Europeans in the Pacific in the 1800s: Whalers, Missionaries, Copra and Forced Labor

Home | Category: History and Exploration


After voyages by Captain James Cook from 1768 to 1779, the only Europeans that ventured to many areas of the Pacific Ocean if they went there at all were rowdy whalers and sealers. During the heyday of the whalers and traders (1780-1850) there was virtually no official European colonial presence in Oceania, and reports of atrocities in the islands fanned the flames of evangelical movements then popular in Europe and the United States. Most of the culture that remains in the Pacific region contains indigenous elements that survived European colonization fused with secular and religious culture introduced by Europeans.

Between the 1840s and the 1890s almost every island group in the Pacific was brought within one of the Western colonial empires: Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. In Fiji, European visitors included pirates, adventurers, sandalwood traders, beche'de mer (sea cucumber) seekers, army deserters, shipwreck survivors, mercenaries, beachcombers, settlers, planters and missionaries. Horror stories about cannibalism kept Europeans away until large stands of sandalwood trees were found in the early 18th century and promptly exploited. During the nineteenth century, planters and traders soon attempted to set up a colony on the model of those of Australia and New Zealand. The indigenous chiefs, backed by European settler interests, established several confederated forms of government.

The islands of the Pacific for the most part didn't have any spices, silver, gold or gems and therefore were of little interest to early explorers, traders and colonizers. In some places, massive areas of land were cleared for agriculture and various other purposes. This severely affected indigenous people who were progressively forced them into smaller areas and reduced their numbers as the majority died of newly introduced diseases and lack of resources. Indigenous resistance against the settlers occurred,

The islands of Micronesia were occupies by five foreign powers: the Spanish, the British, the Germans, the Japanese and finally the U.S. The islands were first used as supply stations for ships crossing the Pacific and later exploited for their limited resources. Beginning in 1565, a Spanish galleon made an annual trip between the Philippines and Mexico, trading oriental spices, silk and treasurers for New World gold and silver. The shipping routes followed seasonal winds, used for centuries by Micronesian navigators, and passed by several groups of Micronesian islands. Guam was used as a waystation

The Tahitians were cast the avatars of Rouseau’s Noble Savage. But in reality they engaged in frequent warfare and some of their battles were quite vicious. Tahitian girls sometimes stripped and swam naked for foreign explorers and Tahitian men offered their wives to the foreigners. Some captains had offer their sailors money not to desert. Some sailors had to be brought back aboard tied poles liked hunted animals.

British and French Maneuvering in Polynesia

According to the “Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450": Initially, Britain held the advantage, as English Protestant missionary groups gained favor with the Pomaré dynasty (1762–1880), which reigned over Tahiti and the surrounding islands of Mooréa, Tuamotu, Mehetia, Tubai, and Raivave. However, the London Missionary Society was never able to induce London to establish a British protectorate in the region. [Source: “Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism since 1450"]

In contrast, France's search for ports and prestige led to annexation of the Marquesas and the establishment of a protectorate in 1842. The same occurred in Tahiti at the request of the Queen Pomaré IV (1813–1877). A protectorate agreement by the French recognized the sovereignty of the Marquesas and Tahiti states and the authority of the local chiefs.

Although the British instigated local rebellions, French influence prevailed over the next six decades, leaving a lasting impact in the region. After the abdication of King Pomaré V (1839–1891) on June 29, 1880, France seized the opportunity to annex Tahiti, and then the Gambier Islands the following year, the "Islands-Under-the-Wind" (Raiatea, Tahoa, Huahine, Bora-Bora, and Maupiti) between 1888 and 1897, and the Austral Islands in 1902. These different archipelagos then took the name of "French Settlement of Oceania" until 1957, when they became French Polynesia.

Europeans in Tonga and Samoa

Charles F. Urbanowicz wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The first Europeans to visit the Tongan Islands were Dutch navigators in 1616 (Willem Schouten and Jacob LeMaire) and additional contacts occurred as other Europeans explored the Pacific throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Contacts between Europeans and Tongans lasted for periods of a few days to several weeks. Publications by Europeans about Pacific Islanders placed Tonga firmly on the map of the world. These published accounts, coupled with the great evangelical revival that swept Europe in the nineteenth century, caused Organizations to send individuals to convert the peoples of the Pacific. [Source: Charles F. Urbanowicz,“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1996]

The first European to lay eyes on Samoa was the Dutch explorer Jacob Rogeveen who passed by without stopping in 1722. Fifty years later the French navigator Louis-Antione de Bougainville landed in Samoa and reported that people were "less trusting than the Tahitians; they displayed no eagerness to get iron. But their canoes were skillfully made, with triangular sails, and followed the ships a good distance out to sea,” sailing “round them as easily as if they had been at anchor." De Bougainville named Samoa Les Îles des Navigateurs.

