Thoughts About Ifiri Ingris by Peter Black

This era, which translates as concerning the English or English times, began with the first appearance of sailing ships from Europe and ended with the raising of the German flag in 1901.  It is called English Times, not because England made any serious claim on Tobi but probably because the language spoken by the most important (to the Tobians) of the outsiders was English.  Also, the British Royal Navy did occasionally patrol this part of the Pacific.  Even though Spain had claimed title to all the islands in the area until 1899, there is no Tobian era called Ifiri Spain. Spain had little if any impact on Tobi during its reign. Later, though, during Japanese times, Spanish Roman Catholic missionaries played a huge role in transforming Tobian life. 

The earliest known written record of Tobi is from 1710 when Woodes Rogers, on the ship Duke of Bristol, sailing from Guam to Ternate wrote the following in his log for April 11. "…. Nothing remarkable has occur’d worth noting, but that we have generally had a strong Current setting to the Northward. At Two Yesterday Afternoon we made Land, bearing S.E. distant about 5 leagues, being a low, flat Island, all green and full of Trees. Lat. 2. 54.N. This island is not laid down in any Sea Chart; our ship continues very leaky." 

So, should we call April 10, 1710, when the lookout on the Duke of Bristol reported what he saw 15 miles away, the date of "first contact?" It’s as good a date as any.  But if you think about it, "First Contact" is not a simple point in time, especially in a place like Tobi. After all ships from Europe already had been in the area for more than two centuries and who knows if one of more of them might have sighted the island and maybe even stopped there, which is something Woodes Rogers didn’t do. And what about ships from other societies like Japan or China, not to speak of Arab and Indian traders?  Tobi is not very far north of the famous Spice Islands that have been drawing merchants and traders from many lands for many centuries. Ternate and Tidore are ancient and powerful trading centers which are not too far away.  And, of course, the huge and complex island of New Guinea is a short sail south.  So even if the Duke of Bristol was in fact the first ship to actually see the island, other ships no doubt already had had an indirect impact. The importance of Woodes Rogers to the story is that after him, the island started appearing on maps made in Europe. In other words, the island became known to the wider world.

Before the first ship appeared off the shore, ship-borne diseases, trade goods, and perhaps even ideas had probably already reached the island through Tobian contacts with places already in touch with the outsiders. Nevertheless, it must have been quite a moment when the first of the tall sailing ships appeared over the horizon and approached the island. One explanation for the Tobian word for ship (wafaruh) which means something like island-canoe, is that when people saw their first sailing ship they thought it must have been an island which had been magically detatched from its connection to the bottom of the ocean and was now traveling from place to place, with its trees (the masts) still in place and its houses with people going in and out (the cabins on deck). Whether or not this is an accurate explanation for the word for ship, it certainly conveys the science fiction-like quality of stories about those early encounters.