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Samoan tattooing implement

Astronomers and their instruments played their part in new cultures of contact that arose in the 18th-century Pacific world.

Trade and exchange flourished in encounters between British ships and coastal communities, with both sides keen to acquire each other’s artefacts. These transactions were often fraught, exposing tensions over the value of things and the social role of exchange.

Captain Cook’s sextant

Sextant, owned and used by Captain James Cook in his third voyage
Image 1: Sextant, owned and used by Captain James Cook in his third voyage (1776-79), made by John Bird, London, c. 1765. Royal Astronomical Society RAS.25

Precision instruments like the sextant shown in Image 1, used by Captain James Cook on his third voyage to the Pacific, played a central role in encounters between Cook’s men and Polynesian islanders. Carried as tools of navigation, instruments could also be desirable objects of trade and appropriation.

When, in October 1777, a sextant was taken from the Resolution’s tent observatory, Cook entered into a heated confrontation with Borabora islanders. The Raiatean landowner Mai, who had returned to Polynesia from London on the Resolution, was a crucial go-between.

As Cook’s journal records, once Mai had re-secured the instrument, Cook exacted a brutal reparation for his prized object:

“The intercourse of trade, and friendly offices, was carried on between us and the natives, without being disturbed by any one accident, till the evening of the 22nd, when a man found means to get into Mr Bayly’s observatory, and to carry off a sextant, unobserved. … I went ashore, and got Omai [Mai] to apply to the Chiefs, to procure restitution. …

"Having employed Omai to examine the prisoner, with some difficulty he was brought to confess where he had laid the sextant [and] it was brought back unhurt. … as to the thief, he appearing to be a hardened scoundrel, I punished him with more severity than I had done any culprit before. Besides having his head and beard shaved, I ordered both his ears to be cut off, and then dismissed him.”(1)

Trade in the Pacific

Cast of trading medal taken by Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific
Image 2: Cast of trading medal taken by Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific (1772–75). Image © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge (Z 29400).

James Cook had the medals shown in Image 2 struck in Birmingham before his second voyage, to trade and gift to Pacific Islanders. Casts of the originals, like the ones shown here, were then exhibited in Britain to commemorate the journey.

Samoan tattooing implement, made of bamboo with turtleshell and bone head.
Image 3: Samoan tattooing implement, made of bamboo with turtleshell and bone head. Image © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge (Z 5962).

The fine tattooing implement shown in Image 3, made of bamboo, turtleshell, and bone, is just one example from a wide variety of tools and ornaments chosen by Pacific Islanders to gift or trade in return.

Cook’s medals suggest that British officers often took these exchanges as evidence of Polynesian enthusiasm for commerce. But objects like this tattooing instrument may have been offered to the British to integrate them into complex networks of sociability.

Records from the British side of these exchanges certainly indicate that European seafarers viewed the Pacific as a commercial theatre in which judicious trading might make them rich.

The astronomer William Gooch wrote to his parents in June, 1791, before his maiden voyage to the Pacific, detailing his plans to moonlight as a commodities trader:

“I first mention’d taking some Baubles with me for the Savages, as what I suppos’d a trivial Concern; but [William Wales] made it a very material one, and said that there was little doubt of my doubling my salary by exchanging them for Furs which could sell for a great Price to the Chinese.—He particularly mention’d large Sheath-Knives, small Axes, Copper Vessels (Pots, Sauspans Kettles &c.) Spike-Nails &c. … an Ax of 2 shillings will purchase a Sea Otters skin that I can sell in China for two or three hundred Dollars.”(2)


1.     James Cook, journal entry for 23 Oct. 1777, as quoted in: James Cook, A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, Vol. 2 (London: W. and A. Strahan, 1784), pp.99–100.

2.     Quoted in: Richard Dunn, ‘Heaving a Little Ballast: Seaborne Astronomy in the Late-Eighteenth Century’, in: Marcus Granato & Marta C. Lourenço (eds.), Scientific Instruments in the History of Science: Studies in Transfer, Use and Preservation (Museu de Astronomia e Ciências Afins, 2014), 79–100, on p.82.

Joshua Nall

Joshua Nall, ‘Encounter and Exchange’, Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2020.

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