Poulaho, King of the Friendly Islands, drinking kava

This engraving after a drawing by John Webber comes from the official account of Cook’s third voyage, ‘A voyage to the Pacific Ocean’, published by Scatcherd and Whitaker in 1784. Captain James Cook (1728-1779) made three separate voyages to the Pacific (with the ships Endeavour, Resolution, Adventure, and Discovery) and did more than any other voyager to explore the Pacific and Southern Ocean.

Cook not only encountered Pacific cultures for the first time, but also assembled the first large-scale collections of Pacific objects to be brought back to Europe. He was killed in Hawaii in 1779. John Webber was the artist on Cook’s third voyage from 1776-1780. Cook was in the Friendly Isles from in May of 1777. The ships then went to Tongatapu, Tonga from June 10-July 10, 1777.

Tongatapu (also known as Amsterdam) was the largest of the Tongan islands. Poulaho was the King of the Friendly Isles. He was one of two important men who assisted the British on Tonga. Paulaho came to visit the ships at Lifuka and accompanied Cook to Tongatpu, entertaining him and his men for the rest of their stay.

In Hawkesworth’s account, a description of Paulaho is: “If weight of body could give weight in rank or power Poulahao was certainly the most eminent man in that respect we had seen, for though not very tall he was of monstrous size with fat which render’d him unwieldy and almost shapeless.” Cook, too, had called Poulaho ‘the most corperate plump fellow we had met with.’

An interesting local ceremony which Cook and his men witnessed was the drinking of kava at the village of Mu’a (Moa). Webber’s drawing of this event is kept in the Dixson Library but is probably the second state of an earlier version described in Webber’s Catalogue as ‘King Pawlehow (Paulaho) drinking his Cava, and attended by the Principal Chiefs of the Island’ (no. 15).

For the actual ceremony we must turn to Anderson, who describes the ceremony following the preparation of the kava: “They then began to distribute it in little cups made of a bit of plantane leaf tied at each end, but where the company is large & respectable as our present one was the person who distributes it calls out to know who the servants shall carry it to, and is commonly directed by one person belonging to the chief who gives the Kava.”

Accordingly, the man with the dish is the distributor of the kava, while another one sitting nearer to Paulaho in the middle of the circle, could be regarded a servant, holding a bowl in his hand. The fact that no other cup is seen indicates the Tongan custom of offering the first cup to the king himself.

About the author: Aaron Taravaki
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