Volume 70 1961 > Volume 70, No. 1 > Post-Spanish discoveries in the central Pacific, by H. E. Maude, p 67-111
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In this article Mr. H. E. Maude, Senior Fellow in Pacific History at the Australian National University, continues the story of discovery in the Central Pacific that he began in an earlier article, “Spanish Discoveries in the Central Pacific”, published in the December 1959 issue of this Journal. He shows that the discoverers of the post-Spanish period were mainly “the captains of merchant or whaling vessels who would be startled indeed to find themselves the objects of historical research”.


IN A PREVIOUS PAPER 1 an endeavour was made to identify the nine islands seen by Spanish voyagers in the Central Pacific, from Magellan in 1521 to the final voyage of Quiros in 1606.

These earliest discoveries provided a prologue to the main work of Pacific exploration, in which the curtain was raised to afford some brief glimpses of a few unrelated dots on the regional map; but they were soon forgotten, or at least misplaced by the cartographers, to such effect that when the same islands were again sighted they were invariably believed to be new finds.

In resuming the story of regional discovery from the end of the Spanish era we shall, therefore, touch on both discovery and rediscovery as if the chart of the Central Pacific was again a blank, as indeed it was for all practical purposes to the navigators of the eighteenth century. 2 One has to remember that, while both the Spanish and post-Spanish phases of exploration lasted for little more than a life-span, they were separated from each other by fully twice that period.

As in the former paper, the area covered comprises the Gilbert, 3 Ellice, Tokelau, Phoenix, Line 4 and Northern Cook Groups, 5 with the four - 68 unattached outliers of Howland, Baker, Ocean Island and Nauru. 6 It is a homogeneous geographical region of 58 low coral atolls and islands similar in geological structure and in their fauna, flora and climatic conditions and possessing an interrelated history over much of the period since their initial contact with Europeans. In the whaling era it formed one of the best-known Pacific grounds; in the guano period islands in all the groups were claimed, and many of them exploited, by American and British firms; islanders from the Northern Cooks worked on some of these as well as on the coconut plantations at Fanning and elsewhere in the area, and Tokelau Islanders in the Phoenix; while today Gilbertese are to be found as colonists or plantation labour in both the Phoenix and Line Groups.

With the political partitioning of the Pacific by the metropolitan powers, however, the Northern Cook Islands in 1901 and the Tokelau Islands in 1948 became part of the Dominion of New Zealand, and thereafter their cultural and economic relations were almost entirely with islands outside the area.

It is not difficult to account for the almost total neglect of this area both by the historical geographer and the principal explorers themselves. Pacific exploration tended to work round the periphery of the ocean and it needed a cussed temperament like that of Byron to ignore instructions and break a new path diagonally across the Pacific, and even when such deviations from exploratory norms took place there was no certainty, or even likelihood, that any discovery would be made as a result. Islands so low and flat, even if covered by trees (and many are quite bare), can hardly be seen 10 miles off from the deck of a ship; and, as we shall find, vessels could and did pass right through the groups without catching sight of land.

The historian's neglect is equally understandable, for since nearly all the main exploring ships and expeditions left the Central Pacific unvisited the names which appear on the regional roll of discoverers can seldom be found in the published editions of voyages; in all but a handful of instances they are the captains of merchant or whaling vessels who would be startled indeed to find themselves the objects of historical research.

It is hoped that this study may thus serve to correct some of the time-hallowed misconceptions which have gained currency by force of repetition: a good example being the official pronouncement that “the Gilbert Group was discovered piecemeal by British Naval officers between 1765 and 1824, the Ellice Group between 1781 and 1819”, 7 which first appeared in the Annual Report of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony for 1926-27, and has been repeated in one form or another in numberless official and unofficial publications. In actual fact, as will appear, only one island out of the 25 in both groups was so discovered.

There is, furthermore, a more practical reason for tracing the - 69 regional pattern of exploration and identifying the islands discovered: for the Central Pacific has long been a frontier zone between the British Commonwealth and American spheres of interest in Oceania, and as a result over half the islands have at one time or another been claimed by representatives of both Powers.

Issues of sovereignty arose as long ago as the middle of the last century, when as already mentioned it was believed that commercial deposits of guano had been discovered on a number of islands. Both governments granted legislative protection to their subjects desiring to exploit these deposits, 32 islands being “bonded” under the American Guano Act of 1856 8 and 19 leased by the British under Occupation Licenses, 9 in the latter case both for guano extraction and as coconut plantations.

With the exhaustion of the few commercially payable deposits found, on further examination, to exist, the disputes died down, and in 1926 all but five 10 were considered, in the absence of any active American interest in them, to be British possessions. 11 Over a further eight, 12 however, British sovereignty was merely nominal, since no attempt was made to occupy them.

In the 1930s several of the islands came again into the limelight as their value in connection with trans-Pacific civil aviation became generally recognized. Howland, Baker and Jarvis were placed under United States administrative jurisdiction by Presidential Order of May 13, 1936; while in March, 1938, Mr. Stephen T. Early, Secretary to President Roosevelt, announced that:

The position of the United States as regards lands or islands hitherto unoccupied or in question as to ownership is as follows—

  • 1. First claim to title over undiscovered territory rests on discovery.
  • 2. Under this many islands in the Pacific were first discovered by American flag ships.
  • 3. The United States always has held that mere discovery does not give final title. If it is not followed up by reasonable occupation it is insufficient.
  • 4. In relation to the islands in question, of which there are many, the United States assumes the right to occupation either because of (a) discovery, (b) former occupation, (c) failure of any other nation to occupy, or a combination of the three. 13
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A year later an agreement for joint user and control over Canton and Enderbury was made between Great Britain and the United States, the question of sovereignty, which both of them claimed, being allowed to lapse for the time being. 14 In this instance the U.S. State Department said that the discoverers of the islands were unknown and that the American claim was based on the use of the islands by their whaling vessels since 1828 or even earlier. 15

According to American newspaper reports the United States Government has sponsored historical research on a considerable scale since then with a view to obtaining evidence which might serve to strengthen that country's claims to various islands:

Old records of American discoveries are being searched to ascertain whether priority can be established for the United States . . . For months geographic experts of the State and Navy Departments, acting under orders from the top, have been examining old records at Nantucket and other points along the Atlantic for documentary proof that American whalers were the discoverers of a number of islands in the South Pacific. 16

The islands being investigated were reported to comprise “the numerous ones of the Phoenix, Gilbert, Ellice and other groups lying along and south of the Equator from the vicinity of the International Date Line . . .” 17 or, in other words, what is generally termed the Central Pacific.

If one could believe the New York Times report, as a result of these investigations “it does appear that American whalers who sailed the Pacific in 1791 and 1792 were the first to put most of the South Pacific islands on the map”.17 This would seem to anticipate by about a quarter of a century the known activities of American whaling ships in the area, but other statements have been almost as wide of the mark.

It may not be inopportune, therefore, to examine impartially who exactly did first sight each of these islands, indicating where the evidence must still be regarded as inconclusive and the nature of any further research which may be required to complete the record. 18


With the departure of the Spanish from the scene in 1606 the initiative in Pacific exploration passed first to the Dutch, who were primarily seeking trade, and later to the British and French, who by the middle of the 18th century had begun to realize the importance of having a share in the work of discovery, largely from motives of national prestige and scientific curiosity.

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These expeditions, however, for the most part kept either to the South-western Pacific or where they crossed the ocean did so to the south of the routes taken by Mendana and Quiros, thus missing the whole of the area now under consideration.

Until 1785, furthermore, only one trade route crossed the Pacific in any direction or touched at any of its islands: that of the Spanish galleons plying between Mexico and the Philippines. But these ships passed well to the north of the Gilberts, as did the Dutch and British privateers and filibusters who preyed on them. 19 The Fur Trade Route between the north-west coast of America and China which commenced in that year, as the result of an experimental shipment made during Cook's last voyage, lay even farther to the north.

Consequently, we find that during the whole period of nearly two centuries between Quiros and the foundation of Australia, during which all the main Pacific groups were sighted and explored, only five expeditions are known to have entered the Central Pacific, discovering a meagre six islands out of the 58 in the area; and two of these were found by one who was an explorer by force of circumstances only—a bewildered Spaniard trying to reach America in the wrong season.

(a) Byron: 1765.

The main object of Commodore John Byron's visit to the Pacific was to explore the coast of New Albion and endeavour to find the North-west Passage; the supposed strait leading to Hudson's Bay. “Foul Weather Jack”, as he was popularly called, had not, however, the temperament of an explorer. Lacking the scientific curiosity of a Cook, and impetuous to a degree, he had hardly left the Straits of Magellan when he took advantage of an escape clause in his instructions and headed his ship, the Dolphin, in the presumed direction of the Solomons.

After passing through the northern Tuamotus Byron sighted PUKAPUKA, in the Northern Cooks, on June 21, 1765, which “had the appearance of three islands, with rocks and broken ground between them”: a good description. He found the atoll thickly populated and of “a more fertile and beautiful appearance than any we had seen before”, but so beset with reefs that he hurried away, after christening Pukapuka the Islands of Danger. 20 Sailing NW by W, on June 24 he discovered ATAFU in the Tokelaus, calling it the Duke of York's Island. Although it was covered in coconut trees, a landing party found no sign of inhabitants. 21

In evidence given to J. N. Reynolds, Capt. Richard Macy, a Nantucket whaling master, reported that when he visited Atafu (about the year 1827) it was inhabited, a fact which was confirmed by the - 72 U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1840 and has led Stackpole to contend that Byron probably saw another island. 22

In actual fact its being uninhabited at the time is confirmatory evidence that it was Atafu and no other island that Byron saw, for we now know that the population had fled before an invading force from Fakaofo, in the same group, during the 17th or early 18th century. 23 The island then remained empty, except for occasional visitors from Fakaofo or Nukunono, until permanently re-occupied not long prior to Macy's visit by a party from Fakaofo under the chief Tonouia, whose descendants form the present population. 24 When Captain Edwards touched there in 1791, houses, canoes and fishing gear were seen “which seemed to prove that it was an occasional residence and fishery of the natives of some neighbouring islands”; as indeed it was. 25

Having mistaken both Pukapuka and Atafu for the Solomons, Byron tired of looking for them when in lat. 8° 13′ S and almost within sight of the Ellice Islands. Arguing that “the only person who has pretended to have seen them is Quiros, and I doubt whether he left behind him any account of them by which they might be found by future navigators”, he made roughly NW by N towards the latitude of the Marianas, where he hoped to refresh his men, many of whom had scurvy, and replenish his water. 26

On July 2 NIKUNAU, in the southern Gilberts, was seen and called Byron's Island by the Dolphin's officers in honour of their captain.

The descriptions given in the accounts of the voyage admit no doubt as to its identification. 27 It was evidently a reef island, being without the “large lake in the middle” which Byron had noted at Atafu; it was situated in lat. 1° 18′ S, had an anchorage to the SW and in length was “near four leagues from the north-west to the south-east”. Nikunau is in lat. 1° 19′ S to 1° 26′ S, is approximately the right length and lies NW to SE; it also possesses a SW anchorage. 28

Beru and Tabiteuea, the only other islands in the latitude, are ruled out as being lagoon islands bearing no resemblance to the descriptions; and Tabiteuea also by virtue of its size (over 30 miles), its being broken up into islets, and the fact that its SW side (along which Byron steered) is reef and lagoon, apart from the conspicuous islet of Umaia Ataei. Byron's longitude is 173° 46′ E, but as Krusenstern points out - 73 all his longitudes are about 4° too far west; when corrected it again points to Nikunau in long. 176° 24′ E. 29

The ship was visited by over 60 canoes; several of the natives came on board and tried to make off with anything movable that took their fancy. But not liking the anchorage, Byron left the island without landing; reluctantly, for his supply of Atafu nuts, which had proved a sovereign remedy for scurvy, was almost exhausted. He had shown some of these to the Nikunau people, indicating by signs that he would like more, “but instead of giving any intimation that they could supply us, they endeavoured to take away those we had”: evidently Nikunau was as short of food then as it was when I stayed there in 1930.

