Beachcombers and Castaways: Mercenaries, Wreckers and … Teachers

The beachcombers, however, became more and more numerous, particularly with the development of whaling. Some of the runaway sailors became wreckers with the help, and often for the benefit, of chiefs. We know that, at this time, at least a dozen whites, beachcombers or castaways, lived in Tonga and served like mercenaries for the chiefs under whose authority they were living.[8] At first, these Europeans explained the handling of firearms (guns and canons) seized from ships.

However, the exchange between Tongans and Europeans was not limited to trade in tools and firearms only. Some better educated beachcombers, at least better educated than the others, took up the function of teacher-advisers to the chiefs. One of them, named William Brown, became a valued retainer of the Finau family (chiefs of very high rank). According to Gunson, his life and influence resembled that of a secular missionary (1977, 105) and he taught some of the more intelligent and enterprising chiefs to read and write. William Brown and another beachcomber, William Singleton, became the official scribes of chiefs of royal rank. Soon it became fashionable for every high chief to have a white man as his official scribe. These beachcombers transmitted the art of writing to the chiefs and, because the only available texts were those in the Bible, they taught the Tongans some basic knowledge of the Christian religion.

In Vava`u, the northern group of the Tongan islands, another beachcomber, Samuel Blackmore, had the distinction of being the first runaway sailor to teach the people about the Christian god, before any missionaries: the story of Jehovah in the Bible, recounted by this English sailor, so influenced a young chief of high rank (Lolohea) that he became the first recognised Christian convert in the group. A shipwrecked 16-year-old English boy, William Mariner, became famous because his adventures were reported in detail in a book which is, today, considered as a major source of Tongan history.[9] In 1806 his ship, the Port-au-Prince, was captured by Tongans, looted and burnt, and some of the crew were murdered. The survivors formed the mercenary artillery force of an ambitious chief, Finau Ulukalala, who adopted the English boy as his son. William Mariner succeeded in saving some books from the ship. The first reaction of Finau Ulukalala, his adoptive father, was to burn the books. For him, in the words of William Mariner “those books and papers were the means of invocation to bring down some evil upon the country” (Martin 1981, 65), and “he would not allow him to practise witchcraft to the injury of the Tongan people” (65). He told William Mariner that, some years before, several white men had come and built a house in which “they used often to shut themselves up, to sing and perform ceremonies” and that, after a while, many chiefs died (65). Later, William Mariner discussed literacy with this chief. He told him that in several parts of the world messages were sent great distances through the medium of writing. The chief acknowledged this “to be a most noble invention,” but added that it would not do at all for the Tongan islands; that there would be nothing but disturbances and conspiracies, and he would not be sure to live, perhaps even for another month. He said, however, that he would like to know it himself and for all the women to know it, so that he might make love with less risk of discovery, and not so much chance of incurring the vengeance of their husbands (93–4). And so it passed that the young Mariner transmitted the knowledge of reading and writing to many Tongan chiefs together with notions of the Christian religion.

[8] According to Gunson, from 1796 to 1826 over eighty aliens from Europe and distant Pacific islands resided in Tonga (Gunson 1977, 90).

[9] His adventures were written by an English doctor, John Martin, in 1817 (see Martin 1981).