Doleful Ditties, Indecent Dancing And ‘Rule Britannia'; Musical Encounters In The South Seas

I’ve been looking into Western responses to non-Western music, and on the advice of a sea-faring uncle am now sifting through Captain Cook’s journals of his three Voyages to New Zealand, Tahiti and elsewhere. As always one source has led to another, and it turns outs several other people wrote about the South Sea Islanders and their culture in the late 18th century. Some of them travelled with Cook, some independently. They’re full of comical misunderstandings, fascinated disgust – and also touchingly sincere attempts to understand the Other. Cook said of native New Zealanders (encountered on his first voyage):

Diversions and Musical Instruments they have but few; the latter Consists of 3 or 3 sorts of Trumpets and a small Pipe or Whistle, and the former in singing and Dancing. Their songs are Harmonious enough, but very doleful to a European ear.

He’s disapproving about the girl’s indecent dancing, but notices that the indecency is done with artistry:

The Young Girls whenever they can collect 8 or 10 Together dance a very indecent Dance, which they call Timorodee, singing most indecent songs and using most indecent actions, in the practice of which they are brought up from their earliest childhood; in doing this they keep time to a great nicety.

One of Cook’s travellers was James Burney, son of the well-known music historian Charles Burney. As you’d expect his observations of South Sea islanders were more musically exact:

They sing in parts, keeping the Same time and varying the 4 notes without ever going beyond them. So many singers & so few notes you always hear the whole together. The difference of Words and Voices make some variety. The Singers (that I heard) were all women. One confined herself entirely to the Lower Note which acted as a Drone. They sing slow and ended with the minor Chord.

Some years after Cook’s murder a Scottish seaman named John Nicol visited some of the same islands, as well as the West Indies. He observed some of the slave’s music-making in the West Indies, and has the working man’s sympathy for their plight:

...I wrought a great deal on shore and had a number of blacks under me. They are a thoughtless, merry race; in vain their cruel situation and sufferings act upon their buoyant minds. They have snatches of joy that their pale and sickly oppressors never know. ....I have seen them dancing and singing of an evening, and their backs sore from the lash of their cruel task-masters. I have lain upon deck of an evening, faint and exhausted from the heat of the day, to enjoy the cool breeze of evening, and their wild music and song, the shout of mirth and dancing, resounded along the beach and from the valleys. There the negroes bounded in all the spirit of health and happiness while their oppressors could hardly drag their effeminate bodies along, from dissipation or the enervating effects of the climate.

When it comes to Chinese music heard in Whampoa, Nicol’s sympathies turn out to have their limits. He enjoys their bag-piping, but says bluntly about their percussion music:

Their gongs cannot be called a musical instrument.

My favourite passage in Nicol’s memoirs describes his visit to the Sandwich Islands sometime between 1785 and 1788. He tells us that they used to invite the natives on board for some singing and carousing (and some of the sailors end up taking native concubines too, one of whom is so fat she has to be winched on board). The natives try to join in the white men’s singing, but Nicol tells us they have a problem with this:

...They are the worst people to pronounce the English of any I ever was among. Captain Portlock they called Potipoti. The nearest approach they could make to my name was Nittie, yet they would make the greatest efforts, and look so angry at themselves and vexed at their vain efforts.

We had a merry facetious fellow on board called Dickson. He sung pretty well. He squinted and the natives mimicked him. Abenoue, King of Atooi, could cock his eye like Dickson better than any of his subjects. Abenoue called him Billicany, from his often singing ‘Rule Britannia’. Abenoue learned the air and the words as near as he could pronounce them. It was an amusing thing to hear the King and Dickson sing. Abenoue loved him better than any man in the ship, and always embraced him every time they met on shore or in the ship, and began to sing, ‘Tule Billicany, Billicany Tule,’ etc

Imagine: a Polynesian King struggling to sing Rule Britannia, while the scrofulous English seamen fall about laughing. As they say, you couldn’t make it up.


Captain James Cook’s Journal during his first voyage around the World ed. Captain W.J.L. Wharton Elliot Stock 1893 pp.224 & 94

James Burney, With Captain James Cook in the Antarctic and Pacific Canberra National Library of Australia 1975 p. 84, (episode observed during Cook’s 2nd voyage 1772-75)

Tim Flannery, ed., From The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Marriner, Cannongate 2000 pp.65,66,82,83