The wreck of the Libelle and other early European Visitors to Wake Island, Central Pacific
by Dirk H.R. Spennemann

Many of the small and isolated atolls in the Central Pacific Ocean were bypassed by human settlement and development. On occasions voyagers from nearby island groups went to them, but only for comparatively brief periods of time. These atolls were in climatic zones that produced little reliable rainfall and were too small to develop a ground water lens of sufficient size and depth to sustain a human population or to allow even the growth of coconut palms. As a result the vegetation cover was also very sparse and the soil undeveloped. Atolls such as these were of little interest to both Micronesians and the European navigators who happened to stumble upon them on their voyages. Such is the case of Wake Atoll in the Central Pacific. Yet the isolation meant that if and when people were stranded there by accident, their stay on the atoll was bound to be a very trying one.

Wake Atoll

A 3.5km2 speck of land in the middle of the Central Pacific Ocean attained world fame in the closing days of 1941. Wake Island was the much publicised and much heroicised scene of US resistance against the Japanese onslaught. [1] It is comprised of three small sand cays of changing shape. Its low-lying nature means that it was subject to the impact of storm surges during typhoons, which, although uncommon at that latitude, nonetheless occur.

Oral traditions claim that the Marshallese Knew of Wake Atoll prior to contact with European navigators. The Marshallese name for the atoll was Eneen-Kio or Ane-en Kio, "Island of the kio flower". [2] The atoll was a source of feathers and plumes of seabirds. Prized were the wing bones of albatross, from which tattooing chisels could be made. [3] In addition, the rare kio flower grew on the atoll. Bringing these items to the home atolls implied that the navigators had been able to complete the feat of finding the atoll using traditional navigation skills of stars, wave patterns and other ocean markers.

Like the Marshallese visits to the atolls of Bikar and Bokak, the voyages to Wake occurred once a year or even less frequently. It is thus not surprising that none of the Europeans visiting or landing on Eneen-Kio mention the presence of Marshallese or any signs of permanent or temporary human habitation on this atoll.

The Spanish

It is possible that Wake was first seen for European eyes by the early Spanish vessels, at that time, before the discovery of the "great circle route" between the Philippines and South America, still moving through the northern Marshall Islands. It lies, however, on a straight route between Honolulu and Guam, and vessels on that route are bound to come close to or see Eneen-Kio. It was bypassed by almost all later Spanish galleons plying that route for centuries. [4] It has been speculated that Wake Island is San Francisco/San Francesco Island, [5] seen and described by the Spanish Explorer Alvaro de Mendaña on October 4, 1568. [6]

Later Spanish and English maps [7] show two islands in the latitude and approximate vicinity of Wake, named Lamira (take care) and Discierta (desert). It has been advanced by some authors that these names and the absence of other land within several hundred miles suggest that each may represent an independent (Spanish) discovery of Wake. [8] Given the number of Spanish vessels plying the waters, this is quite feasible.

The re-"discovery" of Wake

The rapid development of the China trade, of the Pacific whaling industry and of the northwest American and Siberian fur trade meant that an increasing number of vessels plied the waters of the Central Northern Pacific in the eighteenth century. The rediscovery of Wake is credited to Captain William Wake [9] who encountered it in 1792 in the British trading schooner Prince William Henry en route from Port Jackson (Australia) to Canton in China. [10] Apparently in the same year it was also "discovered" and mapped by a British fur trading vessel, the Halcyon. [11] Both reported and named the island, after the Captain, as in case of the William Henry, and after the ship, as in case of the Halcyon..

The discovery of Wake Atoll by Captain Wake in the Prince William Henry is, however, disputed by Ward. [12] The Boston Gazette of 18 September 1797 carried an item by a Joseph Pierpont, traveller on the Prince William Henry, who mentions that they discovered a coral reef and two sand islands at 16deg.45'N 169deg.38 W. When discussing the newspaper story, Ward argues that the coral reefs discovered by Wake are those of Johnston Atoll (16deg.53'N, 169deg.31'W), as the co-ordinates given in the newspaper do not even remotely tally with those of Wake Atoll (19deg.18'N 166deg.38'E). [13]

Wake as a danger

In the early 1800s a number of vessels, apparently fruitlessly, tried to locate Wake Island, [14] and the atolls coordinates were given with a great variation (Table 1). While in those days the latitude could be determined with reasonable accuracy by the observations of stars and sun, the determination of longitude depended on the accuracy and reliability of the chronometers carried on board and on the intensity of currents encountered en route.

