Category Archives: Pacific Ocean

Yasi: a devastating cyclone, a devastated species

In 1857 the Sydney Morning Herald published a series of articles on ‘Central Polynesia.’ A number of these articles present in instalments a ‘Gazetteer of Central Polynesia.’ The entry for the Fijian Archipelago includes lists of the inedible and edible products of those islands. Among the inedible is ‘sandal-wood or yasi, now very scarce.’

Scanning the shipping news in early nineteenth-century newspapers, one can readily appreciate why sandalwood in Fiji had become scarce by the middle of the century. Ships had been carrying the wood away in enormous quantities for decades.

The Herald’s list of departures from the port of Sydney for 20 April 1860 includes ‘John Wesley, for South Sea Islands.’ The boat, which was used for missionary purposes, had been held back for some days to allow the German botanist Dr. Berthold Seemann, who had been offered free passage, time to collect what he needed for an extended stay in Fiji. He had been commissioned by the British Government to participate in a ‘Mission to Fiji’ under Colonel William James Smythe, R.A. This was an information-gathering exercise to help in determining whether Britain should accept an offer of cession by Fijian chiefs. Dr. Seemann tells the story of his trip via Sydney to Fiji in his book Viti: An Account of a Government Mission to the Vitian or Fijian Islands in the Years 1860-61 (pp. 1-8).

Later that year the Herald carried a couple of reports about the Fijian question which refer to the work of Dr. Seemann in Fiji, including his experiments in growing cotton. Dr. Seemann acknowledges in his book that his work was not exhaustive, but it was certainly extensive and detailed. His task was to observe the resources and vegetable products of the island. Chapter XVII of the book discusses various aspects of the flora, including details of vegetable poisons, medicinal plants, scents and perfumes, materials for clothing, mats and baskets, fibres used for cordage, timber, palms and ornamental plants.

The section on Scents and Perfumes includes a description of sandal-wood (pp. 343-346). Dr. Seemann says that, ‘The Yasi or sandal-wood (Santalum Yasi, Seem.) is confined to the south-western parts of Vanua Levu, and formerly abounded near Bua or Sandal-wood Bay’ (p. 343). The wood of the yasi was used for perfuming coconut oil, and was much prized for that purpose not only in Fiji but by the islanders of Tonga, who conducted regular trading voyages to obtain it long before Europeans arrived on the scene. The wood of transplanted trees reportedly failed to produce an adequate strength of scent.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century ships from Manila were carrying the wood to China. ‘However, so great was the demand for this article, both in the Chinese and Polynesian markets, that about the year 1816 there was scarcely enough left for home consumption several thousand tons having probably been exported’ (pp. 344-345). As yasi ‘has very much the appearance of a Myrtaceous plant,’ the Fijians also applied the term yasi to some species of Eugenia, thus speaking of Yasi ni wai, Yasi dravu and so on (p. 345). Polynesians grate the wood on mushroom coral and mix it with coconut oil. The Chinese use larger pieces for ornamental purposes, and remnants and sawdust for joss-sticks (p. 346).

The modern system of identifying cyclones by personal names depends on finding enough names for the purpose. Sequences of some twenty-four names are reserved in advance, the letters Q and X posing particular difficulties. In the course of nominations to the World Meteorological Organisation, the Fijian tree-name Yasi was suggested to supply a name for the letter Y. The name, having been accepted some time ago, was applied in its turn to the recent cyclone in Queensland.

‘Central Polynesia, No. 12. A Gazetteer of Central Polynesia (continued)’, Sydney Morning Herald 29/5/1857, p. 2. Departure from Sydney: Sydney Morning Herald 21/4/1860, p. 6. Berthold Seemann, Viti: An Account of a Government Mission to the Vitian or Fijian Islands in the Years 1860-61, London, Macmillan, 1862. Appendix III gives a ‘Systematic List of all the Fijian Plants at present known’ (pp. 431-447; a number of the plants are newly identified and assigned a scientific name with ‘Seem.’ appended). Reports about work in progress: Sydney Morning Herald 8/11/1860, p. 7 (repeated 21/11/1860, p. 6); ‘Fiji’, Sydney Morning Herald 21/12/1860, p. 3. Rowan Callick, ‘Fragrant tree link to mighty tempest’s name’, The Australian 4/2/2011 (online). Isaac Davison, ‘Storm names follow strict alphabetical order’, New Zealand Herald 5/2/2011 (online). The Australian Sandalwood Network has a website.

