Tahiti, 1767: Sex for Iron

From Sailors and Traders: A Maritime History of the Pacific Peoples, by Alastair Couper (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2009), pp. 64-65, 69:

The master of HMS Dolphin under Captain Wallis in June 1767 was George Robertson. He was typical in many ways of the normal run of career masters [equivalent to Master Chief Petty Officers] in the Royal Navy. Robertson was a good seaman who gave discreet guidance but showed suitable deference to the young gentlemen officers. He was also highly patriotic, with a firm belief in the rights of the British nation to take possession and rule over these “poor ignorant creatures,” as he described the Tahitians. In one respect he was less typical than the average master in that he kept a journal of his voyages. This is an important document recording the first relationships between sailors and Tahitians.

Robertson’s journal describes alternating scenes of violence and friendship. At one stage a large canoe approached, and at a signal its occupants launched a storming of stone missiles. The Dolphin replied with a volley of grapeshot from its great guns. Noting that this “carried all before it and drove [the canoe] in two,” Robertson added, “I believe few that were on her escaped with life.” The carpenters were also sent ashore and “cut in the middle” some eighty canoes. The attitude of the master was clearly one of exasperation that these “poor creatures” would have the temerity to challenge sailors of the Royal Navy “and put us under the disagreeable necessity of killing a few of them.” He was pleased that the Tahitians eventually recognized the error of their ways and that sailors and natives soon “walked arm in arm.”

The conversion to close friendships between the sailors and local people appears to have come about when the older men of the island discerned the obsession of the Dolphin sailors for women. The Tahitians were puzzled that the Dolphin had no females on board and may have assumed they came from islands with a dire shortage of women. In any event the Tahitians concluded that what they themselves regarded as normal relationships within society could be a means of obtaining iron from the Dolphin. For the sailors the availability of sex for payment was simply regarded as playing at, as Robertson puts it, “the old trade.” They did so with such enthusiasm that it threatened the integrity of the ship as iron and nails were drawn from it. When the Dolphin left, Robertson described the sorrow and weeping of the people….

The acts of debauching female morals in Tahiti by commerce in iron was echoed by the [HMS Bounty mutineer] bosun’s mate James Morrison when he reminded the more high-minded about corresponding effects of gold in his own country, where, he observed, “as fine a woman as any in Europe are said to prefer it to virtue.”

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Filed under Britain, economics, military, Pacific, Polynesia, travel

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