Kings of the Pacific in an Age of Revolution

As the age of revolutions swept across Europe, the Pacific also witnessed dramatic changes when monarchies were rebuilt and societies transformed. 

Tongan men with canoes, French 19th-century engraving.
Tongan men with canoes, French 19th-century engraving © Bridgeman Images.

It was October 1793. Four days had passed and there was still no news of the naval officer, Count de Trobriand. The French ships Recherche and Espérance lay moored impatiently 25 miles outside the Dutch foothold of Surabaya, now the second largest city of Indonesia, wishing for their trials to be ended. With two thirds of the crew ill, mostly with scurvy, they longed for refreshment and comforting assurances.

Alexandre d’Hesmivy d’Auribeau, now the commanding officer, sick from an unknown ailment and probably under the influence of laudanum, sent out another boat, this time flying a white flag. Eventually, a Javanese chief brought out the devastating news: Louis XVI had been executed and France was at war with its neighbours, including the Dutch. A republic had been declared. All the men – and, unbeknown to many, one woman in disguise – were now prisoners of war. The European family had been torn apart and the diplomatic etiquette surrounding the provisioning of ships in the Pacific no longer held.

What could d’Auribeau do? One option was to make the six-week journey across the Indian Ocean to Île de France (now Mauritius), which would certainly be the most honourable option and was the one preferred by his crew. Yet d’Auribeau was a royalist and Île de France was known for republican sentiment. Added to this, his crew was in tatters and the prospect of another long sea journey was probably unpalatable. D’Auribeau’s quandary was solved in the nick of time by the arrival of the Count de Trobriand bearing better news. The governing elite of Surabaya had contacted their superiors in Batavia, alarmed at the arrival of the French frigates at a time of war. Trobriand brought news of Batavia’s ruling that the ships were to be received as normal. But there were conditions: d’Auribeau’s crew had to both swear that they would not fight the Dutch and turn over their cannons to their hosts. 

D’Auribeau was surprisingly compliant. Perhaps it was his illness, or perhaps it was his fear that if he returned to republican France he would be executed. His complicity was perceived as a sign of conservatism among those of his crew who had more republican leanings, especially the large group of savants, or philosophers, who were on the expedition with the egalitarian aim of adding to human knowledge. While some of the crew of the Espérance refused to give up their weaponry, its pilot, from Brest, a city where republicanism flourished, threw his journal into the sea; others attempted to hide or make copies of their papers. Their concern arose from a desire to stamp their name on their discoveries, in natural history, for instance, which they had dutifully recorded and hoped to publish on returning home. The Dutch were alarmed at the prospect of a shipboard revolution and took over the vessels. The expedition was terminated. Eventually, in December 1794, with the Frenchmen’s debts mounting on shore, the Recherche and Espérance were auctioned off. 

Captain Cook’s map of part of the South Pacific, 1777.
Captain Cook’s map of part of the South Pacific, 1777. Geographicus Fine Antique Maps/Wikimedia Creative Commons.

The dividing up of the spoils symbolises the impact of the French Revolution on the other side of the world, one that is often forgotten when the focus is on the Atlantic. This era saw three French exploratory voyages to the Pacific, each under dramatically different patronage. This sequence of voyages mirrors the European age of revolutions: first, under the command of Comte La Pérouse (1785-88) and with the authority of an absolute monarch, Louis XVI; second, under Bruni d’Entrecasteaux (1791-94), with the sanction of the National Assembly to search for the lost La Pérouse; and third, by Nicolas Baudin (1800-03), under instruction by Napoleon. D’Auribeau’s was the second of these. It came to its end after d’Entrecasteaux died about three months before d’Auribeau’s tense stand-off outside Surabaya; d’Entrecasteaux was said in the end to display ‘an unsettling of his mind, which seemed to presage delirium’.

With France in chaos, these tightly bound shipboard communities provide a window into what the age of revolutions meant for European engagements with the wider world. They point to a new French nation and people coming into being and the values for which they stood. Unlike the land-hungry British, these voyages were characterised by a lack of interest in territory; science took on a greater import, as each successive voyage carried more individuals devoted to scientific discoveries. The philosophical residents of these ships increasingly conceived of themselves as citizens and contributors to humanity at large, rather than as grandees out on a pleasure cruise of discovery. The transition from La Pérouse and d’Entrecasteaux to Baudin is itself revealing; for, unlike the two aristocrats who went before him, Baudin was one of the first French captains to sail the Pacific who did not hail from the nobility.