It would seem most probable that Byron's subsequent northerly course took him, as Arrowsmith indicates in his chart (see Fig. 2), to the east of the Gilberts and Marshalls until in the latitude of the Marianas, when he turned west. He found the heat of the doldrums intolerable and the crew “began to fall down with fluxes”, which the surgeon attributed to the temperature (which, in fact, was only between 81° and 84°, not unusual for the Gilberts) and the incessant rain. Arriving at Tinian on July 30, he records his conviction that he had experienced “the hottest, the longest, and most dangerous run that ever was made”. 30

(b) Cook: 1777.

At first sight it seems rather extraordinary that Cook, who discovered more of Oceania than any man before or since, should have seen only one island in the Central Pacific. The reason, however, is not hard to find, for the first two of his three voyages of discovery were concerned with the search for the southern continent of geographical theory and it was only when he had finally disproved its existence that the Admiralty sent him on his last expedition to do the work that Byron had failed to accomplish, or even to attempt: the search for the North-West Passage.

Cook's instructions to proceed first to Tahiti, in order to drop a native taken by Furneaux, and then north to New Albion, took him through the Line Islands, the eastern boundary of our area. He was, in fact, following the conjectured route of the Golden Plover by which earlier Polynesian voyagers are presumed to have sailed to Hawaii, and on December 24, 1777, he discovered one of their probable intermediate stopping places. Certainly it had been visited by islanders from some-where, for about 30 coconut trees were found growing ashore.

Cook called his discovery CHRISTMAS ISLAND 31 and stayed there until January 2, in order to observe an eclipse and refresh his crew with turtles, of which they caught no less than 300, and fish. In return he planted yams, melon seed and some more coconuts on what is now known as Cook Island, at the entrance to the lagoon, where he also left - 74 a bottle with an inscription recording his visit. 32 He then continued north, to discover the Hawaiian Islands a fortnight later.

(c) Maurelle: 1781.

Ordered to take despatches from Manila to Mexico in November, when the usual northern route was considered impracticable, Don Francisco Maurelle endeavoured to work east in his frigate La Princessa by a route well to the south of the equator. 33 Insufficiently provisioned (cockroaches ate most of the ship's stores) and beset by north-easterly winds, he was actually forced as far south as the Tongan archipelago, where he was well received and given large quantities of local produce.

Sailing north from Tonga he discovered on May 5, 1781, in lat. 6° S, an island which he called the Isla del Cocal. He describes it as “a very low island surrounded by a sandy shore, which terminated in an impenetrable reef”; it was covered with coconut trees 34 and evidently contained a considerable population.

The description of the Isla del Cocal given by Maurelle indicates that it was a reef island and its position, together with the course of the vessel, leaves one in no doubt that it was, in fact, NANUMANGA in the Northern Ellice.

It proved impossible to land in the long boat, owing to the surf, or to get the ship close enough to anchor, despite the efforts of the natives who came off in their canoes and tried to tow her by means of lines tied to her bows. They were evidently Polynesians, but spoke a different dialect from that heard in Tonga.

“They came on board so besmeared with paint,” says Maurelle, “that a man might have been tempted to take them for the images of demons”; forty-five years later Capt. Plaskett, of the whaler Independence II, was to rechristen the place Smut-Face Island, “because the chiefs and men of distinction, as a mark of their superiority, daub their faces with smut”. 35

After six hours of towing by canoes, supplemented by ropes thrown from the reef, without any progress being made, Maurelle set sail to the north-west and the following evening sighted another island “flatter, but longer than the preceding”, which he named San-Augustin. Again, from his course, and the position of the island relative to Nanumanga, it is clear that the discovery was NANUMEA.

Without approaching the island closer than six leagues, Maurelle continued in a northerly direction, crossing the equator on the 13th and arriving at Guam on the 31st. 36

An extraordinary thing about Maurelle's discoveries is the way in which the identification of Gran Cocal with Nanumanga has become obscured with the passage of time. Purdy was the first to go astray, - 75 identifying it with the Sherson's Isle seen from the brig Elizabeth in 1809, which was actually the main islet of Nanumea. 37

Duperrey evidently visited Nanumanga in 1825 and correctly recognized it as Gran Cocal, for although his narrative of this part of the voyage has never been published we have his Atlas, which shows Gran Cocal in 6° 5′ 30″ S and 176° 13′ E and San-Augustin in 5° 39′ 10″ S and 176° 6′ E (the actual positions are 6° 18′ S and 176° 20′ E; and 5° 39′ S and 176° 06′ E). 38 Chromchenko also reported sighting Gran Cocal in 1827 and placed it in 6° 12′ 30″ S and 176° 13′ E. 39

The Admiralty next instructed Captain Moresby to search for Gran Cocal between Nanumea and Nanumanga during his visit to the Ellice Group in 1872. He naturally found no land but at Nanumea was told of the existence of an extensive shoal between the two islands. 40 Though Moresby's informant was in all probability speaking of the Tia Kau reef, immortalized by Louis Becke, 41 and lying not far from Nanumanga itself, Maurelle's discovery will now be found charted as the “Grand Cocal Shoal” approximately half way between Nanumea and Nanumanga.

(d) Near Misses—Roggeveen: 1722; Wallis: 1767; La Perouse: 1787.

Other voyagers who may have entered the area during this period made no discoveries, or if they did left no record of them. There were “near misses”, however, by Roggeveen, Wallis and La Perouse.

Roggeveen, after leaving the Samoan Islands, made north-west for Java on a route which took him between the Gilberts and Ellice; 42 while Wallis, sailing from Uvea to Tinian, must have been close to the west of both these groups, if he did not actually pass through the Ellice, for he cut the equator in 187° 24′ W, sighting birds, drifting coconuts and leaves, and in 2° 50′ N he was in 188° W and “crossed a great rippling”: at these periods he must have been within about 50 miles of Kuria and Butaritari respectively. 43

La Perouse, in November 1787, came even closer to sighting land while on a course from Kamchatka to Samoa, which took him to the east of Howland and Baker and then right through the middle of the Phoenix Group. At noon on the 27th La Perouse was apparently in 4° 17′ S and 171° 21′ W, and how he avoided seeing Sydney Island in 4° 27′ S and 171° 16′ W is hard to understand; he realized that land was close owing to the number of birds which, between 5° and 6° S, “flew round the ship in such numbers, especially during the night, that we were stunned by the noise they made, and could with difficulty hear each other speak upon the quarter-deck”, but though “inspired every moment with the hopes of making land” they saw nothing. 44

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The settlement of Port Jackson in 1788 had an immediate effect in accelerating the discovery of the Central Pacific Islands in that it led to the establishment of a new trade route from Australia to China which passed only slightly to the west of the Gilberts. The more direct northern route to Canton or Macao was to remain for many years encompassed with all the hazards of unknown reefs and uncharted islands and the sailing vessels of the time generally preferred what was known as the “Outer or Eastern Passage”, as having fewer navigational dangers and steadier winds. Indeed, Morison mentions seeing the tracks of several ships following this route plotted on a Norie Chart of 1888, which suggests that it continued to be favoured by some captains until sail was finally supplanted by steam. 45

The route which came to be recommended in the Sailing Directions of the time went past Norfolk Island to Matthew Island in lat. 22° 20′ S, and thence between the New Hebrides and Fiji, keeping in about long. 171° E, to Anuta (or Cherry Island). The equator was crossed between long. 160° and 168° E and a course set to pass more or less between the Marshalls and Carolines in about long. 163° E. After that it was plain sailing. 46

It will be readily seen that on such a route ships would pass very close to Ocean Island and Nauru and that if, whether from the action of wind or current or from deliberate choice, they went rather more to the east than usual, they were likely to sight some part of the Gilbert chain.

(a) Gilbert and Marshall: 1788.

The trail was blazed by Captain Thomas Gilbert, in the Charlotte, and Captain John Marshall, in the Scarborough, two of the six transports which carried the first convicts to New South Wales, landing them at Sydney Cove in January, 1788. The ships were then released and, having been chartered by the East India Company to carry tea from Canton to England, left for China in May, the two captains deciding to sail in company.

After calling at Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands and discovering Matthew Island, they sighted land at 6 a.m. on June 18, 1788. By 10 a.m. the ships were “close up with three low islands”, which Marshall called Hopper's, Henderville's and Woodle's Islands and which were later identified on the charts as Abemama, Aranuka and Kuria. 47

As, however, it seemed probable, even to a layman, that neither of the captains could have seen Abemama, their narratives and Marshall's log were referred to Captain Brett Hilder, a leading navigational authority on the area, who has established that Hopper's Island was actually the main (or eastern) islet of ARANUKA, Henderville's the smaller western islet on the same reef and Woodle's the island of KURIA.

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Gilbert's course, as plotted by Captain Hilder, is shown below, his explanatory comments being as follows:

Gilbert's bearings at noon on the 18th . . . prove that the three islands were Aranuka East, Aranuka West, and Kuria. I have plotted all the bearings from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. that day, and the positions fixed by the cross bearings give his mean track. The position at noon, when all three islands were in sight, is most convincing, as only one of the six bearings fails to cut properly, and I assume that this bearing was wrongly recorded . . . You will see from the noon position bearings of Kuria that Oneaka was hidden behind Kuria, if not too distant to see. 48

Captain Gilbert's Course Past KURIA and ARANUKA Islands.

Woodford has suggested that Marshall may have sighted Abemama when Gilbert sighted Aranuka, but it is evident that the two ships kept close together and that the same islands were seen from both. Gilbert saw the Scarborough's signal that she had discovered land and the land itself at the same moment; he could hardly have spotted the signal if the vessels had been off Abemama and Aranuka respectively, and thus over 20 miles apart. And both saw the land in the same position: N 1/2 W.

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There is no need to labour the point, for despite their ambiguities Marshall's narrative and the log of the Scarborough 49 make sense only on the assumption that Marshall, like Gilbert, saw Aranuka and Kuria, but not Abemama. The sole suggestion to the contrary, Marshall's statement that Henderville's Island lay “about six miles to the south-west of Hopper's”, may be accounted for by the fact that the most conspicuous mark on Aranuka, as one makes towards Kuria, is the clump of high mangroves on the NE corner, and from that point the western islet does lie south of west.

Both captains were favourably impressed with the Gilbertese who came out to the ships at Aranuka; and in particular by their fast and well-built canoes, of which a detailed description is given. Marshall calls them lively, ingenious and expert, and argues from the fact that they appeared “plump and fleshy, and seemed to live at their ease” that their islands must be well supplied with food. Gilbert considered them to be facetious, though he was gratified that “they viewed with great attention the sides of the ship, which I had caused to be painted red, some of the voyages I had perused pointing out that colour as the most pleasing to the natives of these climates”. 50 They could not be persuaded to come on board, however, and after presenting them with a mirror, a bottle and some nails, in exchange for which they gave their necklaces, the captains passed to the west of Kuria and again sighted land at day-break on the 20th. 51

From the Charlotte this appeared as three islands, part of what Marshall called “a chain of islands, extending from south-east to north-west for the distance of more than thirty leagues”. 52 By 8 a.m. a fourth island appeared to the NE and from its latitude (Marshall 1° 50′ N), the description and, above all, the excellent sketch of the island made by Captain Gilbert, there can be no doubt that it was ABAIANG. Working back from Gilbert's bearings, given almost hourly from day-break to noon, it seems clear that the three islands first seen were islets in the north of TARAWA Atoll: these were called Gilbert's, Marshall's and Knox's Islands. 53

By noon the vessels were off Nuotaea Islet on the north-west corner of Abaiang lagoon. Although unable to find an anchorage Gilbert had time not only to sketch the island but also to name its most striking features: the atoll itself was called Matthew's Island, in honour of the owner of the Charlotte, the lagoon Charlotte Bay and the south-western point of the main island Point Charlotte. Nuotaea was christened Point William and the low islets on the north and north-west reefs the Marlar's Islands. 54 Natives were seen on the beach and in canoes, but none could be persuaded to come near the ships and despite their - 79 anxiety to obtain fresh provisions to treat scurvy, at that time almost invariably present on long voyages, the captains thought it imprudent to risk a landing.

The two ships then continued north, sighting BUTARITARI at 11.30 a.m. on the 21st. They sailed along the reef all the afternoon, and Marshall called the various islets (or parts of islets) which he sighted around the lagoon, from south to north, Allen's, Gillespie's, Touching's, Clarke's, Smith's and Scarborough Islands, the first being identifiable with Ukiangang and the last with Bikati Islets. 55

Again canoes came out to the ships but the Gilbertese could not be induced to come alongside, so they rounded the north-west point after dark, by the aid of fires lit by the natives on Bikati, and sailed north to make further discoveries in the Marshall Group.

