Saturday, October 09, 2010

Book Review: The Discovery of Tahiti

Had yet another Saturday working (alas) but there's just time for a review of The Discovery of Tahiti, apart from some of the more "interesting" stories which I'll leave for another day.

The books is the journal of the sailing master of HMS Dolphin, George Robertson, on that boats second circumnavigation. Both trips were hunting for the mythical Terra Incognita, the mysterious land that was thought to exist deep in the south Pacific.

Instead this and the following missions, including Captain Cook's, were to find a string of islands and of course later Australia and New Zealand.

But what wonderful islands they were, the jewel of which was arguably Tahiti, which came to symbolise an attainable paradise, lands of beauty and peace, where the water is blue and warm, the soil rich and fruitful, and the nights full of stars and love.

The journal covers life on the Dolphin from 19th June to 27th July 1767, from initial sighting to departure. George Robertson seems to be one of the foundations that kept the Dolphin working, always solidly trying to do what is right. He was hindered by the captain and other officers of the ship being often off sick, incapable of reliably doing their job, and a first lieutenant who he nick-named "old growl" with apparent accuracy.

The journal is very much the viewpoint of one responsible for the ship, with many comments on wind direction and strength, the hunt for a good anchorage and resupplies. I did see one reviewer who was unhappy with the limits of that perspective, but for me that actually added to it. It gave the recollection colour, of life on board a ship of the King's navy back in the 18th Century, out discovering the world.

But it does restrict it to a one sided viewpoint of the encounter between two peoples, a relationship that starts with curiosity, moves on to open warfare, then a cautious truce, on to courting, coupling and finally a sad departure.

It is remarkable how the mood changed from early days in which the British ship fired its canons in self defence, killing several locals, to the last few days where the woman Robertson calls their Queen is openly tearful to discover they are departing.

As is well known, the sailors were to find the local girls very welcoming, in particular with exchange of much sought after iron nails. Indeed after they had helped themselves to please these girls (and it must be admitted themselves), the carpenter was forced to reports that "every cleat in the ship was drawn and all the nails carried off"

After only a few weeks, re-supplied and re-watered but much reduced in nails the Dolphin sailed off.  George Robertson was later promoted to Lieutenant and served his country in those troublesome American colonies.

He must have had many memories, but few can have compared to those days walking upon Tahiti, and in his journal those experiences come through clearly, bringing the wonder and warmth of the southern seas with it.


Tillerman said...

Is that the origin of the expression, "I nailed her?

JP said...

No idea!

O Docker said...

This may explain the name of the fastener which eventually replaced the nail.

Benny said...

It would appear that the tradition is much older than the discovery of Tahiti. See, for example, the use of the phrase "a nail for a screw" in Leviticus 24:29-22.