Captain James Cook set sail on three voyages to the South Seas. His first Pacific voyage (1768-1771) was aboard the Endeavour and began on May 27, 1768. It had three aims; go to Tahiti to record the transit of Venus (when Venus passes between the earth and sun – June 3, 1769;) record natural history, led by 25-year-old Joseph Banks; and search for the Great South Land.
Cook’s second Pacific voyage (1772-1775) aboard Resolution and Adventure aimed to establish whether there was an inhabited southern continent, and make astronomical observations.
Cook’s third and final voyage (1776-1779) of discovery was an attempt to locate a North-West Passage, an ice-free sea route which linked the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Cook commanded the Resolution while Charles Clerke commanded Discovery. (State Library, New South Wales)
“Every Fighting Service has, and must have, two main categories – ‘Officers’ and ‘Men.’ The Royal Navy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was no exception. The distinction existed: was indeed more than ordinarily marked. It was not only a naval distinction, but a sharp social one too.”
“‘Officers’ as contemporary society used that word, came from one walk of life, ‘Men’ from another: and, as it was not easy in Society to pass from a lower stratum to a higher, so in the Navy, it was not easy for a ‘Man’ to become an Officer. But it was possible.” (Captain Cook Society)
“Cook had chosen his subordinates well or had been lucky. The officers of the third voyage were a remarkably intelligent group of men.” (Captain Cook Society)
“All the great remaining voyages of the eighteenth century drew on Cook’s officers. Bligh, Portlock, Vancouver, Colnett, Riou, and Hergest all got their commands and served with great distinction. These men then passed on their skills to a second generation of men such as Flinders and Broughton.” (Mackay, Captain Cook Society)
We’ll look at three of these familiar names, here in the Islands, as well as the Pacific – Portlock, Bligh and Vancouver.
Nathaniel Portlock was born in Norfolk, Virginia in about 1748. At about the age of 24, he entered the Royal Navy as an able seaman on the St Albans. On March 30, 1776, he served as master’s mate on Captain James Cook’s third Pacific voyage aboard the Discovery. Portlock was transferred to the Resolution, also on the expedition, in August 1779.
Then, in 1785, a group of London merchants formed the “King George’s Sound Co” (also known as Richard Cadman Etches and Company,) for the purpose of carrying on the fur trade from the western coast of America to China, bringing home cargoes of tea from Canton for the East India Company. They bought two boats; Portlock and George Dixon were selected to sail them (Dixon also previously sailed with Cook to Hawai‘i.)
That year, the two traveled to the North Pacific. Portlock commanded the 1785-1788 expedition from the ship King George, while Dixon captained the Queen Charlotte. The purpose of the expedition was to investigate the potential of the Alaskan fur trade and to resume Cook’s search for a Northwest Passage through the continent.
The pair left England on August 29, 1785, and took nearly a year to reach Alaska, rounding Cape Horn and touching at Hawaiʻi on the way. During the course of their 3-year expedition, they made three trips to Hawaiʻi, first arriving off the coast of Kaʻū, May 24, 1786.
A favorite anchorage on Oʻahu for Portlock was at Maunalua Bay, between Koko Point and Diamond Head (which Portlock named King George’s Bay.)
Maunalua was thought to be well-populated in ancient times. Maunalua was known for its offshore fishing resources, a large fishpond, and sweet potato cultivation. Taro was farmed in wet areas, sweet potato was grown in the drier regions and a series of fishing villages lined the coast. (McElroy) Part of that area now carries the Portlock name.
William Bligh was part of the Cook’s crew on its third voyage. Bligh later captained the Bounty on a voyage to gather breadfruit trees from Tahiti and take them to Jamaica in the Caribbean. There, the trees would be planted to provide food for slaves.
According to a legend, the chief Kahai brought the breadfruit tree to Hawaiʻi from Samoa in the twelfth century and first planted it at Kualoa, Oʻahu. Only one variety was known in Hawaiʻi, while more than 24 were distinguished by native names in the South Seas. (CTAHR)
“This tree, whose fruit is so useful, if not necessary, to the inhabitants of most of the islands of the South Seas, has been chiefly celebrated as a production of the Sandwich Islands; it is not confined to these alone, but is also found in all the countries bordering on the Pacific Ocean.” (Book of Trees, 1837)
Bligh didn’t make it back on the Bounty, his crew mutinied (April 28, 1789;) one reason for the mutiny was that the crew believed Bligh cared more about the breadfruit than them (he cut water rationing to the crew in favor of providing water for the breadfruit plants.) Bligh’s tombstone, in part, reads he was the “first (who) transplanted the bread fruit tree.”
In the introduction to Captain George Vancouver’s journals of his voyage to the Pacific, his brother John wrote, “that from the age of thirteen, his whole life to the commencement of this expedition, (to the Pacific) has been devoted to constant employment in His Majesty’s naval service.” Vancouver was one of the seamen and midshipman who had travelled with Cook on his second and third voyages.
In 1791, Vancouver later entered the Pacific a dozen years later in command of the second British exploring expedition. (HJH) Vancouver visited Hawaiʻi three times, in 1792, 1793 and 1794.
On the first trip, Vancouver’s ships “Discovery” and “Chatham” first rounded the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, and traveled to Tahiti, via Australia and New Zealand, and then sailed north to the Hawaiian Islands.
On his second trip in February 1793, the “Discovery” and “Chatham” first circled and surveyed the Island Hawaiʻi. From a meeting he had with Kamehameha, he noted in his Journal, that he was …
“… agreeably surprised in finding that his riper years had softened that stern ferocity, which his younger days had exhibited, and had changed his general deportment to an address characteristic of an open, cheerful, and sensible mind; combined with great generosity, and goodness of disposition.” (Vancouver, 1798)
When Kamehameha came aboard the ship, taking Vancouver’s hand, he “demanded, if we were sincerely his friends”, to which Vancouver answered in the affirmative. Kamehameha then said “he understood we belonged to King George, and asked if he was likewise his friend.”
“On receiving a satisfactory answer to this question, he declared the he was our firm good friend; and according to the custom of the country, in testimony of the sincerity of our declarations we saluted by touching noses.” (Vancouver, 1798)
In the exchange of gifts, after that, Kamehameha presented four feathered helmets and other items, Vancouver gave Kamehameha the remaining livestock on board, “five cows, two ewes and a ram.”
The farewell between the British and the Hawaiians was emotional, but both understood that Vancouver would be returning the following winter.
Just before Vancouver left Kawaihae on March 9, 1793, he gave Isaac Davis and John Young a letter testifying that “Tamaahaah, with the generality of the Chiefs, and the whole of the lower order of People, have conducted themselves toward us with the strictest honest, civility and friendly attention.” (Speakman, HJH)