Traffick According To Their Own Caprice:
trade and biological exchange in the
making of the Pacific World, 1766-1825

It has been said that when Captain James Cook stepped ashore at Hawaii’s Kealakekua Bay in December, 1778, greeted by hundreds of Hawaiian chiefs, warriors and priests, it was not simply another collision between the stone age and modern, industrializing Europe, but an encounter, from a certain point of view, between two remarkably similar societies. The ships of the Royal Navy, each miniature models of the British class system, strict rank hierarchies buttressed by caste and run with autocratic discipline, found their counterparts in the Hawaiian chiefdom, as baroquely stratified and authoritarian as any in the Pacific. “At Kealakekua,” the anthropologist Patrick Kirch has written, “one chiefdom met another, recognizing in the other the essential structures of hierarchy and power.”[1] The participants may also have recognized another point of similarity, that theirs was an encounter between two of the greatest seaborne colonizing societies in history.

After about 1500 BC, [2] from their cultural cradle in the region of Tonga, Polynesians explored and successfully settled a larger area of the earth’s surface than anyone before them: stretching from Tonga, east to Rapa Nui (Easter Is), north to Hawaii, and South to Aotearoa (New Zealand), an area spanning two hemispheres. Thousands of years before the Europeans would, Polynesians mastered the technical and material challenges of extended seafaring: by combining the lateen sail, the double-hulled canoe and a supple science of celestial navigation[3] — and by becoming experts at managing what Alfred Crosby called a “portmanteau biota”[4] and what ethnobotanist Edgar Anderson called “man’s transported landscapes.” For the Polynesian settlers of Hawaii, this meant 28 species of crop plants for food and fiber, including bananas, coconuts, yams, taro, ti, wauke (paper mulberry), breadfruit, pandanus. noni, olona, and the psychoactive kava, as well as dogs, pigs, chickens and rats, all helping to project and sustain a common language, culture and livelihood to a vast, interlinked realm of archipelagos and islands.[5]

As Crosby and others have shown, Europe’s “portmanteau biota” was equally critical to its expansion. Cattle, white clover, wheat, weeds and diseases underwrote the efforts of the British and others to colonize most of the world, and, in temperate climes, to create “neo-Europes,” full-dress biological recreations of the home landscapes. Whereas, in the Atlantic in previous centuries ecological imperialism had been a subordinate part of the project of implanting European colonists or garrisons, [6] in the Pacific from the late 18th to the mid-19th centuries, imperialism’s strategy aimed primarily at implanting not populations, but preferential, advantageous relations and trade flows between mobile agents of the European metropole and native groups in situ.[7] Biological traffic was both means and end to this effort, and the transferal of organisms was quickly organized and systematized to provide fuel for an intricate globalization machine.

Cook has been called the “avatar” of the “Second” British Empire: an imperialism reconfigured after the loss of the American colonies and the atrophying of the mercantile system, no longer interested in territorial jurisdiction or conquering native peoples, but in spreading a newly articulated, more humane form of control, whether by direct or indirect sovereignty, manifested through trade and diplomatic relations.[8] “We prefer trade to dominion,” asserted one British official in 1782. The British-French wars of 1790-1815 left the imperial project tired, spent, and distracted; its limited resources available outside the North Atlantic theater were deployed to search for “footholds” and way stations, a supply archipelago to support the Royal Navy, advancing trade and scientific exploration. On his Pacific cruise to attack Spanish shipping from 1740-44, George Anson attempted to establish a South American base — a “halfway house” like the Dutch had at the Cape of Good Hope. [9] The voyages of Byron in 1764-66, Wallis in 1766-68 and Cook’s three voyages from 1768-1779 marked in addition a renewed search for the Northwest passage, a British dream dating from the Tudor era, and the supposed terra australis or southern continent. In all of these efforts the figure of the scientist-naval officer was central, commanding small expeditions with explicit instructions to cultivate ties and trade relations with the natives, and to pursue biological exchange: to seed and stock the (is)lands found along the way and to bring back potentially useful seeds to the empire. [10]