Unfortunately, misunderstandings as to the identification of the islands discovered by Gilbert and Marshall arose from the start and in some cases have persisted to the present day. In the first place the cartographer Arrowsmith, who first charted the islands, used Gilbert's longitudes, which were approximately two degrees too far east, instead of Marshall's, which were remarkably accurate. As a result Duperrey, searching for Matthew's Island in 1824, identified it with Marakei some 25 miles farther to the east. 56 Although Duperrey's error was recognized by Krusenstern, the name Matthew has stuck to Marakei ever since. 57

Furthermore, Duperrey searched for Butaritari without being able to find it and its existence remained a doubtful point with cartographers until it was seen and charted by the Wilkes Expedition in 1841. The misunderstanding over Abemama, Aranuka and Kuria has already been mentioned: Duperrey saw the last two which, with the support of Krusenstern, he considered to be Henderville's and Woodle's but then identified Hopper's Island with Abemama. 58 Matters were not helped by the fact that Marshall had placed Hopper's in his narrative, though not his log, in 0° 03′ S, instead of N.

In the two recent discussions on these discoveries, Woodford has, as already indicated, recognized that Gilbert could not have seen Abemama. 59 Possibly through lack of local knowledge he did not, however, realize that Marshall could not have either. With this one exception one can agree with his reconstruction of the route taken by the navigators.

On the other hand the more recent study by Morison 60 suggests that the author had not seen Woodford's earlier work and used the abstract of Marshall's log without discovering his more detailed narrative of the voyage in the same volume. Whether this be so or not, Morison not only makes the same identification of Hopper's, Henderville's and Woodle's Islands as Duperrey, but goes on to suggest that - 80 Matthew's is Tarawa (Point William being Betio) and, by an apparent misreading of the sequence of discoveries in Gilbert's narrative, he concludes by claiming that Gilbert's, Marshall's and Knox's Islands are Butaritari and Little Makin.

A final point concerns the actual priority of discovery of each island as between the two captains. The narratives establish that while Aranuka was sighted first, and therefore discovered, by Marshall, Gilbert saw Kuria some hours before him and may therefore be considered its discoverer. Furthermore, we may deduce that Gilbert was also the discoverer of Tarawa and Abaiang from his statement that he signalled his sighting to the Scarborough and was accorded the right of naming the islands; 61 and that Marshall was, for the same reason, the discoverer of Butaritari.

(b) Sever: 1788.

The colonization of New South Wales led not only to the plotting of the first trade route to traverse the Central Pacific, but also to the development of the first island commercial centre where ships could be provisioned and their crews refreshed. Hawaii had become such a centre for the North Pacific since the visit of Captain James Hanna in 1785; Tahiti was destined to become its counterpart in the South Pacific, and the pioneer commercial captain to use it was in this case Captain William Sever, of the Lady Penrhyn, the third transport to leave Port Jackson for China in May, 1788.

The three ships actually met off Lord Howe Island, but Sever, with scurvy on board and in urgent need of fresh provisions, decided to call at Tahiti en route in order to replenish his supplies. On his last voyage Cook had been impressed with the superior advantages of Tahiti over any other Pacific island as a refitting base, expressing the view that “there was not a probability of our being better or cheaper supplied with refreshments at any other place than we continued to be here”; and this may well have influenced Sever, since Lieut. John Watts, R.N., who had been at Tahiti with Cook, was one of his officers.

His enterprise paid dividends, for large quantities of pigs, fowls, vegetables and fruit were obtained in exchange for hatchets, knives and nails, and after a fortnight of the traditional island hospitality (they were actually the first ship to visit Tahiti after Cook) Sever and his now recovered crew sailed for Macao.

Leaving Huahine, the next port of call, on August 2, the Lady Penrhyn sailed NW and:

At daylight in the morning of the 8th, they saw a low flat island, bearing from east to north-west seven or eight miles distant; it appeared to be well clothed with trees, but the weather at that time being squally allowed them a very imperfect view. Captain Sever named it Penrhyn's Island; it is situated in 9° 10′ south latitude, and 202° 15′ east longitude. 62

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This meagre description, which is hardly more than a copy of the entry in the ship's log, 63 is of little assistance in identifying the discovery: any coral island is low and flat and most of them are “well clothed in trees”. However, from the position given there can be no doubt that Penrhyn's Island is the atoll known as TONGAREVA in the Northern Cooks; which is indeed usually called Penrhyn to this day.

The actual position of Atutahi Islet, the SE point of Tongareva, is 9° 7′ S and 157° 56′ W, and there is no other land nearer than Rakahanga, nearly 200 miles to the WSW.

From Tongareva, the Lady Penrhyn sailed on a roughly NW course between the Phoenix and Line Groups, the next island sighted being Saipan in the Marianas. On October 19 she anchored in Macao Roads.

The only published account of the voyage is by Lieut. Watts, to whom the discovery is usually attributed. 64 There is no reason, however, why we should depart from the normal practice of crediting it to the commander of the ship, Captain Sever.

(c) Fearn: 1798.

As it took some time for the “Outer Passage” to China to become known it was not until a decade later that the next discovery on the route was made; by Captain John Fearn in the Hunter, a snow of 300 tons, with eight guns and a crew of fifty. The Hunter arrived at Port Jackson from Bengal in June, 1798, with a cargo of India goods, cows and horses, whose exorbitant retail prices caused much comment at the time. 65

Leaving again on August 20 for Calcutta, via New Zealand, Fearn followed, at least in the initial stages of his voyage, much the same course as that prescribed for China-bound ships, sighting Matthew Island and discovering the sister Hunter Island about 45 miles to the east.

On November 8 NAURU Island was discovered and placed in lat. 0° 27′ S (by dead reckoning) and long. 167° 10′ E 66 (its actual position is 0° 30′ S and 166° 55′ E). Identity is made certain by the absence of any other islands in the neighbourhood and by the excellent description given by Fearn, who named it Pleasant Island “from its aspect”:

On a near view it shows a soil, rocky, and for the most part very cragged, appearing so at intervals among the trees, with which it is finely ornamented, but not thickly covered, excepting, however, its low part, close behind a fine beach that surrounds the island. This seems a girdle of larger cocoa-nut-trees, which regularly lines the beach, and amongst them several smaller trees, of a beautiful deep green foliage; amongst these I saw houses in great numbers, the capacious size and regularity of which bespeaks the possessors not meanly lodged. 67

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The Nauruans appeared “very courteous” and without weapons of any kind; in fact their conduct was in marked contrast to that experienced by visiting ships half a century later, by which time the island had become the headquarters of some of the worst beachcomers to be found in the Pacific. They were most anxious that the Hunter should anchor, offering as an inducement several bread-fruit and a single coconut. This readiness to engage in barter, and the fact that Nauru lay right in the track of ships sailing from Australia to China, made Fearn suspect that it must have been visited before, but if so no record of the fact has survived.

(d) Bishop: 1799.

The following year the Gilberts were again visited, this time by Captain Charles Bishop in the brig Nautilus, who had with him on board his friend and future partner George Bass, the celebrated explorer. Having a licence from the East India Company to trade in the Far East, for which they then held the monopoly, Bishop purchased the 57-foot Nautilus, of 60 tons registry and carrying a crew of 25, at Amboina, and after months of storms, which caused him to abandon plans for obtaining furs on the North-west coast of America, he reached Port Jackson in his battered and leaking vessel.

Bass, who was then on sick leave from the Navy, decided to join Bishop in a speculative venture for shipping goods from England to New South Wales. First, however, it was necessary to sell the Nautilus and as this could best be done at Macao or Canton, the partners left Port Jackson on May 29, 1799, bound for China. 68 The vessel carried the first letters of marque “for reprisals against Spain” to be issued by a Vice-Admiralty Court in Australia. 69

On July 1 Bishop discovered TABITEUEA and that afternoon named and charted the treacherous Nautilus Shoal, on which the whaler Corsair was to be wrecked in 1835. By noon on the 2nd he was anchored at what later came to be known as the Peacock Anchorage and was evidently visited by the islanders, whom Bass described as “a brown, handsome and courteous people”. 70 Tabiteuea Atoll was called Bishop's Islands; and the main islet of Eanikai was called Drummond's Island, after James Drummond, one of the East India Company's supercargoes at Macao, who had helped Bishop to raise funds and of whom he wrote in 1797 that “the obligation he has conferred on me I shall never forget”.

By midday on the 3rd Bishop was off Temotu, the southern islet of NONOUTI, which he called Dog Island, the whole atoll being named Sidenham Teast's Islands after the owner of the Nautilus, a merchant of Bristol. Spending the night tacking off the south of the island, at daylight the ship sailed north-west along the reef, being off the little island of Numatong, which was called Two Tree Island, at midday. Course was now set due north and at daybreak the south end of - 83 ABEMAMA was sighted and named Harbottle Island after the second officer, the atoll being called Roger Simpson's Islands after Captain Simpson of Canton, an old hand in the North-West Pacific Coast trade, who was on board as “co-agent and factor”. By noon on the 5th, the Nautilus was off Abatiku Islet and at sunset well clear of the atoll to the NNW. Missing the remainder of the Gilberts, Bishop passed through the Marshalls, where some further discoveries were made, and reached Macao on August 17.

No account of this voyage has been published but there is a brief mention of it by Bishop himself in a MS. volume in the Mitchell Library, Sydney. 71 The main source of information, however, is an excellent chart of the islands seen, prepared by Bass and Simpson and given by the former to Alexander Dalrymple, the cartographer, who published it in 1802, from which identifications can be made without difficulty. 72 Latitudes are unusually accurate for the time, with longitudes approximately a degree too far east.

(e) Gardner: 1801.

On November 21, 1800, Captain Jered Gardner arrived in Port Jackson on the 215 ton Diana, an American ship owned by Rodman and Company, of New Bedford, and carrying a speculative cargo. There was little difficulty in selling her beef, spirits, tobacco and hardware, as the Colony was short of supplies, and on December 1 she left for China by the “Outer Passage”. 73

The following excerpt is from the ship's log-book of the voyage:

Jan. 3, 1801, lat. by observation 00.17 Sout hlongitude 167.13 East.—at 5 a.m. saw land bearing E. by N. ½ N. four or 5 leagues distant, of a moderate height, rather highest in the middle, and the ends gradually sloping down to the water; it appeared to be about 4 leagues from North to South; we saw smokes in two or three places, which gave us reason to suppose it was inhabited. Being near the latitude of BYRON ISLAND we thought this might be that Island, though by our calculation we were some degrees to the westward of it; but from the course which we afterwards steered, and our not making the islands which lie to the northward of it, renders it impossible for it to be BYRON ISLAND; and not finding it laid down in any of our Eastern Charts, we consider it as a new discovery, and as such have named it RODMAN'S ISLAND. We place it in 1° 00′ South lat. and in 168° 45′ East lon. by lunar observation, two days after making it. 74

This report, which was published in a number of New England newspapers, caused some speculation at the time. As a correspondent to one of the journals pointed out, either the position of the ship or the island appeared, on the face of it, to be wrong. 75 Gardner, however, explained that the ship's latitude was taken from the noon sight “but

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Central Pacific Section of Arrowsmith's Chart of the Pacific Ocean, 1798, Showing Additions to 1802.
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the Island being discovered at five in the morning, was by calculation placed in the lat. of 1° south, as afterwards stated—the long. was stated from dead reckoning, but afterwards corrected by observation”. 76

The Editor added that Captain Gardner was:

confident that the land which he saw, could vary but little, if any from the latitude in which he has placed it; and as he 4 days afterwards, on the 7th Jan. made the island of Longurfanes, and thereby had a further opportunity of ascertaining the longitude, he thinks that must likewise be very near the truth. 77

A further complication was the fact that at least one newspaper gave the island's longitude as 163° 45′ E, 78 but this was clearly an error since there is no land near that position and in any case the Diana, which was travelling in a NW direction, could not then have been in 167° 13′ E at noon.

Accepting, therefore, 1° 00′ S and 168° 45′ E as approximately the position of Rodman Island, what had Gardner sighted? The answer must surely be OCEAN ISLAND, which lies in 0° 52′ S and 169° 35′ E, only 8 miles to the north of this latitude and less than a degree to the east.

