Narrative of the US Exploring Expedition 1845 – Charles Wilkes USN

In 1838 a special squadron of the United States Navy was ordered into the Pacific Ocean to chart hazards and gather scientific knowledge. After an expedition of four years Charles Wilkes, commander of the squadron,  compiled a narrative of the voyage from the journals of his officers and scientists. The narrative was published in five volumes in 1845. In 1985 the Fiji Museum published a reprint of the third volume.

In Volume 3 the Expedition leaves New Zealand and spends the first chapter in Tonga (‘Tongataboo’). The remainder of the book is spent in Fiji (‘Feejee’), from May to August 1840, until the last chapter where it heads for Honalulu. “Drawn not only from the experiences and observations of the Expedition’s officers and scientific corps, but also from those of the beachcombing Fiji whites who served as local pilots, of veteran Yankee beche-de-mer and tortoise-shell trading captains, and of pioneering Methodist missionaries, the book does far more than simply outline the work and adventures of the Expedition in these islands, drawing a vividly detailed, quite unparalleled picture of life in pre-Christian Fiji.” (from the back cover of the 1985 reprint)

The book has a detailed Contents section, as many of these old books do, but no index. Google Books has scanned all five volumes and searching can be done there. It is easy to search for the names of people, although Fijian names are likely to be spelled differently.

David Whippy, an ancestor of mine, is mentioned many times, in descriptions, as the teller of stories and provider of information, and as a participant in the action. Wilkes describes his meeting both Whippy and Tui Levuka on page 47:

Whippy - first meeting p47It is important to read some of the descriptions of Fijian people and customs with some tolerance for the narrow attitudes of these early explorers.

Here is another example, on pages 330 and 331, following a discussion of the diseases and ailments suffered by native Fijians:

Whippy page 330

Whippy page 331

Another example is Paddy Connel, who walked into Wilkes’ tent one day and told him his life story (on page 67):

He was a short, wrinkled old man, but appeared to possess great vigour and activity. He had a beard that reached to his middle, but little hair, of a reddish gray colour, on his head. He gave me no time for inquiry,  but at once addressed me in broad Irish, with a rich Milesian brogue…

The story then continues for nearly two pages so I won’t repeat it here. Even though Wilkes suspected that a lot of it wasn’t true there is probably enough for a descendant to go on to search for Paddy further.

The book is worth reading in its own right, even if specific names cannot be found. Wilkes describes the customs, food, illnesses, and culture of the Fijian people he came across at a time when the Wesleyan missionaries had only just started to have any influence. He also describes his own dealings with the various chiefs and the white settlers he encountered, some of whom he or his officers employed as pilots.

The book also contains sketches and drawings of people and places.

Muthuata Feejee

The version on Google Books appears to have fewer of the excellent drawings than the Fiji Museum version I have at home, but there may have been other versions in Google Books that I missed.

Pacific Manuscript Bureau

The Pacific Manuscripts Bureau is an organisation of libraries specializing in Pacific Island research, based in the College of Asia Pacific Studies at the Australian National University. It copies archives, manuscripts and rare printed material relating to the islands of the Pacific, making it accessible to researchers.

The Bureau has 3,300 microfilms, indexes and other material, held by the libraries involved, including:

A search in the catalogue currently gives 189 results. Records for Fiji include:

  • Roman Catholic Mission records from the Archdiocese of Suva
  • Diaries, journals and letters of visitors and settlers, including J.B.Thurston
  • Logs and journals of visiting whalers and other ships from the USA
  • Compilations of notes on aspects of Fijian history

Search for holdings relevant to Fiji here.

The Journals Of Robert Sherson Swanston 1857-1885

Robert Sherson Swanston was a “trader, arrived in Fiji, 1857, and settled there with the intention of introducing sheep and cattle. He became Secretary for Native Affairs under the Cakobau Government, 1872-3, and was influential in the development of constitutional government. He was also Stipendiary Magistrate at Kadavu, 1875-7.” [entry in Trove].

Six volumes of his journals from 1853 to 1885 are held by the Central Archives of Fiji. They have been microfilmed and a copy is held by the State Library of New South Wales. Follow this link to see the SLNSW entry or search for Robert Sherson Swanston in the catalogue.

The Autobiography and Reminiscence of Robert Sherson Swanston, 1901, is a typed and bound manuscript “created as an institutional record for the Society of California Pioneers. This brief reminiscence lists the mines R.S. Swanston worked and the companies he belonged to. It is followed by a typed transcript of a letter, dated November 21st, 1881, addressed to Robert Sherson Swanston regarding the condition of the people of Fiji. The context of this letter is unclear.” It has been digitised and made available at the University of California website Calisphere.

Voyages to the South Seas, Indian and Pacific Oceans – Edmund Fanning (1838)

Fanning 1838 title page

Title page and frontispiece of ‘Voyages to the South Seas’, Edmund Fanning, 1838

Edmund Fanning (1769-1841) was an American explorer and sea-captain who made a number of voyages to the Pacific Ocean.

This book describes a number of voyages to the South Seas, the Pacific Ocean and China, including two to the Feejee Islands in 1806-1809 in search of sandalwood on the Sandalwood Coast. He describes the method of collecting and processing the sandalwood and his relations with the Fijian people at this early period in the history of European contact.