Cook’s orders on the first trip had been to observe the transit of Venus in Tahiti, and to catalog what he saw along the way. On the third voyage, he had, in addition, secret instructions to find “a North East, or North West Passage, from the Pacific Ocean into the Atlantic Ocean,” and “carefully to observe the nature of the Soil & the Produce thereof; the Animals & Fowls that inhabit or frequent it” and “to bring home Specimens ofÄthe Seeds of such Trees, Shrubs, Plants, Fruits, and Grains, peculiar to those Places, as you may be able to collect.” No secret was his duty to leave specimens from his own country behind: when the Resolution left London in June, 1776, it “was a floating barnyard” loaded with “Cattle, horses, sheep, goats, hogs, and poultry for New Zealand, Tahiti, and Tonga,” and a Tahitian named Omai, returning with Cook from a celebrated sojourn in England after the second voyage. At Huahine, Cook had a garden planted for Omai; he had previously planted a garden in Tahiti in 1769, as Wallis had planted citrus trees there in 1767. At Ni’ihau in 1777, Cook contributed to the Hawaiian biota English pigs, goats, and mellon, pumpkin and onion seeds.[11]

The historian David Mackay has remarked that “planting a garden in Tahiti was the botanical equivalent of taking coals to Newcastle.” Others, such as Gannanath Obeyesekere, have interpreted it as an expression of the European imperialist “improvement narrative” wherein Cook the Civilizer introduces order into the untended wilderness “to domesticate a savage land,” rendering his imperialist mission “morally persuasive.”[12] It may simply have been pragmatic. In the late 18th to mid-19th centuries, few transoceanic voyages left port without a menagerie on deck — supplies with which to stock passing shores as an investment in future voyages. The French explorer La Perouse landed goats on Rapa Nui and planted seeds on his march into its interior — and commented accurately in his journal that the natives had “foolishly cut down” the island’s trees “ages ago,” causing desertification.[13] Even American traders did it, at their own expense, considering it a wise investment in the success of future voyages and good baksheesh to grease trade with native rulers. John Meares wrote of a voyage from Canton in 1788: “A certain number of cattle and other useful animals were purchased, for the purpose of being put on shore in those places where they might add to the comfort of the inhabitants or promise to supply the future navigators of our own, or any other country, with the necessary refreshments.”[14] In 1803, William Shaler and Richard Cleveland brought four horses from California to Hawaii as presents for Kamehameha (the king bought their ship, the Lelia Byrd, as the flagship of an armada to invade Kauai). American whaler captains, generally unconcerned with moral persuasion, left livestock on even the smallest rocks, such as the Bonins south of Japan.[15]

By the 1780s, Sir Joseph Banks, veteran of Cook’s first voyage and director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, had launched a global scheme for rebuilding the mercantile system with an “unabashedly economic” program of “plant transfer” to bring production of raw materials inside the British empire. “Botany and great power rivalry became curiously intertwined, as nations endeavoured to guard their precious colonial treasures while seeking to filch those of their competitors,” in Mackay’s words. Banks sent a Polish spy, Anton Hove, to Gujarat, India to steal cotton seeds. He organized the movement of sago and date palms to avert famines in India, of hemp and flax for naval stores, of spices to break the Dutch monopoly, and helped sponsor prizes for the importation of cinnamon, “cochineal, silk, indigo, fine cotton, cloves, camphor and coffee.”[16] And, responding to pressure from British sugar planters in the West Indies who had lost 15,000 slaves to hurricanes and drought from 1780-87, he sent Captain Bligh, another veteran of Cook’s first trip, to Tahiti to collect seedlings of the breadfruit trees they had seen there to transplant to St. Vincent and Jamaica as food for slaves. After the first expedition foundered on mutiny at Tahiti, Banks sent Bligh again — and succeeded, making his ship, the famous Endeavor, into “a floating garden transported in luxuriance from one extremity of the world to another.”[17] As an example of the thoroughness of this traffic, the British had successfully imported over 200 species of plants to New South Wales by 1803.[18]

