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Sandalwood trade in Vanuatu

SandalwoodThe traders of the Pacific in the first half of the nineteenth century included many men of enterprise, daring and imagination; but, amongst them all, one man stands preeminent – the Irishman Peter Dillon.

Dillon was, indeed, far more than a trader. His discovery of the fate of Laperouse in 1826-1827 brought him public fame, the friendship of the great, and the rank of Chevalier de l’Ordre royal de la Légion d’Honneur. In collaboration with the Abbé Henri de Solages, drew up the first plan for the foundation of Catholic missions in the South Seas. He tried to promote schemes for the foundation of both French and British colonies in the Pacific Islands. He had an encyclopedic and scholarly knowledge of Pacific history and was a sensitive and careful observer of Pacific Islands cultures. But he was, first of all, a mariner and a trader; and it was from these activities that he earned his living.

Dillon arrived in the Pacific in 1808, as a young man of twenty years of age – in Fiji on a ship trading for sandalwood. He left his ship there and lived among the Fijians for several months. He paid two more visits to Fiji, in 1809 and 1813, before the sandalwood boom was over. In the ensuing years, his commercial interests expanded. He became the owner of a ship and traded between Calcutta, the Australian colonies, the Pacific Islands, and South America.

junIn 1824, towards the end of the southern winter, he sailed from Valparaiso in the brig Calder, "in search of sandalwood". He spent several months among the eastern archipelagoes; but in December he left Tonga for the "sandalwood coast" of Fiji, where he hoped to obtain a cargo. Despite "the utmost attention and kindness" of the Fijians, he was unsuccessful. "After a stay of three weeks procured about 500 lbs. of sandal wood; whereas I had in the same space of time in 1808 procured 150 tons of that valuable wood". In January 1825, he therefore sailed for the New Hebrides (Vanuatu islands).

Erromango island was sighted one night; and next morning the Calder approached the coast of Tanna island.   Dillon intended to cast anchor in the harbour which Cook had, named Port Resolution over fifty years before. As one of the ship’s boats was seeking the entrance, a canoe "came out from behind a low point of land, which proved to be the harbour".

"The canoe contained fourteen naked young men, armed with formidable clubs, bows, arrows, stones, and slings; both the canoe and arms were far inferior to those of my friends the Fijians, whom we had only left four days before, and bespoke the inhabitants of this island to be many years behind them in point of civilization. The volcano on this island, described by Captain Cook,  was in full operation; sending forth throughout the day and night immense columns of fire and smoke".

As was usual with him, Dillon looked for relics and for memories of the great men who had preceded him. Of this visit to Tanna, he later wrote :"It appeared to me that no ship had been there since Captain Cook left it, I believe in 1773". He obtained two of the medals Cook had distributed and found, he claims, that "a few of the old natives" could pronounce "the memorable name of Cook", as well as those of Wales, the astronomer, and Forster, the naturalist.

He Considered Tanna the most thickly populated island he had visited in the Pacific. He describes one incident which he says he "regretted exceedingly" but which, in its consequences, he found interesting.

"The cook’s mate, a very small Chinaman, approaching to a dwarf, screamed out hideously in broken English, and rushed on the quarterdeck, exclaiming, ‘The savage want kill me, take my clothes, want pull me in canoe” and I was flurried and taken off my guard. I inquired who wanted to kill him; and he pointed to a canoe paddling away from the ship with great force towards the shore. Believing the dwarf’s statement, I seized the musket and fired at the rowers. They did not stop; upon which I fired a second, when one of the natives threw overboard, from the canoe, a parcel of check shirts, and paddled on as if nothing had happened; however I was soon convinced that one of them was wounded; the canoe being leaky, it was necessary to bale it, and as the water was thrown, out, all on board… could plainly perceive it was quite red, being discoloured by human blood.

