Great Britain in Polynesia:
Imperialism and Opportunism on the Far Side of the World

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the nations of Europe were on a wholesale spree of exploration that began with Columbus and would reach all ends of the Earth. New lands waited to be claimed, pagan souls languishing in sin waited to be saved, and rich new markets of valuable goods promised unimaginable profits. But there were some obscure corners of the globe isolated enough to have escaped the eyes of the European powers. The ocean-bound region of eastern Polynesia was such a place. Extending from Tahiti and the Society Islands in the southern hemisphere across the equator and a massive expanse of water to the Hawaiian Islands in the North, this region of Oceania is, from the European perspective, perhaps the most remote area of the world. No wonder, then, that it was one of the last to be explored and ultimately divided up between the empires. This paper will focus on the activities of the British Empire in its sporadic involvement with the islands of Tahiti, Hawaii and Kiritimati. The most central question arising from this story is why Britain, the first European power to arrive in many of these islands, ultimately did little to retain them as colonies. The answer seems to lie both in the relative isolation of the islands and the ongoing preoccupation of Britain with its other Pacific colonies in Australia and New Zealand.[1]

European voyaging to the Pacific Ocean began in the seventeenth century with the Spanish and the Dutch but had petered out for about a hundred years while Europe squabbled. By the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, knowledge and technology had expanded to make such expeditions less formidable. New maritime technologies like shallow draft hulls, yolk-and-drum steering mechanisms and even the lightening rod all combined to streamline sailing, making it faster and less hazardous. The menace of scurvy was on the verge of being vanquished as captains began experimenting with various cures, one of them being fresh fruit.[2] Navigation was also dramatically improved by more accurate devices and units. The Englishman John Harrison developed the first accurate ship’s chronometer in 1759, which made it possible to find one’s latitude anywhere on the globe for the first time.[3] The motivation for exploration was certainly present as well. Geographers in Europe had long speculated about the existence of legendary places like the Great Southern Continent and the Northwest Passage. These innovations opened the floodgates for explorers attempting to find them.

Three explorers landed on the shores of Tahiti within a three-year period. The first was Samuel Wallis in the H.M.S. Dolphin, who in 1767 promptly came into conflict with the natives and wrought massive damage upon them. The next year, French Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville was greeted by a subdued and apparently friendly populace, one that appeared to him as the very type the “noble savage.”[4] Finally, a year after him in 1769, the legendary and most prolific explorer of the era, James Cook, arrived at the island on his first voyage to observe the transit of Venus from the southern hemisphere and to search for a Southern Continent.[5] In two subsequent voyages, Cook would discover what remained to be explored of Australia, the entirety of New Zealand, Hawaii, Kiritimati and countless other small islands, and disprove the notions of both a Southern Continent and the Northwest Passage.[6] His adventures made him a national hero in England, and his death at the hands of Hawaiian warriors was a national tragedy. Following in Cook’s footsteps were other French, Russian, American, and British explorers. News of these territories opened the doors to a multitude of military, commercial, and missionary vessels from many nations, all with different motives. Their influence on the native societies would be enormous.

In selecting the shelter of Matavai Bay as his anchorage in Tahiti, Cook set a precedent for future English vessels. The British influence on this specific area drastically inflated the importance of the local Chief, Tu, who was soon to become King Pomare I.[7] The arrival of the infamous mutineers of the H.M.S. Bounty in 1789 also had a profound impact. The mutineers, with access to commandeered firearms, acted as mercenaries for Pomare I and helped him to defeat rival chiefs. By the time of his successor, Pomare II, the last of the rival tribes had been squashed.[8] But the most influential of visitors did not deal in warfare. Quite the opposite, they were coming to bring salvation.

The foundation of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in 1795 was arguably the most important turning point in the history of Tahiti. With the maturation and eventual loss of the American colonies, the religious minorities of England were searching for new ground. Tahiti, reputed by the likes of Bougainville and others to be the premier den of sin and depravity in the world, was the natural choice for their first mission. So when in 1797 the ship Duff delivered a handful of missionaries to Tahitian shores, they promptly began teaching the gospel to the curious islanders.[9] Their early efforts were a failure, as Tahitians remained faithful to the traditional gods who had served them well. But just when the colony was near collapse, with many missionaries fleeing to Australia, a major turning point took place. Pomare II converted to Christianity as part of his effort to expand his power. By allying with the Missionaries, he would have access to European influence as well as firearms, which the missionaries could not prevent him from obtaining from frequent traders. What the LMS members did gain from this deal is an agreement known as the “Code of Pomare.” The King ordered his subjects to do away with their old idols and to accept the new Christian God.[10] It was to be a change that would last into the present and erase centuries of Tahitian oral tradition. (See Early Missionaries in Tahiti.)

