Appointed as the expedition’s official botanist, a 25-year-old Joseph Banks travelled on Captain Cook’s first great voyage to the South Pacific in 1768. After landing on the island of Tahiti, Banks was soon to become an invaluable member of the crew by virtue of the friendly relations he struck up with the islanders; a mutual trust he built up through his openness, natural curiosity and fascination with their customs and way of life. In his willingness to learn their language, eat their food, sleep in their huts, record their customs and partake in their rituals, Banks was pioneering a new kind of science – that of ethnology. As the weeks progressed his botanical observations increasingly gave way to a study of the people (“studies” that were not always at arm’s length!). His experiences in his three month stay on the island are recorded in his Endeavour Journal. The journal is unique in character, not merely in terms of its content but also, as the writer Richard Holmes comments, “for their racy style, appalling spelling and non-existent punctuation”. Below are a few choice extracts, highlighted by Richard Holmes in his (highly recommended) The Age of Wonder – a book exploring the Romantic revolution in science, in which Banks, who would go on to become President of the Royal Society, played a crucial role.
Read also Patricia Fara’s excellent article for The Public Domain Review, “Joseph Banks: Portraits of a Placid Elephant“.
(All journal entries below from a transcription of Banks’s Endeavour Journal housed at Wikisource. You can also read an 1896 edition, which omits scenes of a more sexual nature, edited by Sir Joseph Dalton at the Internet Archive)
10th May 1769 – THE ENGLISH CREW GET TAHITIAN NAMES
We have now got the Indian name of the Island, Otahite, so therefore for the future I shall call it. As for our own names the Indians find so much dificulty in pronouncing them that we are forcd to indulge them in calling us what they please, or rather what they say when they attempt to pronounce them. I give here the List: Captn Cooke Toote, Dr Solander Torano, Mr Hicks Hete, Mr Gore Toárro, Mr Molineux Boba from his Christian name Robert, Mr Monkhouse Mato, and myself Tapáne. In this manner they have names for almost every man in the ship.
2nd May 1769 – MR BANKS GETS INTIMATE WITH THE FEMALE ISLANDERS
Cocoa nuts very plentifull this morning. About breakfast time Dootahah visits us. Immediately after while I sat trading in the boat at the door of the fort a double Canoe came with several women and one man under the awning. The Indians round me made signs that I should go out and meet them, by the time I had got out of the boat they were within ten yards of me. The people made a lane from them to me. They stopd and made signs for me to do the same. The man in company with them had in his hand a large bunch of boughs; he advancd towards me bringing two, one a young plantain the other. Tupia who stood by me acted as my deputy in receiving them and laying them down in the boat: 6 times he passd backwards and forwards in the same manner and bringing the same present. Another man than came forward having in his arms a large bundle of cloth, this he opend out and spread it peice by peice on the ground between the women and me, it consisted on nine peices. Three were first laid. The foremost of the women, who seemd to be the principal, then stepd upon them and quickly unveiling all her charms gave me a most convenient opportunity of admiring them by turning herself gradualy round: 3 peices more were laid and she repeated her part of the ceremony: the other three were then laid which made a treble covering of the ground between her and me, she then once more displayd her naked beauties and immediately marchd up to me, a man following her and doubling up the cloth as he came forwards which she immediately made me understand was intended as a present for me. I took her by the hand and led her to the tents acompanied by another woman her freind, to both of them I made presents but could not prevail upon them to stay more than an hour. In the evening Oborea and her favourite attendant Othéothéa pay us a visit, much to my satisfaction as the latter (my flame) has for some days been reported either ill or dead.
28th May 1769 – MR BANKS LOSES HIS TROUSERS
Night came on apace, it was nescessary to look out for lodgings; as Dootahah made no offer of any I repaird to my old Freind Oborea who readily gave me a bed in her canoe much to my satisfaction. I acquainted my fellow travelers with my good fortune and wishing them as good took my leave. We went to bed early as is the custom here: I strippd myself for the greater convenience of sleeping as the night was hot. Oborea insisted that my cloths should be put into her custody, otherwise she said they would certainly be stolen. I readily submitted and laid down to sleep with all imaginable tranquility. About 11 I awakd and wanting to get up felt for my clothes in the place in which I had seen them laid at night but they were missing. I awakd Oborea, she started up and on my complaining of the Loss candles were immediately lit. Dootahah who slept in the next canoe came to us and both went in search of the theif, for such it seems it was who had stolen my coat and waistcoat with my pistols powder horn etc., they returnd however in about ½ an hour without any news of the stolen goods. I began to be a little alarmd, my musquet was left me, but that by my neglect the night before was not loaded; I did not know where Captn Cooke or Dr Solander had disposd of themselves, consequently could not call upon them for assistance; Tupia stood near me awakd by the Hubbub that had been raisd on account of my Loss; to him I gave my Musquet charging him to take care that the theif did not get it from him, and betook myself again to rest, telling my companions in the boat that I was well satisfied with the pains that Oborea and Dootahah had taken for the recovery of my things. Soon after I heard their musick and saw lights near me; I got up and went towards them, it was a heiva or assembly according to their custom. Here I saw Captn Cooke and told my melancholy story, he was my fellow sufferer, he had lost his stockins and two young gentlemen who were with him had lost each a Jacket. Dr Solander was away we neither of us knew where: we talkd over our losses and agreed that nothing could be done toward recovering them till the morning, after which we parted and went to our respective sleeping places.
