The Original Tahitian: Ancestral Traits B.C.


An Account of a Colonial Venture In the South Seas Wherein European Powers with their Iron, Pox, Liquor, Creeds, Commerce and Cannon Violate the Innocence of an Ancient Polynesian Culture

Life in Tahiti in the mid-eighteenth century was never the unsophisticated paradise of man and nature that it became in romantic European eyes after the raptures of Bougainville. It was instead a far more developed and mature civilization that it has ever been given credit for being. The illusion of primitive, uncorrupted Eden was understandably appealing to disenchanted Europeans in the throes of the Seven Years' War, the conflict that Churchill later called the "real first world war", when England was throwing France out of America and the struggles in Europe were sowing the seeds of the two great revolutions, American then French, to be followed by the disastrous Napoleonic wars. But Tahitian were not the children their "discoverers so condescendingly characterized them - and as we still are wont to do even after two hundred years.

The arrival of the Polynesians themselves in Tahiti was never recorded in any way that our historians consider valid. It was never incised on clay tablets or penned on scrolls. Instead, it was imprinted, voluminously and meticulously, in the memorized annals of the chiefly families and celebrated in the myths and legends of the race. Such records are little respected, and usually they are even scorned, by our present-day scientific historians. But it is undeniable that these Polynesian people had (and in many ways still have) the most prodigious and detailed memories that are known to exist anywhere in the cultures of mankind. Their memories are their "documentations", not only in their genealogies which correspond to our history books, but also in their precisely named starry skies (astronomical texts and navigational ephemerides) having individual names for over two hundred stars, and in their incredibly intimate knowledge of the whole scope of their physical surroundings flowers, trees, rocks, fish, birds insects, winds (texts of natural science which had, for instance, separate names for seventy different species of the coconut tree).

So although these people had no written records, their oral ones are marvellously convincing. And Enough was written down by the early missionaries to give us firm though vague outlines of the original happenings and the ensuing events that led to the well-developed Stone Age culture that was thriving in the islands before the white man came to split it into pieces with the iron of his axe and the iron of his creed. Most all other Stone Agers in all parts of the world had graduated slowly over hundreds or even thousands of years - though copper and bronze to iron. The Polynesian transition was a thunderclap of months and a handful of years. We know now that the racial stocks of the Polynesians set out from southeast Asia some 4000 or 4000 years ago. They migrated through the Indonesian archipelago, where one branch split off southwestward across the Indian Ocean to settle in Madagascar, as the predominant tribes of that fantastically polyglot land, and bestowed three original tongue as the lingua franca of the whole almost continental-size Malgash island. The main group continued to make its way, gradually over centuries of time, past the unfriendly, already inhabited, and malarial-repulsive islands of Melanesia (some think north, some think south of New Guinea), to their first and westernmost island clusters of Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. They have left along this trail the recently discovered shards of their own highly individualized Lapita pottery. They were quiet people, peaceable, horticultural, and above all maritime - settlers of the littoral, sailors of the high wide seas.   

Here these oceanic islanders arrived on virgin land, regrouped and multiplied. Here they developed their deep-sea sailing skills and evolved their great twin-hulled sailing vessels. Here they probably remained for a breathing spell of some five hundred years, while their ancestral Lapita pottery died out. (Gradually they ceased to boil their food in clay vessels and chose instead to bake it in earth ovens, as they still prefer to do today.) This gradual fading of Lapita pottery from intricate and highly distinctive decorative designs, to plainer and plainer surfaces, to no decoration at all, and then to no pottery at all - is an archaeological mystery (They had no clay of course on the coral atolls, but it was always available on the volcanic islands.) Another mystery is the total absence of the wheel or even, apparently, a knowledge of its principle, not even in boys. They had a disc drill, but this was a reciprocating sort of flywheel, not a burden bearer. And of course they used rollers to move their great canoes ashore - sometimes indeed they were human bodies. The wheel must have been known in their Asiatic homelands so it too must have faded out like their pottery. But of course virtually all of their locomotion in the islands was by water. Everywhere they were seaside dwellers and when they made their brief excursions inland into the steep mountains, wheels would have been of little use to them.