Port Stephens and an island in the Pacific

On 6 May 1770 James Cook in the Endeavour left Sting Ray Harbour, which he subsequently decided to call Botany Bay, and sailed further north along the coast. On 11 May at four in the afternoon he sailed past, at a distance of one mile, ‘a low rocky point’ to which he gave the name Point Stephens. On the north side of this:

… is an inlet which I calld Port Stephens … that appear’d to me from the mast head to be shelterd from all winds, at the entrance lay 3 small Islands two of which are of a tolerable height and on the Main near the shore are some high round hills that make at a distance like Islands, in passing this bay at the distance of 2 or 3 miles from the shore our soundings were from 33 to 27 fathoms from which I conjector’d that there must be a sufficient depth of water for shipping in the Bay.

Twenty-five years later, on 16 December 1795, Commander William Robert Broughton, sailing across the Pacific in the Providence, saw an island on the weather-beam and tacked towards it. At a distance of five or six leagues it appeared to be a low island covered in trees, probably coconuts, perhaps five miles long in a north–south direction.

I named it Carolina Island in compliment to the daughter of Sir P. Stephens of the Admiralty.

The island is now part of Kiribati and has been renamed Millennium Island. Through a shifting of the date line, it was one of the first places to see in the new ‘millennium’ in the year 2000.

Philip Stephens (1723-1809) was Secretary to the Admiralty from 1763 to 1795. He was created a baronet in 1795 and was a Lord of the Admiralty from 1795 to 1806. His daughter, Carolina (or Caroline) Elizabeth Stephens, was born out of wedlock. She married Thomas Jones, 6th Viscount of Ranelagh, an army major, in August 1804, thus becoming Viscountess of Ranelagh. In June 1805 she died giving birth to a baby daughter, who also died. Lord Stephen’s son Thomas Stephens had died in a duel in 1790, and there were no descendants.

Stephens, while Secretary to the Admiralty, somehow acquired one of the three copies of Cook’s journals, the one which Cook sent to the Admiralty while staying in Batavia for repairs. The journal seems to have been passed on to Caroline’s husband Lord Ranelagh, whose son sold it in 1885 (or 1868?). The purchaser, F.W. Cosens, sold it in 1890 to John Corner, an admirer of Cook, and hence it is known as the ‘Corner Journal’. After Corner’s death it was sold by his executors in 1895 to F.H. Dangar, who presented it to the Australian Museum. From there in 1935 it was transferred to the Mitchell Library, now part of the State Library of New South Wales.

Corner was hoping to arrange for publication of the journal but died before he could carry out his plan, and his son completed the task. The Corner Journal was published in 1893, with insertions from the later Admiralty copy where necessary. A distinctive feature of the Corner Journal is that New South Wales is called New Wales, the longer name apparently being a later decision.

In Captain Wharton’s Preface to his edition of the Corner Journal (1893), Sir Philip Stephens is described as ‘a personal friend and appreciator of Cook.’ Cook was also highly esteemed by William Broughton, who in the Preface to his Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean speaks of the ‘persevering researches and unwearying activity of our immortal Cooke.’

South Seas Project, Cook’s Journal, Transcription of National Library of Australia, Manuscript 1, 11/5/1770. Comparison with readings in the other journals is needed. William Robert Broughton, A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean … in the Years 1795, 1796, 1797, 1798, London, Cadell and Davies, 1804, pp. 28-29; cf. Andrew David (ed.), William Robert Broughton’s Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific 1795-1798 (Hakluyt Society, 3rd Series, No. 22), London, Ashgate, 2010. Corner Journal, (1) manuscript: James Cook – A Journal of the proceedings of His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour on a voyage round the world, by Lieutenant James Cook, Commander, commencing the 25th of May 1768 – 23 Oct. 1770 (Call No. Safe 1/71), Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW; (2) edition: Captain W.J.L. Wharton, R.N., F.R.S. [Hydrographer of the Admiralty] (ed.), Captain Cook’s Journal during his First Voyage round the World Made in H.M. Bark “Endeavour” 1768-71. A Literal Transcription of the Original Mss. with Notes and Introduction, illustrated by Maps and Facsimiles, London, 1893.