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The Samoan Islands

Desertions occurred at almost every port beginning with Rio de Janeiro, usually with sailors failing to return from shore leave. The squadron commanders made efforts to recapture the errant sailors, with good success. Tahiti had attracted a large population of deserters from other ships and runaways from British penal colonies, which in Wilkes' estimation was the main source of disorders on the island. The islands also proved an attraction for some of the expedition's sailors, but the Tahitians themselves assisted in their capture, eager for the $10 bounty for each one apprehended. The punishment for desertion was flogging.


Always conscious of his schedule, Wilkes did not linger in French Polynesia. The Tahitian Islands were beautiful, but they were of little commercial value as they were out of the way of whaling ship routes, he wrote. Immediately on arrival he established his observatory and commenced surveying and scientific expeditions at Eimeo Island. Peacock and Flying Fish remained behind at Papeete for repairs and observations for two more weeks, but within a month all the ships had moved on to Samoa.


The squadron rendezvoused at Pago Pago on the island of Tutuila in mid-October. The Samoan Islands were of particular interest to the expedition because they were a major stopping place for traders and whalers, but their reefs were poorly charted and the islanders had a reputation for hostility. As Wilkes soon learned, the various settlements of the islands were not united as in the Tahitian group, and he believed this to be the reason why Christian missionaries had made only limited inroads in making converts. The settlements with missionaries tended to be friendly to outsiders while those still following traditional beliefs were less welcoming. Squadron commanders tried to apply some American power to the situation. Lt. Hudson tried an islander who murdered a New England whaling ship sailor and managed to have him banished to another island, and at the request of one of the missionaries, Wilkes attempted to remove one of the most influential unfriendly leaders, Chief Opotuno of Savaii Island. Opotuno and his band allegedly murdered a number of seamen from whaling ships and actively obstructed missionary work. Wilkes called together a local council and offered a reward for his capture. He could not wait for his effort to have an effect, but he arranged to have a ship return to Samoa later in the expedition to collect the captive, should he be caught.


Wherever Vincennes anchored for more than a day or two, Wilkes set up an observatory. Staffed by a single man, usually Passed Midshipman Henry Eld, one of the few officers that Wilkes deemed reliable enough for accurate observations, it was lonely duty. At the village of Apia, Upolu Island, Samoa, however, Chief Pea, who was also known as Tarpoo, or Great Chief, visited him frequently. The members of the squadron also met Chief Malietoa and his beautiful daughter Emma. The villagers of Apia took the explorers into the nearby forest to see a large model of a sailing ship that they had made. The "Papalangi Ship" had a tree with most of its branches cut off for a mast and vines for rigging, while a wooden framework had been constructed around the tree secured together with braided organic cords.