The habit of exchanging even hearsay data as fact resulted in considerable chart confusion, and Wake suffered with the other islands. By 1828, besides being variously located, it carried a number of names: Douglas Island, Halcyon Island, Helsion Island, Haystrous Island, Halverd Island, Wake's Island, Waker's Island, Weeks Island, Wilson Island, Wreck Island. For reasons unclear it its also named "Eceuil" on French charts. [15]

This inaccuracy posed navigational dangers to the unwary captains. Amasa Delano, in the Perseverance in September 1806 reiterated a common sentiment:

"There are several islets and rock, which lie directly in the track of vessels bound from the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii] to Canton [in China], that are dangerous if fallen in with the night, two of which were discovered by captain Wake and are called Wake's Island and Rocks. I did not fall in with them" [16]

In a similar vein, Captain Sproule, in the barque Maria in 1858 commented that:

"At 5 P.M. the lookout on the foretop-gallant yard saw low land on the starboard bow. I went aloft and saw from the topsail yard a very low island, rather higher in the centre than at the ends, and covered with low bushes. It was dark before we approached it sufficiently near to make observations, but I am confident that would not be seen more than five miles off deck by daylight and in a dark night never in time to avoid it". [17]

As mentioned earlier Halcyon is likely to be identical with Wake. In addition, a Helicons island was reported to be at 22deg.28'N 177deg.05'E (U.S.Congress 1835, p. 25). During his exploring expedition, Wilkes also searched for "Maloon's Island" reported to be in position 19deg.20'N 165deg.20'W, and for another island, reported to be in position 19deg.17'N 166deg.48'E both of which he could not locate. [18] It is possible, given the general similarity of the positions with these of Wake, that these islands were incorrectly reported independent discoveries of Wake.

Table 1. Co-ordinates that have been reported for Wake Atoll. The position given in the Pacific Islands Pilot of 1956 is shown in bold.
16°49'N 169°40'W as Week's Reef; U.S.Congress 1835
16°49'N 169°40'W U.S.Congress 1835
17°48'N 186°12'W [=173°48'E] Wake's Rocks; Delano, quoted after Dickson 1939
19°00'N 193°12'W [=166°48'E] Wake's Island; Delano, quoted after Dickson 1939
19°06'N 163°33'E Halycon I., U.S. Congress 1835
19°10'54"N 166°31'30"E Wilkes 1845; Findlay 1886
19°10'N 166°23'E Hunneywell 1824; 29 December 1824
19°10'N 166°48'E Riddell 1854; 7 March 1853
19°11'N 166°31'E Kaucher 1941:124; The Friend (Honolulu) 1 Sept 1866
19°14'N 166°30'E Logbook U.S.S. Beaver 19 June 1921
19°15'N 166°28'E Logbook U.S.S. Newport News 30 October 1920
19°15'N 166°30'E Wilkes 1840; Brigham 1900
19°15'N 166°32'E Gardner (Bellona) in U.S.Congress 1835
19°15'N 166°33'E S.S.China, Anonymous 1898d
19°16'N 166°37'EHobbs 1945
19°17'N 166°37'EPacific Islands Pilot 1956
19°17'N 166°48'E unnamed island unsuccessfully searched for by Wilkes 1845
19°18'40"N 166°35'20"E U.S.S.Nitro 1935 H.O.Chart No. 162
19°19'N 166°39'E mean of positions; Anonymous 1898c
19°20'N 165°20'W (E ?)Maloon's Island unsuccessfully searched for by Wilkes 1845
19°20'N 166°50'E U.S.Congress 1835, p. 33
19°21'N 166°55'E Week's or Wilson's I. U.S.Congress 1835
19°23'N 165°33'E 'Halcyon I., acc. to a US captain, quoted in Kotzebue 1830
19°23'N 166°48'30"E Gardener 1823; 5-6 May 1823
19°26'N 166°45'E Bennett in U.S.Congress 1835
19°30'N 167°EVandervord 1870 (The Friend 1 April 1871)
20°30'E 166°42'ELamira; U.S.Congress 1835
?N 167°42E Andrews 1830; 30 April-2 May 1829;

Although most coordinates vary only little, it needs to be kept in mind that the atoll reportedly can only be seen from 5-10 miles and that at that latitude 10' are equivalent of 9 miles. The variously reported positions of Wake, plotted in figure 1, show that the variability in longitude is quite large. The grey-shaded area indicates the visibility of the atoll from the topgallant mast head of a normal sailing vessel of the day.