The book also contains letters to and from Fanning about the ‘National Discovery and Exploring Expedition’ to the Pacific and Southern Oceans that he believed was essential to the continuing properity of the United States. The expedition was eventually led by Commodore Wilkes, whose narrative was published on his return.

As with all Google Books the text can be searched when you view the book online but not if you download the PDF. The names of people and places are spelled very imaginatively.


Fanning’s Voyages on Google Books

Wikipedia entry for Edmund Fanning

Find the book you need on WorldCat

This post was originally posted as part of the 52 Weeks to Better Genealogy Challenge in 2010.

dreamstimefree_6456266WorldCat is a catalogue of many, many libraries in the world. I’ve used it before and usually it has told me that the book I am looking for is in the State Library of NSW or the National Library of Australia, which is where I would have looked anyway. Unfortunately my genealogy society isn’t part of WorldCat, but one day that will change.

For the sake of this exercise I decided not to look for a book that I know of, but to find books that I didn’t know about. As Amy suggested, I’ve put in one of my unusual surnames – Whippy. David Whippy, born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, arrived in Fiji in about 1822 and stayed there.

So I put “Whippy” in the WorldCat search, and waited. 70 results, including a dissertation about job satisfaction in Guam University. I narrowed it down by adding ‘Fiji’, and came up with 5 results, 2 of which were the same.

The most relevant item I found was a microfilm of a play written by Isobel Whippy:

The play concerns the first British Consul in Fiji, William Thomas Pritchard, who arrived in Levuka in September 1858 and was dismissed from his post in January 1863. It is based on a theory that the Consul lost his job because of a love affair with a young woman – possibly a part-European – who gave birth to two children by Pritchard, before he married her in the British Consulate in Levuka a few days afte his dismissal. The play is in two acts – the first covering the period from September 1858 to June 1859; the second from November 1859 to July 1862. There is an epilogue concerning the year 1864.

The microfilm was published by the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau in Canberra, which I happen to know is part of the Australian National University and who microfilm manuscripts related to Pacific history. The films are available in the State Library NSW, and I have accessed them there in the past.

WorldCat, however, told me that my nearest copy was at Yale University Library, New Haven, CT 06520 United States, at a distance of 10000 miles. If I selected the other, identical title, I could find it at the State Library of NSW, the National Library of Australia, and the State Library of Victoria.

There is however, a link to Related Identities, one of which was the Australian National University Pacific Manuscripts Bureau. There’s a timeline for the Bureau that goes back to 1830, which was rather startling until I realised that most of the works listed are about American whalers in the Pacific and such, and filmed by the PMB.

So the end result of my investigation is that I can almost always find what I need in the State Library of NSW, in Sydney where I live. Anything that this library doesn’t have will probably be in Canberra and probably available on inter-library loan, although I haven’t hit this situation yet.

David Whippy didn’t arrive on a whaler but the principle is the same, so I now have a list of resources I can check to find out more about the way of life and the history of Americans in the Pacific, if not about David Whippy directly. Most, if not all, available at the State Library of NSW.

Libraries Australia has  a combined catalogue of many libraries in Australia. I don’t know if all the same libraries are in both catalogues. The free version of this catalogue is within Trove.


I put Whippy in the Search field and got a whole heap of results:

Trove - Whippy search

As you can see, there’s a vast array of stuff which will take me some time to work through. Not all of it is relevant, but some of it is. For example, the third entry under Australian newspapers (1803-1954) is a page from the Sydney Morning Herald in January 1856 containing transcripts of correspondence about American activities in Fiji. In one of the letters, written by James Calvert, the Wesleyan missionary, Mr Whippy, my David Whippy, is mentioned a number of times as arbitrating with Mr. Calvert in a dispute between the natives and an American ship’s captain. I was then able to correct the transcription of the notoriously difficult newspaper print, and download a PDF of the page or the whole newspaper.

Further down the screen there are sections for Maps, Diaries and Letters, and Archived Websites. All sections can be opened and closed on this summary screen, or clicked on to give the full list of results.

Trove is relatively new, and having now played with it I can see it is vastly superior to WorldCat for my purposes. Australian catalogues are more likely to be useful to me in general to find a book I can borrow in an Australian library. Trove gives so much more than any library catalog that I would be unlikely to go anywhere else.

It also gave me more books than WorldCat did. On its list of 96 books, journals and magazines, etc, it gives the title Gone Native in Polynesia by Ian Christopher Campbell, a book I’ve been trying to get hold of for some time. This book has a whole chapter on David Whippy in Fiji. There are tabs for each State, and under NSW I can see that it’s available at the State Library of NSW and the University of Wollongong Library. There is also a link to show where I can buy a copy – in this case from Blackwell Online for 70 pounds or Amazon from US$79.00 to US$235.00. I won’t be buying a copy for my library, but I have a search in eBay just in case.

Isobel’s play is there, with the same results – State Library of NSW, and the reference number is given.

Really, I can’t see why I would use WorldCat on a day-to-day basis. Contributers to Trove include Project Gutenberg, so I might be able to download the book I want then and there.