This sight made him anxious about the boat’s crew that was on shore. Fearing that revenge for the injury would be inflicted on them, he gave a signal for their immediate return. He then questioned the Chinese more fully as to what had happened. It appeared that the natives had seized a clothes line of shirts which he had just washed and that, as he was holding on to the line, he had nearly fallen overboard into the canoe. Dillon was shocked that he had dealt so severely with men who had done no more than display a not unusual cupidity.

image003 (1)When the boat returned, he saw to his astonishment that the wounded man was in it. How had this happened, he asked ? In answer, the officer in charge told him that the natives had insisted; it was his opinion the natives believed if we could kill we could cure, and that chirurgical assistance was what the man required. "I then probed and dressed the woundand sent my patient on shore, who, to my great surprise and joy returned ten days after completely recovered, and presented me with some baskets of fruit and fine fowls..." In no other island in the Pacific, he considered, would such an incident have had so happy an outcome.

But, though Dillon recorded with care his impressions of Tanna and its people, the main object of his visit was the search for sandalwood. He showed the people some pieces he had brought with him and was told it was growing on the island. This report, however, appeared to be false : the landing party he sent to search for it was merely shown "a few wild lemon trees". He was put on the right track eventually by the fondness of his visitors for anything scented. "It was by no means unusual to find bunches of odoriferous flowers, etc., etc., tied to the arms of both men and women; and on the arm of one of my visitors I found a small piece of sandalwood fastened...". This, he was told, had come from Erromango island.

As soon as the wind allowed, he sailed for that island and tried to obtain anchorage near Traitor’s Head, where Captain Cook anchored, and had a fight with the natives. Finding the eastern coast too exposed, he turned south again, passed between Erromango and Tanna, and discovered on the western coast the "large open bay" since named after him, Dillon Bay. Here theCalder cast anchor and Dillon’s highest expectations were realized, for sandalwood was found "growing in abundance close to the margin of the Sea". On the morning after their arrival, when friendly relations seemed to have been established with the people, a party was sent ashore to cut sandalwood. It returned "with four to five hundred pounds of the desired wood". In the afternoon, while Dillon was taking soundings of the bay, "so as to make a sketch of the anchorage", he heard musket shots from a boat party he had sent ashore to procure fresh water.

"I instantly proceeded to her assistance, and met her coming out of the creek : the officer was pursued by the people from the right side [of the creek], who attacked him by throwing stones into the boat, shooting of arrows, etc., etc., In self-defence, he fired at them, but without effect, as they shot their arrows from behind the trees’.
Dillon’s boat opened fire in support, and the watering party made good its retreat, without casualties. But the incident seems finally to have made Dillon decide to abandon his plan to procure a cargo of sandalwood.

There had, indeed, already been other things to make him doubt the feasibility of the enterprise. During the morning, when the people from the left bank of the creek had been friendly to the sandalwood cutters, those on the right had shown incipient signs of hostility. And none of the Eromangans had been willing to work with his men – an essential condition of expeditious loading. When he added these facts to his recollection of Cook’s unhappy experience at Traitor’s Head, he reached a conclusion very unflattering to his new acquaintances.

“..I may safely assert without incurring the hazard of contradiction, that the Natives of the New Hebrides are by many shades further removed from civilization, and that their general disposition indicates a more permanent attachment to barbarous feeling and habits than has hitherto been found in any part of the South Sea".

Reluctantly, he decided to sail from Erromango next day.

Dillon was a complex man, a mixture of the scientist, the trader, and the romantic. He delighted in visiting little known islands and in observing and recording the details of their geography and of culture of their inhabitants. He had an eye for commercial opportunity. But, above all, he liked the island people to become his friends. His own outlook and career had been moulded by his experiences in the islands. Among his closest personal ties were those with the chiefs of Mbau, in Fiji, of Ma’ofanga, in Tonga, and of Raiatea and Tahaa, in the Society Islands. Even at Tanna, he had begun to think of one of his visitors as "my old friend Narran"before he left. But the New Hebrideans did not, generally, arouse in him those feelings of respect and liking on which a more substantial association could be built. He never returned to the New Hebrides, and he made no attempt to profit from his discovery.