Furthermore, Ocean Island is officially described as being “of elevated coral formation, with a central plateau rising to a maximum height of 280 ft. above sea level, and slopes descending fairly regularly from the plateau to the coast”, which is almost a paraphrase of Gardner's account; though perhaps a photograph demonstrates even more effectively what he must have seen. 79

It would seem, therefore, that Ocean Island was discovered not by Captain John Mertho, of the Ocean, in 1804, but by Captain Jered Gardner, of the Diana, in 1801.

(f) Patterson: 1809.

Even in those early times few ships can have had a more varied career than the brig Elizabeth during her five years in the Pacific. In 1804, as a Spanish merchant vessel, the San Francisco and San Paulo, she put into Coquimbo on the South American coast, where she was captured by Captain William Campbell, of the Harrington, who later alleged that he had acted under a belief (subsequently proved to have been mistaken) that England was at war with Spain.

On Campbell's arrival at Port Jackson, the legality of this and other actions of his was questioned by Governor King, the final upshot being that the vessel was sold, the proceeds to be paid to whoever was found to be the lawful owner. 80

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The purchaser was John Macarthur, who fitted her out for the island trade, engaging William Shelley, ex-missionary from Tahiti, as supercargo. For three years she played an adventurous part in the Fiji sandalwood trade, as well as visiting Tahiti, New Zealand and Tonga. 81 In 1809 it was decided to sell her in Canton, to which port she sailed, with Captain Patterson as master and a cargo of sandalwood, on December 18, 1808. 82

An account of Patterson's discoveries during this voyage, dated June 3, 1809, first appeared in the Bombay Courier, where it was stated to have been prepared by an officer in the East India Company's service. 83 Though brief, this is a competent piece of work and from the descriptions given, and the unusually accurate observations (the longitudes being both by sun and moon, and chronometer) there is no difficulty in identifying the islands seen: only two of these, however, being discoveries. The Elizabeth did not stop off any island, and there was no communication with the natives.

The first island to be sighted was Nanumea and, not knowing that it was the San-Augustin of Maurelle, the main islet was given the name of Sherson's Isle while Lakena, on the same reef, was called Taswell's Isle. That Patterson was so far to the east in this latitude was presumably due to his having called at Fiji for sandalwood.

Hope Island, in 2° 43′ S and 176° 56′ 25″ E, was the first discovery, this being obviously ARORAE. As there was apparently another Hope Island in the North Pacific, the name was changed by Purdy in 1816 to Hurd Island, in honour of Captain Hurd, Hydrographer to the Admiralty. The two names caused a certain amount of confusion as to whether there were two islands in this position, but eventually the whalers came to know Arorae as Hope and the name has stuck ever since.

Proceeding north, the Elizabeth passed Nonouti (Blaney's Isle) and Abemama (Dundas Island) to discover MAIANA, which was called Hall's Isle and placed in 1° 00′ N and 172° 56′ 33″ E. The island was described as “long and low, and abundantly supplied with coconut trees, which were plainly perceived from the deck”.

Before Maiana was lost to sight, Tarawa was seen ahead, the description of the island, which was called Cook's Isle, being particularly detailed. Captain Patterson then steered NW, his next landfall being in the Marshalls.

On arrival in China, the Elizabeth was sold to the Portuguese at Macao and was later bought by the Chinese Government, who converted her into the Brig of War Tigres, the first European type vessel in their Navy, with a crew of 60 Chinese and 40 American seamen.

(g) A Possible Hit—Bentley: 1799.

It would seem that anyone able to locate further details concerning the voyage of the Ann and Hope in 1799 may find that her Captain - 87 Christopher Bentley was in fact the discoverer of one or more islands in the Ellice and Gilbert Groups.

We know that the Ann and Hope left Rhode Island on August 9 for China and sailed via the Cape of Good Hope, Australia and the “Outer Passage”, sighting several islands in the Tongan Group before turning north. 84

The Gilbert Islands, Showing Approximate Routes of the Discoverers. (Routes of Palmer and Chase are conjectural.) Based on Admiralty Chart No. 1830.
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So much is detailed in the Sailing Directories of the time, but I can find nothing about Bentley's route after leaving Tonga except a statement that he went as far east as Fearn the previous year and the following brief but suggestive extract from a letter written after his arrival at Canton “by a gentleman on board the ship”:

From the latitude of 19 S. to 10 N. we were entangled by land and shoals, and our chart having deceived us, we could place no reliance on it. The nights were excessively dark, and in some instances the course we steered must have precipitated us on the reefs or shore; but the Deity . . . tempered the winds contrary to our expectations; and at the dawn, when we surveyed the dangers we had escaped in the night, our sense of his wisdom and goodness was increased. We saw more islands to the northward, between the track of the Scarborough and the Caroline Islands, amounting to upwards of fifty. Jan. 6, at 3 p.m. we made the island of Saypan . . . 85

One can but hope that further research will succeed in bringing to light Bentley's log-book or journal.


Though it would be broadly true to say that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries all commercial sea roads through the Pacific Islands led to China, they did not necessarily all start from Port Jackson. We have already mentioned the North-west Fur Trade, via Hawaii, which commenced in 1785 and was well established by 1792. This had no direct effect on the Central Pacific, but it had an indirect one, in so much as ships making for the North Pacific might well pass through the area.

But the sea-otter furs from the far north, though the most valuable, were not the only pelts in demand at Canton; from 1790 they were supplemented, and later supplanted, by seal furs from the far south; and vessels from the Horn or Juan Fernandez might also be found crossing the Central Pacific en route to China.

This section then is devoted to the discoveries of the fur traders, on their way to and from the bleak latitudes where they sought their cargoes.

(a) Barber: 1794.

If America was the main supplier of the Australian market in the years immediately succeeding the settlement of Port Jackson (apart from the Home country), India was a close contender. Captain Henry Barber, Master of the 85-ton snow Arthur, operated from both centres but his first voyage was made from Bengal in 1794 with a speculative cargo of beef and pork, sugar, rum and calico, which he disposed of at a satisfactory profit. 86

Barber left Port Jackson on April 3, 1794, this time for the North-west Coast of America to engage in the fur trade, and anchored off the - 89 Yasawas, where the vessel was attacked by the natives. 87 Continuing on his voyage:

The 28th of May, on his passage to the northward, in the lat. of 3° 45′ S. Captain Barber discovered a small sandy island, to which he gave the name of Drummond's Island which appeared to have no other inhabitants than birds. This island is very low and cannot be seen from the deck of a vessel more than five or six miles. It lies in lat. 3° 40′ S. and nearly in the long, of 176° 51′ W. of Greenwich—variation 9, east. 88

The discovery was added to Arrowsmith's 1798 chart as Arthur Island, from the name of Barber's ship; and it can be identified as McKEAN ISLAND, in 3° 35′ S and 174° 04′ W, by far the most westerly of the three Phoenix Islands in that latitude. Thus was the veil lifted for a moment from the last of the Pacific groups to be discovered by Europeans.

In later years the U.S.S. Vincennes, of the Wilkes Expedition, was held to have discovered McKean in 1840; 89 but the little island had been seen many times before then, early visitors being the whaler Japan in 1830, Captain Worth in 1832 (who thought it to be Onotoa), and an unknown whaling captain in 1834 (who called it Wigram's Island). 90

(b) Fanning: 1798.

One of the pioneers of the fur seal trade was Captain Edmund Fanning, a man of considerable ability who was responsible for the instigation or direction of some 70 maritime commercial ventures and to whose enterprise is largely due the decision to send out the Wilkes Exploring Expedition in the 1840s. 91

In 1798, on one of his first voyages to the South Seas, in the 100 ton brig Betsey, Fanning obtained a full cargo of seal skins at the island of Mas-afuera, in the Juan Fernandez Group, and made for the Marquesas, en route for China. Leaving there on May 30, he sailed north, crossing the Equator on June 7, in longitude 154° 43′ W.

At 3 a.m. on the 11th breakers were seen ahead and the Betsey was found to be some four miles south of the NE point of a low coral atoll on which, had the wind not held, they would certainly have been wrecked. They sailed round the north coast to the western (or lee) side of the island and anchored off the passage into the lagoon. The atoll, which was christened Fanning's Island—now FANNING ISLAND—was found to be a delightful place, with:

Sufficient depth of water through the passage for any merchant ship to pass in, and on the inner or bay side is smooth and convenient anchoring, which, together with the abundance of wood and water, the tropical fruits, best of fresh fish, and excellent turtle, here to be obtained, make this a very desirable spot, for the refitting of a ship, and refreshing a crew. 92

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After shipping firewood and a boat-load of coconuts, and noting that the island was in 3° 51′ 30″ N and 159° 12′ 30″ W (the actual position of English Harbour being 3° 51′ N and 159° 22′ W), Fanning proceeded NW by W and at noon the following day discovered an even more pleasant-looking island “covered with plants or grass, presenting to our eyes a beautiful, green, and flourishing appearance”. This was named Washington's Island—now WASHINGTON ISLAND—after the President, but as there was no reason for landing a second time Fanning continued on his route.

On the night of the 14th Fanning, who was a devoutly religious man, found himself three times out of his bunk and on deck without the least recollection of how he got there; the third time fully clothed. Regarding this as a warning, he had the brig kept tacking throughout the night in order to maintain her then position.

It was as well that he did so, for daylight revealed them just off the breakers of the KINGMAN REEF, “mast high, directly ahead, and towards which our ship was fast sailing”:

It was a coral reef or shoal, in the form of a crescent, about six leagues in extent from north to south; under its lee, and within the compass of the crescent there appeared to be white and shoal water. We did not discover a foot of ground, rock, or sand, above water, where a boat might have been hauled up. 93

A good description of Kingman Reef with a trade wind blowing.

The Betsey had succeeded in clearing the reef to the north when, Fanning tells us, from aloft with the aid of his glass he “could plainly see the land over it, far in the south”; but not wishing to make another hazardous discovery, lest it should prove to be their last, he continued on his way, changing course to hit the by now well charted Spanish route to Tinian.

In his book published thirty-five years later, Fanning claimed that what he had seen was Palmyra Island, some thirty-four miles from his position; but even if the top of its trees reached ninety feet above sea level this would still not seem possible. He may have seen the loom or reflection of Palmyra's lagoon in the sky, but whether this constitutes “visual apprehension” of the island, and therefore its discovery, is a nice legal point.

(c) Sawle: 1802.

Captain Sawle, of the Palmyra of Providence, Rhode Island, was sailing north from Christmas Island when on November 10, 1802, he discovered an island in 5° 49′ N and 162° 23′ W, which he described as about five leagues in extent, with two lagoons:

There are no inhabitants on the island, nor was any fresh water found; but cocoanuts of a very large size, are in great abundance; and fish of various kinds and in large shoals surround the land. 94

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This he named PALMYRA ISLAND, and if we disallow Fanning's alleged sighting four years before, Sawle must be accounted the discoverer. It has not definitely been established that he was engaged in the fur trade at the time, but this seems a reasonable inference from a letter to the editor of the American journal in which the discovery was announced.

(d) Cary: 1804.

Captain James Cary, of the American ship Rose, was also crossing the Pacific to Canton with seal skins for the Chinese market (but by a route well to the south of Fanning's) when, on March 4, 1804, he sighted an island in 2° 33′ S and 176° 9′ 30″ E.

Cary stayed off the island for two days and bartered hoop iron with the friendly natives, who came off in canoes, at first for “beads” and later, when they understood that they were preferred, for coconuts. He reported that, “By their behaviour, we suppose they never saw Foreigners before. They were inoffensive and knew not the use of firearms and seemed pleased with the reception they met with from us”. 95

There can be very little doubt that this discovery of Cary's is the island of TAMANA, which lies only eleven miles to the north-west of the position given by him, whereas the nearest other land (Arorae) is over forty miles to the east. Captain Clerk, of the John Palmer, who has hitherto been considered the discoverer of Tamana, did not visit it until twenty-two years later.

(e) Lazarev: 1814.

The next discovery was by an officer of the fur trading Russian-American Company of Alaska and the North Pacific. In October, 1813, Lieutenant Mikhail P. Lazarev sailed from Russia for the Company's headquarters at Sitka in command of the Suvorov, one of their vessels.

