Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Iron and Irony - A Strange Twist of Fate in Hawaii

Studying history makes its students no strangers to paradox, but sometimes history throws up facts that no sane writer would dare use in a novel. While studying Pahoa, the Hawaiian version of the dagger I tripped over a quote from the 1780's that I found extraordinary and am still surprised that in a lifetime of reading about James Cook I had never read it before. The quote comes from the journal of Nathanial Portlock who had sailed with Cook as master's mate on the fateful 1776 – 1780 Third Voyage and who had returned to O'ahu in command of the King George in 1786 and reported; “The greatest part of the daggers left by us at these islands during our last voyage, at present seem to center here (O'ahu); for we scarely ever saw a large canoe that the people in her had not one apiece; and at Owhyhee (The Big Island of Hawaii). I do not remember seeing more than two or three.” This is a reference to the iron daggers that were first made for them on Cook's ships, indeed Portlock continues in reference to the unadvisability of making the Hawaiians such weapons with; “ for it was with one of these daggers (made on a pattern of Hawaiian double edged pahoa) given by us to the natives of Owhyhee my much lamented Captain Cook was killed.” This is extraordinary, for Cook to be killed with an iron weapon made to a native Hawaiian pattern manufactured on his own ships.


Nathaniel Portlock (c1748–12 September 1817)

Portlock joined the Royal Navy in 1772 as an able seaman, but by 1776 he had joined HMS Discovery as a master's mate for James Cook's third voyage. Later he was transferred to the Resolution for the remainer of the journey. He passed his lieutenant’s examination in 1780 and served in the Channel fleet. On Cook's third voyage, furs obtained in present day British Colombia and Alaska sold for good prices when the expedition called at Macao.In 1785 Richard Cadman Etches and partners, including Portlock and George Dixon formed a partnership, commonly called the King George's Sound Company to develop the fur trade. Dixon had also served on Resolution in the Pacific under Cook. In September 1785 Portlock and Dixon sailed from England, Portlock commanding a crew of 59 in the King George a 320 ton vessel and Dixon the 200 ton Queen Carlotte with a crew of 33. They sailed together for most of their three year voyage, crossing the Atlantic entering the Pacific by rounding Cape Horn reaching Hawaii by May 1786, where he witnessed the survival of the iron pahoa. It should be noted that he did not go ashore in Kealakekua Bay but took on food at other Hawaiian Islands before sailing to Alaska trading on the coast for two years before sailing to Macao in November 1788. He eventually returned to the Royal Navy in 1791 and was appointed to command the brig HMS Assistant, that accompanied Bligh on his second dand successful voyage to transport breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies. He was promoted to captain in 1799, but retired from the sea and died at Greenwich Hospital on 12 September 1817.


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