Probably because of his lack of desire to revisit the New Hebrides, and as a consequence of his natural expansiveness, he made no secret of his discovery. He announced it on his return to Sydney towards the end of February. When he was in Tahiti, in the following November, he is bound to have been asked whether he had found any new source of sandalwood, for on his previous visit, a year before, it had been the primary object of his voyage. And in Tahiti the sandalwood trade was of considerable interest. Samuel Henry, with whom Dillon did some business at this time, was hoping to find it in commercial quantities in the Austral Islands, as was an American trader from Hawaii named Navarro who was then in Tahiti for that purpose.

Within a year or two, however, both Henry and Navarro realized that supplies in the Austral Islands were too limited for profitable exploitation. And in 1829 the first expeditions to Erromango for sandalwood were made – from Hawaii and Tahiti. That they were the result of Dillon’s discovery in 1825, cannot be doubted.

These voyages, and the more extensive trade which later developed, form one of the most brutal parts of nineteenth century Pacific history. They can be referred to here only in broad outline.

During 1829-1830 a number of vessels from Papeete and Honolulu, including two owned by the Hawaiian chief Boki, were at Erromango. Polynesian labour had been recruited at Rotuma and Tongatapu and camps were established on shore. Before long, however, hostilities broke out between the Polynesians and the people of the island. The visitors also fell victims to fever. Before the middle of 1830 work had ceased, and the last party had been withdrawn.

Ten years later a more determined effort was begun – under the leadership of Sydney merchants. By that time the exhaustion of the sandalwood in Hawaii, which had been for some years a major source of supply, had caused a rise in the market price at Canton. The results of the first voyages to Erromango were encouraging, and within a few years sandalwood was discovered in other islands of the group – as well as in the Loyalty Islands, the Isle of Pines, and New Caledonia.

In 1845 Captain Paddon established a central depot at Aneityum staffed by Europeans. From this depot small vessels worked the neighbouring islands and to it came larger vessels to carry the sandalwood direct to China. Stations of the same type were later built in Erromango and Tanna; but the majority of merchants worked on a more modest scale, often maintaining a single agent at some central point, such as Port Resolution or Dillon Bay, whose job it was to travel up and down the coasts making agreements with the people to cut cargoes of sandalwood in time for the returning vessel.

The trade reached its height between 1850 and 1860, by which time it had spread as far north as Espiritu Santo. Commercially it was a great success, and many fortunes were made. Costs were low. Sometimes the people in whose district the wood was obtained were paid a nominal royalty, but often their rights were simply ignored. Wages paid to the gangs of men who cut the wood and brought it down from the valleys to the coast were almost fantastically small. The only heavy expense of the merchant was that of maintaining his ships and shore stations and paying the freight to China, profits were high.

Conditions in the islands, as well as the steady cutting out of supplies, did not make for the permanence of the trade. Many of the sandalwood agents were ruffians. Their principal articles of trade were firearms and spirits. They frequently instigated, or took part in, local wars. The masters of the sandalwood ships were often no better. From their heavily armed vessels, they would open fire on villages whose people attempted to interfere with their despoiling of the forest; or, to gain the favour of one tribe, they would hand over to it members of another to be killed and perhaps eaten at a cannibal feast. Again, when their cargoes were completed, they would sometimes stir up a quarrel to ruin the chances of rival traders. In retaliation, the New Hebridean attacked ship after ship, so that, in the end, combination of increasing risks and diminishing supplies brought the trade to an end. While it lasted, it had been the major factor in the depopulation and demoralization of the islands.

Source: Author of “Peter Dillon and the discovery of Sandalwood’: J.W.Davidson, Journal de la société des Océanistes, Tome 11, N°11, décembre 1955,p99-105.

The archipelago of Vanuatu is now a successful South Pacific tourism destination, with a large range of Vanuatu accommodation, one only has to Google Vanuatu resorts, Vanuatu hotels or Port Vila hotels to find a wide choice of international and local guesthouses (called “bungalows”) offering great travel deals and cheap hotel options.  

The reports are the creation of a research team assisted by the National Museum and Cultural Centre of Vanuatu, financially sponsored by the French Senate, John and Silvana Nicholls in the production of these reports into DVDs.

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