Contact with Europeans in Samoa began in the early 1700s but did not intensify until the arrival of English missionaries and traders in the 1830s. Subsequent European expansion into the islands led to disorder and violence, which was compounded by tribal warfare. in 1878 the United States and the Samoan kingdom signed a treaty giving the United States certain trade privileges and the right to establish a naval station at Pago Pago. Germany and Great Britain were accorded similar privileges in 1879.

Europeans in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu

In the Solomon Islands, the first contact with Europeans was in 1568 when Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira arrived. Mendaña named the islands Islas de Salomon (the Solomon Islands), thinking that the gold source for King Solomon's riches was located there. He returned a second time in 1595 with a plan to settle. He died of malaria, and the settlement was short-lived. Until 1767, when English explorer Philip Carteret landed in the islands, contact with outsiders was limited. In the 1800s, when traders and whalers arrived, that contact with Europeans became constant and enduring. Entrepreneurs, church missionaries, and the British colonial government officers soon arrived thereafter. [Source: John Moffat Fugui, “Countries and Their Cultures”, 2001]

The first island in the Vanuatu group discovered by Europeans was Espir-itu Santo. In 1606 the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Fernandez De Quiros, though the islands were part a southern continent. Europeans did not return until 1768, when Louis Antoine de Bougainville rediscovered the islands. In 1774, Captain Cook named the islands the New Hebrides, a name that lasted until independence. [Source: “Countries of the World and Their Leaders Yearbook 2009"]

Labor recruitment from the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu for plantations in Fiji and Queensland was called "blackbirding". Between 1863 and 1904, about 60,000 Pacific islanders from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands were brought to Queensland, Australia to work on sugar plantations. After the introduction of the "white Australia policy" most were deported. About 20,000 of their descendants remain in northern Queensland. Also during this period Lever's Pacific Plantations began establishing large-scale plantations in the Pacific..

With the arrival of churches and government, communication was made easier between the islanders, and further networks then developed. The British also put an end to intertribal warfare and conflicts. As a result, the predominant cultures of Melanesia and Polynesia were deeply intertwined with the cultures of the different churches, and both urban and rural lifestyles. Added to this was the introduction of western popular culture.

Whalers in the Pacific

The first group of Westerners to arrive in great numbers in northern Pacific were British and American whalers who arrived during the whaling boom of the mid 1800s, when as many 500 whaling ships worked the Pacific. The huge 19th century whaling tall ships were very different from the floating fish processing factories of today. Able to stay at sea for months without resupplying, these Melvillesque ships boiled the whale blubber, extracted the oil and stored in huge tanks in the ships holds. The whalers themselves were notorious for their drunkenness and womanizing and many islands had develop strategies to get rid of "degenerate whites" who jumped ship on their islands.

Terence E. Hays wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The War of 1812 effectively disrupted the American whaling industry in the Atlantic Ocean, but worldwide demand for whale oil for lamps and whalebone for corsets and other uses continued unabated. Until markets changed and whale populations dwindled in the 1850s, hundreds of whaling ships prowled the central Pacific, introducing Western goods and Western diseases in the process. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991]

The peak of Pacific whaling was between 1822 and 1867: Nathaniel Philbrick wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “ In the early 19th century a typical whaleship had a crew of 21 men, 18 of whom were divided into three whaleboat crews of six men each. The 25-foot whaleboat was lightly built of cedar planks and powered by five long oars, with an officer standing at the steering oar on the stern. The trick was to row as close as possible to their prey so that the man at the bow could hurl his harpoon into the whale’s glistening black flank. More often than not the panicked creature hurtled off in a desperate rush, and the men found themselves in the midst of a “Nantucket sleigh ride.” For the uninitiated, it was both exhilarating and terrifying to be pulled along at a speed that approached as much as 20 miles an hour, the small open boat slapping against the waves with such force that the nails sometimes started from the planks at the bow and stern. [Source: Nathaniel Philbrick, Smithsonian magazine, December 2015]

The Two Brothers — a 217-ton, 84-foot-long vessel built in Hallowell, Maine, in 1804 was a typical Pacific whaling ship. It departed Nantucket on November 26, 1821, and followed an established route, rounding Cape Horn. From the western coast of South America, the ship sailed to Hawaii, making it as far as the French Frigate Shoals, an atoll in the island chain that includes Shark Island.