Looking for kings and queens

Yet it is not only in the composition and aims of expeditions but also in their success or failure that it is possible to see the age of revolutions in action. It is also apparent in the encounters between travellers and indigenous peoples. James Cook left a long shadow over those  voyagers who followed in the two decades after his dramatic death at the hands of alleged cannibals in Hawaii in 1779. D’Entrecasteaux referred to Cook’s observations through the course of his journal and sought to fill any gaps left by the man immortalised for his contributions to the mapping of the Pacific. 

In Tonga, d’Entrecasteaux reported that Cook’s and Bligh’s voyages, the latter made famous by the mutiny on his ship, The Bounty, were ‘perfectly recollected’ by Tongans. D’Entrecateaux found a large number of items of British manufacture but none of French. He arranged for French medals to be given out, as if to rectify the imbalance. When a feast was held in d’Entrecasteaux’s honour by a chief, Tupou, the navigator took a billy goat and a pregnant nanny-goat along as a gift, as well as a pair of male and female rabbits. But Tupou was indifferent to them and d’Entrecasteaux turned the conversation to the cattle that Cook had left in Tonga. The sheepishness of the Tongans’ response indicated that something was amiss. This was a minor issue to which to devote such energy while exploring the other side of the world. But towards the end of the mission’s time in Tonga, d’Auribeau wished to solve the puzzle. He visited a chief, Fuanunuiava, whose father had received the cattle from Cook, only to discover ‘a kind of mausoleum, which [Fuanunuiava] offered to dig open, so that the bones of these animals could be recognised’.

Louis XVI (seated) gives instructions to Comte La Pérouse, by Nicolas-André Monsiau, 1817 © Bridgeman Images.
Louis XVI (seated) gives instructions to Comte La Pérouse, by Nicolas-André Monsiau, 1817 © Bridgeman Images.

The clue to making sense of this keen competition between French and British voyagers over natural husbandry lies in their joint commitment to the idea that agricultural improvement was central to the making of settled and progressive states in the Pacific. D’Entrecasteaux, for instance, was troubled by the nature of authority on Tonga. He wrote: ‘I believe, like Cook, that this government has a lot in common with the old feudal regime, where the inconveniences increase in proportion to the weaknesses of the principal chief.’ Tonga was seen to be in anarchy, as France was; what was needed was proper governance tied to the agricultural improvement of the land. Anarchy was especially evident to d’Entrecasteaux in the prevalence of theft, which arose from the insecurity of property; the chiefs owned it all and could demand from their inferiors anything that they wished. 

Yet the riddle which plagued d’Entrecasteaux was this: who was the monarch of Tonga? Between Cook’s visit and his own, he would have expected that the throne would have passed to Fuanunuiava, the son of the man denoted as sovereign by Cook. Perhaps it was because of Fuanunuiava’s youth, he pondered, that this had not occurred. D’Entrecasteaux also puzzled over the fact that Tiné, who he now took to be the head of state and queen, could not confer the throne on her death to her immediate relations. For d’Entrecasteaux the complicated rules of succession were part of the problem. There was too much confusion in ‘distinguishing men who exercise power and to whom respect is given’. He was a man who still wished for authority – though the kind of authority upheld  by rules and constitutions and hemmed in by a market in trade and land. The naturalist Jacques-Julien de La Billardière, who accompanied d’Entrecasteaux and was later one of the leaders of the republican faction, was critical of how Tiné was conscious of her privileges as the paramount authority on Tonga. ‘Inferior’ chiefs, including Tupou, were obliged to pay their respects by taking her right foot to their heads. 

A boxing match between two Tongan women, French 19th-century engraving © Bridgeman Images.
A boxing match between two Tongan women, French 19th-century engraving © Bridgeman Images. 

D’Entrecasteaux’s portrait of Tonga reveals more about him than the Tonga of the time. Until the arrival of Europeans, there were no kings and queens in the Pacific. In Tonga, the status of a chief was determined on the basis of descent from a chosen ancestor, where age and gender were valued as in Europe, but where sisterhood was ranked higher than brotherhood in questions of succession. The differences between chiefs and others did not lie in questions of what labour they undertook, if any, and so the language of class that d’Entrecasteaux used to observe Tonga was misplaced. Objects were not bought and sold and did not retain a value on the basis of the work that had been put into making them. Value was determined instead primarily by the rank and status of the creator of the object. It was no wonder that Tongans wished to possess European things. 

