Dag Kjelldahl, known to many as the Whitby Wizard, has just returned from his latest expedition where he followed in the footsteps of Captain Cook.
In this special feature he tells the story of his once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Today, in trying to recreate their cultural base, the people of Easter Island, called Rapa Nui, are eagerly copying the touristy dollar machines of Tahiti and Hawaii. You are even handed a flower garland, a lei, when you arrive at the airport. The island has finally become an economic success, which would have surprised Captain James Cook.
In Cook’s days the leading European seafaring nations competed to find new lands to colonize.
When Cook and his scurvy ridden crew in the Whitby-built bark ‘Resolution’ arrived in 1774, Cook himself was severely ill. He had long before lost contact with his consort ship, the ‘Adventure’, off New Zealand. He could not know that she had been shipwrecked, or that nine of his men had been killed by the Maori, most likely eaten.
The natives of Easter Island were a thieving lot, stealing the seamen’s hats and kerchiefs and even the things the crewmen had paid for with trinkets like small mirrors, beads and pieces of tahitian cloth. Some crewmen had to buy the same things up to three times, and even then ending up with nothing! Cook was not amused when some of the baskets of potatoes that he had bought contained just stones under a layer of real potatoes.
Cook noted that Easter Island, as it had been named by the Dutch ‘discoverers, or Davis’ Island, which is the more correct name, was really not worth having. Short of both foodstuffs and fresh water (when the natives in their company approached one of the few, stinking wells, they would dive straight in and bathe themselves before drinking it), it was not worthwhile for any European nation to annex it to help supplying any passing ships.
The fact that nearly a thousand giant stone statues were erected on this small island did not compare to the primitive, stone-age people living on it. Because of the incredible statues, many people have since believed that Easter Island must be the last bit of a great sunken continent, and that the advanced civilisation who built the Easter Island ‘Heads’ has been lost.
Whatever the archaeologists say about there being similar statues other places in Polynesia, the Easter Island statues remain rather unique. The style is totally original, not like anything seen from prehistoric art in Polynesia or in South America. I have walked all over the island and taken photographs. The overwhelming impression of those giant pieces of art on the visitor cannot be described with words. They were fashioned with hand-held stones by a people practically without clothes and no knowledge of metals.
With the intrusive white man’s culture as a backdrop, the island’s own culture with the impressive giant statues as the traditional status-bringing items lost its attraction. There were several population crashes due to epidemics, killings, and large scale abduction of pretty much the whole population. Some statues probably fell down by themselves as time passed and they were not cared for, but others were pulled down in aggressive actions of spite or revenge, directly connected to and part of the upheaval. The old, well organised community, which had encompassed the whole island and allowed for the grand scale statue production, had totally collapsed. The only safe places to live were down in the underground volcanic caves. They took the crucial backward step to become half-starved cavemen and cannibals, who could not even manage to care for their crops.
The population was down to just 110 people. The priests, the king, the carriers of the local culture and history were dead from the imported diseases or abducted into slavery. The Christian missionaries told them that they were barbarians and cannibals and immoral in their ways.
Now the Mataveri airport welcomes up to 75,000 visitors per year, 20 times as many as the total Rapanui population. How times have changed.