The actions of these missionaries, although initially independent, soon expanded into the realm of politics. One ambitious missionary, George Pritchard, appointed himself advisor to Queen Pomare IV and soon made appeals to the British Parliament for governmental support of a Colony.[11] Letters from the Queen to her sister royal Queen Victoria were met with silence when they appealed for British protection from other powers. Unfortunately for Pomare and for the English missionaries, these fears were not unfounded. In 1836 two French Catholic priests were caught in Tahiti (Catholic outlaws in a Protestant land) and were forced back aboard a departing ship. Two years later, French Commodore Dupetit Thouars, stationed in the nearby French colony at the Marquesas Islands, used this event as an excuse to blackmail the Queen. Historian Edward Dodd suggests that he may have been attempting to garner a promotion in a stagnant French naval system with this brash act.[12] If this is true, his personal quest for power had long-lasting political consequences for the Tahitians. Stationing his frigate Venus offshore of her palace, Commodore Thouars demanded that the Queen surrender to French authority or risk destruction. Once again, the Queen appealed to England for help before acquiescing to the demands. Her appeals were ignored. There was nothing the Tahitians or the English missionaries could do in the face of French military power (See [hotlink] French Conquest of Tahiti).

A parallel story emerged in the Sandwich, or Hawaiian, Islands. While no English missionaries flocked to save the Hawaiians, who had killed their beloved Captain Cook, the evolution of power dynamics with the arrival of Europeans was very similar. For six years after the death of Cook, no ships came to Hawaii. But a final discovery on Cook’s third voyage had been a bounty of otter skins from Nootka Sound that could be traded for huge profits in Macao and the East.[13] This discovery kicked off a major trade of skins, with ships of all nations stopping in Hawaii on the voyages back and forth. James Hanna, an Englishmen, was the first to try his luck at Nootka. King George’s (Nootka) Sound Company was soon formed in England.[14] At the same time, this period saw flocks of whaling ships enter the Pacific Ocean and work their way progressively farther and farther North. For American whalers and ships of other nations, Hawaii would become an important stopping point. As in Tahiti, this influx of foreigners would lead to monumental change in Hawaii.

At the time of the next great exploration, George Vancouver’s arrival at Kealakekua Bay in 1793, things were already changing in Hawaii. A military stalemate had existed between the great chief Kahakili and his enemies since 1786, but with European ships came European arms. Vancouver was greeted at Kealakeua Bay by the rising power, King Kamehameha. Like Pomare II in Tahiti, Kamehameha was harnessing a force that included “a platoon of musketmen, a sloop, cannon, and two haole sailors versed in the use of firearms.”[15] Impressed with the apparent power of this Kamehameha, Vancouver formed a close relationship with him and they eventually made a deal.[16] The island of Owhyhee would be ceded to the British Empire in exchange for access to more guns with which Kamehameha could conquer his enemies. It would have been a shrewd move on both sides had it worked. Instead, Vancouver arrived in London only to fall victim to a court scandal, and his treaty was never signed. Kamehameha went on to control the rest of the Hawaiian Islands (thus bestowing the name upon them) without direct British support, but it took him until 1810.[17] Kamehameha shrewdly played to the favors of various Western nations, as demonstrated in his design of the Hawaiian flag, but the islands began to pass predominantly into the American zone of interest. Yankee missionaries and plantation owners gradually established footholds. A diplomatic squabble involving Britain and other European nations around 1840 caused the Hawaiian rulers eventually to ally themselves with the US, in a treaty of friendship that was put in place in 1849. Hawaii was formally recognized as an independent kingdom until 1887, when a small minority of powerful American planters staged a coup that overthrew the Hawaiian Monarchy.[18] At this point Washington controversially did what British Parliament would not do in an earlier time and formally annexed the islands as a territory.

European activities in the region were typically lead by rogue national agents operating separately from their home governments. Examples of this include the British mutineer/mercenaries in Hawaii and Tahiti, the missionaries, merchants, even ambitious leaders like Commodore Thouars. Dodd makes an interesting statement in reference to the unauthorized annexation of Tahiti: “alas for Queen Pomare, the British had better control over their firebrands then did the French over theirs.”[19] As for Hawaii, historian Walter McDougall notes that the British were satisfied with an open and independent Hawaii, since it’s geographical advantage could then be exploited by all. It was not necessary to formally claim it as a British colony when that would have taken more effort and produced no new advantages. Besides, the fur trade that was passing through the area just did not provide sufficient economic incentive for such an undertaking, and officially regulating it would have led to problems with both the Hudson Bay Company and the British East India Company, who claimed monopolies over the fur trade area. In short, as McDougall writes, for Britain “the Pacific, including California as well as Hawaii, was just not all that strategic.”[20]