George I of Tonga

Yet European voyagers in the age of revolutions did not have a monopoly over the nature of political change in the Pacific. Though voyagers searched for kings and queens, it was the islanders in turn who changed their societies to consolidate new monarchies to suit new times. In Tonga, with the arrival of a range of European settlers in the 1790s – including those who had escaped from the convict station in Australia, traders and evangelical missionaries – there came a long civil war between rival chiefs. The investiture of the paramount chief, Tu‘i Tonga, was laid aside. Conflict arose between two chiefly lineages: Tu‘i Tonga and Tu‘i Kanokupolu. Chiefs fought over tribute and connections to missionaries and other Europeans. The wars between chiefs were accompanied by the spread of European diseases, weapons and the fleeing of many chiefs to neighbouring Fiji or Samoa. One fled with his wife to British Sydney. The chiefly system of rule was in crisis as rivals made claims to become paramount.

Jumping forward, a new age dawned with the conversion of the paramount chief Taufa‘ahau to Protestantism. This man changed the politics of Tonga, transforming it from a competitive and jealous set of chiefdoms into a united monarchical polity. Taufa‘ahau took the name ‘George I’ at his baptism in 1831 and used the support of British missionaries to unify Tonga. The change in religion signified a change in political organisation; where chiefs had received their sanction from lineages tied to gods, the spread of Christianity now brought a different relationship between political and sacred authority. Now the missionaries were the purveyors of the ‘word’ and George I was the keeper of the law. Taufa‘ahau’s opponents feared that soon the missionaries themselves would become chiefs. Many of George I’s followers adopted Christianity, though there continued to be a great deal of wavering. George I boasted: ‘I am the only Chief on the Island … When I turn they will all turn.’ He was right; his line has survived to this day, priding itself on never being formally colonised. Tonga is a microcosm of changes that were afoot across the wide expanse of the Pacific. 

George I of Tonga, 1890s.
George I of Tonga, 1890s. Alamy.

In contrast with d’Entrecasteaux’s comments on Tonga, James Cook noted that Tahiti’s was a benevolent monarchy on his visit in 1769. All had free access to the person he called King Tu: ‘I have observed that the chiefs of these islands are more beloved by the bulk of the people, than feared. May we not conclude from hence that the government is mild and equitable?’ By the time Bligh arrived in 1788, the Tahitians knew the line themselves; the Pomare family had established a monarchic lineage. Pomare II invited Bligh to a ceremony involving human sacrifice, where the victims were the violators of some tabu. The ceremony ended with a prayer for the British monarch. When Bligh celebrated the birthday of Britain’s ruler, George III, with fireworks, free alcohol and a 21-gun salute, the alliance of monarchs was complete. Europeans were thus central to the consolidation of this monarchical line, but it was the Tahitians who crafted it.

Further to the east, in Hawaii, a dynasty was founded by Kamehameha, who was also visited by Cook and other European navigators. By the 1820s the monarchy of Hawaii could be idealised as perfect for a post-revolutionary world. As the Russian commander Otto von Kotzebue noted on arriving in Hawaii, Kamehameha had got the right balance between tradition and change. He was already preparing for succession. While monarchs had been toppled in Europe, in the Pacific they had taken shape out of chiefly structures. Now Pacific kings were models for the rest of the world. This was a contradictory result of the age of revolutions.

New politics of Tonga

The degree to which islanders were engaged with broader political processes to forge a new political order continued to be apparent in the history of Tonga. In 1806, more than a decade after d’Entrecasteaux’s time there, William Mariner was taken captive at the age of 15, to the north of where d’Entrecasteaux made his observations. 

The vessel in which Mariner arrived was rather different from the state-owned French and British vessels used by Cook or d’Entrecasteaux. Port-au-Prince was a private English ship deployed to raid French or Spanish vessels; the sailors or ‘pirates’ on board were allowed to keep the booty. In addition to mounting war against enemies (Spanish bases in the Americas were particular targets), the expedition was instructed to take another treasure: whales, valued for their oil. 

‘Poulaho, King  of the Friendly Islands, drinking Kava’, watercolour by John Webber, late 1780s © Mitchell Library, New South Wales/Bridgeman Images.
‘Poulaho, King  of the Friendly Islands, drinking Kava’, watercolour by John Webber, late 1780s © Mitchell Library, New South Wales/Bridgeman Images.

Despite the warnings of some Hawaiians (who understood Tongan and were among the crew) that there was a conspiracy to take over the Port-au-Prince, it was captured by the Tongans, who massacred half its crew. After the attack, the ship was grounded: firearms, cannon, powder and shot were taken to the island and, having been summarily looted, it was set on fire. Mariner wrote of these events:

In the evening they set fire to [the Port-au-Prince], in order to get more easily afterwards at the iron work. All the great guns were loaded, and as they began to be heated by the general conflagration they went off, one after another, producing a terrible panic among all the natives. 

