First contact: Wallis, an European in Tahiti

Actual replica of an English Naval ship from the end of the 18th century. © P. BacchetCurrent view of the district of Hitiaa on Tahiti’s east coast. © P. BacchetPortrait of Samuel Wallis © Médiathèque historique de Polynésie (mhp)Matavai Bay on Tahiti’s north coast © P. BacchetWatercolor painted during the Dolphin’s voyage showing the encounter between English and Tahitians in Matavai Bay Wallis © Médiathèque historique de Polynésie (MHP)Engraving, A Representation of the surrender of the island of Otaheite to Capt. Wallis by the supposed Queen Oberea (1773). Wallis © Médiathèque historique de Polynésie (MHP)This is a work of propaganda since nothing was surrendered (Dixon Library, State Library of New South Wales) Wallis © Médiathèque historique de Polynésie (MHP)© P. Bacchet© P. Bacchet18th Century engraving showing dances that Queen Oberea bestowed upon Wallis. Wallis © Médiathèque historique de Polynésie (MHP)© P. BacchetWallis © Médiathèque historique de Polynésie (MHP)
Rate this post

The first contact between Europeans and Tahitians occurred on June 18, 1767—exactly two hundred and fifty years ago—with the arrival of Samuel Wallis on board the Dolphin. The English explorer stayed over a month until July 27, 1767. Here, you will learn about this key period in our history that has been somewhat forgotten.

If you ask the average person, who discovered Tahiti, eight out of ten people would immediately say the Englishman, Captain James Cook. It is true that the first European to discovery Tahiti was an Englishman, but it was not Cook, his name was Samuel Wallis, (a 38 year old Englishman born in Cornwall.) Wallis was given secret orders “to discover and obtain all possible knowledge in the area of countries or islands assumed to be located in the Southern Hemisphere.”

The eighteenth century witnessed a growing European interest in possibilities for trade and the hope of discovering the rumored TERRA AUSTRALIS INCOGNITA (Unknown Southern Land, not be confused with Australia). The existence of which believed would counterbalance the great land masses of the Northern Hemisphere and was filled with all types of valuable treasures…

The H.M.S Dolphin was a 24 gun frigate of the British Royal Navy, 130 feet long with it’s highest point measuring thirty four feet. In August of 1766 Samuel Wallis, the commanding officer of The H.M.S. Dolphin, sailed from Plymouth England with its companion ship, HMS Swallow under the command of Philip Carteret and a store ship, the Prince Frederick. Sometime during the journey through the Straits of Magellan, The Dolphin lost contact with the Swallow, short of supplies they continued on without them.

On June 18, 1767, the crew of The Dolphin spotted a mountain, covered with clouds. They believed their mission was accomplished, they had just discovered the TERRA AUSTRALIS INCOGNITA. In fact, purely by accident they discovered the island of Tahiti. Upon arriving in Tahiti, most of the crew looked pale and thin. Many had an advanced state of scurvy, while others showed signs that it would soon manifest itself. However, within a fortnight there were no signs of scurvy on the boat. The recovery came from being on shore, eating plenty of vegetables being obliged to wash their clothing and bathing themselves in the sea water.

After prospecting several possibilities to drop anchor, Wallis and his men came upon Matavai Bay. On June 23rd 1767 the Dolphin entered Matavai Bay (which Wallis named Port Royal Harbour.) Wallis claimed and named Tahiti, King George III’s Island, after the then King of England. Wallis and his men stayed in Tahiti for five weeks. During the entire five weeks, Wallis was rather ill and mostly remained in his cabin, only leaving the ship twice, most probably carried by some of his men. Lieutenant Tobias Furneaux of The Dolphin was the first European to set foot on Tahiti, planting the British flag and taking possession in the name of His Majesty.

The British showed the Tahitians iron nails, but only gave some to the first Tahitian man who climbed aboard. The Tahitians could not understand the British greediness. Tahitians only had to ask for something, rarely was one refused. On the other hand, the Tahitians never said thank you, nor did they have a word to express that. To frighten the Tahitians back into their canoes, a nine-pound shot was fired over the heads of those sitting in their canoes. The others aboard the Dolphin saw this and dove into the water.

After two weeks, Wallis was still very ill and was most likely carried to the Queen Oberea’s house. To reconcile the two camps, the Queen prepared a feast for Wallis. She gave him gifts and had some of the local beauties do the popular erotic dance of the day, THE TIMODEE.

Bougainville and Cook came after…

On July 27th 1767 sometime around ten o’clock, the Dolphin left Tahiti. The Tahitians and particularly the Queen, gave one last farewell, with such tenderness of affection and sorrow that as Wallis stated in his published account of the voyage, “it filled both his heart and his eyes.” Leaving the Society Islands, Wallis sailed through the main island groups of the western Pacific before reaching Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands in August 1767. On August 16, 1767, Samuel Wallis discovered another island which he named Uvea Wallis, known today as Wallis & Futuna, it is a French Overseas Territory. Located in the center of Polynesia and Melanesia The people of Wallis are called Wallisians and speak Wallisian and French.