While the portions of Eastern Polynesia so far discussed may not have held much strategic value for England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this isolated neighborhood of the Pacific would serve its strategic purpose for Britain in the twentieth. The Gilbert Islands, claimed by Britain in 1892, were themselves something of an imperial backwater apart from some sources of phosphate that would later emerge. An obscure and uninhabited place called Kiritimati, or Christmas Island, was incorporated into these British holdings in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in 1919, with the intention of fostering copra production there.[21] But starting with the end of the second world war, Christmas Island took on a new role as the testing center for Great Britain’s hydrogen bomb program. The UK’s cold war nuclear technology was lagging behind that of their uncooperative allies, the Americans, and the isolation and obscurity of the Pacific territories like the Gilbert Islands made them the perfect place to remedy this problem. Between May 1957 and September 1958, the British detonated four major atomic and hydrogen prototype bombs in an efforts to perfect their H-Bomb design.[22] Known collectively as project “Grapple,” the tests were eventually a success. England could claim to rank among the nations holding the newer and more powerful H-Bomb, with the only cost accruing to an obscure island.[23] Christmas had served its purpose, and it was promptly passed over to the ameliorated Americans, who continued to bombard it with radioactivity into the 1960s. This isolated island was not important to Britain once she had used it to disprove any technological inferiority to the U.S.A. The Gilbert Islands eventually gained self-rule and independence in the 1970s, just as local sources of phosphate were being extinguished.[24]

The legacy, if it can be referred to in that way, of official British activity in Eastern Polynesia is, for the most part, one of disregard and apathy. Perhaps Britain’s greatest achievement in the region was its actual exploration, after which the importance of the region faded for the empire. Polynesia’s geographic isolation made it of little strategic importance, even for an empire as sprawling as Britain’s, until a place was needed to test their bombs.

Although this region meant very little to the British government proper, it did hold promise and opportunity for individual enterprise. Missionaries, rogue admirals, traders and mutineers all played their part in drastically reshaping the region. In the end, to the sprawling British Empire, the activities of a handful of unsanctioned nationals on the far side of the world would have seemed insignificant. This is the most interesting dynamic in Polynesia: all activity by major powers was dictated by the distance and isolation of the place, and thus much of what occurred did not begin with the hands of any government. Polynesia again and again proved alluring and intriguing to the ambitious, and just too distant to remain under systematic western control.

Matt Harrison, Carleton College 2012


[1] Edward Dodd, The Rape of Tahiti: A Typical Nineteenth-Century Colonial Venture Wherein several European Powers with their Iron, Pox, Creed, Commerce and Cannon Violate the Innocence of a Cluster of Lovely Polynesian Islands in The South Pacific Ocean (New York: Dodd, Mean, 1983): 37.

[2] Walter A. Mcdougall, Let the Sea Make A Noise… A History of the North Pacific from Magellan to MacArthur (New York: Basic Books, 1993): 83.

[3] Mcdougall, Let the Sea Make A Noise, 84.

[4] Anne Salmond, Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti (Berkeley: U of California P, 2009): 117.

[5] Dodd, Rape of Tahiti, 39-45.

[6] Anne Salmond, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: Captain Cook in the South Seas (New York: Penguin, 2004): 24, 387.

[7] Dodd, Rape of Tahiti, 45.

[8] Dodd, Rape of Tahiti, 67.

[9] Glyn Williams, The Death of Captain Cook: A Hero Made and Unmade (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008): 132.

[10] John Davies, The History of the Tahitian Mission 1799-1830, ed. C.W. Newbury (London: Cambridge UP, The Hakluyt Society, 1961): 203.

[11] Dodd, The Rape of Tahiti, 74.

[12] Dodd, The Rape of Tahiti, 80.

[13] Mcdougall, Let the Sea Make A Noise, 89.

[14] Mcdougall, Let the Sea Make A Noise, 90.

[15] Mcdougall, Let the Sea Make A Noise, 105.

[16] Tom Coffman, Nation Within: The History of the American Occupation of Hawai’i (Kihei HI: Koa Books, 2009): 28.

[17] Mcdougall, Let the Sea Make A Noise, 109.

[18] Coffman, Nation Within, 92.

[19] Dodd, The Rape of Tahiti, 96.

[20] Mcdougall, Let the Sea Make A Noise, 110.

[21] Russell E Hall, “Conflicting Interests in Pacific Islands,” Far Eastern Survey 7.6 (1938): 66. JSTOR. Web. 19 Jan. 2012.

[22] Channel4, “H-Bomb.” Engineering Britain’s Superweapons. Channel4 Mini-series, 2009.

[23] Channel4, “H-Bomb.”

[24] BBC News, “Kiribati Profile.” News Asia-Pacific. BBC News Online, January 10, 2012. Web.

How to cite this page:
Matt Harrison. “Great Britain in Polynesia: Imperialism and Opportunism on the Far Side of the World,” Atlas for Sustainability in Polynesian Island Cultures and Ecosystems, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA. 2012. Web. [Date accessed]