“The rise of the Pacific sperm whale fishery had a regrettable consequence. Instead of voyages that had once averaged about nine months, two- and three-year voyages had become typical. Never before had the division between Nantucket’s whalemen and their people been so great. “During a typical voyage, a Nantucket whaleship might kill and process 40 to 50 whales. The repetitious nature of the work — a whaler was, after all, a factory ship. For seamen the whaling life was no picnic. Voyages averaged four years in length. Dangers and disease were constant concerns. The seamen missed their loved ones and were lucky to still have them when the returned home. Almost every day was the same meal of bread and beef jerky, augmented with seals or a turtles killed at some remote ocean island. And for all that whalemen weren’t paid much. They jumped ship when better opportunities — such as the Gold Rush in California in 1849 — beckoned. A year after Melville signed on he deserted his ship in the Marquesas Islands and lived for three weeks with the Typee natives, who were called cannibals by other tribal groups on the islands.

Sealers in the Southern Pacific

Seals and sea lions were hunted another for their meat, oil and fur. Leather is sometimes made from seals. Commercial sealers traditionally drove the seals to a designated area and killed them with blow to soft parts for their skulls. Sealing — the hunting of seals — was widely practiced in the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century.

By that time Sealing was established around the coast of Australia and sealers travelled all around the Pacific. Fur seal skins were sold on the London market but more importantly was a tradeable commodity in China. When China had a monopoly on the international tea trade, sea skins were traded for tea. The Chinese found little of value in the normal trade goods offered by European traders. They demanded payment in gold. Seal skins were a good alternative. [Source: New Zealand History 1800 -1900, A blog to assist the students in Level 3 NCEA History at Wellington High School, February 28, 2008 ]

In New Zealand, the first Sealers set up camp in Dusky Sound (Fiordland) in 1792. Mainly ex-convicts, they were outfitted and supplied by entrepeneurs based in Port Jackson (Sydney). The job was simple. Kill as many Fur Seals as possible, skin them, cure the hide with salt and wait to be picked up. A good crew could return to Sydney with several thousand skins. In New Zealand, Sealers were a rough and ready group. They settled in small groups around the southern coasts of both Islands. They lived close to seal colonies were there for a matter of weeks or months and left. They might return but it was an itinerant lifestyle and was often a different group of men. They rarely carried any trade goods thus there was little incentive for Maori to interact with them in anything more than a cursory nature. The impact of this interaction is limited by the areas that sealing took place.Some did become close to local Maori and were taken (See James Caddell) and some took wives and became apart of the tribe. In general their impact can be seen as introducing some Maori to Europe, their culture and the possibilities that they might offer. It would be the northern tribes who cashed in on this potential.

The first sealing 'gang' arrived aboard the 'Brittania' captained by William Raven, its skins were bound for China. Many ships would leave with at least 10,000 skins, one ship the (the aptly named) 'Favourite', landed 60,000 skins in a single trip in 1806. Life for the sealers was rough. Often landed close to the Seals breeding grounds they were left on desolate coasts often hemmed in by cliffs and wild seas. Left with limited stores of food they endured bad weather, starvation and possible abandonment should their ship fail to return to pick them up. Sometimes shipwreck, meant their ship never returned. Sometimes bad debts and bailiffs stopped the ship from coming back. Some Captains simply found a more lucarative venture, leaving their men marooned. Abandoned gangs were left to forage for seabird eggs, crabs or merely to eat the rotting meat of their seals. Some attempted to build boats and if successful, to sail to safety.A gang from the 'Active' survived for 3 years before being discovered.

Trade in the Pacific Ocean for Sandalwood and Sea Ccucumber

The European trade in spices had created increasing demands by Asians for pearl shells, sea cucumber (trepang, bêche-de-mer) and sandalwood. Many cultures in East and Southeast Asia regard sea cucumbers as a delicacy and value its slippery texture.. A number of dishes are made with it. It is thought to have medicinal value is regarded aphrodisiac at least in part because sea cucumbers resembles phalluses and get hard and squirts out material (their own entrails) when threatened. Sea cucumbers consumed as food have are traditionally been harvested by hand from small boats, a process called "trepanging". They have traditionally been dried for preservation, and must be rehydrated by boiling and soaking in water for several days. They are mainly used as an ingredient in soups or stews.

Sandalwood is an aromatic wood taken from trees that, as was soon discovered, covered vast tracts of the islands of the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), Fiji, and much of the rest of Polynesia. In the East Indies (Indonesia) the sandalwood trade was controlled by the Malays, the Makassarese and finally the Europeans. The significance of sandalwood as a trade good is mentioned by 14th century Chinese and Javanese documents.