29th May 1769 – THE FIRST RECORDED DESCRIPTION OF SURFING
In our return to the boat we saw the Indians amuse or excersise themselves in a manner truly surprizing. It was in a place where the shore was not guarded by a reef as is usualy the case, consequently a high surf fell upon the shore, a more deadfull one I have not often seen: no European boat could have landed in it and I think no Europaean who had by any means got into [it] could possibly have saved his life, as the shore was coverd with pebbles and large stones. In the midst of these breakers 10 or 12 Indians were swimming who whenever a surf broke near them divd under it with infinite ease, rising up on the other side; but their cheif amusement was carried on by the stern of an old canoe, with this before them they swam out as far as the outermost breach, then one or two would get into it and opposing the blunt end to the breaking wave were hurried in with incredible swiftness. Sometimes they were carried almost ashore but generaly the wave broke over them before they were half way, in which case the[y] divd and quickly rose on the other side with the canoe in their hands, which was towd out again and the same method repeated. We stood admiring this very wonderfull scene for full half an hour, in which time no one of the actors atempted to come ashore but all seemd most highly entertaind with their strange diversion.
10th June 1769 – MR BANKS STRIPS NAKED AND TAKES PART IN A RITUAL DANCE
This evening according to my yesterdays engagement I went to the place where the medua lay, where I found Tubourai, Tamio, Hoona the Meduas daughter and a young Indian prepard to receive me. Tubourai was the Heiva, the three others and myself were to Nineveh. He put on his dress, most Fantastical tho not unbecoming, the figure annexd will explain it far better than words can. I was next prepard by stripping off my European cloths and putting me on a small strip of cloth round my waist, the only garment I was allowd to have, but I had no pretensions to be ashamd of my nakedness for neither of the women were a bit more coverd than myself. They then began to smut me and themselves with charcoal and water, the Indian boy was compleatly black, the women and myself as low as our shoulders. We then set out. Tubourai began by praying twice, one near the Corps again near his own house. We then proceeded towards the fort: it was nesscessary it seems that the procession should visit that place but they dare not to do it without the sanction of some of us, indeed it was not till many assurances of our consent that they venturd to perform any part of their ceremonies. To the fort then we went to the surprize of our freinds and affright of the Indians who were there, for they every where fly before the Heiva like sheep before a wolf. We soon left it and proceeded along shore towards a place where above 100 Indians were collected together. We the Ninevehs had orders from the Heiva to disperse them, we ran towards them but before we cam[e] within 100 yards of them they dispers’d every way, running to the first shelter, hiding themselves under grass or whatever else would conceal them. We now crossd the river into the woods and passd several houses, all were deserted, not another Indian did we see for about ½ an hour that we sepnt in walking about. We the Ninevehs then came to the Heiva and said imatata, there are no people; after which we repaird home, the Heiva undressd and we went into the river and scrubbd one another till it was dark before the blacking would come off.
5th July 1769 – MR BANKS WITNESSES A YOUNG GIRL BEING TATTOOED
This morn I saw the operation of Tattowing the buttocks performd upon a girl of about 12 years old, it provd as I have always suspected a most painfull one. It was done with a large instrument about 2 inches long containing about 30 teeth, every stroke of this hundreds of which were made in a minute drew blood. The patient bore this for about ¼ of an hour with most stoical resolution; by that time however the pain began to operate too stron[g]ly to be peacably endurd, she began to complain and soon burst out into loud lamentations and would fain have persuaded the operator to cease; she was however held down by two women who sometimes scolded, sometimes beat, and at others coaxd her. I was setting in the adjacent house with Tomio for an hour, all which time it lasted and was not finishd when I went away tho very near. This was one side only of her buttocks for the other had been done some time before. The arches upon the loins upon which they value themselves much were not yet done, the doing of which they told causd more pain than what I had seen. About dinner time many of our freinds came, Oamo, Otheothea, Tuarua etc.