After three weeks at Port Jackson, the Suvorov left for Alaska early in September, 1814. No land was sighted until the 28th, when they saw a group of islets in 13° 12′ 30″ S and 196° 31′ 30″ E, which Lazarev called Suvorov after his ship. It proved to be an atoll, densely populated by birds which “obviously had never seen man, and did not move from their places on seeing people approaching them”.

The following is an excerpt from the journal of the pilot:

The Suvorov Islands are uninhabited, they consist of five small islands of a total area of about 25 miles. The islands are connected by low lying coral banks. There is no anchorage anywhere on these islands. At night or in foggy weather they may be passed unnoticed.
The officers and men of the Suvorov visited each of the newly discovered islands making detailed investigations and surveys. The crew collected the tropical fruit and coconuts which abounded on the islands and which were used as food during the later part of the voyage. 96

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There are several other accounts of the atoll, including Lazarev's own journal in the Russian Navy Department Archives, which identify it as the SUVOROV ISLAND (or Suwarrow) in 13° 15′ S and 163° 05′ W.

The Suvorov proceeded north the next day, crossing the Equator in longitude 167° 00′ W.


By the 1820s commercial routes were being pioneered and developed to many of the more important Pacific island groups; bringing pork, sandalwood, pearl shell and beche-de-mer to Port Jackson, Canton or America. Trans-Pacific routes were also opened up, notably from Australia round Cape Horn and between Australia or India and South America. Of these, however, only the last, which commenced on a regular footing about 1818, seems to have crossed the Central Pacific, resulting in four further discoveries, all made within a space of three years.

(a) Henderson: 1819.

Captain James Henderson, of the ship Hercules, called at Pitcairn Island on January 18, 1819, en route from Valparaiso to Calcutta, and the following day discovered Oeno Island. He must have then sailed in a north-westerly direction, for he eventually sighted:

. . . a small sandy island, with not a tree or shrub on it, and apparently steep too, except a few breakers off the N.W. end. This island would be very dangerous in the night, as a ship must be on shore before it could be discovered. 97

Unfortunately the exact date of the discovery is not stated but it would presumably be early in February, 1819. Henderson first saw it at 3.30 p.m. and, passing within two miles, estimated it to be about four miles long and three broad, and fixed its position as 5° 46′ S and 156° 5′ W. From both description and position this is STARBUCK ISLAND, in 5° 37′ S and 155° 55′ W.

(b) De Peyster: 1819.

Captain Arent Schuyler de Peyster was an American in command of the British brigantine Rebecca; according to Morison he was probably the son of a New York loyalist. 98 On March 17, 1819, also on a voyage from Valparaiso to Calcutta, via Nukuhiva, he discovered a group of fourteen islets, which appeared to be inhabited. The first was sighted at 3 a.m., when the Rebecca was only three times her length from the shore, so he was fortunate to avoid shipwreck. 99 He fixed the centre of the atoll as being in latitude 8° 29′ 5″ S and longitude (both by lunar and chronometer which differed by only 3′) 179° 6′ E, which if not the exact centre of FUNAFUTI is at all events well in the lagoon. 100

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The atoll was named Ellice's Group after De Peyster's friend and benefactor Edward Ellice (1781-1863), 101 Member of Parliament for Coventry, whose grandfather was a New York merchant and father a Managing Director of the Hudson's Bay Company.

That De Peyster saw Funafuti is certain not only from his accurate position and the number of islets seen (only Funafuti and Nukufetau in the Ellice Islands have as many) but also from the fact that he saw a second also inhabited island next morning in 8° 5′ S and 178° 17′ E. 102 This he called De Peyster's Group, describing the islets as “so low that even in broad daylight one would not discover them until almost touching”. 103 The position given would almost put one on top of NUKUFETAU.

(c) Patrickson: 1822.

The ship Good Hope was also trading between Calcutta and Valparaiso and on October 13, 1822, when en route to South America, she passed between two low islands, covered with coconut trees, which Captain Patrickson called Reirson's and Humphrey's Islands.

Reirson's Island was found to be in 10° 06′ S and 160° 55′ W and is identifiable with Rakahanga, sighted by Bellingshausen two years before. Humphrey's Island, in 10° 30′ S and 161° 02′ W, is MANIHIKI, a new discovery; presumably it was named after Captain Humphreys, who was in command of the Good Hope when she called at Hobart in 1821, en route to Valparaiso with merchandise.

The two islands are only twenty miles apart, and Patrickson evidently passed Manihiki at some distance, inferring that it was inhabited from the fact that he could see people on Rakahanga. 104


Although by the end of Cook's third voyage the main work of exploration in the South Seas was completed, there was still a considerable amount of mopping up to be done and exploring ships continued to be sent out by the British, French and Russian Governments.

In addition, the opening up of the Pacific to commercial shipping and the growth of missionary activity created problems in the main groups which led to the visits of warships, which often combined their specific duties with a little incidental exploration and surveying.

In the Central Pacific the activities of these two groups of government-operated vessels led to the discovery of a further six islands.

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(a) Edwards: 1791.

When Bligh returned to England in 1790 with the story of the Bounty mutiny the Admiralty took immediate action to apprehend the mutineers and bring them home for trial. Captain Edward Edwards was thereupon sent in H.M. frigate Pandora with orders to search for Christian and his companions.

Edwards, a conscientious if somewhat inhumane officer, followed his instructions meticulously and, having embarked fourteen of the Bounty crew at Tahiti, sailed west to locate the remainder: if he had possessed any idea of the number of islands in the Pacific, it would have seemed like looking for a needle in a haystack.

After calling at several islands in Eastern Polynesia and the Cook Group, Edwards made for Atafu, in the Tokelaus, the reason for this deviation being a statement made to him by Henry Hillbrant that he had heard Christian mention the possibility of settling there. The island was reached on June 6, 1791, and finding houses and a large wooden buoy it was at first believed that they had found Christian's hide-out; but a thorough inspection showed it to be uninhabited, though evidently used by fishing parties from other islands. 105

A decision to make to the windward of Atafu before setting course for the Tongan Group resulted in the discovery of NUKUNONO on June 12. Edwards was naturally anxious to get in touch with the inhabitants, who were gathered on the beach, in the hope of obtaining news of Christian, but for some reason they avoided the shore party and fled across the lagoon in canoes. Leaving presents for them in the deserted village, he sailed round the northern point and landed a second party on the NE coast; again, however, without meeting anyone. So after returning to the main village and finding it still deserted, he concluded that the natives had left the island, and the Pandora stood to the south: in three days they were off Savaii. The discovery, which was called the Duke of Clarence's Island, can be identified by the position given, 9° 9′ 30″ S and 171° 30′ 46″ W, which is correct for latitude but about twenty miles to the east (approximately the same error was made for Atafu), and the description of the NW, N and NE coasts in Captain Edwards' report. 106

(b) Broughton: 1795.

The next discovery was also connected, though only indirectly, with the Bounty mutiny, for the sloop Providence had just returned from delivering the breadfruit trees which Bligh had obtained on his second attempt when she was sent back to the Pacific, under the command of Captain W. R. Broughton, for survey work off China and Japan.

After calling at Tahiti, Broughton followed Cook's route to Hawaii and, like Cook, discovered an island on the way: on December 11, 1795. This he called Carolina Island in honour of the daughter of Sir P. Stephens, one of the Lords of the Admiralty, placing it in 9° 57′ S and - 95 209° 35′ E. He described it as low and extending for about five miles in a north and south direction; the southern extremity was the highest part, and here it was covered with what appeared to be coconut trees. 107 It was the CAROLINE ISLAND of the charts, situated in the Southern Line Group, only twelve miles to the east of his position.

(c) Bellingshausen: 1820.

Wintering in the tropics between two voyages to the Antarctic, Admiral Thaddeus Bellingshausen, in command of a Russian exploring expedition, set sail from Tahiti to Port Jackson. After passing Matahiva, the westernmost of the Tuamotus, he reached the 10th parallel just west of Caroline and proceeding along it discovered an island, on August 3, in 10° 05′ 50″ S and 152° 16′ 50″ W, which he called VOSTOK after his ship.

Bellingshausen circled the island close inshore and was particularly struck by the numbers of sea birds nesting there. “It appeared”, he wrote, “overgrown with thick low trees; the white shore seemed to consist of coral, rising gradually up to the woods. Its greatest length was a little more than half a mile in a north-west by north direction, and in width it was less than half a mile.” There is a chart and an excellent sketch of Vostok in the narrative of the voyage. 108

On August 7 a further island was sighted in 10° 01′ 25″ S and 161° 02′ 18″ W. This “belonged to the coral island type and was thickly covered with cocoa-nut palms and had a lagoon in the centre. On the windward side the shore was broken in places and formed small islands with foam-covered silvery walls against the surf, breaking over the coral reef.” They found a village on the SW side and distributed silver and bronze medals to the no doubt gratified inhabitants. The island is described as “running in a north by east and south by west direction and is 2.5 miles in length and 0.75 mile in width, the circumference being 8 miles”. Bellingshausen called it Grand Duke Alexander Island and from the position, description and, above all, the very clear chart of the island there is no difficulty in recognizing it as RAKAHANGA. 109

(d) Duperrey: 1824.

The French Government Expedition under Captain Duperrey, in command of the corvette Coquille, passed through the Northern Ellice and Gilberts in 1824, and appears to have visited Nanumanga, Nanumea, Tabiteuea and all the Gilberts to the north with the exception of Abemama, Butaritari and Makin.

The official narrative of this expedition was unfortunately never completed, or if completed not published, but from other accounts it seems that there was a certain amount of contact and bartering with the Gilbertese at Tabiteuea, Nonouti and Aranuka. 110

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On May 20 the Coquille sighted the island of MARAKEI, this being mistaken by Duperrey for the Matthew's Island of Gilbert. But Gilbert had not seen Marakei nor, so far as is known, had anyone else, so the discovery must therefore be laid to the credit of Duperrey. He placed it in 2° 4′ N and 170° 56′ E (of Paris); and fortunately the identification can be checked by reference to the chart of the Gilberts in the published atlas of the voyage. 111

(e) Eeg: 1825.

During July, 1825, the Dutch sloop Pollux, under Captain Eeg, accompanied by the frigate Maria Reygersberch, under Captain Koerzen, sailed round the world; and leaving South America on April 10, 1825, they touched at Nukuhiva on May 15. 112 Eeg then decided to sail along the parallel of 7° S, in the hope that it might lead to the discovery of some islands.

When he reached the Ellice Group Eeg steered a course approximately between Nanumanga and Nukufetau, the position of both being known to him. Just before dawn on July 14 breakers were heard and, with the daylight, it was found that they were two miles off a lagoon island, about eight miles long, shaped like a horseshoe and well covered with coconut and other trees.

The latitude of the new discovery was determined to be 7° 10′ S and its longitude (by three chronometers) 177° 33′ 16″ E, a position almost within sight of the island of NUI, which in fact it was.

An armed boat was sent to the shore, where about 300 islanders had assembled, and “some old handkerchiefs and empty bottles” were exchanged by the frugal Dutch for coconuts.

Being short of water, the two captains were compelled to leave their discovery, which they called Nederlandich Island, without making any further attempt to examine it. 113 On August 1 they reached the Moluccas.

(f) Near Miss—Kotzebue: 1816.

Another extraordinary near miss was that of Kotzebue in 1816, who, like La Perouse, failed to discover the Phoenix Group by a few miles and must have almost piled up on Howland without seeing it.

Leaving Tongareva with the deliberate intention of searching for the islands discovered by Gilbert and Marshall in 1788, Kotzebue was in 3° 14′ 34″ S and 168° 25′ 33″ W on May 8, when he saw “a great quantity of sea-birds, which, after sun-set, flew to the south”. He adds that “we could not doubt, from the great number of birds, that we were near many uninhabited islands and rocks, and, if time had permitted, I should have followed the direction of the birds to the S.W.; but, as it was, the current took us every day from between 33 to 45 miles to N.W.”. 114

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Kotzebue crossed the Equator in 175° 27′ 55″ W on May 11 so his route must have taken him within about 55 miles of both Enderbury and Canton, to which islands, or to Phoenix, the birds were no doubt on their way home.

