Saturday, January 31, 2009

Roggeveen and Easter Island

Jacob Roggeveen, the Dutch explorer credited with discovering Easter Island, was baptised exactly 350 years ago tomorrow, and died 280 years ago today. He kept a journal, although this was not published in English until 1970. A couple of extracts are available online, including one about the day he sighted Easter Island.

Wikipedia, The Diary Junction and the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) website all have some biographical information about Roggeveen. His birth date is not known, but he was baptised on 1 February 1659, three and a half centuries ago. He trained as a notary in Middelburg, Holland, and studied law at University of Harderwijk. Between 1707 and 1714, he was a Council Lord of Justice at Batavia (now Djakarta), in the Dutch East Indies. On returning to Holland, he became involved in a religious controversy, and the first part of a tract he published in 1718 was confiscated by the city council and burned. He fled Middelburg, and eventually established himself in Arnemuiden, where he published further parts of the tract.

In August 1721, though, he took over the preparation of an expedition, initially devised by his father, for the Dutch West India Company, to seek Terra Australis. He sailed around Cape Horn and to the Pacific Ocean, visited Juan Fernandez Islands, and is credited with discovering Easter Island in 1722. Subsequently, he was arrested because he had, apparently, violated the monopoly of the Dutch East India Company. He was later released and compensated. He returned to the Netherlands in 1723 and published a final part of his tract. He died on 31 January 1729, 280 years ago today.

The Journal of Jacob Roggeveen, originally printed in Dutch in 1838, wasn’t published in English until Clarendon Press brought out an edition in 1970, translated and edited by Andrew Sharpe. Here are Roggeveen’s own words on the discovery of Easter Island, taken from the journal, and made available online thanks to The Internet Sacred Text Archive.

‘When we approached nearer the land we saw distinctly from a short distance that the description of the sandy and low island did not accord in the least with our discovery. Furthermore, it could not be the same land which the aforesaid voyagers claim to have seen stretching 14 to 16 leagues in front of them, and near the highland which Dampier judged to be the coast-line of the unknown south. That Easter Island can not be the sandy island described by Davis is clear, because that was small and low, while on the contrary Easter Island is high and towers above the sea, having also two elevations rising above the level part. It would not be possible to mistake, even at the dry season of the year, the grass and verdure that covers the hill-sides for barren sand. After the Dutch custom of the day, the admiral assembled the commanders of the three vessels composing his fleet - the Arend, the African Galley, and the Thienhoven - in council to pass formal resolutions claiming the discovery of the land. The proceedings of the assembly state that on Easter day land was sighted about 9 miles distant, of moderate height, and containing an area of about 6 Dutch miles. The weather being calm the vessels were not able to secure an anchorage near the land until the next day, The island was found to be destitute of trees, but with a fertile soil producing bananas, potatoes, and sugar-cane of extraordinary thickness. It was unanimously agreed that both from the difference in the location as well as the appearance of the land seen by Davis, the fact was established beyond doubt that the island just discovered could not be the same. These proceedings, being drawn up, were formally signed by Jacob Roggeveen, Jan Koster, Cornelius Bonman, and Roelof Rosendaal. After sailing from Easter Island the vessels spent a number of days in it search for the low sandy island described by Davis, but not with success.’

There are more details about Roggeveen’s journal available on the The Easter Island Foundation website, though it is necessary to search the site’s blog to find them. Here, though, is a dramatic description of the discovery of Easter Island (which can be found on the [archived] RapaNui Central website):

‘On April 5 of 1722, a small fleet of three Dutch vessels commanded by Admiral Jacob Roggeveen arrived to the island. As that day was Easter Sunday, Jacob Roggeveen baptized his discovery with the name that is universally known, Easter Island. According to islanders oral tradition, in this first encounter of a native with the Europeans, a man that was in a canoe was invited to come on board and it was offered a glass of wine and food, the islander instead of eating or drinking took the glass of wine and poured it on his own head.

The report of the same scene according to K. F. Behrens, a German who was part of Roggeveen’s crew, said that an islander in a canoe approached the Dutch ships, so he was invited on board. The man was completely tattooed with many different figures and his ears were very long. He was offered a glass of wine but instead of drinking it, he poured it on his eyes. Behrens added that he believed that the islander thought that they were trying to poison him.

Two days later, the islander visited again the ships in the company of other natives. And that same day Roggeveen and Behrens took land with 150 armed men. A multitude of natives surrounded them and some tried to touch the sailors weapons, so some sailors opened fire and 13 islanders were killed.’

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