ who went there in the ‘Duff’, under Captain Wilson, in 1796. With an appendix, by an eminent writer. London, printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme; L. B. Seely; and Hatchard, 1810. 2nd ed., 1815; new revised and enlarged ed., edited by the Rev. James Orange, 1840.
Pacific Collection 919.6 V334
Vason was one of the missionaries landed on Tongatapu from the Duff in April 1797. He soon developed a greater interest in the affairs of the Tongan community than in his missionary vocation, dressed and lived as a native, and married a relative of the chief with whom he stayed.
Purchasing a 15-acre estate, Vason became a successful and prosperous landed proprietor, with an increasing retinue of tenant farmers, when the civil wars commenced in 1799 (in which three of the missionaries were killed), forcing him to flee to Ha’apai and later to leave the country. He remarried in England and became Governor of the Nottingham Town Gaol.
Vason’s book is of considerable value as a supplement to Mariner's more detailed work. His obvious relish for the Tongan way of life proved his down-fall as a missionary, but it enabled him to give a sympathetic, yet remarkably objective, account of day to day events in Tonga both in peacetime and after the outbreak of hostilities.


(57) A virtually identical account, said to have been copied from the Auckland Weekly News [c. 1887], is reproduced in [Brown], n.d. According to Lack there is another account, apparently differing in detail, in the Mitchell Library, Sydney -Lack 1959-1960:381-2.
(58) Hockin 1803: [preface: unpaged].
(59) Buck 1945:29.
(60) Anderson 1939:190.
(61) Suggs 1963:53.
(62) Morrison 1935:6.
(63) Hale 1846:81.
(64) Im Thurn and Wharton 1925 :89-115.

 

 

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