Continuing NW, Kotzebue was in 1° 17′ 46″ N and 177° 5′ W the following day, when they saw “among many sea-birds, one land-bird, but could see no land, even from the mast-head; which made us conclude that it lay very low”. 115 Actually he must have passed within 30 miles of Baker and less than 10 miles of Howland during the night: had it been daylight the latter island would have been easily visible.

Kotzebue never sighted the Gilberts or Marshalls either for, as we have noted, Arrowsmith had accepted the longitudes of Gilbert rather than Marshall and the Groups were, as a consequence, placed too far to the east. Later, when faced by Kotzebue with proof that the islands could not be found where he had put them, Arrowsmith replied that “he had marked them on his chart according to the statements of several navigators who had seen here and there an island of this archipelago, and, consequently, he could not be answerable for their accuracy”. 116


We have now accounted for the discovery of 36 of the 57 separate islands in the Central Pacific: with reasonable certainty we can say that all but one of the remaining 21 were first seen from the mast-head of a sperm whaler.

The first whaleship—the Amelia—entered Pacific waters in 1788, her cruise being such a success that after her return in 1790 she was immediately followed by five others. But for many years the ships kept to the “on-shore grounds” close to the South American coast and few ventured even so far as the Marquesas.

During 1819, however, a few whalers arrived at the Hawaiian Islands: three of these ships proceeded to the north-west to discover the famous “Japan grounds” while another three sailed south-west, by separate routes, and may be considered the pioneers of what came to be known as the “on-the-line grounds”. 117 These areas stretched along the Equator from the Line Islands to the Gilbert and Ellice Groups and thus covered roughly the Central Pacific area with which we are here concerned. According to Beale, the favourite whaling sites “on-the-line” were:

  • From Fenning's to Christmas Island—situated on the line.
  • Equinoctial Line—from the longitude of 168° to 175° east.
  • King's Mill Group—off any part of these islands, but more particularly off the south-west parts of Roach's Island, distant from the land thirty or forty miles; and off the south-west portion of Byron's Island.
  • Ellis's Group—off the south side, distant from the land three or four miles.
  • Mitchell's Group—off the south side, distant from the land three or four miles. 118
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Once the existence of the latest whaling ground became generally known, the isolation of the Central Pacific Islands was effectively ended: from being the least known region of the ocean, with a sail in sight scarce once in a decade, it became almost overnight the most frequented of all, visited each year by several hundred vessels. It could only be a matter of time, therefore, and brief time at that, before every island had been discovered and rediscovered till their outlines became as familiar to the whalers as their own home ports.

Unfortunately, whaling captains too often omitted to report their discoveries and islands (unless suitable for refreshment) were in any case to them little more than obstructions to navigation. Hence although we may know, as in the case of more than one in the Phoenix Group, that an island was frequently sighted by whalers and must almost certainly have been discovered by one of them, yet we may still not be able to trace the date of its discovery or the name of its discoverer.

A great deal of research, however, has been done during recent years in America into old whaling records, notably by Edouard A. Stackpole, and we are now able to piece together, from the log-books of voyages and notices in the newspapers of the whaling seaports, a reasonably complete account of the discoveries made by the American whaling masters. 119 Such gaps as still remain may well be filled in when similar research is undertaken into the records of British ships working in the area.

The whaling record of discovery is indeed a creditable one, for whalers found all but two of the islands still unsighted at the time of their arrival on the scene. That they did not discover as many as some exaggerated claims would lead one to suppose was not their fault: there just were not so many unknown islands left by the year 1821. 120

It is in itself a testimony to the thoroughness with which the whaling ships combed the Central Pacific that, with a few exceptions, their discoveries cover only four years, from 1821, when Captain George Barrett entered the Ellice Group, to 1825, when Captain Obed Starbuck sighted the last three uncharted islands in the Loper. 121 As the period is so brief it will probably present a more coherent picture if the discoveries are recorded group by group rather than in chronological order.

(a) Gilbert Islands.

Of the two remaining islands in the Gilberts, BERU was discovered by Captain J. Clerk of the John Palmer and called by him Maria Island. Clerk located his discovery in 1° 15′ S and 175° 45′ E, where it was placed on both Arrowsmith's and Norie's charts, this being only twelve miles to the west of its real position. 122

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Captain Clerk also sighted Tamana and Onotoa, and from a note on his then believed discovery of the former island in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society for 1837 we learn that the visit took place in 1826, though the exact date is still uncertain. 123

The John Palmer was an English whaler of 399 tons owned by Rotch, presumably one of the Milford Haven branch of this well-known whaling family (Tamana being called Rotch's Island by Clerk). We hear of her calling at Honolulu in 1828, almost certainly on the same voyage, where the crew had a clash with the local authorities over the question of women coming on board. 124

ONOTOA, the last undiscovered island in the Group, was sighted twice during 1826; once, as we have seen, by Clerk in the John Palmer, who called it Eliza Island and located it in 2° 03′ S and 176° 00′ E, some twenty-five miles too far to the east, though it also came to be known as Clerk Island. 125

The other sighting was by Captain Shubael Chase of the Japan, who called it Lincoln's Island after his mate, John Lincoln. Stackpole identifies Lincoln's Island with Tamana but this is incorrect, since Captain Plaskett, who visited it the following year, says that he “lowered away the larboard boat and went inside the reef about 3 miles, rounded it, very shole for the most part”: this would be possible at Onotoa, which is an atoll, but not at Tamana, which is reef-bound. 126 Furthermore, he gives the position of Lincoln's Island as 1° 50′ S and 175° 30′ E, which is exactly that of Onotoa, but fifty miles from Tamana; and finally, Chase went on to sight Tamana, which he called Chase's Island after himself. 127

Further research is needed into the voyages of the John Palmer and Japan before we can state whether Clerk or Chase is the discoverer of Onotoa.

(b) Ellice Islands.

Fortunately there is no doubt as to who discovered the four remaining Ellice Islands. Captain George Barrett, of the Nantucket whaler Independence II, was the first to exploit the whaling possibilities in the waters round the Gilbert and Ellice Groups. After spending two seasons on the recently found “Japan grounds” he decided to try his luck to the south; and passing to the east of the Marshalls and Gilberts he eventually sighted land on November 6, 1821, in 9° 18′ S and 179° 45′ E, and recorded the following in his log:

At 6 a.m. saw land bearing S.E. 5 leagues distant, apparently a group of Islands with cocoa-nut trees on them; at 8 a.m. manned the boat and sent her to the land to get some refreshment for the sick . . .
Nov. 7th at 6 p.m. the boat returned with a load of cocoanuts; found the land to be a group of islands encompassed with a reef and inhabited . . .
- 100 Nov. 8th, within five miles of it, sent two boats on shore after refreshments; at 6 p.m. the boats returned with a load of cocoa-nuts, being all the land produced—two men landed on the island, and were treated very kindly by the natives, who made them presents . . . 128

He called the island Mitchell's Group after Aaron Mitchell, the owner of his ship.

There is no doubt, both from the description given of the island and its position (which is practically correct), that this is NUKULAELAE; and in fact the atoll was known as Mitchell's Group throughout the remainder of the century, after which the native names of the various Ellice Islands came into general use.

The following day, November 9:

At 5 p.m. saw land ahead, 2 miles off—at 8 a.m. sent two boats to explore the coast; at 10 a.m. the boats returned, found it to be a small round uninhabited island about one mile long, guarded all round by a coral reef, against which the sea broke with great force—the land is not more than 15 feet above the sea, but being covered over with high trees makes it appear high; it can be seen 20 miles off in clear weather—this Island not being laid down in any of our charts, we supposed it a new discovery, and named it Rocky Island, on account of the many rocks that surrounded it—it lay in lat. 10 45 S. long. 179 28 N. by lunar, (variation 11 East). 129

This is a good description of NIULAKITA, and the position given is correct.

The second whaler to enter the area was Captain Obed Starbuck, who completed the discovery of the Group. Unfortunately only the names and positions of the islands were apparently recorded in the newspapers of the time, though stated to be taken “from a memorandum furnished by an officer of the whaling ship Loper”.

It seems that Starbuck was sailing south from Aranuka in 1825 when he sighted an island in 6° 07′ S and 177° 40′ E, which he called after his ship. This position is twenty miles to the east of NIUTAO, quite a reasonable error in longitude, and it could not very well have been any other island.

At a later date it was stated that Loper's Island could not be found, and it was finally considered to be non-existent. What had actually happened, however, was that by the time the discovery had reached the cartographers, 177° 40′ E had become 177° 40′ W, and so it was placed in a lonely spot half way between the Ellice and Phoenix Groups.

A day or two later Starbuck sighted VAITUPU in 7° 30′ S and 178° 45′ E, and named it Tracy's Island after his mate; again the position given is virtually correct. 130

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The Ellice Islands, Showing Approximate Routes of the Discoverers. Based on Admiralty Chart No. 1830.
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(c) Tokelau Islands.

Who really discovered FAKAOFO we may never now know, though on the other hand further research may provide the answer tomorrow. There were many whalers in the vicinity of the Tokelaus during the late 1820s and several ships are mentioned as having visited the neighbouring island of Nukunono, a similar inhabited atoll only slightly over thirty miles away and in nearly the same latitude. 131

What seems to have happened is that whenever Fakaofo was seen it was mistaken for Nukunono, and it was left to a fortunate accident, in which Captain Smith of the whaler General Jackson of Bristol, Rhode Island, happened to call at both Nukunono and Atafu before sighting Fakaofo, to establish conclusively that they were in fact three islands but not two. But this was not until February 14, 1835.

Smith placed Fakaofo correctly in 9° 23′ S and 171° 07′ W and called it D'Wolf's Island after the owner of his ship: “It appeared to be well wooded. When about five miles distant, was chased by about thirty canoes . . .”. 132

When the sighting was reported a heated but amusing controversy commenced in the maritime press as to whether D'Wolf's Island was or was not a new discovery. 133 In this argument Smith gave as good as he got and finally, after proving that he had in fact called at three and not two islands, Fakaofo was adjudged to be “bona fide yankee property, and not either of the other two”. 134 A century and a quarter later his claim to be the discoverer still holds good, in the absence of fresh evidence to the contrary; and in any case, if not the first to sight Fakaofo, Smith was almost certainly the first to realize that it was a new island.

The last of the Tokelau Islands, OLOSENGA, was called Swain's Island by Captain Hudson, of the Wilkes Expedition, after a whaling master “who informed him of its existence”. While it would not appear from this that Swain necessarily claimed to be its discoverer, nearly twenty years later Wilkes stated that “Swain's Island was first seen by Captain Swain, of the whale ship Swain”. 135

There were, however, some fifty whaling captains (but apparently no whaling ship) called Swain, and although Stackpole claims that the captain referred to was Jonathan Swain 2nd, and that he discovered the island in the early 1820s when in command of the Independence I, no authority is given and further research seems necessary. In the meantime Captain Swain must be regarded as the discoverer of Olosenga until a better claimant can be found. 136

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(d) Northern Cook Islands.

The only island in the Northern Cook Group which still remained unknown at the commencement of the whaling era was little NASSAU, less than a mile long by half a mile wide and lying only forty-five miles from Pukapuka.

The island was named by Captain John Sampson (who sighted it in March, 1835) after his ship, the whaler Nassau of New Bedford. 137 But later the same year Krusenstern pointed out that it had actually been discovered in 1823 by Captain George Rule and called by him Lydra Island. 138

Fortunately the log-book of Rule's ship, the London whaler Fanny, is now on deposit in the Nantucket Whaling Museum, the entry relating to Nassau being as follows:

June 7, 1823 . . . 6 a m. saw an Island bearing W. ½ N. distant about 5 leagues—9 a.m. sent the boat ashore—no inhabitance, plenty of wood and fish, saw no fresh water. This island is not laid down on any chart we have on board—it extends about 1.½ miles S.S.E. and N.N.W. . . . Latitude 11-48 South, longitude 165-47 west . . . 139

There are no difficulties of identification in the description, size or position, and in view of the early date the credit for discovering Nassau can safely be given to Captain Rule.

(e) Line Islands.

The first of the two remaining Line Islands to be seen was “a small island, five miles in circumference, and covered with bushes”, discovered by Captain Browne, of the English whaler Eliza Francis, on August 21, 1821, in 0° 23′ S and 159° 46′ W. 140 This was JARVIS ISLAND, named by Browne after the owners of his ship, a prominent whaling family, who also owned the Falcon, wrecked during 1836 on Ponape. Jarvis was sighted by Captain Lock the following year and on numerous occasions subsequently by vessels who called it Bunker, Volunteer, Brook and a variety of other names. 141 The Eliza Francis was in New Zealand waters in 1834 and visited Sydney in 1839, but so far Browne's report of his discovery has not been found.