Sandalwood is an aromatic, fine-grained evergreen shrub or shrub found in southern India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and tropical islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. There are several species of sandalwood. White sandalwood, a tree that seldom exceeds 20 feet in height and a foot in diameter, is raised on plantations in India.

Sandalwood is prized by Chinese and other Asians for making carved and inlaid boxes, fans, combs and walking sticks. Buddhists use sandalwood powder to make incense burned at family shrines and temple alters. Hindus mix sandalwood with vermillion and use it to make marks on their foreheads. Indian princes have traditionally been cremated on sandalwood funeral pyres. Oil obtained from sandalwood chips is used in perfumes, cosmetics and medicines.

In Indonesia, Timor has world's last remaining natural sandalwood forests. Sumba once had vast tracts of sandalwood forest, but there all gone now: cut down to make incenses, soap, perfume, essential oils are made sandalwood. Currently, there is a small craft home industry throughout East Timor, producing Catholic rosaries, Muslim prayer beads, intricately carved fans, among other items from sandalwood.

Missionaries in the Pacific

Christianity was brought to the Pacific Islands by missionaries from Western Europe, who were quick to see a need for their influence, and few parts of the Pacific were left untouched by them. In some cases, they arrived and burned houses and destroyed art, musical instruments and anything associated with heathenism. Mostly their influence was more benign.

From the 1660s Spanish Roman Catholic priests, from their base in the Philippines, began missionary work in several island groups of the North Pacific. In the South Pacific, missionary activity was dominated by evangelical Protestantism. The first permanent mission was commenced by British missionaries of the London Missionary Society (LMS), which sent its first agents to eastern Polynesia in 1797. During the nineteenth century, many other branches of Western Christianity established missions in the Pacific Islands. These included Anglicans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, French Reformed, Lutherans, and Seventh-day Adventists. []

The great majority of Protestant missionaries of this period were British and American. The LMS sent the first wave, in 1797, to Tahiti, Tonga, and the Marquesas Islands, and additional groups to Fiji in 1835 and the New Hebrides in 1839. Congregationalists from the United States arrived in the Hawaiian Islands in 1820, and other Protestant groups fanned out into the Cook Islands (1821), Tonga (1822), Fiji and Samoa (1830), the Caroline Islands (1852), and the Gilberts and Marshalls (1857). Roman Catholics were mainly French. Smaller, mission groups of Catholic missionaries were established in Tahiti (1836), New Caledonia (1840), and Fiji (1844). [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

According to Having already been exposed to Western trading contact, the islanders embraced Christianity, largely by choice and for reasons that seemed valid to them at the time. Through the agency of Pacific Island teachers, Christianity spread rapidly in the eastern and central Pacific (Polynesia and Micronesia). In each island group, the first mission to introduce Christianity usually received the support of the majority of the population. The evangelization of the more populous and fragmented societies of the southwest Pacific (Melanesia) was a much slower process and, in the island of New Guinea, is incomplete at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “To this day, new groups of missionaries are arriving and expanding throughout Oceania, but those early representatives were especially significant, not only in terms of their effects on the customs and beliefs of Pacific islanders but also because their presence constituted a major factor in the development of commerce and accompanying demands for the establishment of colonial governments and services. |~|

Blackbirding, Prisoners and Forced Labor in the Pacific

Terence E. Hays wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: ““From the middle of the 1840s to the beginning of the First World War, newcomers began systematically to strip Oceania of its resources, both natural and human. In 1847 the first laborers were 'recruited" from the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and the Loyalty Islands ( New Caledonia), and soon blackbirders were scouring the Pacific, offering trinkets and often-false promises of good pay and prompt repatriation after a term of service on Australian sugar plantations, in the guano mines of Peru, or wherever cheap labor was needed. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

Thousands of male Pacific islanders were thus shipped off to distant places, often under coercion and treated as virtual slaves. Many died of diseases or other causes, and countless individuals were never returned to their homes, sometimes simply being dropped off at whatever port was convenient for the labor recruiters. In part due to pressure from Pacific missionaries, Great Britain passed an antiblackbirding act in 1872, which largely, but not completely, ended this traffic in human cargo. |~|

“As if in reciprocity for those who were removed, European powers also came to regard Oceania as a dumping ground for their "undesirables," with New Caledonia chosen in 1864 by the French as a place to get rid of convicts from home just as Australia had been founded as a colony by the British in 1788 for the same purpose. Asians began to pour into the Pacific, with Chinese and Japanese laborers (in 1865 and 1878, respectively) being brought to work on plantations in Hawaii. People were also brought from India to work in the burgeoning sugar industry of Fiji; the first group arrived in 1879, and today their descendants constitute the majority population in the Fiji Islands. |~|

