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Captain Cook’s American
Connecticut-born John Ledyard became the first American to see Alaska and Hawaii. Years before Lewis and Clark, he planned to cross the North American continent—from west to east
December 1961 | Volume 13, Issue 1
Ledyard, observing Omai at close quarters as the Resolution carried them toward the South Pacific, was not favorably impressed. As a result of his experience with Indians he had already formed the opinion that it was a mistake to transplant a native from his own culture to that of “civilization,” and in Omai he saw not only signs of corruption but evidence of defects in the original specimen. “His ignorance and vanity,” Ledyard noted in his journal, “are insupportable.” Soon he was to see natives who struck him as much finer representatives of Polynesian culture, both physically and mentally.
A splendid example was Phenow, a young chief of the Tonga Islands, where Cook (who called them the Friendly Islands) visited in the spring of 1777. This tall statuesque youth Ledyard described as “one of the most graceful men I ever saw in the Pacific ocean. He was open and free in his disposition, full of vivacity, enterprising and bold … the idol of the fair, having himself one of the most beautiful brunetts for a wife, that the hands of nature ever finished.”
That quick switch of attention to the female is a ready clue to what Ledyard, like so many others, found almost overwhelmingly attractive about Polynesia. If Omai was a fraud of sorts, there was nothing false about the beauty of the brown-skinned, marvelous girls who swam out to the ships with breasts entrancingly bare, their white teeth flashing in superb contrast to their black hair whenever—and it seemed to be always—they smiled.
The whole company was dazzled. Even Captain Cook, a man of severe views, was moved to eulogize the charms of Polynesian women, and his officers were ecstatic. “Their natural complexion,” one wrote, “is that kind of clear olive or Brunette, which many people in Europe prefer to the finest white and red … the skin is most delicately smooth and soft. … Their eyes, especially those of the women, are full of expression, sometimes sparkling with fire, and sometimes melting with softness; their teeth also are, almost without exception, most beautifully even and white, and their breath perfectly without taint.”
Ledyard took meticulous notes on the natives of the Tongas. He described every detail he could of this exotic environment, and always with an effort to restrain his natural enthusiasm for the sake of accurate observation. As full of ebullient life as the islanders themselves, he sometimes found it hard to maintain a scientific attitude, especially since the natives seemed to be attracted to him as much as he was to them. But he worked at it. Their food, their clothing, their implements and weapons, their language, their religion, their songs and dances—remarks on everything went into his journal, along with thoughtful speculation as to the origins of Polynesian culture. He avoided sentimentalizing the South Sea Islands as Paradise regained, soberly considering such shallows amid the romance as human sacrifice and infanticide.
Midsummer of 1777 found the Resolution and the Discovery at Tahiti. The Tongas had offered persuasive erotic temptations, but those of Tahiti were irresistible. Although upper-class Tahitian ladies were not without reserve, the ordinary young women of the island were so eager to grant what Cook called “personal favours” to the visitors that everyone who had not been there before was incredulous. What was most surprising was their utter lack of shame—so far removed from depravity, however, that to Ledyard it appeared a kind of original innocence. The sailors, by no means loath, were yet hardly prepared by their background to adjust to companions who, as one Englishman observed, “gratify every appetite and passion before witnesses with no more sense of impropriety than we feel when we satisfy our hunger at a social board with our family or friends.” (At the same time, Captain Cook could record the following puzzled entry in his journal: ”… the women never upon any account eat with the men but always by themselves. What can be the reason of so unusual a Custom it is hard to say …; they were often asked the reason but never gave no other answer but that they did it because it was right.”)
As for Ledyard, he is reticent about his own experiences in Tahiti; but certainly there is a note of intense personal feeling in a remark he makes about the island love affair of one of his crewmates: “Love like this is not to be found in those countries where the boasted refinements of sentiment too often circumscribe the purity of affection and narrow it away to mere conjugal fidelity.” He left Tahiti with his hands tattooed in the native style—a practice, as he tells us, among some of the men who fell in love with island girls and wished to make a ceremonial exchange of tokens.