New Research

A Dangerous World: Yankee Voyages to Australia and New Zealand – Professor Dane A. Morrison

By Professor Dane A. Morrison

New Zealand “had ever been associated in our minds with all that is barbarous and inhuman in savage life,” the Yankee mariner James Oliver observed when he sailed the South Seas in the 1820s, aboard the merchant ship Glide.[1] Americans had come late to the imperialist game of overseas expansion, held to Atlantic trade routes by Britain’s Navigation Acts, until their War of Independence freed them to explore the world beyond the Cape of Good Hope forty years earlier.  By James Oliver’s day, they had formed a striking idea of that world–a sense that it was dangerous and disordered and should be reformed by “civilized” peoples like themselves. Nature and mankind conspired to endanger American voyagers as they sailed “eastward of Good Hope.” In their logs, journals, and diaries, they adhered to the mariners’ adage, “Below the Forties there is no law, and below the Fifties there is no God.”[2]

In their writing, nature posed one kind of danger. The Pacific Ocean was formidable also because of the typhoons and pirates that roiled its surface, and from what lay hidden beneath. Disaster could strike a vessel even before the watch discerned any disturbance or discoloration in the waters ahead. Some sites became notorious. The 150-mile strait that separates Australia from Tasmania, named for George Bass in 1783, was regarded for its precarious currents. Passing the Endeavor Straits that separated New Guinea from Australia, Delano was “apprehensive that we should not be able to go to the west of the gulf of Carpentaria, a gulf much dreaded by seamen because the wind makes so strong a draught inward, and it is so difficult to get out.”[3] North of Tasmania were islands so daunting, “It must never be attempted to run through between these islands by any vessel.” Here lay the aptly named Bay of Shoals, “a most dangerous bay,” shallow enough “to take up a boat.” Nearby, “the north, south, east, and west sides of Cape Barren are surrounded with rocks, shoals, and dangers, for some miles from the island; and must not be approached but in the daytime, and then with the greatest caution.”[4]

Anchoring in the treacherous currents of Bass’s Straits (now Bass Strait) on February 20, 1804, Delano remained until October, as the Perseverance settled in at Kent’s Bay while the Pilgrim made two excursions among the fifty-plus islands of the straits in search of seals. In November, the ships made the Snares, off the southwest coast of New Zealand. He continued to think of himself as an explorer, culling the journals of earlier European expeditions for inspiration and quotable material. George Bass and Matthew Flinders had discovered the straits just six years earlier.

Yankee mariners often festooned the letters, diaries, and journals that documented their travels with poetry and sketches that proclaimed the beauty and bounty of the South Seas, fostering a mythical sense of paradise found. Yet the Edenic destination that these paeans imagined contrasted with the tedium of the voyage. Mary Wallis was not unusual in complaining that the four-month voyage that carried her to New Zealand in 1844 was relieved only by the “sight of land . . . refreshing to the eye that had grown weary with gazing on sky and water.”[5] Beneath the lush greenery and iridescent flowers, however, there lurked further dangers. Threats and perils emerged at a beachhead, from an island’s plants and creatures, as well as from the menace of its inhabitants. A crew sent ashore to penetrate jungle streams in search of fresh water commonly found instead “a striking contrast with the reptiles concealed beneath them, among which the traveler was endangered every moment from scorpions, centipedes, guanas, and tarantulas.”[6]

A crew that had threaded perilous shoals and reefs faced further jeopardy in attempting to land a boat ashore. One could sail around Christmas Island and discover no dangers, yet “landing upon it appeared to be difficult.”[7] Similarly, at King Island in the Bass Straits off Tasmania, water and wood were precious, but in 1804, Delano “did not consider it safe to anchor with the prevailing wind, which was from the southward; and as this was the only possible place on the east side in which water could be procured, I was obliged to leave it without wood or water.”[8] No amount of planning might prepare a crew for lurking dangers. Merchant Edmund Fanning believed shipwreck and massacre had been the “lamentable fate” of the Union in l803, the first vessel he sent to the Pacific in search of sandalwood. He reflected, “All on board either perished by drowning, or as they gained a foothold upon the rocks of the coral reef, were massacred by the natives.”[9]

Dane Morrison is Professor of Early American History at Salem State University (USA) and the author of True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014) and Eastward of Good Hope: Early America in a Dangerous World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021).

[1] [James Oliver], Wreck of the Glide, with Recollections of the Fijis, and of Wallis Island (New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1848), 17.

[2] Katrina Gulliver, “The Wildest Waters in the World,” rev. of Joy McCann, Wild Sea: A History of the Southern Ocean (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), in The Spectator, 8 June 2019.

[3] Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (Boston, 1817), 102.

[4] Delano, Narrative, 430.

[5] Mary Wallis, Life in Feejee: Or, Five Years Among the Cannibals (1851),17.

[6] Delano, Narrative, 51.

[7] Delano, Narrative, 152.

[8] Delano, Narrative, 429.

[9] Edmund Fanning, Voyages Round the World; with Selected Sketches of Voyages to the South Seas, North and South Pacific Oceans, China, etc. (New York: Collins and Hannay, 1833),153.