After a half millennium in the three western Pacific island clusters, portions of these people set out to the cast to discover new islands. We have radio-carbon dates and artifact sequences that place these migrations at around the time of the birth of Christ. Many modern scholars believe that it was in these three original island groups, and over this first millennium in the Pacific ocean, that they actually became Polynesian: a conglomerate racial mix, mostly mongoloid, but with some small percentage perhaps of caucasoid, and a dash-in-passing of australoid," developed or evolved what we now recognize as a distinctive Polynesian culture. As population pressures commenced to build up, the more adventurous, or the exiled, or the deprived set sail in migratory waves - waves so small that they probably should be called ripples: eight, ten or a dozen canoe loads in a "fleet," at the most two hundred or three hundred men, women, children, with pigs, dogs, chickens and food plants. At at least one "useless" flower.

It is my personal belief that these adventurers know where they were going, that advance scouting expeditions (of men only, in specially equipped expeditionary canoes) first explored different star-courses as far as what would have been their point of no return, until - probably after several disappointments - they spotted distant new islands. They then sailed back before the prevailing easterly winds to their homelands. With the newly discovered star-courses implanted in the master navigator's brain, they then set about preparing their migratory groups - probably over at least one year, maybe two or even three - so that the star-course they had discovered and chosen could be taken up again, in the proper annual season, to lead them to a new homeland. In such migrations they settled, first off, the central Polynesian islands, the Marquesan and Society groups, some two thousand miles to the east, to the windward of their home islands. Here again, as the archaeological datings tell us, they must have passed a few centuries before reaching the new population densities that would entice or urge or compel them to make exploratory voyages again. To the east they sailed  Easter Island. To the south - the Australs and Cooks. To the north - Hawaii. To the southwest - New Zealand. And in the meantime some of them even sailed back to the original western homelands and beyond - the "Outliers."

Thus, they distributed themselves over every inhabitable island to the vast Pacific several hundred years before the Europeans arrived to find them. They had fully populated an oceanic triangle five thousand miles on each side 12 million square miles, an area larger than the whole of Africa, the most widespread single cohesive culture (although one of the smallest in members) anywhere on earth. In so doing, they created - shortly before or after the birth of Christ - a separate civilization of their own, entirely isolated from, and entirely unknown to, the patchwork of civilizations on the other side of the world. After Polynesia reached its ultimate extent with the colonizations of Eater Island, Hawaii, and New Zealand, each of these two separate civilizations, dating back to the original birthplace in fiji-Tonga-Samoa, had now been going its own way for at least three thousand years - as if both had been on different planets. I have been playing a little geographical-ethnological game comparing events and developments within these two hemispheres, strangers to each other. One, we might call the "hemisphere of land" where men of different races marched or straggled to and fro mixing with each other, warring, trading, interbreeding, emerging as conquerors, subsiding as slaves. The other is the "hemisphere of water," almost equal in area, but minute in living space, where only one race proliferated to all the distant island outposts, retaining its unique homogeneity like a single closely related but widely scattered family. There was almost no intercourse between those outposts. They received variations of stimulus only from variations of ecology, and these, in the tropics, were changes of slight degree.

The comparative highlights of history of these two independent "hemispheres," are shown on the next two following pages. They parallel each other for the three thousand-odd years since their Original Split until the fateful engagement date of A.D. 1767, when the two worlds discovered each other.