When Captain William Clark, of the New Bedford whaler Winslow, returned to America in 1826, he claimed to have discovered three islands in or about the year 1823, one of them being in 3° 10′ S and 154° 30′ W. 142

By position this is presumably MALDEN ISLAND, in 4° 03′ S and 155° 01′ W, there being no other land in the vicinity, but as Clark is nearly a degree wrong in his latitude and apparently gave no description of his find there is admittedly an element of doubt as to - 104 what he saw. It would seem best to suspend judgement for the time being, pending further search for the logbook of the Winslow, or other supporting data.

(f) Phoenix Islands (including Howland and Baker).

The information on record as to the discovery of the Phoenix Group is vague and unsatisfactory. None of the early voyages of exploration sighted the group (though, as we have seen, La Perouse and Kotzebue very nearly did) and only one island, McKean, had been discovered before the whaling period. From about 1823 onwards, however, the waters round the Phoenix became a favourite whaling ground and every island must have been sighted by scores of ships each year. Yet despite recent efforts in America and elsewhere all that has come to light so far is meagre in the extreme: seldom more than the bare record of ship, captain and date. 143 It is to be hoped that the information collected from various sources and given below will stimulate others to further research until all the missing pieces are found.

It seems that during the year 1823 two whalers, both of them British, were cruising in the Phoenix Group. One of these, the Transit of Bristol, was commanded by Captain James J. Coffin, and is said to have discovered ENDERBURY and named it after Enderby, the famous London whaling house. This statement, however, is based on a secondary source only 144 and should be regarded as tentative pending further investigation. Coffin was from Nantucket and reputed to be well known to Arrowsmith and other English geographers. In September, 1824, he made several alleged discoveries in the Bonins and it seems peculiar that in communicating these to the press he made no mention of an earlier discovery in the Phoenix. 145

The second whaler, reported to have been called the Sydney (or Sidney), was commanded by Captain Emmett 146 who is credited with the discovery of SYDNEY and BIRNIE Islands. 147 Current research seems to be leading towards an identification of Emmett with the Sydney sea captain William Emmett, who emigrated to Australia in 1807; and of Birnie with James Birnie, Sydney merchant and ship-owner, the brother and partner of Alexander Birnie of London. 148James Birnie was a former whaling master and in 1820 sold the brig Queen Charlotte to Messrs. Campbell, Jr., and Emmett. 149 As there appears to have been no suitable Sydney about at the time, it is possible - 105 that the island may have been called after Birnie's ship the Sydney Packet (sometimes called Sidney Packet) or simply after Emmett's home town. These observations, however, are meant more as pointers for further enquiries rather than definite conclusions.

The following year (1824) a Captain Kemin discovered GARDNER and rediscovered McKean on January 8, naming them the Kemin Islands. He described the former as a lagoon island and placed it in 4° 45′ S and 186° 20′ 15″ E, or about fifty miles to the east of its correct position. 150 Unfortunately we do not know the name of Kemin's ship, but as he is not on the list of American whaling masters he was presumably, if engaged in whaling, either a British or French national. 151

The next discovery was made in August, 1825, by Captain Obed Starbuck, whom we have already credited with discovering Niutao and Vaitupu in the Ellice Group. While sailing along the Equator in the Loper he discovered “a low, barren island, not more than half a mile in circumference” in 0° 11′ N and 176° 20′ W. 152 This was called by him New Nantucket, possibly an ironic reference to his own home island, and is now known as BAKER ISLAND, after Captain Michael Baker, the discoverer of its guano deposits.

The neighbouring island of HOWLAND (which like Baker does not properly form part of the Phoenix Group, but is included here for convenience) was first seen by Captain Daniel McKenzie, of the whaler Minerva Smith of New Bedford, on December 1, 1828:

Steering S.W. at 2 p.m. saw land, bearing N.; run for it supposing it to be New Nantucket, an island visited on a previous voyage; but on nearer approach, found it not the same, as that is a low sand bank, entirely barren, and situated in lat. 14 miles N. and long. 176/33/15 W. while this by observation was found to be 45 miles N. Lat. and, from repeated observations of the sun and moon, in long. 176/49/50 W. This island is about 10 miles in circuit, low and well covered with wood. Many large trees were torn up by their roots, as if prostrated by a hurricane. Supposing myself to be the first discoverer of this island, as it is not laid down in chart or books with which I am acquainted, I have, in honor of my owners, called it Howland's Island. Navigators visiting this part of the world, can easily supply themselves with wood from this island. No appearance of inhabitants, or of its ever having before been visited by a human being . . . 153

There still remain three islands, Canton, Phoenix and Hull. Canton was so named by Commander R. W. Meade, of the U.S.S. Narragansett, in 1872, after the whaler Canton, which was wrecked on the island in 1854, but before that it was known as Mary and Mary Balcout. 154 Rienzi, writing in 1836, stated that: - 106

the little group of Mary has been recently discovered by a vessel of that name; it consists of a number of islets about 20 leagues in circumference, with a lagoon in the middle, and is situated in 2° 48′ S and 174° 30′ W. 155

This is clearly Canton, though the position given is too far to the west. Krusenstern, quoting Norie, places it more accurately in 2° 45′ S and 172° 00′ W, while Reynolds writes in 1828 that the Mary Balcout's Islands are in 2° 47′ S and 171° 58′ W surrounded by a reef 20 leagues in circumference, with only four openings where boats can enter. 156 He also lists Barney's Island, in 3° 09′ S and 171° 41′ W as having a lagoon, 20 miles in circumference, which must also be Canton, and since Captain Joseph Barney, on the whaler Equator, is reported to have been cruising in this locality in 1823-24, he may prove to have been the actual discoverer. 157

As for Phoenix, it was evidently known when Reynolds wrote his report (1828) for he lists it as an unnamed island in 3° 35′ S and 170° 40′ W, only a few miles off its correct position; on the other hand the island called by him Phoenix could, by its description of “small and sandy, 3 miles in circumference”, be either Phoenix or Birnie, but by its position is neither. 158

Commandant Legoarant de Tromelin, who surveyed Phoenix and Sydney in the corvette La Bayonnaise the same year, placed the former in 3° 42′ S and 189° 17′ E, which is almost exactly right, but stated that both were already marked on Norie's chart. 159

The most one can say at this stage is that the discoverer was possibly either the London whaler Phoenix, owned by Daniel Bennett (later W. Bennett and Co.), which was engaged in whaling in the Pacific during 1815, or the Nantucket whaler of the same name, which was somewhere in the Central Pacific in or about 1822.

For Hull we have the least information of all, partly because the island was continually being mistaken for Sydney (less than sixty miles to the east) even up to the time of the visit of the Wilkes Expedition U.S.S. Peacock in 1841. Longitudes were, it is true, becoming more correct but it was not always possible to obtain a good sight from the heaving deck of a whaler.

Hull was named by Commander Wilkes after Commodore Isaac Hull, U.S.N. (1773-1843), but it was certainly not discovered by him, for at the late date of the Expedition's visit there was a Frenchman and eleven Tahitians on the island, which was evidently well-known, engaged in catching turtles. 160

Actually we know that the island was sighted prior to 1828, for the Reynolds Report lists “Sidney's Island” no less than three times in different positions: the first two mentioned are clearly Sydney itself - 107 and the last, in 4° 29′ S and 172° 17′ W, is as clearly Hull (all three being good positions). But who discovered it and when must be left for further investigation. 161


It will have been apparent from this essay that there are still extensive gaps in our knowledge concerning the discovery of the region, and particularly of the Phoenix Group. We know nothing about who sighted Canton, Phoenix and Hull, except that they were whalers, and further research is required on early visits to Onotoa, Fakaofo, Olosenga, Malden, Enderbury, Sydney and Birnie before we can isolate the discoverer with reasonable conviction. In fact our information on all the whaling discoveries, other than of Nukulaelae, Niulakita, Nassau and Howland Island, is rather bald, even where sufficient to establish priority; this material could be expanded with advantage from log-books and other contemporary records, as could the accounts relating to the first sighting of Ocean Island, Starbuck and Manihiki.

In addition there is one island, Flint, concerning which our information is so meagre that we cannot even assign it to any particular category of discoverer, though it was almost certainly discovered by a vessel engaged in commercial pursuits rather than by an exploring vessel. We know only that it was first seen, according to the cartographers, in 1801 or 1802, but not a word as to who saw it.

This paper, is therefore, partly a plea to others to complete the regional picture by filling in the gaps. It would seem that, in particular, further investigation in England into the voyages of the whalers John Palmer, Eliza Francis and Transit, and in Sydney and Hobart into the movements of Captain Emmett, might prove rewarding.

Above all, perhaps, research is required into the records (if any) left by Arrowsmith, Norie, Horsburgh, Purdy and the other cartographers and compilers of Sailing Directories. The early American whalers largely used English charts and directories, and indeed it would seem that one reason why the discoveries credited to British ships seem rather out of proportion to the numbers operating in the area was because their captains were, like Coffin of the Transit, in contact with the actual map makers; American discoveries, even when reported in the maritime press of the eastern seaboard, did not always reach the charts, and many, probably most, were never reported at all.

The gaps, however, are only in the detail. The general picture is complete, and demonstrates that the Central Pacific was revealed to the world not by a succession of Government sponsored exploring expeditions but as an unintended result of increasing commercial activity. Out of fifty-seven islands (counting Butaritari and Little Makin as one), only twelve were discovered by warships and other government operated vessels and we can safely say that all the remaining forty-five were first seen by merchantmen or whalers on their lawful occasions.

The story of regional discovery reads, in fact, like a chapter in some history of Pacific trade; new commercial opportunities leading to - 108 the pioneering of new shipping routes, which in turn result in the sighting of new islands. The development of the “Outer Passage” from Australia to China was thus responsible for the discovery of thirteen islands, the Fur Trade route for seven and the South American trade with India for four; while a probable further twenty were first sighted by ships engaged in commercial whaling in the newly discovered on-the-line grounds.

Yet incidental though the discovery of an island may have been to the European, one has to remember that from the standpoint of the inhabitants it marked the ending of their centuries of isolation, which makes its accurate record a basic preliminary to any study of events in the new age of culture contact which it foreshadowed.