Pacific natives were also eager for Euro-American goods and organisms. As the Euro-Americans themselves did, they filtered this trade and traffic through their own economic, political, religious and class frameworks. When Cook stepped off at Tahiti, Kealakekua Bay, and elsewhere to further the march of the British empire, he met powerful sets of chiefs, many trying to advance their own designs of Polynesian empire. In Hawaii and elsewhere, he and his compatriots stepped into long-running cycles of warfare for consolidation and control of districts, islands, and groups of islands. Kamehameha and other chiefs quickly saw the usefulness of Euro-American arms, ships and personnel, and launched expensive arms races that would completely reshape patterns of life in their islands. Some learned the new rules quicker than others. Kehekili, ruler of Maui, Molokai, and Oahu in the 1780s, frequently employed thievery and occasionally violence to procure goods; “lacking that noblesse oblige with which Kamehameha was careful to greet his European guests,”[19] he was shunned in favor of the latter by officers and traders. Along with his hospitality, Kamehameha’s trading acumen was widely praised. His assertion of kapu or taboo control over hogs, cattle (from a pair given him by Captain George Vancouver in 1790, which soon grew into vast herds) and later, sandalwood, won him strategic advantage over Kehekili and all other rivals as he successfully consolidated his rule over the archipelago (many defeated chiefs blamed the Europeans for the concentration of all power in Hawaii in one hand).[20] In Tahiti, the Pomares clan rose to dominance through a similarly shrewd control of the pork trade with New South Wales.[21]

In time, Kamehameha became a kind of Polynesian Joseph Banks, collecting plants and seeds (including the seeds of apples spat out on beach by foreigners) and employing a Welsh gardener and Mexican cowboys to train his kanakas [men] to become “paniolos” [Hawaiian for “españoles”]. He picked and chose as it suited him: according to Cleveland, he was initially unimpressed with the horses given to him, thinking them too much trouble to feed for the transportation benefit to be had: “he expresses his thanks, but did not seem to comprehend their value.”[22] Other Hawaiians, commoners in particular, took more readily to them, and horse riding became a craze. Tobacco became a plague, with “almost every person” carrying his own pipe.[23] Melons, watermelons, “and fruit in general having found the most ready reception next to tobacco,” were widely grown.[24] Yet, on the whole, Polynesians were uninterested in adopting the European diet. A British officer visiting Kealakekua Bay in July, 1796 reported that, of the things left by Vancouver, the ducks had bred, the cattle “had much increased in number,” but the “seeds had failed through inattention.”[25] In Tahiti, “it was only after three decades of visits that the Tahitians began to nurture some of the alien species or to deplore their introduction such as guavas and goats.” The “shaddock” citrus trees introduced there by Cook from Tonga, and called ooroo no pretany, breadfruit of Britain, had been kept alive only by the attention of one old man. “The natives do not value them,” wrote Bligh.[26] Where Bligh had planted Indian corn, a later crew also planted a garden and asked the natives to take care of it. The Tahitians laughed, and said that they had everything they needed. Of the horses and cattle left by Cook, they had neglected the cattle, and killed a horse, but had disliked the meat.[27]

Many Europeans thought that the prospect of commerce might entice Polynesians to become farmers of European crops, and to a certain extent, it did. Beginning in 1793 the British governor of New South Wales introduced hogs and potato seeds to Maoris in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand; by 1805, Maoris supplied a considerable produce market there.[28] In Hawaii, lush gardens of vegetables “introduced by foreigners” were tended, “chiefly for the white people.” The largest of these were farmed by white people — and one black one.[29] A Captain Butler at Lahaina, Maui maintained an irrigated plantation that prompted wide admiration and comparisons with England. Anthony Allen, an American freedman, had gardens at Pawa’a. A Spaniard, Don Francisco de Paula Marin, arrived from California in 1814, cultivated extensive gardens and vineyards for trade and his own “table d’hote.” Travelers could expect to find there beef, pork, goat, duck, goose, turkey, watermelons, onions, coconuts, bananas, cabbage, potatoes, beans, shallots, citrus fruit, pomegranates, figs, pineapples, pumpkins, tamarinds, and wine made from “Isabella” vines from Madeira. One visitor assessed that Marin was “still not adept at the art of making wine,” though others disagreed.[30]

Along with these intentional imports came other, unintentional ones: cockroaches, scorpions, centipedes, tarantulas, fleas (called uku lele, jumping louse), and innumerable plant species gone wild across the landscape: thorn trees, puncture vines, feral cabbages and indigo. European diseases, starting with “the clap,” a gift repeatedly given from Cook’s visits forward, spread unchecked.

On Cook’s third voyage, between his first and second visits to Hawaii, the British ships cruised the Northwest coast from Alaska south, trading for sea otter pelts, which his crew subsequently found to bring fabulous prices in the market at Canton. Publicity for the voyage was immediate in the UK and the US, and especially in the best-selling account by the American-born sailor John Ledyard, the details and routes of a new, globe-encircling trade were laid out like a map for others to f