The Dolphin then sailed to Batavia (today Jakarta), where many of the ship’s crew died from dysentery. On May 18, 1768, Wallis arrived back in England via the Cape of Good Hope just in time to pass on his important navigational charts, information and even some volunteer seaman to the Admiralty. At that very time, Captain James Cook was preparing to leave on the first of his three Voyage’s of Enlightenment to Tahiti and to observe the 1769 transit of Venus.

In 1780, Wallis was appointed Commissioner of the Admiralty. His remaining naval service was on larger ships, and the last years of his life (1782-1795) were spent as an Extra Commissioner of the Navy. Samuel Wallis died, in London in January 1795.

Ten months after Wallis discovered Tahiti, the French navigator Louis-Antoine Bougainville, believed that he had discovered an island of peace and love, an authentic Garden of Eden. Not knowing that Wallis had already claimed this Island for England, he claimed it for France naming it New Cythera after the Greek island where, according to the classical myth, Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of love, had arisen full born from the sea.

This was not Bougainville’s fault. One must remember, in 1767, there were no fixed or mobile telephones and no Internet. For the French, this was their first contact with the Tahitians. For the Tahitians, this was their second contact. Their first contact with Europeans taught them that guns and cannons are more persuasive than sticks and stones. Perhaps the Tahitians remembered that lesson when they saw Bougainville approaching.

Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff


Troubling prophecies

Many years before The Dolphin arrived in Tahiti, a Tahitian priest named Maui prophesied that one day a canoe without an outrigger would sail into Matavai Bay. The assembled chiefs mocked him. At that time, the accepted Tahitian thought was, a canoe must either be double (two canoes together side by side) or have an outrigger. Another Tahitian prophet named Pau’e prophesized “There are coming children of the glorious princess, in a canoe without an outrigger, and they will be covered from head to foot.” Pau’e also said “There will come a new chief to whom the government will be given, and new manners will be adopted in this land: the tapa (bark cloth) and cloth-beating mallet will go out of use in Tahiti, and these strangers will wear different and strange clothes.” The Tahitians applauded him, but three days later Pau’e died. When the Tahitians witnessed the arrival of The Dolphin, they must have thought “WOW, THAT PAU’E REALLY KNEW HIS STUFF”.

On that first day of arrival in Matavai Bay, Wallis was ill and rather weak. He struggled his way onto the deck and was surprised to find that his ship was surrounded by canoes, in which each had young girls standing up, making enticing gestures. When the Tahitian men thought the time was right, they came out with their most powerful artillery, stones. Relentlessly they threw the stones at The Dolphin.

After the first hostilities in which some Tahitians were killed and canoes damaged by the naval gun shots; a great deal of trading and exchanging took place in Matavai Bay for food, water, sex, shells, shell ornaments, fish hooks, adzes and stone pounders. As the days progressed, the Tahitians seeing firearms for the first time, realized exactly what firearms could do. Imagine what the Tahitians must have thought seeing a ball of fire traveling faster than anything they have ever known and killing people. The Tahitians had their own weapons, hand thrown stones. Eventually peace prevailed and the bartering began. The Tahitians were mostly interested in iron nails. Building a house is much easier and stronger with iron nails. When the Tahitians realized how much those British wanted what they had to offer, they started raising their prices.

First contact, first misunderstandings…

When the atmosphere improved, the British sailors made friendly gestures, showing the Tahitians trinkets and inviting them aboard. First the Tahitians brought their canoes together to decide what they should do. Then they held up branches of plantain leaves (Tahitian sign of friendship) and paddled up to the ship. The canoes came closer, both groups were happy. The British mimicked animal sounds and invented a sign language trying to make the Tahitians understand they wished to barter European cloth, knives, shears, beads and ribbons for the supplies they needed.

Some of the seaman grunted like hogs, while others crowed liked roosters and flapped their arms, then pointed to the shore. The Tahitians made the same gestures and sounds and also pointed to the land, not understanding what the others wanted. Unfortunately, at that time in Tahiti, the flapping of arms signalled a wrestling match challenge. Next the British made signs to the Tahitians to get in their canoes and bring them back what they wanted. Some frightened Tahitians paddled away, others remembered iron they had found from the 1722 Roggeven, Dutch ship wreck in the Tuamotus. Roggeven was the first European to discover Easter Island and the Tuamotus.

First contact: Wallis, an European in Tahiti
First contact: Wallis, an European in Tahiti
The first contact between Europeans and Tahitians occurred on June 18, 1767—exactly two hundred and fifty years ago—with the arrival of Samuel Wallis on board the Dolphin.
Welcome Tahiti