Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tahiti girls and British sailors

"This new sight attracted our men's fancy a good deal, and the natives observed it, and made the young girls play a great many droll wanton tricks, and the men made signs of friendship..."

So records George Robertson, Sailing Master of HMS Dolphin, 23rd June 1767 in his journal, the source of the book "The Discovery of Tahiti".

However both the girls of Tahiti and the sailors of the Dolphin would have to be patient, as after this encounter relations between the two parties become cold then outright hostile. After things had calmed down the peace enabled trade and trade brought trust.

And with trust came shore parties. One was led by the Gunner, responsible for trading for victuals. Another was the sick, who swore that they would recover quicker ashore and that "a young girl would make an excellent nurse" to which the Doctor seemed supportive.

The opening of relations was almost certainly kept from the ship's officers, but there are signs in Robertson's journal. The Gunner's trading was going slowly, suspiciously slowly and in one the journal of one Henry Ibbott he writes "the women were far from being coy" but the Sailing Master's thoughts were on overhauling the rigging.

On his first walk ashore he went exploring a mile up the river they were watering from together with a party of seamen. On the way back "three very fine young girls accosted us, and one of them made a signal and smiled at my face". The sailing master, able to calculate longitude from a partial eclipse, was unable to decode their gestures and asked his men to explain. In a scene that could come from from Carry On Tahiti they professed not to know.

Fortunately he was not in ignorance for long, as the Gunner explained in some detail what was occurring, including that the rate was currently a thirty-penny nail and that those seaman knew very well what the gestures meant.

Returning on board Robertson called a conference with the Captain, lieutenants and the Doctor, to discuss whether to detain the liberty men. The Doctor spoke on their behalf, saying that confining them on-board would ruin their health, and that none of their disorders were communicatable.

And so the sailors and the girls of Tahti became better acquainted, old suspicions were forgotten, and HMS Dolphin began to receive visitors. One party consisted of a family of a "handsome little woman in a canoe with her husband, father, mother and a young girl".

The handsome woman's husband was curious about everything, and they nick-named him "the carpenter" for his interest in chairs, tables and measuring their dimensions. He was alas far too curious, and followed his wife into a cabin into which she disappeared with a friend of the sailing master. She was not at all happy at this, so went on deck and cast loose their canoe and then waited until it had been blown off by the wind some far distance before calling to the carpenter.

The carpenter wasn't so keen on jumping into shark infested waters but the handsome woman harangued him so much he ended up throwing off his clothes and leaping in. The moment he was swimming for the canoe the handsome woman stepped with the friend into his cabin, "enjoying the reward of her art".

When the swimmer returned his mood was improved by the sight of a few large nails that she had gained in his absence!

But these nails, as posted earlier, were to lead to problems, as soon the ship was becoming stripped of them. On discovery the Sailing Master called back the shore party, and said there'd be no liberty parties until he found out who had taken the nails.

Naturally this led to much muttering and denials, but it was clear even to Robertson they were all guilty, and after much discussion 6 of them were put on trial. Their crime? They had offered not the hammock nail but rather the larger spike nails, and thereby spoiled the trade for all. Two cleared themselves "by proving that they got double value for their spikes" and three others also had excuses, leaving just the one to be made an example of.

The punishment was to run the gauntlet three times and unsurprisingly at first the sailors were very merciful until Robertson ordered stiffer punishment. Finally he made it clear that any more of such behaviour and there would be no liberty trips for any, and the sailors were quick to agree.

And so they went on their way "getting value for their nails" until it was time for the HMS Dolphin to head off into the wide Pacific. The parting appears to have been hard for both sides, in which "our seamen went into the woods singly and traded with the natives" for the last time.

Then it was time for the Sailing Master to "take charge of the ship and carry her out to sea", a job which he carried out with his customary professionalism.

But there many on-board who wished to stay, and those on-shore that wished to join them on their voyage. It does seems to have been truly a parting "in great sorrow".

No comments: