Easter Island ship logs: Otto von Kotzebüe, 1816

When Russian admiral Otto von Kotzebüe visited Easter Island in 1816 he expected a warm welcome as when La Pérouse visited the island 30 years earlier. He was met with hostality and was only able to disembark a few people at Anakena beach for a short while.

Admiral Otto von Kotzebüe's journal from his Easter Island visit in 1816

Author: Otto von Kotzebüe
Comments: Marcus Edensky

We had reached this island on the 8th of March, at three o'clock, A.M., within fifteen miles, and, at daybreak, we saw it distinctly before us. After having doubled the south point, we directed our course along the west coast, at a small distance, to Cook's Bay, where we observed columns of smoke ascending, which was probably a signal to the inhabitants of the interior of the country that a ship was approaching. At noon, when we were quite near to Cook's Bay, we observed two boats, each manned with only two islanders, who rowed up to us. I was in great hopes that these people, who had placed so much confidence in La Pérouse, would give us likewise the same hearty welcome, which, to my great astonishment, was by no means the case. They approached us with fear and distrust, within gunshot; showed us some roots at a distance, but could by no means be persuaded to approach nearer to the ship.

The structure of the canoes, of which we saw several, and which contain only two persons each, correspond exactly with those mentioned by La Pérouse; they are from five to six feet long, and about one foot in breadth, made of narrow boards joined together, and furnished on both sides with an outrigger. La Pérouse's opinion is, that the islanders, for want of wood, will soon be quite at a loss for boats; but he is mistaken: it is true we did not discover a single tree on this island, but they build their canoes of driftwood, which the current brings in great quantities from the coast of America.

Admiral Otto von Kotzebüe trying to anchor Rurick at Rapa Nui in 1816.

The bottom being very bad in many places in Cook's Bay, I sent Lieutenant Schischmareff to find out, by means of the lead, a more convenient anchoring-place, during which time I kept the Rurick under sail. The islanders, who had hitherto always followed the ship, conversing aloud, and seeming to be very good-humoured, hastened on shore when they saw our boat put out, which surprised me the more as the inhabitants of Easter Island had previously placed so much confidence in navigators. However, the ship only appeared dangerous to them, for as soon as our boat approached the shore, a number of savages swam up to it, laden with taro roots, yams, and banana fruits, which they readily exchanged for little pieces of old iron hoops. Some dealt very honestly, others cunningly, and one even attempted to obtain something by force. To deter the others from being infected by his bad example we fired some small shot at him, which, however, did not prevent them from practising their thievish arts.

On a signal given by our boat, that they had found a good anchoring-place, I made a couple of tacks to reach the point, and cast anchor in twenty-two fathoms, on a fine sandy bottom. The sand-bay lay S. E. 45° of us; the two rocks were hidden behind the southern point. Our boat now returned, without the islanders venturing to follow it. As it was my intention to land, I had two boats manned for the purpose, and we left the Rurick, seventeen in number, at three o'clock in the afternoon. A great number of savages had assembled on the beach; they cried, and capered, and made the most singular motions, and seemed to wait our arrival with impatience; but as they had chosen for their rendezvous the only place where the surf would permit our landing, we could not venture to leave our boats, before they had made room, which they could in no wise be persuaded to do. Amidst laughing and joking they obliged us to put off from the shore, and even pursued us in the water; but this did not seem dangerous, as they were all unarmed. We had scarcely left the shore, when hundreds swam round our boats, who exchanged banana-fruits and sugar-cane, for old iron; at the same time making an intolerable noise, as they all spoke with great vivacity at once; some of them appeared to be very witty, as at times a general and loud laughter arose.

The spectators on shore, who at last got tired of this scene, amused themselves with pelting us with stones, to which I soon put an end by a few musket-shots. By this I also lost my cheerful company in the water, gained the landing-place, and hastily put some of my sailors on shore. Scarcely had the savages perceived this, when they surrounded us with still more importunity. They had painted their faces red, white, and black, which gave them a terrific appearance, danced with the most ridiculous motions, and contortions of the body, making such a terrible noise, that we were obliged to halloo in each other's ears to understand what we said. I can imagine the impression which this made on Lieutenant Schischmareff, who saw these people for the first time, and thought himself surrounded by so many monkeys ; for this new scene surpassed even my ideas, though I was previously acquainted with the inhabitants of the South Sea. I ordered to disperse them, and to get some room, I had knives thrown among them; but, notwithstanding this, I felt a stone strike my hat. I gave orders again to fire, and this at length enabled me to get on shore.

My first business here was to look for the large and remarkable statues on the beach, which were seen there by Cook and La Pérouse; but, notwithstanding all my research, I only found a broken heap of stones, which lay near an uninjured pedestal; of all the others not a trace remained1. The distrustful behaviour of the islanders, led me to think that some Europeans had had a quarrel with them, and revenged themselves by destroying the statues. It struck me, as something very singular, that in all this bustle on shore, and in the water, we did not see a single woman, of whose importunity preceding voyagers have so oilen complained. This observation confirmed me in my opinion, that the Europeans must lately have committed many excesses here.

1) The moais had been covered with sand.

After I had fully convinced myself, that these islanders would not allow us to enter their country, we tried to retreat to our boats, which, besides, were insecure in the surf; but even now we were obliged to protect ourselves from their importunity by several musket-shots; and it was not until they heard the balls hiss about their ears that they left us at peace. We gave them some more iron, and then hastened back to the Rurick, as our stay, under such circumstances, would only be loss of time, and every hour was valuable to me.

The inhabitants seem to be all of a middle stature, but well made; mostly of a copper colour, very few being tolerably white. They are all tattooed; and those who are so over the whole body, have the appearance of chiefs. We saw here the stuff made of the bark of trees1, which is manufactured in most of the South Sea islands, for some of the men wear short cloaks of it; and the women, who stood at a great distance, were entirely wrapped in it2. To judge by the vivacity of these people, they seem perfectly contented with their situation; they are probably not in want of provisions, as they brought us a considerable abundance of banana-fruit, yarns, sugar-cane, and potatoes; and do not neglect cultivation, as we saw the hills near the bay entirely covered with fields, which, by their various green, afford a very agreeable prospect. The seeds which La Pérouse gave the islanders have probably not succeeded, as they did not bring us any of their fruits; we also looked in vain for the sheep and hogs which he left there: a fowl was offered us for a large knife, but was taken away again when we refused the bargain; a proof how much they value these animals, and how few they have of them. Their habitations are exactly the same as described by La Pérouse, and the long house, as marked in his map, still stands, as well as the stone-hut on the shore. In general, I believe, that since the time he was there, with the exception of the disappearance of the remarkable statues, no change has taken place; and of these we saw two, after we had doubled the south-point, but they were of little consequence. At our departure from Easter Island, the inhabitants again pelted us with stones, which they threw afler us with the loudest cries, and I was very glad to find ourselves, at seven o'clock, with no bones broken, on board the Rurick, and under full sail.

1) Paper mulberry, lat. Broussonetia papyrifera, locally known as Mahute.

2) Not many years before, women walked bare-breasted, as can be seen in drawings from La Pérouse's visit in 1786 (30 years earlier). The fact that the women were covering themselves up would suggest that women in recent years had been raped or taken as slaves by outside visitors.

A piece of intelligence, which explains the hostile behaviour of the islanders, and which was given me in the sequel at the Sandwich islands, by Alexander Adams, I will now communicate to the reader. This Adams, an Englishman by birth, commanded, in the year 1816, the brig Kahumanna, belonging to the king of the Sandwich islands, and had before served on board the same brig when it was called the Forrester, of London, as second in command to Captain Piccort, (Piggot) who sold it to the king. The captain of the schooner Nancy from New London in America, whose name Adams did not mention to me, employed himself in the year 1805, in the island of Massafuero, in catching a kind of seal, which we call in Russia, kotick (sea-cat). The skin of this animal is sold at a high price in the markets of China, and therefore the Americans try to find out their haunts in all parts of the world. This animal was accidentally discovered, and immediately hunted in the hitherto uninhabited island of Massafuero, which lies west of Juan Fernandez, where criminals are sent from Chile. But as this island afforded no safe anchoring-place, the ship was obliged to remain under sail; and as he had not men enough to employ part of them for the chase, he resolved to sail to Easter Island, and to steal some men and women, to bring them to Massafuero, there to establish a colony, which should regularly carry on the seal fishery. In pursuance of this wicked design, he landed at Cook's Bay, where he endeavoured to seize upon a number of the inhabitants.

The combat is said to have been bloody, as the brave islanders defended themselves with intrepidity; but they were obliged to yield to the terrible arms of the Europeans; and twelve men, and ten women, fell into the merciless hands of the Americans. Upon this, the poor creatures were carried on board, fettered for the first three days, and not released until they were out of sight of land. The first use they made of their recovered liberty, was, that the men jumped over board; and the women, who attempted to follow them, were prevented only by force. The captain made the ship lie to, in hopes that they would return on board for refuge, when they were threatened by the waves. He, however, soon perceived how much he had been mistaken, for the savages, used to the water from their infancy, thought it not impossible, notwithstanding the distance of three days' voyage, to reach their native country -, and at all events they preferred perishing in the waves, to leading a miserable life in captivity. After they had disputed for some time, as to the direction they should take, they separated; some took the direct way to Easter Island, and the others to the north. The captain, extremely enraged at this unexpected heroism, sent a boat after them, which returned after many fruitless efforts, as they always dived at the approach of the boat, and the sea compassionately received them in its bosom.

At last the captain left the men to their fate, and brought the women to Massafuero; and is said to have afterwards made many attempts to steal some of the people from Easter Island. Adams had heard this story from the Captain himself, which was probably the reason he did not wish to mention his name: he assured me that he had been to Easter Island, in 1806, but was not able to land, on account of the hostile behaviour of the inhabitants: he said, that the ship Albatross, under the command of Captain Winship, had met with the same fate in 1809.