Copra Plantations, Business and Mining in the Pacific

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The demand for labor on Pacific islands was nearly limitless as European-owned plantations began to occupy vast tracts of land. While sugarcane was the major plantation crop in Queensland, Australia, and Fiji, the copra trade had a broader and longer-lasting influence. The dried meat of the coconut (copra) was highly valued as a source of oil for cooking, soaps, cosmetics, and other products in worldwide demand, and millions of coconut palms were planted and managed throughout the Pacific. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

Missionaries saw copra as a limitless source of cash, and commercial firms obtained rights to countless hectares of coastal and island land. For example, from 1884 to 1899, the Neu Guinea Kompagnie turned most of the coastline of northeastern New Guinea into plantations for copra, as well as tobacco and other crops, and, beginning in 1905, the firm of Lever Brothers established Lever's Pacific Plantations, Ltd., in much of Fiji and the Solomon Islands. Copra continues to be the major commercial export of many islanders.

“American, Australian, British, French, and German business interests also came to dominate the mercantile trade that blossomed throughout Oceania to supply plantation managers, itinerant traders, and small storekeepers, who now seemed to be everywhere. Prominent among these were such companies as the German-owned Godeffroy and Son, which established its headquarters in Apia (Western Samoa) in 1856 and soon monopolized Micronesia and spread out to New Britain. Another company, and still a major presence throughout the Pacific, was the British firm Burns Philp (South Seas) Company, Ltd., which soon after the beginning of the twentieth century controlled much of the shipping business and countless trade stores in locations ranging from port towns to tiny islands. Such prospects, combined with the strategic importance of Pacific islands as coaling depots and naval stations.

The discovery of mineral resources (e.g., nickel in New Caledonia in 1863, gold in New Guinea in 1889, and phosphate on Nauru in 1899), made Oceania an increasingly desirable part of the world for European colonies in the latter half of the nineteenth century.. |~|

Europeans Annex Pacific Territories

Terence E. Hays wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Australia had been established as a colony of the British in 1788, and long before, in 1565, Spain had claimed part of the Mariana Islands and extended its influence in Micronesia. But it was in the middle and late 1800s that the European colonial powers rushed to expand their empires. [Source:“Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991 |~|]

“The Dutch, formalizing their long-standing hegemony in the 'East Indies," claimed the western half of New Guinea in 1848, and in 1884 Germany annexed the northeastern quadrant of the island (plus Manus, New Britain, New Hanover, New Ireland, and Bougainville), to which Great Britain responded in the same year with the proclamation that the southeastern quarter was British New Guinea (later renamed Papua and transferred to Australian control as the Territory of Papua in 1906).

Elsewhere in Melanesia, France seized New Caledonia in 1853 and the New Hebrides in 1882, only to reach a compromise with Great Britain in 1906 by forming the jointly administered Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides. During this period the French also annexed, in Polynesia, the Marquesas Islands, Tahiti, the Wallis Islands, and the Austral Islands. Fiji was ceded to Great Britain in 1875, and in 1892 the latter established the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate. At the very dose of the century, the United States annexed the Hawaiian Islands and New Zealand acquired the Cook Islands. In Micronesia, the United States seized Guam in 1898, and in the following year the rest of Spain's interests were dissolved with their sale of the northern Marianas, the Carolines, and the Marshalls to Germany. |~|

“In the midst of all these maneuvers, Pacific islanders were little more than pawns. Guamanians had revolted against their Jesuit missionaries in 1670, and the Spanish-Chamorros War lasted from 1672 to 1700, but Spain, predictably, won. New Caledonians staged an uprising against the French in 1878, as did Caroline Islanders opposed to their overlords in 1887 and Western Samoans in 1908. But there could be little hope for success against the nineteenth century superpowers, and none would be achieved until global politics changed with two world wars. |~|

“While World War I was fought far from the Pacific islands, it brought about major realignments of the colonial powers' positions in Melanesia and Micronesia. Germany lost its colonies immediately in 1914 at the outbreak of the war, with Japan taking over the Mariana Islands (except Guam), the Carolines, and the Marshalls and with Australia seizing German New Guinea and Nauru. Following the war, the new shufflings were formalized, with the League ofNations awarding the Mandated Territory of New Guinea to Australia and a comparable mandate in Micronesia to Japan. |~|

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2023

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.