Pacific Postcards

Henry Dewey Midterm Essay

The Discovery of Easter Island

        Jacob Roggeveen’s discovery of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) describes the complexities of early European exploration of the Pacific Ocean, because the nature of his expedition, the goals of his crew and himself, and the genuine interest in the people of Rapa Nui total a both vibrant and deadly story that can help shape the way we think about historical exploration in the Pacific.
        Making up exploration are complex altercations and exchanges, the latter both in trade and in knowledge, and can only be studied through the varying perspectives of both native populations and explorers themselves. While most primary sources lack a sound native perspective, attempts can be made to reconstruct this aspect by analyzing the logs of Roggeveen. This combination of perspective lets us also explore the connections of Roggeveen’s voyage to similar interactions of subsequent explorers. 
        Roggeveen, President and Commander and Chief of the ships, The Arend, Thienhoven, and The African Galley, is tasked with the exploration of the western seas. Funded by the Netherlands chapter of the West-India company, his goal is to find an unknown low and sandy island thought to be discovered by previous Englishmen. While searching for this mystery island, a new island, not so low and sandy, is discovered. The interaction between these Dutch explorers and the natives of this island in 1722 is the focus of this essay. 
        The encounter between these parties begins with a few curious native islanders boarding Roggeveen’s vessels, described to be a generally playful encounter, with islanders taking back small trinkets and cloth, even when stealing, this was not met with contentment by the crew. Conflict did arise however, when shortly after deboarding to shore, an altercation with the rear flank of the sailors and a small group of native inhabitants left 10-12 of the latter dead (Roggeveen, 12-3). Unlike previous expeditions and stories, the conflict between the island inhabitants and explorers was quickly squashed by the respective leaders of the parties. This resulted in a peaceful settlement and allowed for the exploration of the island. 
       After this encounter, the inhabitants brought “sugar-cane, fowls, yams, and bananas'' out for the explorers, however the Dutch only took the 60 fowl and 30 bananas, and exchanged stripped linen, “with which they appeared to be well pleased and satisfied” (Roggeveen, 13). This exchange is similar to that of sea cucumbers and whales teeth present in Melillo’s argument regarding social consequences and environmental damages. However in Roggeveen’s case, there are differences that show the amiability of these Dutch explorers. In similarity to the sea cucumber exploitation, the fowl and bananas represented a small part of the sustainable diet developed by the people in Rapa Nui, making this an easily replenishable resource. This food however was a vital resource for the sailors, who would need it to either continue their journey or make it back to the continent. Also in similarity is the easily procured cloth of the explorers. 
        Where this exchange differs significantly from the exploitation of the sea cucumbers in Fiji, is that both of these objects are essential to either party, making it a mutually beneficial trade. And while it isn’t said explicitly, it can be inferred that this cloth would be useful in the construction of sails, housing, clothing, and other significant contributions to the island population as a whole. In the perspective of the explorers, they were trading not a spiritual or cultural item (i.e. Sperm whale teeth), but items they could imagine a use. This perspective does not diminish the value of these teeth to the Fijian community, but rather in view of what the European’s understood of these items, cloth makes things, and these teeth were important to a culture the explorers couldn’t begin to understand. This difference allows the Dutch to understand the values and needs of the differing culture with increased humanization and without exploitation. An argument against this comparison could be that the Dutch were not acting as middlemen for an outside party, China, as the arbitrageurs of the sea cucumber trade were. 
        The other aspect of Roggeveen’s exploration was his recognition and interest in the cooking, housing, statues, and tooling present in Rapa Nui. This interest grew over time with subsequent voyages of other sailors to the South Pacific.
        A great example of perspective is differing our current day view to Roggeveen in 1721. At present, Easter Island is known for massive stone statues, so why is there an absence of the same fascination in Roggeveen’s logs? Unfortunately, the explorers never had the chance to inspect the large statues, for they believed them to be made up of earthy material such as clay, inlaid with a small flint facade (Roggeveen, 16). This idea of the construction of the statues can likely be attributed to the material surrounding the base of derelict statues as well as the reluctance by the inhabitants to allow inspection of these statues. It seems no pushes in this regard were made by the Dutch past inquiry. Roggeveen notes that these flint stones were the only rocks they encountered on the island. 
       Roggeveen and the explorers also had an interest in the lashings made by the islanders called “Piet.” The explorers even go far to say this material was crafted “very neatly and skilfully, and is in no way inferior to our own thin cord” and comparing it to the construction of thatched roofing in Holland (Roggeveen, 18). These lashings were critical to the development of weather-proof homes on this island, which enabled a lasting community and larger communal shelters. 
        Both the statues and cord represent findings that would later inspire professional naturalists to accompany these voyages, however as Igler described Chamisso in “The Great Ocean”, it seems the addition to these future exploration parties was not always a beneficial one. Roggeveen’s exploration was likely met with great fascination back in Europe, prompting future journeys to explore and learn, as well as new economic incentives introduced by groups such as the West-India charters. While Roggeveen did not harm the islanders of Rapa Nui firsthand, his interactions likely led to conflicts, colonization, and exploitation of similar islands in the South Pacific and even the American North-West. 
        Roggeveen’s altercations and exchanges, both in knowledge and trade, can only be understood through the inverted perspectives of explorers and island inhabitants. While generally the perspective of natives is lost, by connecting the interactions in Rapa Nui with similar and converse explorations of the Pacific, a relative perspective can be formed. 

    Works Cited

González, Felipe, et al. The Voyage of Captain Don Felipe González in the Ship of the Line San Lorenzo, with the Frigate Santa Rosalia in Company, to Easter Island in 1770-1 : Preceded by an Extract from Mynheer Jacob Roggeveen’s Official Log of His Discovery and Visit to Easter Island in 1722. London, Hakluyt Society, 2017.

Igler, David. The Great Ocean : Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017.

Melillo, E. D. “Making Sea Cucumbers out of Whales’ Teeth: Nantucket Castaways and Encounters of Value in Nineteenth-Century Fiji.” Environmental History, vol. 20, no. 3, 24 Apr. 2015, pp. 449–474, 10.1093/envhis/emv049. Accessed 8 Oct. 2021.

This page has paths: