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‘They called this island Wytootakee’

Saturday 13 May 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Features, Weekend


‘They called this island  Wytootakee’
Reverend John Williams – the man who “spear-headed” the Christian “Revolution” across most of the South Pacific from the Marquesas Islands in the east to Papua New Guinea in the west. SOURCE: National Portrait Gallery/ 23051248

Historian Howard Henry has been fascinated by the birth of Christianity in the Cook Islands for many years. In a weekly series, Henry chronicles the arrival of Christianity to the Cook Islands and its role in building the nation. This is his second article in the series.

The arrival of Captain James Cook, and his three voyages through various parts of the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans between 1768 and 1779, marks a new dawn in terms of Pacific history in particular.

Never before, or since, has a man devoted himself with such determination to seek out the truth of our planet and travel such vast distances around the three largest oceans on earth.

James Cook was a person who elevated navigation and ocean exploration from a pastime to a science. And he reserved his greatest work for the greatest ocean of all … the Pacific Ocean.

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Born on 27 October 1728 to obscure parents in Yorkshire, England, James Cook grew up to first work for a shipping company that specialised in carting coal up and down the coast of Britain.

He joined the British Royal Navy in 1755 and quickly rose to be a ships captain. He then spent three years charting and mapping much of the St Lawrence Seaway and the coast of Newfoundland.

James Cook then made three voyages to the Pacific Ocean. During his first voyage between 1768 and 1771, he charted the entire coastline of New Zealand and much of the east coast of Australia.

He located and charted Manuae (which he called Hervey Island) during his second voyage on 23 September 1773. He also located and charted an uninhabited island which he called Palmerston on 16 June 1774.

During his third voyage to the Pacific between 1776 and 1779, James Cook located and charted Mangaia, Atiu and Takutea during late March and early April 1777. He then visited Manuae and Palmerston for a second time on 13-14 April 1777. James Cook actually stepped ashore at Palmerston where he spent most of the day.

James Cook died at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii on 14 February 1779. He was 50 years of age.

He never lived to receive the full accolades he deserved.

His death was an unfortunate accident that happened in the heat of the moment.

But the man did change the course of history. He had brought western civilisation to many of the people who lived in various parts of the Pacific Ocean. He also took vast knowledge of these Pacific people’s back to the Government and people of Great Britain.

As a result of James Cook and his achievements … the Pacific region has never been the same since.    

The first European to apparently sight Aitutaki and make contact with its people was Captain William Bligh on board the “H.M.S. Bounty”. This event took place on 12 April 1789. While neither he or any of men stepped ashore, Bligh did report in his Journal that a number of the “locals” came out in their canoes and were allowed to board the “Bounty”. 

Captain Bligh and the British Royal Navy vessel “H.M.S. Bounty” had left England on 23 December 1787. His instructions from the British Government were to uplift a cargo of young breadfruit trees from Tahiti and transport them to the various British islands in the West Indies.

Captain Bligh was placed in charge of this expedition because he had already been to Tahiti with James Cook during his third and final voyage to the Pacific. This voyage being from 1776 to 1779. As a result of this, Captain Bligh had experience when dealing with the local inhabitants of Tahiti. He also had experience when sailing the waters of the South Pacific.

The “H.M.S. Bounty” reached Tahiti on 26 October 1788. In the weeks that followed, his crew were able to acquire and load several hundred young breadfruit trees on board the ship.

Captain William Bligh and the “H.M.S. Bounty” left Tahiti on 4 April 1789 for the voyage across the Pacific to the British West Indies. By Saturday 11 April, 1789, the vessel had been at sea for seven days when Captain Bligh wrote in his Journal that he had sighted a small island … “about 5 leagues off”.

On Sunday 12 April 1789, the “H.M.S. Bounty” approached this small island and William Bligh allowed a number of local men to board his ship. After an exchange of gifts, the vessel then departed.

William Bligh wrote in his Journal: “They called this island Wytootakee”.

From Aitutaki, the “Bounty” sailed west and on 28 April 1789 the infamous “Mutiny on the Bounty” took place south of Tofua, Tonga. The mutineers put William Bligh and those who supported him, into one of the ship’s lifeboats and then cast them adrift upon the open sea.

The “Bounty” mutineers, led by Fletcher Christian, went on to visit Rarotonga, Mangaia and Tahiti several times before finally settling on Pitcairn Island.

Against great odds and enduring one of the greatest sea voyages of all time, William Bligh and 18 others sailed the “Bounty’s” lifeboat to reach Timor, north of Indonesia on 14 June 1789.

From there Bligh and his men were taken to Britain on a Dutch vessel where they landed on 14 March 1790. William Bligh then reported to the British Authorities what had happened with respect to the “Mutiny on the Bounty”. William Bligh was promoted to the rank of Commander and later he was promoted to Post Captain.

The return of William Bligh to England, along with news about the “Mutiny on the Bounty”, caused great concern to those in the British Admiralty. They then decided to send the frigate “Pandora”, under the command of Captain Edward Edwards, R.N., to search the South Seas for the “Bounty” mutineers.  

The “Pandora” left England on 7 November 1790 and reached Matavai Bay, Tahiti on 23 March 1791.

Four men from the “H.M.S. Bounty” immediately gave themselves up to Captain Edwards while 10 other alleged mutineers were captured without resistance.

