William Mariner (writer)

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William Mariner in Tongan costume

William Charles Mariner (10 September 1791 – 20 October 1853) was an Englishman who lived in Tonga from 29 November 1806 to (probably) 8 November 1810. He later published Tonga Islands, an account of his experiences that is now one of the major sources of information on Tonga before it was significantly influenced by European culture, Christianity, or colonisation.

As a teenager, Mariner was a ship's clerk aboard the British privateer Port au Prince. In 1806, while it was anchored off the Tongan island of Lifuka, in the Ha'apai island group, Port au Prince was seized by a chief named Fīnau ʻUlukālala. Most of the crew were killed during the capture of the ship, but the chief spared Mariner and a few crewmates. Mariner lived in Tonga for four years. After returning to England, Mariner dictated a detailed account of his experiences, a description of Tongan society and culture, and a grammar and dictionary of the Tongan language.


The Port-au-Prince was an English private ship of war, a vessel of 500 tons armed with 24 long nine and twelve-pound guns as well as 8 twelve-pound carronades on the quarter deck. She carried a "letter of marque", and this document permitted her captain and crew to become pirates against the enemies of England, primarily France and Spain. In payment for their pirate raids any plunder they seized was to be their own.

Commanded by Captain Duck, she sailed for the New World on 12 February 1805, having been given a twofold commission by her owner, a Mr Robert Bent of London. The crew's primary goal was to attack the Spanish ships of the New World and capture gold and valuables, but if she failed in that task her secondary objective was to sail into the Pacific in search of whales to be rendered for their oil.

The Atlantic crossing was rough but uneventful, and she lay off the coast of Brazil by April and then rounded Cape Horn in July before proceeding north in search of Spanish galleons laden with treasure. They captured a number of ships, but most yielded little in the way of valuables, and at times the men began to get disgruntled after capturing what they contemptuously referred to as dung barges. The Port-au-Prince was now also on the lookout for whales but, although catching a few, experienced little success.

After leaving Hawaii in September under the command of Mr Brown, she intended to make port at Tahiti but missed the target, and instead sailed westward for the Tonga Islands. She arrived in Ha'apai on 9 November 1806, almost two years since departing England and after numerous engagements, leaking badly, and having already witnessed the death of her captain. She was laden with the spoils of war and cargo amounting to approx twelve thousand dollars, including a considerable amount of copper and silver and gold ore. A large quantity of silver candlesticks, chalices, incense pans, crucifixes, and images complemented the treasure.

She weighed anchor, in seven fathoms' water off the North West Point of Lifuka Island, for what was destined to be the last time. A number of chiefs visited the ship on the evening of her arrival and brought with them barbecued hogs, yams, and a native of Hawaii who spoke some English and who informed Captain Brown that the Tongans had only friendly intentions. Finau, the chief of the Ha'apai, apparently took a liking to William Mariner, who reminded Finau of a son who had died of illness.

Port-au-Prince also had Hawaiian crew who did not trust the situation and expressed concern to the captain that the Tongans were feigning friendliness while planning an attack. Captain Brown chose to ignore the warnings.

The next day, Tongans began to board the vessel until there were around 300 in different parts of the ship. They invited Captain Brown ashore to see the island and, assured of their friendly motives, he agreed. On reaching land he was clubbed to death, stripped, and left lying in the sand. Simultaneously, the main attack commenced on the Port-au-Prince. The sailors were outnumbered and easily overwhelmed.

Finau had given instructions that the life of Mariner should be spared if at all possible. All but four of the crew members were clubbed to death, their heads so badly beaten as to be unrecognisable. For the next three days the ship was stripped of her iron, a valuable commodity, and had her guns removed before being burnt to the water line to more readily remove what iron remained.

Sojourn in Tonga[edit]

Fīnau assumed responsibility for Mariner, taking him under his protection. Mariner became known as Toki 'Ukamea ("Iron Axe") and spent the next four years living amongst the islanders. He lived mostly in the northern island group of Vavaʻu. During this period, Mariner witnessed Fīnau's attempts to unify the islands, using cannons seized from the Port-au-Prince. One long nine still lies on Ha'anno Island.


In 1810 Mariner was rescued and returned to England. He related his story to John Martin, who authored the book The Tongan Islands, William Mariner's account.

Mariner gave a lively description of Fīnau Fangupō (ʻUlukālala II) in particular. In one passage, Mariner quoted Fīnau's opinion of the western innovation of money:

If money were made of iron and could be converted into knives, axes and chisels there would be some sense in placing a value on it; but as it is, I see none. If a man has more yams than he wants, let him exchange some of them away for pork. [...] Certainly money is much handier and more convenient but then, as it will not spoil by being kept, people will store it up instead of sharing it out as a chief ought to do, and thus become selfish. [...] I understand now very well what it is that makes the papālangi [white men] so selfish – it is this money!

There are three major versions of Mariner's account. The original version was first published in 1817 by John Murray, II, with the help of Dr John Martin, who assumed authorship. Later editions appeared in England in 1818 and 1827, in Germany in 1819, and in the United States in 1820. The Vava'u Press of Tonga issued a new edition in 1981 that includes a biographical essay about Mariner, written by Denis Joroyal McCulloch, one of Mariner's great-great grandsons, but leaves out the grammar and dictionary. Two modern editions with modern Tongan spelling and other additions have been published, the first by Boyle Townshend Somerville in 1936 and the second by Paul W. Dale in 1996.


William Mariner
  • Tonga Islands: William Mariner's account: an account of the natives of the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, with an original grammar and vocabulary of their language. Vava'u Press; 4th ed., 1981. ASIN B0006EB4WI.
  • Will Mariner: A True Record of Adventure by Boyle Townshend Somerville. London: Faber and Faber, 1936.
  • The Tonga Book by Paul W. Dale. London: Minerva Press, 1996. ISBN 1-85863-797-X.
Other authors

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