Perhaps the best way to convey an impression of what Tahitian life was like in the latter half of the eighteenth century is to contrast some of the basic essentials with our own. Their physical conditions, housing, food, clothing, daily activities, and suchlike have all been detailed so often that they need no repetition here. Of course group comparisons - racial and social - tend to lead to treacherous generalizations, but if they are not used to upgrade or downgrade, they can be interesting to explore. A.G. Keller, disciple of the great William Graham Summer, used to tell his students at Yale, myself among them, that the four fundamental drives of man are Hunger, Love, Vanity, and Fear; in that order. Let me try to contrast those of the "prehistoric" Polynesian with our own, both contemporary and (since none of us has changed much) present day. Hunger we can in this instance virtually dismiss, because it id not exist in Polynesia as a constantly motivating forced. To be sure, there were times of sporadic, devastating dryness that caused widespread famine and even impelled migrations, but as we shall se e later, methods of birth control, by abortion and infanticide, seem to have anticipated and ameliorated these aberrational shocks. It is hard for us bread-by-the-swat-of-the-brow people to comprehend this, but everyone, almost all of the time, had plenty of food and experienced no trouble in getting it.

Love is perhaps the most intriguing of the other three drives. The contrasts in the realms of love are subtle and infinitely more complex than the popular assumption. let us start at the beginning. (Conception? No, that belongs later on, in sex.) Birth. Many Polynesian infants never drew a first breath because they were strangled by their parents, usually their fathers, before they could take a first breath. In many respects, though not all, this was the main means of birth control. (Our corresponding one is abortion.) And birth control was even more important to them on their finite little islands - in an earlier stage of the evolution of their culture - than ours is now in an overpopulated, finite globe. We are only just beginning to realize the absolute necessity of abortion. You may cringe, as the missionaries did, at what they considered the unspeakable horror of infanticide, but if a fetus is to be curtailed, what really is the difference between three months and nine? Mind you, the importance to the Tahitian of a baby's first breath. If the mother wished to and was able to trick the fetus's father into going fishing or going into the mountains to fetch the orange-coloured plantain, or going to carry a present to his sister on the other side of the island, or whatever, an hour before delivery, so that when he returned the infant was breathing, no power or spirit would make him go through with his obligation to snuff out the life. Because, with the first breath, life had begun m, and no social law told him to be a murderer. His duty to society, and also the mother's to social survival, was to abort the life before it started. So let that be the first contrast to our mores. 

The next phase of the Love category is probably circumcision, though it may be menstruation. Circumcision was universal. Why this curious and useless operation was practiced throughout that independent oceanic offshoot of the human race is as old and unfathomable a riddle as any worldwide anthropological mystery. The Polynesian's way was a bit different from ours because the foreskin was split only along the top, not ringed round and removed. It was done with the razor-sharp edge of a split bamboo and I think with not much ritual, just a formal family occasion. But it was invariable and oceanwide.

Menstruation was more important - though less, or not at all, ceremonial. The unfortunate maiden was secluded as unclean, untouchable, even unseeable during her menstrual periods. Hers must have been a humiliating ordeal, and it might be said to have lasted a lifetime for a woman. In most ways she was distinctly inferior in Polynesian society. If you ate with a woman you became blind and crippled. The best foods - turtle, pig, and choice portions of others - were forbidden her. No woman was allowed on the community marae, the holy place of worship and sacrifice, although she could participate on the family marae. All of this must stem from the universal prejudice against menstrual blood unclean. And yet, paradoxically, Polynesian society was in many ways matriarchal. Land was inherited from chiefesses and firstborn females. Lesser chiefs often became greater chiefs through their mother's or wife's lineage, when their father was not so high. The social fabric was shot through with Victorian, big and small. Ariitaimai tells us that no where in the world was marriage a matter of more political and social consequence than in Tahiti. (Ariitaimai will be a significant figure in this narrative. Her Memoirs recounted in Henry Adams toward the end of her life are a wealth of ancient Tahitian lore. We quote her here, long before she was born, because they retell the tales passed down to her through her ancestors, vividly depicting their customs and personalities, and recalling the legends of her race. She herself will be introduced later when, as a young maiden of high birth and dazzling charm, she enters upon her long and subtly influential role in Tahitian history.) A powerful chiefess was free from her husband's control. She could have as many lovers as she wished but she could not rear a child on non-chiefly origin. He must be killed. There once was a chief of Papara, Ariifaataia, who wanted to marry Maheanu, chiefess of Vaiari and reigning beauty of the island. But she would have none of him. She thought him too ugly so she married a handsome lower born. Maheanu was not disposed to throw her beauty away merely for power. Paradoxes, violent ones, are characteristic of this volatile race. Once these rites or stages of puberty were passed, life was good for nubile Polynesians. They were not only permitted but expected to be promiscuous. Most of them were probably ready for sex before they were teenage, and "experimenting" usually lasted until the early twenties, a matter of eight or ten years. By then perhaps one would know pretty well whom one could marry with some expectation of duration. Captain Bligh enlightens us with a firsthand report.

