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Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in Polynesia

David Porter

David Porter

1812 to 1813

Captain David Porter, U.S.N., was the commander of the Essex which played havoc with British commerce in 1813 during the war between the United States and Great Britain. Porter received his orders on October 6, 1812, to prepare the Essex for a long cruise, then sailed down to the track of vessels plying between the West Indies and England. On December 12 he captured the English brig Nocton with $55,000 in specie. He changed his field of operations to the Pacific by sailing round Cape Horn in February 1813, working up the coast of Chile and Peru, and making his base in the Galapagos Islands. His strategy, for which he takes great credit, was to hoist the British flag to lure unsuspecting whalers within close range and then to substitute the American flag. The method proved successful, for Porter listed the names of about a dozen ships which were captured in this way. One of the prizes, the Atlantic, was armed with guns and a prize crew and renamed the Essex Junior. Some of the captured ships were sent to Valparaiso under prize crews to be sold.

On September 3, 1813, Porter left the Galapagos Islands and cruised south. His operations broke up the British whale fishing off Peru and Chile, deprived the British of 2,500,000 dollars in property, and resulted in the capture of 360 British seamen. The Essex and the Essex Junior sailed for the Marquesas to refresh on October 6 and arrived there on the 23. The ships anchored off Nukuhiva. After criticizing the actions of Marchand and Hergest in applying new names to the islands which had been named by Ingraham, the first discoverer, Porter proceeded to attach a fifth name to Nukuhiva, calling it Madisons Island. The inhabitants of the valley near which the ships were anchored supplied them with hogs and fresh vegetables and fruit, and the local chief "Gattanewa" asked Porter for assistance in his war against another tribe named the "Happahs." Porter obligingly sent him a detachment of men with a six-pounder gun. The enemy's fort was captured after five men had been shot. The subjugated tribe and their allies made peace by supplying the ships with provisions and continuing to trade.

Porter then sent out messages stating that if the other tribes wished to maintain friendship with him they must come in and trade with him. Failure page 103to do so would be considered antagonistic. A powerful tribe named the Tipees (Taipi) did not enter into the provisioning arrangement, so Porter sent them a message saying that if they wanted to be at peace with him, an exchange of presents would be required as a proof of their friendly disposition. The Taipi sent back a message which one cannot help admiring. They wished to know why they should desire friendship or why they should bring hogs and fruit. If Porter was strong enough, they knew he would come and take them; if he did not come, it would be because he was too weak. It would be time enough for them to think of parting with their goods when they could no longer keep their valley. Porter took this answer as a challenge, which it undoubtedly was. Not content with the superiority of firearms against spears and stones, he encouraged the mobilization of the neighboring tribes who were inimical to the Taipi, stating "our force" consisted of 5,000 men. The attack failed to dislodge the Taipi from their defense wall across their valley; and when Porter's ammunition was expended, his men had to retreat to the beach. The retirement was witnessed by his native allies with considerable interest, and Porter realized that the safety of his people "as well as the interests of my government" would be compromised by any delay in the renewal of hostilities.

The next day, 200 armed men from the Essex and the Essex Junior and from other prizes spear-headed an attack on the Taipi Valley. The Taipi warriors fought valiantly and desperately for every inch of the ground, but Porter's armed forces continued their way up the valley, burning each village as they went. Numbers of their gods were destroyed; elegant new war canoes which had never been used were burnt in their sheds; wooden drums, which had been left behind, were thrown into the flames; and the chief village, or capital, was taken. In the midst of this willful destruction, Porter had time to say that the beauty and regularity of the place was such as to strike any spectator with astonishment. The survivors of the Taipi retired to the hills where they could gaze down on the smoking ruins of their homes and realize that, though the price was high, they had proved their manhood. Porter also looked down on the valley from another ridge to contemplate that, in his own words, the valley which in the morning was a scene of beauty, abundance, and happiness was now a long line of smoking ruins marking the traces of his men from one end to the other.

A chief and a priest of the Taipi went to interview the victor and came straight to business, asking how many hogs he demanded as the price of his friendship. Porter set its value high, at 400 hogs, for which he said he would give the customary presents in return. No mention is made of what the customary presents were.

By December 9 all of Porter's ships were loaded with provisions and the Marquesans were left to resume a more normal existence. On February 3, 1814, the Essex and the Essex Junior sailed into Valparaiso, where Porter page 104 Tattooed Warrior Of the Marquesas, Drawn by Emile Lasalle, Artist with Dumont D'Urville, 1843. page 105 found two British warships, Phoebe and Cherub, waiting to receive him. In a parley between Captain Hillyar of the Phoebe and Captain Porter, they mutually agreed to respect the neutrality of the port by not committing hostile acts within its waters. The British ships thereupon withdrew and waited patiently outside the harbor. When at last Porter sailed out on March 28, he shared the fate of the whaling ships he had captured by having to strike his flag to superior force. Here ends the cruise of the Essex.