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  • Foreign visitors to Easter Island 1772 to 1862: Isolation proved a high price to pay
  • Rhys Richards

The impact of foreign visitors at Easter Island is much clearer now that 79 visits can be identified that involved contacts ashore before the slave raids in 1862 (Richards 2008). Of these, 56 visits were by whaleships – four British whalers before 1823, and 51 American whaleships between 1822 and 1862.

The ships of the explorers and the whalemen were well-provisioned for voyages of up to three years. Their main need was for water less stale than the water in the barrels they brought from home. It was soon clear that Easter Island was not well equipped to supply fresh water. However, in order to avoid scurvy, many whaling captains would also trade for vegetables and fruit if these could be readily obtained without risks to their voyages and to their crews. Thus sweet potatoes, yams, bananas, plantains and sugar cane were bartered for knives, nails, hoop iron and ironware, pins and needles for making fishhooks, and whatever trinkets the islanders fancied. Later, many islanders gave priority to taking toasted scraps from the whale-pots, which they devoured with great eagerness. These scraps became a standard trade item: in 1841, the Columbus of Nantucket obtained eight barrels of potatoes and twelve barrels of yams for three and a half barrels of scraps. Some ships, like the Navigator of Nantucket, took 50 barrels of potatoes in 1842 (Richards 2008:77; PMB 674,675 and 795; PMB 380). The whalers experienced no shortage of food on shore.

The visitors found the Easter Islanders keen to trade, but exuberant, excitable and unruly, and without any chiefly authorities to take control when misunderstandings and disruptions occurred. The islanders soon earned a reputation for skillful petty thieving. On several occasions initially amicable exchanges deteriorated into hostilities, with the visitors pelted with stones thrown with Polynesian accuracy. Distrust grew on both sides, with islanders killed in 1806, 1822, and 1838, and at least one whaleman killed, in 1856. In the later years, the visitors believed some islanders made most friendly gestures to them to go ashore, but only in order to steal their clothes. The whaling records show that generally, however, the islanders discouraged visitors from going ashore even very briefly.

One interesting, though rather convoluted, report indicates that the practice of discouraging foreigners from landing on shore was a conscious decision made by ‘the King’ as early as 1805. That year, Captain Page in the London whaleship Adventure touched at Easter Island “to refresh his crew, they having the scurvy.” When they departed, “King Crang-a-low was supposed to be 125 years old, scarcely able to walk, and his hair as white as milk, and the father of twenty-three children, all of whom were alive.” Captain John Page brought away “the youngest son, a handsome man aged about 22,” whom they called Henry Easter. He later told Captain Page that “about a year previous to their departure, an American ship [now known to have been the sealing schooner Nancy of New London, under Captain Crocker] had visited them for the same purpose as the Adventure, but after receiving the different fruits which the natives were able to furnish them with, took seven of them away; which was likely to be attended with serious consequences to the next visitors [in the Adventure]; they, not knowing what had happened, approached the shore unguarded, when they were attacked with showers of stones from slings, with which the islanders are very dexterous, and struck the Captain [Page] on the breast with such violence as to nearly kill him. Through the above affair, King Crangalow will not let any boat communicate with the shore.” (Sydney Gazette 8 December 1812; final italics added – see Note).

So from as early as 1805, the Easter Islanders required the visiting whalemen to adopt a form of trading that minimized the contacts and the danger. Most whaleships lay well off-shore and sent two or more whaleboats close in-shore, to anchor or to lie just outside the surf. Islanders of both sexes then carried their baskets of produce into the water and swam them to...


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