The whalers

During the heyday of Pacific whaling in the 1820s to 1850s, Wake Atoll was well known to the captains and first mates of the New England whalers (table 2). The island, however, was lacking water, low and barren of substantial vegetation, and so it is not surprising that only a few landed there for the islands sake. Wake was never made a major port of call and apparently its treacherous reefs and surf only served as a landmark better to be avoided. Some captains seem to have seen the island only from afar and did not properly adjudge their distance, for Captain E. Gardner of the Bellona mentions that he saw the island in 1823 and that it was wooded and about 20 to 25 miles long, which is quite an exaggeration. [19]

Figure 1. The various positions of Wake Atoll as reported in logbooks and the literature plotted against a 5-mile (dark shaded) and 10-mile (light shaded) visibility radius.

A number of whaler's logbooks could be consulted which contain entries referring to Wake: [20] logbooks of the vessels Foster, [21] Lima, [22] Pioneer, [23] Marengo, [24] Harvest, [25] Maria Theresia, [26] Mentor and Ocean Rover. [27] One of these whalers describes the atoll also as wooded while two others (Lima and Bellona) actually landed on Wake for "wooding". The entry for 30 April 1829 in the logbook of the Lima contains a very small sketch of Wake, with the annotation "don't forget Wakes Island." [28]

Given the descriptions of the atoll in the botanical literature [29] as well as by other whalers [30] and other vessels [31] of the late 19th and early 20th century these descriptions appear rather surprising. However, it is quite possible that in the early 19th century Wake Atoll was substantially more heavily vegetated and wooded than today. It can be expected that the environmental balance in such an arid area was rather fragile and could easily be upset by the human impact during the (unsustainable) wood collecting exercises.

Some of the whalers observed that the shallow lagoon contained beche-le-mar, edible holothurians or "sea cucumbers", which could be dried and sold to China. [32] It seems, however, that unlike other areas of the Pacific the resources on Wake were never exploited. [33]

The U.S. Exploring Expedition

Wake's coordinates had been given with a great variation and, in addition to Wake, another island, Halcyon, was reported to exist in the vicinity. The U.S. Exploring Expedition under Commander Ch.Wilkes could finally ascertain in 1840 that there was no island in Halcyon's purported position, and that Halcyon and Wake were one and the same. The first detailed descriptions of the atoll stem from this voyage. Staff of the U.S. Exploring Expedition vessel Vincennes spent a total of five hours on the atoll, conducting scientific investigations [34] and making a map of the atoll. [35] Wake was a welcome diversion from the monotony of life at sea and provided the Wilkes expedition with "some recreation for a few hours, and much satisfaction in obtaining a series of observations on magnetism." [36]

However, not everyone of the Vincennes crew was enthralled by the appearance of Wake. Lieutenant James Alden, for example, does not find Wake worth inclusion in his otherwise quite detailed journal. [37]

Although it has been frequently asserted by various authors [38] there is no evidence in Wilkes' account or the papers of other members of the expedition that the atoll was formally annexed on behalf of the United States, most likely because of its rather desolate nature. [39]

The Guano hunters

Following the discovery of sizeable guano deposits on islands off the coast of Peru and the discovery of deposits on other islands in the Central Pacific, the U.S. Congress enacted the Guano Act of 1856, [40] which allowed U.S. civilians to take possession of such islands, provided they were uninhabited, not yet claimed by other countries, and a concession was applied for. Although some sources claim that Wake was exploited by guano collectors, [41] the list of islands for which concessions were actually applied for does not include Wake Atoll. [42]

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (2000). The wreck of the Libelle and other early European Visitors to Wake Island, Central Pacific.

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

(c) Dirk H.R. Spennemann 1992-2000
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