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Explorers, traders and the first philologists

Editor’s Note: Fijiguide is grateful to Dr. Albert Schutz for providing this chapter from his upcoming book, Discovering Fijian: First Impressions from Explorers, Traders, and Missionaries. Here Dr. Schutz discusses how the early European explorers and missionaries perceived and chronicled the Fijian language. 

It remained for one of Cook’s own officers, William Bligh, master of the Resolution on the third voyage, to record the first Fijian words in situ. Although he passed through Fiji in 1789 on his famous voyage by launch to the Dutch East Indies, he did not land there, and his only contact with the Fijian people was a narrow escape from two pursuing canoes. But on his subsequent voyage through the Group (this time under more agreeable conditions), he not only met with Fijians, but took note of a few words. On 6 August 1792, near the island of Moce, he entered the following remarks in the log (Bligh 1791–93):

A Cannoe came off to us with two Men in her, who bartered without reserve a few Coco Nutts for Toeys axes & Nails …  Two of the Men came on board and looked about them with some surprise …  We could not understand them except in a few Words which were of the Friendly Island Language. I happened to mention Tongataboo, when they got hold of it, and I saw that they were perfectly acquainted with that land.

The next list was collected in a situation very much like Anderson’s. Antoine Raymond Joseph de Bruni d’Entrecasteaux was appointed in 1791 to search for the missing explorer Jean-François de la Pérouse. A secondary but still important mission was to gather scientific information. He stated explicitly (Rossell 1808:300) that one of the reasons for calling at Tongatapu (23 March–9 April 1793) was to obtain some knowledge of the inhabitants. The ultimate goal of the linguistic part of the investigation was a broad plan for a comparative linguistic project:

Geographical-linguistic areas in the Pacific
Geographical-linguistic areas in the Pacific

The vocabularies of different people will be brought together in a public depository so that everyone will be able to determine the similarities and dissimilarities that exist between the same words understood by different individuals.

Although he had access to Anderson’s Tongan and Fijian word lists, he did not consider them to be of much value:

… either because of the difference that exists between the pronunciation of the Englishmen and ours, or because most of the words that Cook thought belonged to the language of the Friendly Islands were most often words mispronounced by the English themselves and repeated by the islanders with a sign of approval, which could have made them believe that they could understand each other.

Other writers as well criticized Anderson’s word lists, apparently not realizing that the key to pronunciation was included in his introduction to the Tahitian word list, discussed in the Appendix after List 1.

D’Entrecasteaux listed seven Fijian words, and their Tongan equivalents. As with the Anderson-Cook list, these words seem to have been chosen to highlight the differences, not the similarities, between Fijian and Tongan


Up to this point, it was only Bligh who observed and recorded any of the Fijian languages in their own environment. One reason is that reports on the navigational difficulties posed by the Fijian reefs made ships’ captains reluctant to try the uncharted waters. Another was the bellicose reputation of the Fijians. Anderson wrote (Beaglehole 1967:958): “The inhabitants … are much dreaded from their fighting with Bows and Slings but more so from the unnatural practice of eating their enemies whom they kill in battle.” But even this obstacle was eventually surmounted by the all-powerful motive of profitable trade, based not on a European desire for exotic commodities, but instead on an enthusiastic market in the Orient for the wood of a parasitic tree: various species of Santalum—sandalwood (Fijian yasi).

Thus motivated by the promise of profits, two ships—the Marcia and the Fair American—purchased sandalwood in Fiji for the first time in 1804.

As with all the early visits, we are dependent upon logbooks and personal journals for most of our information about the Fijian language. Fortunately, some of the logbooks from this period have survived, especially those of the East India Marine Society (1827) in Salem, Massachusetts.

For the earliest logbooks, survival was a matter of chance; later, it was because of a policy stated by the Society, much like that of the Wesleyans, but relating to journals in general. In 1827, it was decided that the following notice be added to the blank daybooks that were issued to captains or their clerks (Essex Institute M 656 1823B; see East India Marine Society 1827):

voted, that it being of importance to Navigation and for the benefit of this Society, that as many of the Journals of its Members, kept during their absence at sea, as can be procured, should be bound and deposited at the Museum. It is therefore requested of every Member, during his absence at sea, to keep a Journal of his Voyage, and on his return to hand it immediately to the Inspector or Distributor of Journals, or to the Superintendent of the Museum

Although many of the journals produced by this requirement contain observations mainly about navigation and weather, occasionally a writer was inspired to include details about historical, anthropological, or linguistic matters. It was these collectors of curiosities who recorded much of what we know about premissionary Fiji, and we are greatly indebted to them.

However, our first record comes not from a ship’s journal, but from the narrative of a “true adventure” story. The writer was Samuel Patterson, a professional sailor from Rhode Island, USA. Patterson sailed on the Eliza from Port Jackson (Sydney) at the beginning of May 1808 and arrived at Tongatapu less than two weeks later. There, his captain took on board Charles Savage and others, who claimed to be survivors from the wreck of the Port au Prince, purchased “canoes to carry to the Feejee islands to purchase Santle [sic] wood,” and set sail for Fiji. Their ship was wrecked on Mocea Reef near Nairai on 20 June, and Patterson spent over six months in Fiji. His Narrative (1817) contains no organized word list, but eighteen Fijian words, proper names,  and phrases. are scattered through the text.

Most of the American sandalwood trade originated from Salem, Massachusetts. The merchants of this town were so active during the first several decades of European trading in Fiji that the Fijians “thought Salem comprised all the remainder of the outer world about which they knew so little” (Hurd 1888:86). Their trade began in about 1806, and not very long after that, William

Lockerby, a Scots sailor serving on the American ship Jenny, found himself in Fiji and at odds with his captain. He wrote (im Thurn 1925:23):

I paid particular attention to making myself acquainted with their language, and in a few months I could make myself not only understood, but could discourse with them on any subject; which made my wretched situation more tolerable.

To thwart the captain’s plan to establish a trade monopoly, Lockerby compiled sailing directions for “Sandalwood Island” (Vanua Levu), adding advice about carrying arms on shore, the most desirable articles for trade, personality sketches of various chiefs, and a “vocaboulary of thier Tongue sufficnt to purchase Sandle Wood.” When he left Fiji in June 1809, he took his documents with him, ready to turn them over to someone who could provide competition for his disagreeable captain.

Lockerby’s word list, ninety-three items in length and probably compiled sometime early in 1809, is the first list found that consists of more than a few words. It also provides us with our first examples of Fijian phrases and sentences.

As Lockerby was preparing to leave Fiji, a series of uprisings against both the king in Tahiti and the bearers of Christianity caused the missionaries there to ponder “their great unprofitableness in the work of the mission” (Newbury 1961:133). In late October 1809, they boarded the Hibernia, originally bound for Canton via Fiji, where it was to stop long enough to pick up a cargo of sandalwood. But the reefs off the north coast of Vanua Levu damaged the ship seriously enough that it was forced to stop at a small island off the Macuata coast to make repairs (see figure 1.6).

One of the missionary party, the Reverend John Davies, was a careful diarist and later the chronicler of Tahitian mission history and compiler of a Tahitian dictionary. Having arrived in Tahiti in 1801, he was considered “something of a grammarian and, compared with his companions, a scholar” (Newbury 1961:xlvi). These qualifications placed Davies in a position to make nearly professional statements about the Fijian language and culture, based on firsthand observation. At the beginning, he and his brethren had little contact with the Fijians, but as their stay stretched on to seven weeks, more trading was necessary to obtain supplies.

By the end of December, Davies was writing Fijian phrases, and after he left the Fiji islands in late January (1810), he thought “it might be expected we should make some observations on them and their inhabitants” (im Thurn 1925:150). Among lists of islands and descriptions of some customs appears an unfortunately short word list (twenty items), seemingly not intended to represent a sample of Fijian, but—like some previous lists—to show that “the main part of the language has no affinity with [Polynesian languages].”

Because of his scholarly background and experience with Tahitian, Davies might have been able to present the scholarly community with a fairly accurate sample of the Fijian language. As it turned out, his manuscript remained unpublished for over a century. Moreover, it turns out that he was unaware of the particular type of Fijian that his consultants were speaking to him (see his word list in Part 2).

When Davies published his Tahitian grammar, he included his version of some Fijian words, and partly contradicted the theoretical point belabored in his earlier work (1823:5):

The Fejeeans are undoubtedly a different race of people from the Friendly islanders, and apparently, from all that speak the Polynesian: and tho’ their language is partly Polynesian, yet it has a mixture of words that indicates a different origin. The words Kalao [kalou], God; Leva [yalewa], a woman, Singa [siga], the Sun, tolatola [?], a shoulder, sala [?], a leg &c. seem to have no affinity with the true Polynesian, tho’ they may have with some of the Malay dialects: bulam or bulan [vula] the word used by the Fejeeans for the moon is used also by the Malays.

The next list collected represents a move back to commercial motives, and is connected with the vocabulary compiled by Lockerby. When he reached Salem, probably in early 1810, Lockerby apparently made good his intention of passing on his sailing directions and word list by giving them to William Putnam Richardson.

Richardson left Salem in June of that year (Dodge 1972:182) as captain of the Active. Sometime in 1811, he collected his own more extensive list. On his return to Salem, he deposited both his and Lockerby’s lists in the collection of the East India Marine Society.

The list itself, about 280 words and phrases, is a combination of such “basic” words as numerals, phrases for collecting sandalwood,

and cultural items such as tabu ‘sacred’ and madrai ‘fermented starch crop’. But the last few words on the list show that the Captain strayed far enough from his New England background to satisfy an interest that could only be called prurient.

One especially interesting gloss is that for pappelange (pāpālagi in some areas, vāvālagi in SF): ‘a white man or ghost’. The following account adds support to this gloss. William S. Cary, in an account of his shipwreck in Fiji in 1825 (Cary 1928:51–52), told of cleaning Tānoa’s musket.

While taking the locks apart and putting them together the old man watched me with the keenest interest. When I had finished he said: “Are you a spirit?” I told him no, that I was flesh and blood the same as himself. “Well,” said he, “if you are the same as me, what makes you so white?” I told him that it was because I belonged to a colder climate and had always worn clothes. But he seemed to think I must have some supernatural aid or I culd [sic] not take the locks apart and put them together again so readily.


A similar meaning exists elsewhere in Melanesia. Hilliard (1973:183) wrote:

To the Melanesian islanders, Europeans first appeared as supernatural beings—“either as ghosts or spirits:—whose most remarkable attribute was their display of seemingly unlimited stores of wealth.[13]

At the East India Marine Society, Richardson’s list was copied by the prominent scholar John Pickering, whose insightful principles outlined in his Essay on a uniform orthography for the Indian languages of North America (1820) had influenced the framers of the Hawaiian orthography. Because he was not able to hear the language spoken, those principles are not represented in his copy of Richardson’s list, Thus the English-based orthography remained unchanged. Pickering was able, however, to alter the list to fit in with a pet hobby of his: Catherine the Great’s “root words,” an ambitious pioneering project in comparative vocabulary.[14]

Pickering then lent his copy to William Ellis, who had been a missionary in Tahiti and Hawai‘i for a period long enough for him to have claimed later that he had devoted ten years to the “study of the uncultivated languages of the Pacific” (Ellis 1825:preface). It was his interest in Pacific languages that prompted him to follow his comments on the Hawaiian language with those of Davies on Fijian (mentioned above), supplemented by a “Vocabulary of the Feejeean Language.” He justified including it:

In the preceding article … the remark is made, that the Feejeean language has not probably the same origin with the Polynesian. As specimens of this language are very rare, and as no professed vocabulary of it has, we believe, ever been published, it was thought, that it might be useful to subjoin the following, compiled from a more extensive one …

Ellis alphabetized the list and deleted some ninety words that—except for the risqué items—seem to have been chosen randomly. Some fifty-five words are printed in capitals, indicating that their glosses were included in Catherine the Great’s list of root words.

The Journal of the American Oriental Society (vol. 1, No. 1, p. 52, Boston, 1843; quoted in Putman 1930:157–58) described the next stage in the evolution of the word list:

Among other islands, our countrymen first furnished a valuable vocabulary of the Fiji language, which supplied an important deficiency in the known vocabularies of the Polynesian family of languages … This vocabulary … is made the subject of a particular notice and acknowledgment of the late eminent philologist, Baron William von Humboldt, to whom it was communicated about twenty years ago in his great work …

In Über die Kawi-Sprache auf der Insel Java (1836–39), Humboldt expressed his regret that the words were rather too specialized—names of plants, herbs, and goods—to be of much use for general comparative linguistics. But because a number of words correspond with the Empress’s (i.e., Catherine the Great’s) root words, it is hard to understand his complaint. Humboldt compared a number of items with Polynesian cognates, but he could easily have included more.

In August 1820, the Russian exploring ship Vostok, Thaddeus Bellingshausen commanding, touched at Ono-i-Lau in the southern Lau group. It was here that the captain collected a list of forty-nine words, which seems to have lain in obscurity until G. C. Henderson published it in his account of the early European contact with Fiji (1933). An English translation of the narrative of the voyage was published in Debenham 1945.

A few years after this, John Davies had an opportunity to improve on the word list he had collected in 1810. In 1825 there arrived at Tahiti a man from Lakeba named Tākai, described by David Cargill as a “petty chief” (Schütz 1977:59). Tākai had been an emissary to

Tonga, seeking instruction in Christianity, and a “pilot interpreter” for Peter Dillon, who took him to Sydney, and thence to Tahiti. There, with Langi, his Tongan traveling companion, he applied himself to the task of preparing to be a missionary to Fiji. He attended school, learned some Tahitian (he had already learned some English on his travels), and sought teachers to return with him to Fiji. To help him prepare to instruct his fellow countrymen, John Davies (building on his previous encounter with the Fijian language) worked with Tākai and Langi to write a Fijian primer (Davies 1825). Davies wrote in his journal:

The Fijians are different people and have a different language, and we think there is now a providential opening to make a trial; with this view we have agreed to send Hope and Taffeta[15] to accompany Langi and Tākai, and nothing will be charged for their passages. To forward this design I have compiled a small spelling book in the Fijian, and have had it printed, and Tākai and Langi have been learning it, also Hope and Taffeta. Having been myself among the Fijians in the end of 1809 and beginning of 1810 I made some progress in their language. I wrote down many of their words and sentences[16] which these strangers enabled me to correct. [17]

This eight-page booklet is, so far as we know, the first printing in the Fijian language beyond the few words in Davies’s Tahitian grammar. At any rate, it gave Tākai the first glimpse of his language in written form. It is reproduced and discussed in Part 2 of this work.

In 1827, an extensive vocabulary was collected on a French scientific voyage—one that followed d’Entrecasteaux’s unsuccessful attempt to discover the fate of La Pérouse. Under the command of Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville (1834), the Astrolabe approached Fiji from Tonga, sailed north through the Koro Sea nearly to Taveuni, then southward to Matuku, and finally across to Nukulau, where it anchored. It is likely that this is where Joseph P. Gaimard, the expedition’s zoologist, collected a word list of nearly 300 items, plus numerals, from an informant named Tomboua-Nakoro [Tubua-Nakoro], with the help of interpreters from Manila and Guam. It is difficult to imagine communication resulting from this linguistic mélange, but the list is surprisingly accurate.

In addition to its size and accuracy, Gaimard’s list is important for its attention to regional variation, which was later to become a linguistic cross for the Wesleyan linguists and lexicographers to bear. For example, he took note of the palatalization that distinguishes the pronunciation of a speaker from Lakeba from that of one from the Bau-Rewa-Verata area:


Dent. Ambati (à Embaou), batchi (à Laguemba)

Other entries point out vocabulary differences between the two areas as well.

An inadvertent British adventurer in Fiji during this period was John P. Twyning, boat steerer on the brig Minerva, on a sperm-whaling voyage out of Sydney. After the Minerva was shipwrecked in September 1828[18] on Nicholson’s Shoals, Twyning and his companions reached Vatoa in a small boat and for the next few years moved around in the vicinity of Lakeba. Twyning did not collect a word list as such, but about thirty-five words and phrases are scattered through his account (1850).

In the 1820s, Fiji’s supply of sandalwood was sufficiently reduced that ships sailed the Fiji waters to eke out their trade with other goods as well—especially bêche-de-mer and tortoise shell. One of these ships, the Glide, was wrecked on a reef near Vanua Levu on 22 March 1831, and its third officer, William Endicott, lived among the Fijians for several months, long enough to collect a word and phrase list of 104 items. But the list remained for nearly a century in the Peabody manuscript collections at Salem until it was published in 1923. Although mainly of lexicographic interest, it has two distinguishing features.

First, accented syllables are marked—a rarity for lists from this period. Second, Endicott added a short but sweeping grammatical observation: “The natives always add the word sah, to all words excepting substantives [nouns]” (1923:71).[20] This statement will be seen to have important implications for ascertaining what kind of Fijian was spoken to foreigners.

Another member of the crew of the Glide, James Oliver, brought a number of Fijian words to the attention of the outside world within two decades of the shipwreck. His account of the incident, published in Dix 1848, contains no word list as such, but it does include a number of words, phrases, and proper names.

One Salem ship captain who plays the role of a supporting player in several journals and memoirs set in Fiji is John Henry Eagleston. Apprenticed when only eight and a half years of age, Eagleston eventually commanded a series of trading vessels had some contact with Fiji. In his journals of the Emerald, 1833–36 (Essex Institute M 656 1833 E5), which contain valuable observations of Fijian customs and personality sketches of various chiefs, we find a fairly extensive word list, compiled by Joseph W. Osborn, the Emerald’s clerk. The list of 207 items was first published as an appendix in Geraghty 1978.

In 1831, George Bennet,[21] historian and philologist, wrote an article on the “Polynesian dialects,” comparing forty-three words in Fijian with forms from Tahitian, Māori, and Tongan. Bennet’s comments about the language add to our knowledge about the sociolinguistic relationship between Fijian and Tongan at that time (Bennet 1831b:199–200):

The Tongatabu chiefs regard a knowledge of the Fijian language as an accomplishment, and there is much intercourse between the islands. From the frequent visits of the natives of Tongatabu to the Fidgis, the language of the latter will, no doubt, in some degree become corrupted by the introduction of several Tonga words. It will not be improbable, that on a close inquiry being made, other words will be found used at the Leeward Group of the Fidgis (where the Tonga natives have but little, if any, intercourse), instead of those now used at the Weather Group of the Fidgi Islands.

The list itself provides strong evidence that Bennet collected the words from a Tongan, for his spelling reflects Tongan, not Fijian, pronunciation. Another possibility is that the speaker was using “Foreigner Talk,” a type of Fijian that developed from patterns of communication with outsiders.

In this era before the missionaries arrived in Fiji, the last language commentary to be discussed is that by William Marsden, a philologist and historian, whose principal interest was Malay languages and history. But his interest was broad enough to extend to related languages, and among his works is an article on the “Polynesian, or East-Insular languages.” It includes “new vocabularies from Tanna and Fiji” (Marsden n.d.).

Although Marsden’s data were scanty—sixteen of Bennet’s list of forty-three words—he ventured some opinions on Fijian’s external relationships:

Of the same ambiguous nature is the language of the FIJI-island people, with respect to that of their Polynesian neighbours in the Friendly islands. The main part is peculiar to themselves, but independently of the numerals and many other terms derived from the latter, we find some that belong to the more western dialects: such as vula for bulan the moon, and tangi for tañgis to weep—in which it must be observed that the final consonants are systematically rejected.