The women have too great an intercourse with different Men. ... (Yet) it is considered no infidelity, for I have known a Man to have done the Act in the presence of his own Wife, and it is a common thing for the Wife to assist the Husband in these Amours. But what is remarkable, it is not so among those who are not related to one another; it is then a violation if a married Couple err on either side, for if a Man finds another with his Wife he'll kill him if he can, and if the Woman discovers infidelity of the Husband she will certainly take revenge on the Woman. 

Inclination seems to be the only binding law of Marriage in this Country, for a Woman will quit her husband if she pleases.

Once married, divorce was rare. Nonmarital sex was all right within reason and discretion, and illegitimate children were gladly adopted, but the family entity was very important, more sacred than personal infatuations or rivalries. After all, and above all, family meant land and inheritance. A man's land, or his wife's land, was his or her future on earth. They never conceived of a future in heaven or hell, just a flapping about of spirits for a while or the enduring virtues of a respected ancestor, represented by his skull stored in the rafters of the house. The constant, permanent symbol, the enduring entity of family was the marae, their open-air, rock-and-coral temple, their only structures of permanence. We must always keep in mind that these sacred stones were, for the Polynesian, what transcended and made lasting for generations his transient flesh. you might say their maraes were their counterparts of written histories. Ariitaimai says: The marae represented more than all else, the family. Even the god was secondary. The family and the antiquity were alone seriously interesting. ... Genealogy swallowed up history and made law a field of its own, it was the legal code. Let us assume that the next turn of Love is toward children. Here the Polynesian is characteristically more doting and indulgent than the European people. A European's first reaction is that they spoil their babies inordinately. But they also scowl and slap and punish. After a while we realize that the essence of their treatment of children is perhaps more like a game, much play, some of it fun, some of it serious contention and training. Always there is a respect for the child as an equal entity as worthy to be fought with as to be loved. Remember that first breath and that succession on birth. These are embedded things, so long implanted as to become instinctual perhaps. But the enveloping element is attention and care. No Polynesian child is ever neglected. Following these early-age contrasts between our Love lives and theirs, I would guess there is not much difference in our societal ways. Less divorce, more loyalty to an concern for the older generations, but that is to be expected in a smaller more familial group. Except of course the lifelong inferiority of the female. This is a notable present-day difference but was it two hundred years ago? Women of Europe ate with their men, but the men owned and controlled property to a degree that never was obtained in Polynesia. In France even today the husband owns just about everything.

My great Yale sociologist's third fundamental drive, Vanity, can be very broadly defined to include such urgings or surgings as ambition, artistic attainment, supremacy in sports and war and oratory, heroism and grandeur as well as pride, shame and indulgence. And when so defined there is little basic difference between our social ways, except for the emphasis placed on them. The Polynesian had no money and no interest in it and thus passed by one of our greatest vanities, wealth. Nut the ancient oriental element of "face" was decidedly more important to him than to a European. His highest art was the art of oratory. He revelled in the prowess of war, but his warfare was much more personal and formalized - more like our jousting of medieval knights. His devotion to sports was, as in ours, an obvious means of displaying personal vanities. wealth. But the ancient oriental element of "face" was decidedly more important to him than to a European. His highest art was the art of oratory. He revelled in the prowess of war, but his warfare was much more personal and formalized - more like our jousting of medieval knights. His devotion to sports was, as is ours, an obvious means of displaying personal vanities. But he far exceeded us in diversity. He played hundreds of games, from childhood up, and played them constantly; stilts, a sort of lob-in-the-air bowling, archery, kite flying, surfboarding, canoe racing of many sorts (first models, then kite sailing, plain sailing, paddling). Such as these were in addition to the usual combative and body-to-body contact or competitive sports like wrestling, racing about and in the water, boxing, etc. But it is notable that boxing was never bloody - body blown only, with the decision resting on a sort of mutual recognition of "points." And we must not forget the never-ceasing "sports" (which we might better call arts) of singing and dancing. Even eating became a refined form of vanity when they competed with each other in huge, recurrent, extravagant feasts.

