Journey to the Sinking Lands

A witness to the world's first evacuation of an entire people due to climate change

War and coconuts

Philip Carteret

Philip Carteret

I’ve been finding out about Philip Carteret, the first european to discover the Carteret Islands and who, as an encore, quickly named them after himself. There’s the Wikipedia entry of course, which includes this rather strange portrait of the man looking like a child wearing a borrowed wig.

Digging deeper (in the depths of the Foyle Reading Room at the Royal Geographical Society), I’ve managed to uncover Carteret’s own account of the first meeting between a european and the inhabitants of the Carteret Islands, published in 1811. It’s not a particularly auspicious start, unfortunately. As far as I can make out, Carteret seems to have met the Islanders, shot them and then stolen all their coconuts…

This is Carteret’s version of what happened:

 “…On the 20th, we discovered a small, flat, low island andgot up with it in the evening. It lies in latitude 7°56’S. longitude 158°56E. and I gave it the name of Gower’s Island. To our great mortification we found no anchorage here, and could procure only a few cocao-nuts from the inhabitants, (who were much the same kind of people that we had seen at Isle Egmont,) in exchange for nails, and such trifles as we had; they promised, by signs, to bring us more the next day, and we kept off and on all night. The night was extremely dark; andthe next morning at day-break, we foundthat a current had set us considerably to the southward of the island, and brought us within sight of two more. They were situated nearly east and west of each other, and were distant about two miles. That to the eastward is much the smallest, and this we called Simpson’s Island; to the other, which is lofty, and has a stately appearance, we gave the name of Carteret’s Island. The east end of it bears about south from Gower’s Island, and the distance between them is about ten or eleven leagues. Carteret’s Island lies in about the latitude of 8°26’S. longititude 159° 14 e. andits lengthfrom east to west is about six leagues. We found the variation here 8°30E. Both the islands were right to windwards of us, and we bore down to Gower’s Island. It is about two leagues and a half long on the western side, which makes in bays. The whole is well wooded, and many of the trees are cocao-nut. We found here a considerable number of the Indians, with two boats or canoes, which we supposed to belong to Carteret’s Island, and to have brought the people here to only fish. We sent the boat on shore, which the natives endeavoured to cut off; and hostilities being thus commenced we seized their canoe, in which we found about an hundred coaco-nuts, which were very acceptable. We saw some turtle near the beach, but were not fortunate to take any of them. The canoe, or boat, was large enough to carry eight or ten men, andwas very neatly built, with planks well jointed; it was adorned with shell-work, and figures rudely painted, andthe seams were covered with a substance somewhat like our black putty, but it appeared to me to be of a better consistence. The people were armed with bows, arrows and spears; the spears andarrows were pointed with flint. By some signs which they made, pointing to our muskets, we imagined they were not wholly unacquainted with firearms. They are much the same kind of people as we had seen at Egmont island and, like them, were quite naked; but their canoes were of a very different structure, and a much larger size, though we did not discover that any of them had sails. The cacao-nuts which we got here, and at Egmont island, were of infinite advantage to the sick.

First page of Philip Carteret's account of his voyage, published in 1811. Source; RGS-IBG.

First page of Philip Carteret's account of his voyage, published in 1811. Source; RGS-IBG.

From the time of our leaving Egmont island, we had observed a current setting strangely to the southward, and in the neighbourhood of these islands we found its force greatly increased. This determined me, when I sailed from Gower’s island, to steer N.W. fearing we might otherwise fall in withthe mainland too far to the southward; for if we had got into any gulph or deep bay, our crew was so sickly, and our ship so bad, that it would have been impossible for us to have got out again.
About eight o’clock in the morning of the 22nd, as we were continuing our course with a fine fresh gale, Patrick Dwyer one of the marines, who was doing something over the ship’s quarter, by some accident missed his hold and fell into the sea. We instantly threw overboard the canoe which we had seized at Gower’s island, brought the ship to, and hoisted out the cutter with all possible expedition; but the poor fellow though remarkably strong and healthy, sunk at once, and we saw him no more. We took the canoe on board again, but she had received so much damage by striking against one of the guns, as the people were hoisting her overboard, that we were obliged to cut her up. In the night of Monday the 24th, we fell in with nine islands. They stretch nearly N.W. by W. and S.E. by E. about fifteen leagues, and lie in latitude 4°36’S. longittude 154°17’E. according to the ship’s account. I imagine these to be the islands which are called the Ohang Java, and were discovered by Tasman; for the situation answers very nearly to their place in the French chart, which in the year 1756 was corrected for the King’s ships. The other islands, Carteret’s, Gower’s and Simpson’s, I believe have never been seen by a European navigator before. There is certainly much land in this part of the ocean not yet known…”

From ‘An Account of a Voyage round the world, in the Years 1766, 1767, 1768 and 1769, by Philip Carteret, Esq. Commander of His Majesty’s Sloop The Swallow.’

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