Volume 12 1903 > Volume 12, No.3, September 1903 > Who discovered Tahiti? by Geo. Collingridge, p184-186
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- 184
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WHO DISCOVERED TAHITI?

IT is generally believed that the honour of having discovered Tahiti, the Queen of the Pacific, belongs to the Spanish.

A propos of the recent hurricane, and the tidal wave at the Society Islands, the Sydney “Daily Telegraph,” for instance, had the following paragraph. … “It is a long time since the first white travellers reached Tahiti. Away back in 1607 one named Pedro Fernando de Queros, a Spanish navigator, reached the islands, and established a settlement on the Island of Tahiti, which he named Isla d'Aamar. In 1767 Wallis ‘discovered’ the group again—for the Spanish visits had been ineffective in civilizing or colonizing the islands, and had contributed nothing to the knowledge of European geographers.”

The last ten words of the above extract are perfectly correct, as far as the anonymous writer of the article is concerned; but then the writer is not a geographer, perhaps, only a journalist, and as the effrontery of journalists is, sometimes, only equalled by the crass ignorance of those who dabble in geographical lore and have the effrontery to presume on the ignorance of their readers, the result is the same. I was so astonished at the incongruous jumble, published by the “Daily Telegraph,” that I thought it might have been copied from the “Encyclopœdia Britannica.” I consulted that work and found out that I was mistaken, for the information there, although incorrect, is not so bad. It is brief, anyhow, and there is not much room for many mistakes. It says:—“There is little doubt that the main Island (Tahiti), and some other members of the group, were visited by the Spaniard Pedro Fernandez de Quiros in February, 1607.” Now the corrections to be made in the above statement are these:—1st. The navigator referred to was not a Spaniard but a Portuguese of the Portuguese, born at Evora, in the Province of Alemtejo; be was, however, in the service of Spain; secondly His name should be written de Queiroz; thirdly, He did not visit Tahiti, and fourthly, He was either in Mexico, on the Atlantic, or in - 185 Spain in the year 1607. In the year 1606, however, he passed through the Tuamotu or Low Archipelago, on his way to Santa Cruz Island, on which occasion he discovered the New Hebrides, or, at least, the largest island of that group, which he named the Tierra Australia del Espiritu Santo. But, to return to the first quotation, I had a little difficulty in disentangling the jumble that brings in de Queiroz's name with the isla d'Aamav and the establishment of a settlement there, because I knew that their was no such name as isla d'Aamar in all de Queiroz's nomenclature. I knew also that de Queiroz had never attempted any settlement in that part of the South Pacific Ocean.

The mention of settlement, however, brought back to my mind Boenechea's attempt to colonize Tahiti, nearly two centuries later, in the year 1772 and 1774, and the name which he gave to Tahiti in commemoration of the Viceroy and Governor-General of Peru and Chili flashed across my mind: isla d'Aamar, I thought, must be meant for isla d'Amat! Thus the statement that “in 1767 Wallis discovered the group again, for the Spanish visits had been ineffective in civilizing or colonizing the islands” is rather amusing, and partakes of the nature of what happens in “Alice in Wonderland,” when the Red Queen screams piteously and bandages her finger beforehand because she is going to cut it. But this is the way some people write history, and the “Encyclopœdia Britannica,” in the six columns of matter devoted to Tahiti, never mentions Boenechea's visit in 1772, although it names many small islands discovered by some (?) Irishman named Boenshea. How has all this confusion come about, and who really did discover Tahiti? I will answer the last question first. Captain Wallis, in 1767, in command of the Dolphin, is, undoubtedly, the first European to discover that island, which he named King George Island; so that the honour belongs to England. Now, as to the supposed Spanish discovery in 1606 by de Queiroz. I think I can tell how that mistake came about, although I have not yet come across the arch-culprit who first made the statement, for de Queiroz himself never did, nor do any Spanish or Portuguese authorities, set up a claim for de Queiroz. On the 10th and 11th of February, 1606, de Queiroz discovered an island (to the south-east of Tahiti), which he called La Sagitaria. The members of the little Spanish fleet were badly in want of wood and water, especially water; they found no drinkable water on the island, and were obliged to quench their thirst with cocoa-nuts. A passage, in the description of the island, speaks of a shallow, sandy, and narrow channel, between two little woods (Bosquecillos) which, at high tide, communicates with the other sea (lagoon) on the other part of the island. For anyone acquainted with atolls, in which the entrance to the interior lagoon is through a - 186 narrow channel, the above description is intelligable enough. But the person who first misinterpreted the Spanish text of Torquemada was evidently ignorant of the Spanish language and of the peculiar conformation of coral islands; and, for him, the sandy channel between the two woods became a sandy neck of land. Now, this narrow neck of land is the corpus delicite, the nail on which all the mistakes were hung, for there happens to be a narrow neck of sand on Tahiti.

A sandy isthmus divides Tahiti in two2, and so it came to pass that the hitherto nameless arch-culprit (I'll find him out some day), jumped at this narrow neck and came to the conclusion that de Queiroz landed in Tahiti. A conclusion which is utterly inadmissible, because de Queiroz's lieutenant Torres, describes La Sagitaria as a flat island, and no fresh water was found there. It was, in fact, an atoll; whereas Tahiti is a very mountainous island, with a plentiful supply of fresh water which may be seen from a ship at sea, flowing down the sides of the hills. Then the longitudes and latitudes, mentioned in the Spanish texts, do not correspondence with Tahiti, whereas they do correspond with atolls to the south-south-east of Tahiti where de Queiroz's Sagitaria must be looked for in the Tuamotu (or Paumotu) group.

Hornsby, N.S.W., 25th Feb., 1903.
1  Author of “The Discovery of Australia.
2  [Mr. Collingridge is himself in error here. The isthmus that joins the main island of Tahiti (Tahiti-nui) to the lesser one (Tahiti-iti) is known as Taravao, and is formed of land about 100 feet above sea level. It is of volcanic formation and generally covered with wood, but partly open land and the soil fairly good but there is no sandy neck.—Ed.]