Some Maritime History of the Ha'apai

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    The maritime history of the Ha'apai group can, and does, fill volumes.  This single page is intended only as a chronological revisit of some well-known characters in some well-known events.  Nothing more.

Captain Abel Tasman

    Captain Tasman, a Dutch explorer, was the first European to sight and visit the Ha'apai islands.  He visited Nomuka in 1643.

Captain James Cook

    Captain Cook made three visits to Tonga in the 1770s.  Two of those visits included the Ha'apai group.

    Cook's first visit to Tonga was in October of 1773.  He visited only the Tongatapu group, and he stayed only five days.

    Cook's second visit to Tonga began and ended in the Ha'apai group.  He landed on Nomuka in June, 1774.  Nomuka had a fresh water spring (which has now overgrown), and Cook used that spring to replenish his ships' water supplies.  It was during this visit that he first made friends with Finau - the then-chief of Vava'u and Ha'apai  .However, some islanders pilfered rifles from his ships, and Cook left Tonga shortly after recovering the rifles.

    Cook's third, and final, visit to Tonga was in 1777.   He spent five weeks in the Ha'apai, then he spent another five weeks in Tongatapu.  It was during this five week visit to Ha'apai that Cook, so charmed with the islanders, gave Tonga the nickname of 'The Friendly Islands'.

    There are two bits of irony in Cook's perspective of this last visit.  First, as discussed on the Vava'u page, his friend, Finau, was lying to him about the harbors and anchorages in the next-northern group - Vava'u.  Second, a subsequent history written by William Mariner - who lived in the Ha'apai from 1806 to 1810 - reported that the islanders were planning to kill and eat Cook, and he sailed off just before that plan was implemented.  Apparently even Captain Cook almost fell victim to the charm of these islands.

Captain William Bligh

    William Bligh was the captain of the HMS Bounty.  In the early morning of April 28, 1789, much of his crew mutinied in the waters between Lifuka and Tofua in the Ha'apai group.  The mutiny was led by Fletcher Christian.

    Bligh and eighteen others were cast off in an open boat with the ship's log, a compass, a sextant, and very limited provisions.  Their provisions included 150 pounds of biscuits, 20 pounds of salted meat, and 120 liters of water.

    They were able to land their open boat on nearby Tofua.  However, hostile islanders killed the quartermaster, and the remaining men quickly fled to sea.

    Bligh and his men drifted for 42 days over 3,500 miles to Timor, Indonesia.  This remains the longest voyage ever in an open boat.

    The mutineers had returned to Tahiti where they took on 26 natives - seven men and nineteen women.  Some mutineers were fearful of being discovered and jailed while others were not, and disagreements erupted among them.  Christian and eight other mutineers sailed away leaving the rest of the mutineers in Tahiti.

    The Bounty, with Fletcher Christian and eight others aboard, sailed 8,000 miles before landing on Pitcairn Island where they remained.  Today, most of the population of Pitcairn Island are descendants of Christian and his eight fellow mutineers.

    Meanwhile, Bligh had returned to England and was acquitted at a court martial trial.  He returned to Tahiti and captured many of the original mutineers that had been deserted by Christian.

    Although the mutiny on the Bounty occurred over 200 years ago, it continues to intrigue even casual readers of maritime history.  Also, during the 20th century, the United States' film industry made four feature films about this event.  That suggests that interest in this event goes well beyond only those with an interest in maritime history. 

William Mariner

    In 1806, William Mariner was a 15 year old clerk on the British privateer Port au Prince.  The ship stopped off Lifuka for repairs.  Chief Finau 'Ulukalala II, quite the warrior, wanted the eight canons on this ship, and he ordered 300 islanders to raid the ship for the canons - destroying it if necessary.  During the raid, 26 sailors were killed and the ship was burned.  However, William Mariner was spared.

    Mariner was taken in by Chief Finau, and he was given the Tongan name Toki Ukamea.  Mariner/Ukamea remained on Lifuka until Finau died four years later.  After Finau's death, his son allowed Mariner to leave Tonga on a passing British ship.

    When back in England, Mariner wrote about his experiences in his book "An Account of the Natives of the Tongan Islands".  This book is still regarded as a classic tale of pre-Christian life in Tonga.  In 1817, Mariner's writings were expanded upon with interviews of Mariner conducted by John Martin, and Martin published "Tonga Islands: William Mariner's Account".  These books chronicle rugged violent times, and they will likely leave the reader questioning Captain Cook's name given these islands - 'the friendly isles'.

    Of the guns that had been removed from the Port au Prince, four survive in to modern times.  They were a gift from Tonga's Queen Salote to the British High Commission, and they remain on the lawn of their offices in Nuku'alofa.

    Return to Ha'apai page.