Peter Dillon and the South Seas

J.W. Davidson describes how whalers, traders, and settlers represented the first waves of Western colonisation of the Pacific islands.

Like waves breaking on pacific shores, each one overtaken by the next before its energy is quite spent, the phases of Pacific history have followed one another, merging and over-lapping. In the first phase, the expansion of geographical knowledge was the primary motive for the Europeans’ intrusion. Then, before the work of discovery was quite done, traders, whalers, settlers, and missionaries came to the islands, to be followed, in their turn, by the agents of Western political control.

The times of mergence, when one phase of development lost momentum and was over-laid by its successor, are often marked with dramatic force. So it is that the end of the age of exploration can be placed on February 14th, 1779, when Captain Cook was killed on the island of Hawaii. The voyages of Cook and his immediate predecessors, Byron, Wallis, Carteret, and Bougainville, had laid bare the main outlines of Pacific geography.

Basing their work upon the accumulated knowledge of earlier voyagers, they had destroyed the hypothesis of a southern continent, defined the eastern coast of Australia and, in less detail, the north-west coast of America, charted New Zealand (first briefly seen by Tasman over a century before), discovered many island groups (including the Society Islands and Hawaii), and supplied much detailed information about places, like Tonga and the New Hebrides, of which previous knowledge had been fragmentary and inexact. And to their work of surveying they had added careful study of the peoples and the products of the Pacific.

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