A.—NEWSPAPERS (American newspaper citations prior to 1900 are from transcriptions in United States, Central Pacific Islands Project, 1940.)
  • The Albany Sentinel, 1797.
  • Aurora for the Country, [Philadelphia], 1806.
  • Bombay Courier, 1809.
  • Calcutta Journal, 1819.
  • Essex North Register, 1835.
  • The Impartial Register, [Salem, Mass.], 1801.
  • Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot, 1822.
  • Massachusetts Mercury, 1800.
  • The Mercury and New England Palladium, [Boston, Mass.], 1801.
  • Montreal Gazette, 1938.
  • Nantucket Inquirer, 1826, 1832.
  • New Bedford Daily Gazette, 1835.
  • New Bedford Mercury, 1829, 1830, 1835.
  • Newbury port Herald and Country Gazette, 1801.
  • Newburyport Herald, 1827.
  • New England Palladium and Commercial Advertiser, [Boston, Mass.], 1826.
  • New York Times, 1938.
  • The Repertory, [Boston, Mass.], 1820.
  • Salem Courier, 1829.
  • Sydney Gazette, 1808, 1820, 1821, 1834.
  • ANON., 1776. A Voyage Round the World, in His Majesty's Ship “Dolphin,” Commanded by the Honourable Commodore Byron . . ., by an Officer on board the said Ship. London, T. Pridden.
  • BEAGLEHOLE, J. C., 1934. The Exploration of the Pacific. London, A. & C. Black.
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1   Maude 1959.
2   The term “discovery” is used in the legal sense of “visual apprehension, with or without disembarkation”.—Orent and Reinsch 1941:443. There must, of course, be some supporting documentary or other evidence.
3   From the point of view of discovery Butaritari and Little Makin, in the Gilberts, are regarded as one island, since at low tide they are separated by a channel less than 2 miles wide and to early voyagers they would probably have appeared as islets on a single reef.
4   Kingman Reef is considered here to be an island, rather than a reef proper, as part of it is permanently above high tide level; furthermore, it was “bonded” under the American Guano Act of 1856, has been formally annexed by the United States and was used for a time by Pan-American Airways as an intermediate landing-place for their flying boats.
5   Island names and their spelling are in accord with the official usage of the territorial administration to which they belong, except for Swains and Penrhyn Islands, where native names are used.
6   Ocean Island and Nauru are the only islands over 15 feet above sea level in the Central Pacific, and have a somewhat different physical structure from the rest.
7   Great Britain, Colonial Office 1928:3.
8   i.e., all islands in the Tokelau, Line and Northern Cook Groups; all in the Phoenix except Hull; Butaritari and Marakei in the Gilberts; Howland and Baker. Some bonded islands never existed; others were bonded more than once under different names; and most of them contained no commercially significant deposits of guano in any case.
9   i.e., the Phoenix Islands; the Line Group except Kingman Reef and Palmyra; Nassau and Suwarrow.
10   Palmyra was annexed by the United States in 1912; Kingman Reef in 1922 and Olosenga in 1925. Howland and Baker would appear to have been in the position of terra nullius.
11   With the exception of the New Zealand Tokelau and Northern Cooks and the Australian Trust Territory of Nauru all the British islands are under the jurisdiction of the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific.
12   Canton, Enderbury, Phoenix, Birnie, McKean, Jarvis, Starbuck and Vostok.
13   Montreal Gazette, 8/3/1938.
14   By exchange of Notes of April 6, 1939.
15   Montreal Gazette, 8/3/1938.
16   New York Times, 3/3/1938.
17   New York Times, 3/3/1938. For a list of the 25 islands understood to be claimed by the United States see Newsweek 1946:50.
18   That the sovereignty issue is still a live one may be seen from the Prime Minister's statement to the British House of Commons (April 17, 1957) on the United States claim to Christmas Island. See Maude 1957:31.
19   Drake came the nearest in 1579, when he apparently passed between the Marshalls and Gilberts.—Beaglehole 1934:74.
20   Hawkesworth 1773:I:108-109. This was a rediscovery of Mendana's San Bernardo.—Maude 1959:308-310.
21   Hawkesworth 1773:I:109-111.
22   U.S. Congress, House, Navy Dept. 1835:19-20; Wilkes 1845:V:6; Stackpole 1953:278-279.
23   Burrows 1923:148-149.
24   Macgregor 1937:20-22, 25.
25   Edwards and Hamilton 1915:45-46, 128.
26   Hawkesworth 1773:I:111.
27   Hawkesworth 1773:I:111-114; Anon. 1776:124-127.
28   Compare the account by one of Byron's officers: “To the south-west of the island you may anchor from ten fathoms water to thirty-seven, in a coral bottom, half a mile from the shore, where there is little or no surf”; with that in the Sailing Directions: “A good anchorage for small ships, with bare swinging room in eleven fathoms, lies about a mile north of the south point of the island . . . There is less surf at this place than anywhere else along the island, and landing can be made at almost any state of the tide during fine weather.”—Anon. 1776:125; Heyen 1937:5.
29   Krusenstern 1824:I:11.
30   Hawkesworth 1773:I:114.
31   If Christmas Island was the Spanish Acea, as has been suggested, Cook's sighting was a rediscovery.—Maude 1959:295-296.
32   Cook and King 1785:II:180-189.
33   The narrative of Maurelle's voyage is reproduced in La Pérouse 1798:I:340-418.
34   Hence the name; “cocal” being a coconut plantation.
35   New Bedford Mercury, 20/3/1829.
36   For Maurelle's account of his visit to Nanumanga and Nanumea see La Pérouse 1798:I:408-410.
37   Purdy 1814:153.
38   Krusenstern 1824-1835:I:23-24, 1835:8. Lesson's narrative of the voyage apparently follows Purdy's view, since he speaks of only 12 miles separating the two islands.—Lesson 1829:446.
39   Ivashnitzev 1850:212.
40   Moresby 1876:80; Pacific Islands Pilot 1943:433.
41   Becke 1897:29-40.
42   Beaglehole 1934:220-221.
43   Hawkesworth 1773:I:276-277.
44   La Pérouse 1798:III:56-57.
45   Morison 1944:96.
46   Horsburgh 1809-1811:II:476-478.
47   Phillip 1789:253.
48   The detailed bearings are given in Gilbert 1789:27-29.
49   Phillip 1789:252-257, xlvi.
50   Gilbert 1789:29.
51   Maiana was probably missed early on the night of the 19th, when the weather was squally with rain and NE to E winds; at midnight the Charlotte (and presumably the Scarborough) shortened sail.
52   Phillip 1789:257.
53   Gilbert 1789:30-32.
54   Gilbert 1789:31-32.
55   Phillip 1789:259. This was a rediscovery, as Butaritari had been sighted by Quiros in 1606.—Maude 1959:318-319.
56   Duperrey 1827:Plate 26.
57   Krusenstern 1824-1835:II:382-383.
58   Krusenstern 1824-1835:II:380-381, 475-476; Krusenstern 1835:152-153.
59   Woodford 1895:331-332.
60   Morison 1944:93-95.
61   Although he courteously invited Marshall to name the first islet seen on Tarawa, and Marshall reciprocated by calling it Gilbert's Island.
62   Phillip 1789:244. Bowes, the ship's surgeon, adds that the island was to windward, at least 12 miles in length and that they could see coconut trees ashore.—Bowes n.d.
63   Phillip 1789:xxxviii.
64   Phillip 1789:222-248.
65   Historical Records of New South Wales IV:26.
66   The latitude given in the note on Fearn's discovery in the Naval Chronicle 1799:536-537 is obviously an error.
67   Stevens 1816:698.
68   Bowden 1952:85-89.
69   Rhodes [1937]:I:129.
70   Dalrymple 1802.
71   Bishop 1796-1799.
72   Dalrymple 1802. Nonouti may have been a rediscovery.—Maude 1959:297.
73   Historical Records of Australia III:71-72, 129, 131.
74   Newburyport Herald and Country Gazette, 2/10/1801.
75   The Impartial Register, 1/10/1801.
76   The Mercury and New England Palladium, 20/10/1801, quoting the New Bedford Courier.
77   ibid. It is suggested that Longurfanes may have been Lukunor in the Carolines.
78   The Impartial Register, 28/9/1801.
79   See, for example, the profile of Ocean Island, taken from much the same position as Gardner must have been in when he first saw it, in Maude 1932:262.
80   Greenwood 1944:99-104.
81   Sydney Gazette, 23/10/1808.
82   Sydney Gazette, 18/12/1808.
83   Bombay Courier, 12/8/1809. This was later reprinted verbatim in the Naval Chronicle 1810:XXIII:415-416 and repeated in 1810:XXIV:313-315.
84   Stevens 1808:703-704.
85   Massachusetts Mercury, 5/8/1800.
86   Collins 1798-1802:I:353, 355, 359.
87   Im Thurn & Wharton 1925:xxii-xxiii.
88   The Albany Sentinel, 28/8/1797.
89   Wilkes 1845:III:369.
90   Nantucket Inquirer, 3/3/1832; Sydney Gazette, 14/10/1834.
91   Fanning 1924:iv.
92   Fanning 1924:160-161.
93   Fanning 1924:167.
94   Aurora for the Country, 9/6/1806; Naval Chronicle 1804:XII:464-465.
95   Stackpole 1953:341, quoting from the log of the Rose in the possession of Robert Caldwell of Nantucket.
96   Sokolov & Krushnarev 1951:52-58. Translation by Mr. C. M. Hotimsky.
97   Calcutta Journal, 17/9/1819.
98   Morison 1944:98.
99   The Repertory, 8/2/1820; Horsburgh 1852:II:818.
100   Calcutta Journal, 7/8/1819.
101   Morison 1944:98.
102   Calcutta Journal, 7/8/1819. Stackpole 1953:280, in claiming that De Peyster did not in fact sight Funafuti, has confused Nukulaelae with that island.
103   Krusenstern 1824-1835:I:11; Krusenstern 1835:9.
104   Krusenstern 1824-1835:I:296-297; Horsburgh 1836:700; Sydney Gazette, 28/4/1821.
105   Edwards and Hamilton 1915:45-46, 127-128.
106   Edwards and Hamilton 1915:46-49, 128-129.
107   Broughton 1804:28-29. Caroline has been identified as the San Bernardo of Quiros.—Maude 1959:314-316.
108   Debenham 1945:II:294-295.
109   Debenham 1945:II:297-300. This was the Gente Hermosa of Quiros.—Maude 1959:316-318.
110   Duperry [n.d.]:45-51; Lesson 1839:II:450-456; Dumont d'Urville 1834:II:441-444.
111   Duperry 1827:Plate 26.
112   New England Palladium and Commercial Advertiser, 14/4/1826.
113   Moll 1826:278-280. Nui had already been sighted by Mendana.—Maude 1959:299-305.
114   Kotzebue 1821:I:169.
115   Kotzebue 1821:I:170.
116   Kotzebue 1821:II:302-303. This is in an analysis by Krusenstern of the discoveries made in the Rurick.
117   Stackpole in the New York Times, 13/3/1938.
118   Beale 1839:188-191.
119   See particularly his fine study of whaling The Sea-Hunters, and articles by him in the New York Times, 3/3/1938 and 13/3/1938. His identifications of the islands seen, however, often require rechecking.
120   This is recognized by Boggs 1938:185 and Morison 1944:99.
121   Captain Crocker's alleged discovery of Fakaofo in 1835 was almost certainly not the first sighting of that island.
122   Krusenstern 1835:153.
123   Bennett 1837:229.
124   Bradley 1942:188.
125   Krusenstern 1835:153.
126   Stackpole 1953:345.
127   Salem Courier, 18/3/1829.
128   ibid. Niulakita had already been discovered by Mendana.—Maude 1959:306-308.
129   Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot, 26/10/1822.
130   Nantucket Inquirer, 25/11/26.
131   For visit of the Dolphin in 1825 see Paulding 1831:76-88; and of the Hibernia about 1828 see Smith 1844:192.
132   Essex North Register, 7/11/1835.
133   e.g. in the New Bedford Mercury, 13/11/1835, 20/11/1835, 27/11/1835; and the Sailors' Magazine and Naval Journal 1836:165.
134   New Bedford Daily Gazette, 26/11/1835.
135   Wilkes 1845:V:18; Wilkes 1861:248.
136   United States, Federal Writers' Project, 1938; Stackpole 1953:281.
137   Forbes 1836:65-66.
138   Krusenstern 1835:158.
139   Logbook of whaler Fanny, quoted by Stackpole 1953:380.
140   Bennett 1837:227.
141   Rienzi 1836-1837:II:81; Bryan 1942:135.
142   Stackpole 1953:349.
143   See, for example, the queries published in the Mariner's Mirror 1958:44:78-79, which elicited no response.
144   Bryan 1942:50.
145   e.g. the report published in the Newburyport Herald, 16/11/1827. Coffin took over the command after the captain, James Alexander, had been killed by a whale near Christmas Island.—Farr 1950:67.
146   Also called Emmert (Reynold's Report), Emmant (Rienzi), Emment (Bryan), and Emmet (Krusenstern).
147   Rienzi 1836-1837:II:225, quoting Purdy, who had put the two islands on his chart; Krusenstern 1824-1835:II:432, 1835:12.
148   Alexander Birnie also had an island called after him: in the Tuamotus.—Montgomery 1831:I:57.
149   Sydney Gazette, 2/9/1820.
150   Krusenstern 1824-1835:II:435.
151   United States, Federal Writers' Project, 1938.
152   Stackpole 1953:345-346.
153   New Bedford Mercury, 7/5/1830.
154   The Carondelet Reef, to the south of the Phoenix Group, was also formerly called the Mary Reef.—Krusenstern 1835:157.
155   Rienzi 1836-1837:II:225.
156   U.S. Congress, House, Navy Dept. 1835:12.
157   Stackpole 1953:375.
158   U.S. Congress, House, Navy Dept. 1835:10, 12.
159   Journal des Voyages 1829:41-42.
160   Wilkes 1845:III:369-370, V:5.
161   U.S. Congress, House, Navy Dept. 1835:10, 12.