A map of Tonga, or the Friendly Islands. Dotted
lines show the routes taken by Cook’s ships
on his second voyage (1772–74).
Published in 1777 by Thomas Cadell of London.
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Tonga is a South Pacific archipelago of over 170 islands lying some two thousand miles east of Australia. Cats first arrived there in the eighteenth century, and they certainly did not get there by themselves. As far as we can tell, the first cats to arrive in Tonga came with Captain James Cook on his third Pacific voyage in 1777.
Captain Cook (1728–79) was known for charting the coasts of Canada, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland, as well as for his Pacific voyages, (1768–71, 1772–75, and 1776–77). Presumably he carried cats on his ships on all of these journeys to control vermin, but the cats that we actually know a little bit about were on his third Pacific voyage. From what little we know, they did not set paw on Tonga willingly.
Cook’s third Pacific voyage
That third voyage included two ships: the Resolution, commanded by Cook himself, and Discovery, a support vessel commanded by Lieutenant Charles Clerke. The main intention was to explore up the western coast of North America in search of the Northwest Passage, but Cook spent considerable time farther south (it was on this trip that he discovered Hawaii, where he was killed on his second stop there in 1779).
The vessels reached Tonga in 1777 and caused a big sensation among the native people, who paddled canoes out to where the ships were anchored and, well, took some things that particularly interested them. Over the course of the two and a half months they spent around Tonga, the Europeans lost (among other things) weapons, tools…and cats.
Why the people of Tonga were so taken with the cats I can’t say for sure, but some of the cats were certainly taken by those people. A crewmember of one of the ships wrote that on May 18, "at Noon the Indians returned two Catts [sic] they had stolen from us." In June, a second crewmember reported that an additional six cats had been stolen, and they "could be but ill Spared from Ships so overrun with rats as ours" (Captain Cook Society).
The cats were indispensable because, as we have just learned, rats were a big problem. At one point, rats on the Discovery chewed the quarter-deck to get at the yams that were meant to be a stable, easily transported food for the crew. Clerke is said to have “mourned over [the] stolen cats, [as] his rats rioted unmolested” (Beaglehole, p. 541).
The mysterious fate of the stolen cats
What became of the cats that were taken and never returned we do not know. Missionaries who arrived on the islands in 1797, some twenty years after Cook had been there, thought they were the first to bring cats to Tonga (Ferdon, p. 282). Perhaps those missionaries were simply unaware of an existing cat population, or perhaps those first cats failed to thrive or reproduce.
Or perhaps the natives decided they didn’t like cats so much after all.
The Captain Cook Society: http://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/225-years-ago-april-june-1777
Beaglehole, J. C. The Life of Captain James Cook. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1974.