The spectacular arts of the peripheral Polynesians obviously seem to have sprung from the vanities of their individual creators or their patrons, but these graphic or sculptural arts of the Tahitians are a puzzle, difficult to assess or to compare with those of their fellow Polynesians. The Hawaiians have created the most stunning wooden statutes and the most brilliant use of color in featherwork, the Maori the most intricate and ingenious has relief and screenic carvings, the Easter Islanders the most monumental stone sculpture and the smoothest, most meticulous wooden ancestral figures, the Cook and Austral Islanders exquisite pattern carving and god figures, the Marquesans the most versatile (in all respects) stone and wood carvings and tikis - and in graphics their labyrinthine tatu designs surpass all. Even the relatively stuffy ancestral folks, the Samoans, Tongans, and Fijians, worked wonders with tapa, whale ivory, and shapely wooden tools and implements of war.

In contrast to all of these Polynesian cousins, the Tahitian appears a crude fellow. He has his inspirations. His fly-whisk handles are superb and mysterious, but they do seem frivolous objects on which to lavish one's subtlest craftsmanship. Some authorities think the finest of Tahitian carvings may have been burned in the great bonfires of Christian conversion. But I doubt it. Tahitian gods were sennit-woven bundles, receptacles for the spirits of their gods, never images of them. Their crude stone tikis seem more likely to have been ancestor figures - reminders rather than art. No, the Tahitian's arts were the living ones: dance, drama, oratory, laughter and fresh-flower dress. In these (whether you call them exhibitionist vanities or performing arts) he rejoiced and excelled, but these arts left no tangible trace for us - only hearsay and echoes, which still reverberate today in the most joyous, playful, life-loving people of the ocean. They had their skills, all right. Their superb canoes bear witness to that. These were were unsurpassed in variety, size, craftsmanship, as well as the art with which they sailed them. And we should emphasize their songs. They were conceived and composed spontaneously, for almost any sort of occasion or occurrence: sad ones for partings, mournful ones for funerals, scornful ones for ridicule, joyous ones for any happy event, and most of all, perhaps, romantic ones for lovers lost or fond, blessed or crossed. 

Thus, in the realm of Vanity we might concede to the Tahitians the pleasures and exercises of the body and the senses, and reserve for our own vanities the exhilarations of the intellect and exercises of the brain. So, for the enduring objects of art, one must look around the boarders of Polynesia, not into the center. But for the transitory, lively arts one must turn from the relatively dour, pious, proper, savage, and warlike Hawaiians, Marquesans, Rapans, Rarotongans, Maori, Tongans, and Samoans to the gay, abandoned hedonists of the central core, our Tahitians.

Fear, the last of the four contrasting drives, is for us dominated by fear of loss - poverty, position, health, bodily injury, even loss of mind, insanity. But of course the most pervading and terrorizing of all our fears is death. In studying the Polynesian it has long seemed remarkable to me that of these primary fears of ours none was of much consequence to him. He seems in present reality as well as in historical and prehistorical retrospect to be almost immune to - and certainly casual about - them. One wonders whether instinct can account for this, as it seems persuasively to account for the Polynesian's almost total lack of fear of heights. (Like the American Indian, he can always get a highly paid job walking girders on skyscrapers and bridges.) Is it because he has scampered up coconut trees for untold generations - an acquired characteristic, anathema to geneticists - or was he born that way?