The survivors, their skills and what was looted were recycled in the wars ravaging Tonga. Legend has it that the future George I was involved in the raid on the Port-au Prince – he would have been about nine – and that he nearly drowned in the whale oil stored in the hold of the vessel. Mariner was a key asset. He was so liked by the chief Finau ‘Ulukalala II – who raided the ship – that he was adopted by one of his wives. 

When ‘Ulukalala died, Mariner was also favoured by ‘Ulukalala’s son, Moengangongo. ‘Ulukalala had been driven from Tongatapu, where George I would eventually reign supreme. From his base in the Ha‘apai islands ‘Ulukalala wished to attack the political centre of these islands. In seizing the Port-au-Prince he was arming himself for his wars with the powers in Tongatapu. Mariner, together with 15 other Britons, participated in the raid that followed on Tongatapu, undertaken with the use of a fleet of canoes and the carronades looted from the Port-au-Prince

When ‘Ulukalala’s forces arrived in Tongatapu, British musket fire disguised their arrival. In the end, one of the most important forts at Nuku‘alofa fell into their hands. Mariner described the fort as made of walls of wickerwork supported by posts, making nine-feet high fences; it had stood for 11 years but was now ravaged. It was a rout: ‘The conquerors, club in hand, entered the place in several quarters and slew all they met, men, women and children.’ They were awestruck by their assailants’ weapons, describing balls entering houses, going around their dwellings looking for someone to kill, rather than exploding straight away. During the battle, ‘Ulukalala sat in an English chair taken off the Port-au-Prince and surveyed the scene from the reef. After this attack, his further attempt to take the fort in Vava‘u harbour was not as successful. 

Despite using European weapons, ‘Ulukalala preferred Tongan military customs and did not take the advice that Mariner gave him on how to consolidate his power. When at peace, he took up the opportunity for conversation with Mariner to learn about the outside world, particularly its politics. He told Mariner:

There is not an island in the whole world, however small, but that I would then subject to my power. The King of England does not deserve the dominion he enjoys. Possessed of so many great ships, why does he suffer such petty islands as those of Tonga continually to insult his people with acts of treachery? Were I he, would I send tamely to ask for yams and pigs? No, I would come with the front of battle; and I with the thunder of Bolotane [Britain].

Mariner explained that the silver discs that had been taken off the Port-au-Prince by the Tongans, only to be thrown into or skimmed across the surface of the sea, and called flat stones or pa‘anga, were in fact money. Pa‘anga is the currency of Tonga, introduced in the 1960s.

Left: A Tongan man, late 19th century. Right: ‘Mr Mariner in the costume of the Tonga Islands’. Frontispiece  from An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands, edited by John Martin, c.1818.
Left: A Tongan man, late 19th century © Natural History Museum, London/Bridgeman Images. Right: ‘Mr Mariner in the costume of the Tonga Islands’. Frontispiece  from An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands, edited by John Martin, c.1818. Wikimedia/Creative Commons.

Mariner escaped in 1810. It was a painful parting because he had integrated himself into Tongan life. When he returned to England he became a stockbroker in London and drowned in the Surrey Canal aged 53. His account of his travels was published for him by a doctor, John Martin, who explained that Mariner had become so accustomed to Tongan ways that he had been out of the habit of writing and reading in English. 

The image facing the title page is a full-length view of Mariner, dressed in Tongan clothes, bare above the waist. Mariner had straddled worlds. A product of the European age of revolutions and its commitment to global war at any price, he had been taken captive to fight in Tongan tussles for a monarchy. These wars, too, arose within the changing political currents of this period. It was as if revolution had bred a kind of counter-revolutionary monarchism in the Pacific.

To bring these forgotten processes of political change to mind is to understand the emergence of the modern world in the Pacific. It was not a blank space; political tussles occurred there, too. Within these tussles, islanders and invaders were trying to chart their paths and to understand the status of authority, citizenship, nature and religion. Islanders faced modernity with confidence and even raided a European ship for weapons, ideas and people, with which they could greet a troubling dawn of politics.


Sujit Sivasundaram is Professor of World History at the University of Cambridge and author of Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire (HarperCollins, 2020), shortlisted for the British Academy Book Prize for Global Cultural Understanding 2021.


This article appeared in the November 2021 issue with the title ‘No Blank Space’.
The image used on the cover of this issue shows the feather bust of a god from Hawaii, who probably embodied both the war god Ku and the fertility god Lono. Ritual objects such as these are still revered by Pacific islanders. This object was part of the collection taken by Captain Cook and bought in London in 1806 by Austrian Emperor Franz I. Götterbild aus Hawai’: Kriegsgott Ku und Fruchtbarkeitsgott Lono. Photo © KHM-Museumsverband, Weltmuseum Vienna