Captain Edwards and his two vessels left Tahiti on 8 May 1791. The second vessel being a schooner called the “Resolution” which the “Bounty” crew left on Tahiti had been building in the hope of taking themselves to the west coast of North America.  

In due course the “Pandora” and the “Resolution” reached Aitutaki on 19 May 1791.

Once Captain Edwards was satisfied there were no “Bounty” mutineers on this island, he then continued west to reach the uninhabited island of Palmerston on 21 May 1791.

Finding no mutineers on Palmerston, Captain Edwards then left this island and travelled west.

The “Pandora” was wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef off Queensland on 29 August 1791. Captain Edwards, and those who survived the shipwreck, eventually landed at Timor on 15 September 1791. They then made their way back to England where they landed on 18 June 1792.

The court martial for the “Bounty” mutineers assembled on 12 September 1792.

After a five-day trial, 10 of the accused men were acquitted. It was accepted by the court that they had not been part of the original mutiny. The remaining three men were then convicted for their part in the “Mutiny on the Bounty” and were subsequently hung on board the ship “Brunswick” in Portsmouth Harbour on 29 October 1792.

Even though the “H.M.S. Bounty’s” breadfruit voyage to Tahiti turned out to be a disaster as a result of the mutiny, the British authorities then asked William Bligh to make a second “breadfruit” voyage to the South Seas. In doing so they gave him two ships called the “Providence” of 420 tons and the brig “Assistant” of 100 tons.  

The “Providence” and “Assistant” left Britain on 3 August 1791 and reached Matavai Bay, Tahiti on 9 April 1792.

 Captain Bligh and his crew then acquired a large number of breadfruit trees and others plants. They then left Tahiti on 19 July 1792 and reached Aitutaki on 25 July 1792 for Bligh’s second visit to the island.

From Aitutaki the “Providence” and “Assistant” sailed on to reach St. Helena where some of the breadfruit plants were delivered. The two ships then went to St Vincent and on 5 February 1793 they anchored at Port Royal, Jamaica. The remaining breadfruit plants on board the two vessels were then off-loaded here.

With this part of the voyage now complete, Captain William Bligh returned to England where he arrived on 7 August 1793. He then received a very favourable reception from within the leadership of the British Admiralty.

William Bligh remained in the Royal Navy for several more years. He was appointed Governor of New South Wales in 1805. He returned to England in 1810 and was subsequently promoted to Rear Admiral and then Vice-Admiral.

Vice-Admiral William Bligh died on 7 December 1817. He was 63 years of age.

The “Missionary Society of London”, later to become the “London Missionary Society”, was founded by a group of lower-middle-class Protestants at London in 1795.

The first London Missionary Society voyage of Missionaries to the South Seas left England on 6 August 1796 on board the “Duff”. This vessel eventually reached Matavai Bay, Tahiti on 6 March 1797.

In the years that followed, these early Missionaries really struggled to get Christianity firmly established on Tahiti. They simply could not make the progress which the Directors of the London Missionary Society thought they would achieve.

Civil unrest then came to a head in December 1808 when hostilities broke out between conflicting local factions. So all those Missionaries and staff connected with the London Missionary Society, then left Tahiti and relocated to the near-by islands of Huahine and Moorea.

It was not until peace returned to Tahiti in 1815, that several of the Missionaries and their staff then left Huahine and Moorea and returned to Matavai Bay.

Reverend John Williams was a man of bounding energy with a compelling personality.

He had a burning determination to undertake missionary work as he travelled extensively throughout the South Pacific region. He was the most prominent Missionary to operate in the South Pacific during the 19th Century and was one of the reasons why the London Missionary Society grew to be the largest broad-stream religious denomination in the region.

Williams was born at Tottenham High Cross near London on 29 June 1796.

After graduating as a Minister of Religion, he married Mary Chauuer and in November 1816 the couple left England for the South Seas. Upon arrival, Rev John Williams first landed at Moorea. After spending five months there, he was then transferred to Huahine.

While on that island, the King of Raiatea paid a visit and invited John Williams to return with him to his home island and so undertake missionary work on Raiatea.

It was on Raiatea that John Williams started to distinguish himself as a Missionary.

Given the success that he had on Raiatea, the London Missionary Society started to use the talents of John Williams in other places to great effect. So he clearly distinguished himself as a very competent “servant” of the London Missionary Society.

In early 1821 Mrs Williams became ill.

When her illness failed to improve, John Williams concluded that his wife had to go to Sydney to receive medical attention. He was very much aware of “Wytootakee” as a result of Captain William Bligh and the “H.M.S. Bounty” which had called there on 12 April 1789. 

So when John Williams left Raiatea on the Mission Ship, he took with him two “Native Teachers” in the hope of placing them on “Wytootakee” to begin missionary work while he and his family went on to Sydney to seek medical assistance for his wife.

History now shows that Captain William Bligh, and his charting of Aitutaki in 1789, was a major turning point, not only in the history of this island, but also in the history of the Cook Islands.

Had it not been for his “good fortune” to first come across Aitutaki on 11-12 April 1789 and then have it recorded with the British Admiralty at the time that he did, then Reverend John Williams, from the London Missionary Society, would not have known about the existence of Aitutaki.  So Reverend John Williams would not have taken the Gospel to that island as early as he did . . . on 26 October 1821.