Table of Contents / Explorers
Magellan Strait
Pacific Ocean
Spice Islands

First Encounters / Parting Shots

What follows the geography lesson? Social studies.

Much has been written about the “first encounters” of European explorers with the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Ocean and Pacific Northwest. Indeed, their first impressions—as one reads their compelling first-person narratives—are hard to forget. Lasting from mere minutes to several days, these meetings of vastly different cultures often went through similar phases or cycles—of innocence and shyness, curiosity, confusion, fear, and bloodshed. Once trading activity was initiated, conflict was potentially resolved. It is almost impossible to imagine the astonishment of eighteenth-century sailors coming upon, for example, a place like Tahiti or Easter Island for the first time, nor of the Melanesians/Polynesians who were suddenly seeing huge Western sailing ships appear like white clouds on their horizons. How would one react in that reality?

  • 1520: Magellan invited the first “Patagonian giant” aboard his flagship, offered him food and drink, showed him a large mirror that terrified him, then tried to appease him with a gift of trinkets (two bells, a comb, a smaller mirror, and a “chaplet of paternosters”)—the latter probably contained the Lord’s Prayer, in Latin, of course.
  • 1568: Though Mendaña’s party was received peacefully in the Solomon Islands, affairs turned ugly when the famished Spanish started to seize food. Armed conflict made their stay untenable.
  • 1579: On the west coast of North America (Oregon?), the natives were in awe of Drake and his men, and he found their resulting acts of submission and deference somewhat embarrassing. He distributed shirts and cloth, urging them to cover their nakedness, and emphasized his and the crew’s mortality (that is, their non-godlike nature) by displays of eating and drinking. The Indians were not convinced and were loathe for the Englishmen to leave.
  • 1616: Arriving at Cocos Island (today’s Tafahi in Tonga), Le Maire and Schouten’s men immediately began trading nails and strings of beads for coconuts aboard the ship. Trying to land their shallop, the Dutch were surrounded by canoes and swarming natives bearing clubs. Some sought to steal the men’s muskets, and an islander was shot to make the mass retreat.
  • 1642: In “Murderers Bay” in New Zealand, the Maori Indians did not trust Tasman’s great ship trespassing in their waters and quickly attacked and killed the seamen who were approaching them in a small rowboat.
  • 1699: Frustrated as he sailed along the arid and barren western coast of Australia, Dampier tried to capture an Aborigine to find the location of fresh water. A skirmish ensued: one of the natives was shot; one of Dampier’s men received a lance through his cheek.
  • 1722: On Roggeveen’s expedition, the Dutch officers offered a glass of wine as a gesture of friendship to the first Easter Islander to come aboard their ship. Never having seen such a glass or liquid, the man promptly poured the wine over his face. The next day, Roggeveen landed with a force of about 135 armed men, who were soon surrounded by natives who seemed eager to touch and grab their weapons and clothes and menaced them with stones; nervous and feeling threatened, the men fired and about a dozen islanders were killed. Soon peace was restored, and some trading—fowls and bananas for striped linen—took place.
  • 1767: See the image and description of Wallis’s entry into Matavai Bay, Tahiti, in the Explorers section.
  • 1770: While Cook, Banks, and several sailors were toasting the queen’s health atop a hill on an island in Queen Charlotte Sound, raising the Union Jack, and claiming the land in the king’s name, an elderly New Zealander stood witness nearby. He was given the empty wine bottle as a gift and was gratified.

Unfortunately, there are no written accounts of these “first encounters” from the other side, from the perspective of the peoples encountered by the Europeans. But it is not hard to imagine that they would be different and equally subjective. They might have preferred to have been left alone, though most quickly saw the value of European goods (such as nails) and scientific acumen (guns, for example). Imagine the reverse: the reaction of a medieval homemaker in her country “kitchen” if a foreign stranger suddenly showed up with a box of resealable plastic bags. What long-term consequences would one anticipate?

A first encounter (1616): “Defensive” action of Le Maire and Schouten’s men at Hoornse Eylanden (today’s Fortuna or Hoorn Islands), which was followed by a fortnight of much trading and mutual entertainment. From Schouten’s Diarium vel descriptio laboriosissimi, & molestissimi itineris . . . (Amsterdam, 1619). [Rare Books Division]

Travel and exploration long have been Siamese twins of the same human impulse. In the title poem of her collection Questions of Travel (1965), much of it about Brazil, American poet Elizabeth Bishop asks rhetorically, “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” That one line goes a long way in explaining much of the cartography of the Middle Ages, where belief and imagination combined to foster many significant, but wholly impractical, maps. Bishop answers her own question with poems of great beauty, acknowledging that “it would have been a pity / not to have seen . . . not to have heard . . . not to have pondered. . . .” (Dream, perhaps, of Atlantis but do take that trip to Hawaii.) American naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, sitting in his log cabin on the shore of Walden Pond in the 1840s, pondered the problem of travel/exploration in a different way: to him it was more a matter of perspective than location. Though he devoured travel narratives, including Cook’s and those of other Northwest Passage voyagers, he recognized that a good ramble in Concord could offer a wealth of opportunity for personal insight and growth—as he opined in one of his favorite aphorisms: “Live at home like a traveler.” Would that kind of thinking have kept Magellan or Cook home, or the nations that sponsored them from seeking advantage elsewhere? Once circled, the world became global.
            In the Age of Discovery, exploration was a matter of cloves (and other spices), gold (and other riches), Christianity (its spread), and power (the control of land and sea routes)—what they promised, of course, to those nations that understood their possibilities: a richer, more dominant world position. (Something to contemplate when dressing a ham with cloves or hammering nails into a board.) Ultimately, however, exploration, in the navigating vessel of someone like Captain Cook, fulfilled a different kind of craving.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

—John Delaney, Curator
Historic Maps Collection
Princeton University Library

*T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” in Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1943), section V, lines 26–29. By a strange coincidence, Eliot’s ancestor, Andrew Eliot, emigrated to America from East Coker in 1660, where William Dampier, age nine, was living. They probably knew each other. “East Coker” is the title of the second section of Four Quartets.

Table of Contents / Explorers
Magellan Strait
Pacific Ocean
Spice Islands