Where there is no pressure of money or lack of food there is obviously no fear of poverty. Position was foreordained by ancestral and parental rank, so there was no losing of it; nor much gaining either. As a race the Polynesians were extraordinarily  healthy and had almost no diseases until the white man came: little to worry about on that score. (An exception was elephantiasis, but thought sometimes hideously crippling, it was neither painful nor mortal.) About wounds, broken bones, even cracked skulls, the Polynesian seems to have been philosophical and capable of bearing what we would consider excruciating pain. Nut he knew he would heal quickly (if he didn't die quickly).

Let us set aside for a moment his psychological fears, to consider the Big Fear: earth. Many a learned and experienced, sensitively intuitive writer has reported on the wondrous, calm resignation of the Polynesian confronted with his own death. Most striking are the many reliably recorded instances of people actually willing themselves to dies. They made (and still make) a great fuss about another's death. Never has there been such wailing and lamentation, gashing of foreheads with shark's teeth to let the blood run, chopping off finger joints, setting out corpses to be mummified and watched over, polishing bones and skulls to be hidden away on revered as household companions. Yet, a personal, anticipatory fear of death seems not to have been a significant part of the Polynesian's emotional spectrum. He had no Heaven and no Hell, no afterlife in our sense of the concept (if there is any sense in it). He was fatalistic. he knew his time would come, and everyone who has lived with Polynesians knows that they have only the most casual, offhand sense of time.

But that, on our part, is perhaps a casual, offhand way of dismissing a very complex state of mind or emotion and it leads us back to the bypassed subject of imaginary fears. All people are haunted and harried by ghosts, witches, warlocks, trolls, elves, furies, banshees, and fairies - good and bad. I doubt, however, that they were as manifest and omnipresent or as terrifying in any culture as they were in the Polynesian. The oromatua and tu'paupau were, and still are, everywhere. These were the ancestral spirits, almost invariably evil. One could hear them in the screech of the night birds, feel them in sudden gusts of wind round the corner, smell them in a crushed tupa crab, taste them in the brimstone of lightning. The only sense that failed one was sight. They were never to be seen, these evil spirits - even when they ate you or your child or your mother-in-law - remorselessly with long, sharpened teeth. The Polynesian's fear of the spirits of the dead must be classified as psychotic I suppose, because we know it was an imagined fear, and that's the way we classify fears that are not real. Nut they were real to the Polynesian, not the unreal fears that we declare to be those of a sick man. If they were unreal to him, and therefore sink (and therefore curable by a good psychiatrist?), then the whole race was a society of sick men, for the tu'paupaus existed. Everybody knew they did. No one would ever say "Nonsense" or "That's your imagination." They would just hasten to make some magic to scare the evil one away, propitiate him/her, to hide or beg off till tomorrow's morning light. So the Polynesian had his fears all right. It's just that they were different from ours. Might one say his were spiritual and ours are physical? What is Death, spiritual or physical? I hope I have given the reader a glimmer at least of some of the basic contrasts between our separately evolved, ancestral social compositions. I am not advocating Hunger, Love, Vanity, and Fear as in any way being the definitive drives or norms or precepts. No doubt for the present-day social scientist they are now fifty years out of fashion. But this is not intended to be a comprehensive or scientific set of comparisons, merely a sampling. And my old social science teacher's Big Four are certainly with us still.