Charles Wilkes

The persons, features, and hair of the Fijíans are described as being of the papuah or negrito class; yet Mr. Bennett informs us, that their language is remarkably soft, and even acquired as an accomplishment by the principal natives of Tongataboo; but although the islands are much frequented on account of their produce of sandal-wood, our knowledge of the people is still very imperfect, and some of the facts stated seem to be inconsistent with each other.

Nearly a century later, Sidney H. Ray used some of Marsden’s (that is, Bennet’s) examples in the introduction to his important work, A comparative study of the Melanesian Island languages (1926).


Those interested in further studies of Fijian will find Albert Schutz’s Say It In Fijian (Pacific Publications, Sydney, 1979) an excellent introduction to the language. The book is available in Fiji. Likewise, Schutz’s Spoken Fijian (University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1979) is a good primer for more advanced studies. My experience in Fiji has been that even the most minimal attempt at learning a few words or phrases will be amply rewarded with kindness and a greater respect for the visitor.

About the Author

I grew up on a farm in northern Indiana, received a B.Sc. from Purdue University in English, Speech, and Mathematics, and did graduate work at the University of Michigan, University of London, and Cornell University, where I received a Ph.D. in 1962. I’ve been a faculty member at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa since that time. My interest in the Pacific and in the history of Pacific linguistics was kindled by research and teaching in Hawai’i and Fiji in 1960-61. Since that time, I’ve worked in Pacific collections in Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, England, Germany, Norway, and the U.S. mainland, always on the general topic of the history of Pacific linguistic research, but also narrowing the focus to specific languages such as Fijian, Maori, and Hawaiian.

©2018 Dr. Albert J. Schütz


[11] Language Distribution in the Pacific. Express.anu.edu.au  Retrieved 20 July 2013.

[12] Schütz 1972:xii.

[13] The author noted that the quotation from within this passage was from a Melanesian’s account of his first meeting with the Bishops George Augustus Selwyn and John Coleridge Patteson (Hilliard 1973).

[14] Catherine II (1729–1796), German-born Empress of Russia from 1792–96; spouse of Peter III. Her project is described at length in a note by John Pickering (1820:3n, 4n): “The Empress began her project in the late 18th century: ‘I made a list of between two and three hundred radical words of the Russian language, and had them translated into every tongue and jargon that I could hear of; the number of which already exceeds two hundred. Every day I took one of these words and wrote it down in all the languages I had been able to collect.’” Later “she directed her Secretary of State to write to the powers of Europe, Asia, and America; and application was accordingly made to President Washington for our Indian languages; several specimens of which were accordingly furnished.” Her intentions: “a selection of such words as were the most essential, and generally in use even among the best civilized nations … In that selection the preference was given to substantives and adjectives of the first necessity, and which are common to the most barbarous of languages, or which serve to trace the progress of agriculture or of any arts or elementary knowledge from one people to another.”

[15] Tākai, Langi, Hape [Haepe], and Tafeta set out for Fiji, but were detained in Tonga. There the Tahitians were able to assist the European missionaries, but they never reached Fiji. Tākai returned to Tahiti, and eventually reached Fiji with three Tahitians: Hatai, Faruea, and Jacaro. I am grateful to A. H. Wood (pers. comm., November 1977) for clarifying the matter of the change of personnel, and especially to A. C. Reid’s account (1979) of Tākai and his deeds. Readers who are familiar with that article will see how much I have relied on it for the summary here, even for such details as the long vowel in the name Tākai.

[16] Thus Davies seems to have had a much larger sample of the language than appears in the Hibernia selection.

[17] This passage is quoted from Reid 1979. His source is John Davies, manuscript journal, 23 Feb. 1826, London, School of Oriental and African Studies Library and London Missionary Society Archives.

[18] The date is not certain; Twyning’s account contains very few dates. Moreover, Derrick’s history (1946) does not describe the event.

[19] Clunie 1984:68, courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Salem.

[20] is an aspect marker, indicating that an action has already taken place, or a state is a new one that contrasts with a previous one.

[21] The name is spelled “Bennett” in the publication and in some subsequent references to it.

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