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An account of the Pelew Islands

Date: 1803
Overall: 300 x 245 x 30 mm, 1614.67 g
Medium: Ink on paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Classification:Books and journals
Object Name: Book
Object No: 00048287

User Terms

    Richly illustrated, this account provides a window onto the remote islands of Palau in the late 18th century at a time when the activities of the English East India Company continued to command great influence in Asia. After surviving shipwreck and constructing a new vessel from salvaged material, Captain Wilson returned to England where his story was written by George Keate.
    SignificanceThis narrative is an important source of information about the Pelew islands, an island group in the middle of one of the main shipping routes between Port Jackson and China during the early colonial period. Lieutenant Shortland stopped at the islands with the First Fleet transports ALEXANDER and FRIENDSHIP in 1788 after leaving the fledgling colony at Sydney Cove. The ANTELOPE was wrecked in 1783, four years after the death of Cook and five years before the loss of the La Perouse expedition at Vanikoro and this account provides a useful comparison regarding indigenous contact with both these expeditions.
    HistoryThe ANTELOPE was an English East India Company vessel of 300 tons under the command of Captain Henry Wilson on a trading voyage from Macao when it was wrecked in the Pelew Islands (Ulong Island in the modern Republic of Palau) on 9 August 1783. The ship had a crew of 50 men made up of 34 Europeans and 16 Chinese seamen. Captain Wilson's brother (seaman) and son (midshipman) were also aboard.

    After striking the reef the captain and crew made their way to the island of Ulong where they established a camp in a protected cove. Over the following three months they constructed a two-masted, decked vessel using material salvaged from the wreck and with local materials. The ANTELOPE carried an interpreter, Thomas Rose and after first contact with the Indigenous islanders it was found that one of them spoke Malay - opening a line of communication between the Europeans and the islanders. During this time, Wilson developed friendly relations with Chief Abba Thuille. The Chief saw the strategic value of the Europeans and their weapons and enlisted their assistance in securing his control over the neighbouring islands. In this he was successful, and in an act of gratitude, he made Captain Wilson a chief (Rupack) and gave the East India Company rights to the island.

    Once completed, Wilson named the newly built vessel OROOLONG and with the assistance of the islanders, successfully navigated the ship through a passage in the reef, into the open sea. Before leaving, Captain Wilson made Abba Thuille a gift of iron tools and other material and agreed to take the Chief's son Lee Boo to England. One seaman from the ANTELOPE, Madan Blanchard requested to stay in the islands.

    The OROOLONG sailed to Macao where arrangements were made to sell the vessel. Most of the crew travelled to Canton on the WALPOLE. From there Captain Wilson and Lee Boo were given passage on the MORSE back to England.

    In London the 20-year-old Lee Boo commenced a European education but contracted smallpox in December 1784 and died. He is buried in the churchyard of St Mary's, Rotherhithe where a tombstone erected by the East India Company still commemorates his life.

    In 1790 the East India Company sent two of its ships PANTHER and ENDEAVOUR to the Pelew Islands under the command of Captain John McCluer to survey the islands. An experienced surveyor for the Bombay Marine, McCluer surveyed the Pelew Islands and Sulu archipelago before turning to the coast of New Guinea. In 1793 the ships returned to the Pelew Islands where McCluer unexpectedly renounced command in favour of living there permanently.

    The English East India Company was founded in 1600 when a Royal charter was granted by Queen Elizabeth 1 to 219 members titled 'the Governor and Company of Merchants of London Trading into the East Indies.' Following the sea route to the east via the Cape of Good Hope first established by the Portuguese at the end of the 15th century, the Dutch and English East India Companies dominated trade between Asia and Europe throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The English East India Company lost its monopoly on trade to India in 1813 and to China in 1833.

    George Keate (1729-1797) was a poet, playwright and writer of independent means. As a friend of Captain Henry Wilson he became interested in the story of the ANTELOPE shipwreck and wrote the account of the Pelew Islands based on journals of Wilson and other crew members and subsequent interviews with them. The work was first published in 1788. In September of that same year, Lieutenant Shortland in charge of the First Fleet transports ALEXANDER and FRIENDSHIP anchored at the Pelew Islands enroute to Batavia. His crews were succumbing to scurvy and Shortland sent two boats ashore in the hope of obtaining coconuts. Mr Sinclair, Master of the ALEXANDER was in charge of the boats and reported on his return that some of the 'natives' carried adzes made of iron and that when the party first landed they '...repeated the word Englees as if to enquire whether we were of that nation'. As Arthur Phillip points out: 'Had the adventures of the ANTELOPE's crew been then made known to the world, Lieutenant Shortland would with joy have presented himself before the beneficent Abba Thulle, and probably by obtaining a stock of fresh provisions and vegetables, might have preserved the lives of many of his companions.' [The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay etc., London, 1789 pp 211-212). As it happened, Shortland was later forced to scuttle the FRIENDSHIP in the Malacca Straits as he no longer had sufficient healthy seamen to man both ships in his charge.

    Several objects given to Captain Wilson are now in the collections of the British Museum.

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