Roots Down, Branches Out

From Captain Cook to Queen Elizabeth II

With the notable exception of our curate Liz, few of us at Christ Church have been to Tonga. But famed sailor and explorer Captain James Cook dropped in twice during the 1770s, while Queen Elizabeth II included a visit to Tonga on her coronation tour of the Commonwealth. And the connection between these distant events? Well, way back in 1777 Tu’i Malila was presented to the royal family of Tonga by none other than James Cook – and one of the scheduled highlights of the Queen’s 1953 trip was visiting Tu’i Malila. For Tu’i (or King) Malila was a radiated tortoise from Madagascar. He was hatched some time in 1777, and he was therefore about 176 when the Queen came to tea. In 1965, fifty-six years ago today, he died at 188 years of age: he was the longest-lived tortoise whose age has been verified. Now, compared with Tu’i Malila, Harriet was a mere babe in arms. She was a giant Galapagos tortoise who was born around 1830 and reportedly collected by Charles Darwin during his 1835 voyage on the Beagle, along with 35 or 40 other tortoises: three of them, called Tom, Dick and Harry, somehow ended up in Australia (where it emerged that they were actually Thomasina, Dick and Harriet). Harriet died in 2006 at the age of 176 at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo near Brisbane, weighing about 150kg. But wait – 176, 188? The oldest ever terrestrial animal in the world may well have been Adwaita, an Aldabra giant tortoise from the Seychelles, weighing 250kg, who was said to have been born around 1750 and later given to Robert Clive (1725-74) of the East India Company. Adwaita died in Kolkata, India, in 2006 at an estimated but unverified age of 255. These three large tortoises from three different countries lived and died in three more different countries, all without progeny – and yet what amazing histories! Adwaita, Tu’i Malila and Harriet could never tell us their stories or their secrets, but they were a direct connection from our era right back to Clive, Cook and Darwin, as well as in modern times to Elizabeth II and even Steve Irwin. Back in Highbury we’re also beginning to unearth some fascinating gems of information as we start gathering oral histories for our Heritage project.