An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands, in the South Pacific Ocean, vol. 1, John Martin and William Mariner, 1827
- Tonga, #1
- Free from Google Books
- Read November-December 2015
- Rating: 2/5
- Recommended for: sticklers for detail
This is my first post-baby blog post, and I suspect it ushers in a new era of disjointed observations and possibly sub-par copy-editing as I type the next few entries one-handed while the baby nurses. Apologies. I could probably wait a few weeks until she (hopefully) lets me put her down for more than five minutes at a stretch (I mean, I don’t think anyone’s waiting on tenterhooks for my hot take on an eminently boring 200-year-old narrative about pre-colonial Tonga) but after a month of sleeping in 2-hour shifts and spending all my waking hours either feeding the baby, changing the baby, or staring at the baby’s sleeping face in a fog of obsessive love and irrational worry (often accompanied by floods of hormonally-induced tears), I would like to convince myself that some sort of return to normalcy will be possible in the not-too-distant future.
So here I am to tell you about the first third or so of the story of William Mariner, a teenage British sailor and privateer who was adopted by the Tongan king Finau after Finau had ambushed and killed the rest of Mariner’s shipmates in order to capture the British ship’s artillery. Mariner was spared because he reminded Finau of his recently deceased son, and spent the subsequent four years as a member of Finau’s family, observing the course of a Tongan civil war and providing one of the only written accounts of Tongan society before the inevitable arrival of European missionaries and subsequent obliteration of many of Tonga’s cultural traditions (a story that is growing depressingly familiar as I work my way through Polynesia and Micronesia). I can only tell you about the first third of the first volume of Mariner’s story because that’s as far as I got before I gave up on slogging through an endless recounting of political maneuvering, minor battles, and ritual vengeance, punctuated by feasts of roasted pork and yams (Seriously. The importance of yams to this narrative cannot be overstated). It should be an interesting account, and I’m sure that some very historically-minded and detail-oriented people would find it so. But it reads like a history textbook (and I say this as a someone with a BA in medieval history); names, battles, places, very little in the way of colorful detail or human interest. If you’re reading for interest or pleasure (and not, say, as part of your research for a doctoral thesis), I recommend just reading the wikipedia article on William Mariner and being done with it.
Of the short section I read, the part I actually found most interesting was the beginning, before Mariner’s ship arrived in Tonga, with a primary mission of privateering (and if the privateering seemed unprofitable, a back-up plan of whaling, which seems like a pretty diverse skill set). I guess I had a vague idea of what privateering was before I read this book, but reading such matter-of-fact descriptions of government-sanctioned piracy was oddly shocking. It’s hard to believe that only two hundred years ago British sailors were randomly attacking Spanish ships and settlements and just taking whatever they wanted with the full blessing of the English crown. It kind of makes you feel less sorry for them when they’re duped and slaughtered by Finau and his soldiers.
After that relatively mild frisson of excitement, the narrative takes a decided turn to the dull. It’s too bad because on the face of it, it’s a good story, and it’s begging for a historical novel treatment, but it will have to be done by someone with decidedly more tolerance for tedium than I possess.