*     *     *     *     *

Two other elements of primary importance is contrasting our two cultures should be added to the Big Four, climate and religion. Until you have lived for many years in these tropic salt-wind-swept rain-cloud-drenched, sun-scorched, insect-munched islands, it is hard to realize how transient, how rapidly perishable is human flesh and all the fabrications contrived by it. Paintings, books, clothes, houses, even churches of coral blocks disintegrate and melt into the all-embracing compost of these tropics. They dissolve and give up their ghosts at a rate that is astonishing and despairing to those of us who have been building libraries, castles, galleries, cathedrals over the centuries. If, even in our benign temperate climates, our museums are desperately inventing and applying preservatives everywhere, for Florence, Venice, Easter Island and the dissolving Acropolis, how could the Polynesian preserve his precious works?

he didn't: he accepted. He built his house to last at most a generation. His roof he rethatched every four years if woven of nau coco fronds, seven years if of fara pandanus. His canoe hull, which took him two years to hew out, lasted perhaps seven years with constant care; its outrigger two or three years. Everything was contrived, used, discarded. Everything was as expendable, at their slower pace, as plastics, at our frantic pace, are to us today. Everything, that is, except the motor. Not only were its basalt boulders and coral slabs the Tahitian's concept of endurance, but the mana, the magic in them was longer lasting still. for when a clan set forth to found a new settlement on another island, a special stone sacred to that clan, that family, that son, was always taken with them as the founding stone for the new marae, and the name of the ancestral marae was carried on as family names are perpetuated from generation to generation in the descendant marae.

Except perhaps for a brief flirtation with disembodied spirits, I have not touched on the Tahitian's religion. Just where it belongs in these four big categories, I am not sure - perhaps partly in all of them, perhaps mostly in Vanity and Fear. In any case, our religions were of primary importance to both of us in the 1760s and they were different. We will come to that dramatically and poignantly when we come to consider the missionaries, later on. But here we should perhaps sketch a brief outline of the nature of the Polynesian's religion belief. The concept of creation is pithily expressed in the old chant to the originating god:

He was there Taaroa . was his name
All about him was emptiness
No where the land . No where the sky
No where the sea . No where man
Taaroa called out . No echo to answer
Then in this solitude he became the world
This knot of roots it is Taaroa
The rocks are he again
Taaroa . The song of the sea
Taaroa . He names himself
Taaroa . Transparence
Taaroa . Eternity
Taaroa . The Powerful
Creator of the Universe which is but the shell of 'Taaroa
Who bestows on it life in beautiful harmony

It is a great pity the Polynesians never evolved a Homer, because their chants and legends are wonderfully rich material, a distinctive as Greek epics, Norse sagas, or Indian Vedas and Puranas. The creation chants tell how Taaroa lay in the darkness of his shell for countless ages. Nothing existed outside this shell - and even the nothingness is specified (no light, no noise, no sea, etc., etc.) at such lengths that the ages do indeed seem boundless.  Eventually Taaroa himself becomes weary of inaction and begins to stir. The shell cracks and, at length, he pushes it apart so that its upper half becomes the dome of the sky. Then he converts the lower portion into the Great foundation Rock, Tumunui, which stands in utter darkness far down in a crevice of the extinct crater of the Temehani, by a great rushing stream of water called Vaitupo. Next, he commences the very long process of manufacturing the other gods, first, Tane (god of forests, rain, fertility), then, the other principals: Tu (stability), Atea (vast expanse). Atea was usually female, and, fertilized by Taaroa, was the begetress of most of the other gods. Oro (war), etc. The list is bounteous and it is also confusing, because in the different island groups (such as the Tuamotus, Cooks, Australs, Hawaii, New Zealand) the various gods were given different attributes and different degrees of importance. (Even Tangaroa, the original, becomes only the god of the sea in Mangaia.) But it is a notable fact that in spite of superficial inconsistencies of function and rank, the same names are used throughout the distant island groups.  

The secondary gods set about the housekeeping job of tidying up the universe. They prop up the heavens, create the stars, cover the earth with water, then pull up various islands with a fishing pole and magic hook. Most importantly, one or another of the gods fashions man and woman and sets them to propagating, while still other are clothing the mountains with forests, filling the seas with fish, calling forth all the various winds, and so on. Many of the final tasks, such as fetching fire and fishing up further islands, were left to demigods like Maui, for the members of the Polynesian pantheon, like those of their Greek contemporaries, did a good deal of consorting with humans - in the olden days, that is. There were many of these demigods. Hiro (patron of thieves) and another Hiro (the master canoe builder), Uahenga (tatu artist), Tafai (the overseas adventurer). But by far the most widely known and most popular of all was Maui, about whom, from the mythologist's point of view, perhaps the most remarkable thing was his ubiquity. Mauitikitiki was his full name, and he is found not only in the folklore of all the Polynesian islands; he was widely known in many areas of Micronesia and Melanesia as well. I believe he is the only hero of primitive religions who covers such distant territories. Thus the Polynesian had a pantheon almost as populous as the Greeks, but the most significant feature of it was that it was clearly man centered, rather than god centered. 'The gods were created for the benefit, though often the chastisement, of man. They had great powers for good and evil, but if one fishing god did not bring good luck or one war god bring victory, even after sacrifices, pleas, praises, and threats, he could be tossed aside and another one enlisted. Tane had been the paramount god for the Tahitians for many generations, but shortly before the white man's arrival (perhaps less than one hundred years before), Oro had come into fashion and power. Through his creation, the Arioi society, Oro's gospel was spreading from Raiatea throughout the islands, and he was certainly in the ascendant when Captain Wallis arrived 1767 on Her Majesty's Ship Dolphin.

The Original Tahitian: Human Nature A.D.

On Tahiti in the 1750s and 1760s there was clearly a hierarchical, feudal-like society: of high chiefs, the arii, who were very high indeed; of landowners or nobles, called the raatira; and of an ordinary lowborn class called manahune or teuteu. But unlike his European counterpart even the lowest could feed himself readily and build himself a shelter against the storms. while he lived as a servant-companion in his mater's house or tilled his own "sharecropping" acre of his master's land, he still possessed a very important social right. If he deemed his raatira cruel or excessively demanding or unfair, he could pull up stakes and take his valuable labour to the land of another feudal lord, who would almost certainly welcome him. There were, significantly, no constraints upon this right except, importantly, the consent and sympathy of his fellow manahune.

The house of the highest chief was not much larger or more luxurious than anyone else's. There was no money, no gold, no jewels - and thus no riches piled up. Not even possessions such as mats or bark cloth, houses, or even canoes ever accumulated substantially as one man's property as contrasted with another's. To be sure the high chiefs gathered gifts or tribute in large quantities on occasions, but there were soon redistributed. Nordoff and Hall have a nice way of explaining: In these eastern islands the humblest speaks to the most powerful without any title of respect, with nothing corresponding to our "mister" or "sir." At first one is inclined to believe that here is the beautiful and ideal democracy - the realization of the communist's dream - and there are other things which lead to the same conclusion. Servants, for one example, are treated with extraordinary consideration and kindliness, when the feast is over the mistress of the household is apt as not to dance with the man who feeds her pigs, or the head of the family to take the arm of the girl who has been waiting on his guests. The truth is that this impression of equality is false; there are not many places in the world where a more rigid social order exists - not of caste, but of classes. In the thousand or fifteen hundred years that they have inhabited the islands the Polynesians have worked out a system of human r3elationships nearer the ultimate, perhaps, than our own idealists would have to believe. Wealth counts for little, birth for everything; it is useless for an islander to think of raising himself in a social way, where he is born he dies, and his children after him. On the other hand, except for the abstract pleasure of position, there is little to make the small man envious of the great; he eats the same food, his dress is the same, he works as little or as much, and the relation between the two are of the pleasantest. There is a really charming lack of ostentation in these islands, where everything is brown about everyone, and it is useless to pretend to be what one is not. That is oat the root of it all - here is one place in the world, at least, where every man is sure of himself.

The one exception to this general state of relative equality of tangible objects was, however, a very important one. it was land. Land was inherited and land was bequeathed. Its possession was sacred and inviolate to the bloodline of the family that owned it. Such ownership could be enlarged or diminished only by marriage or by death. Even a victorious warrior could not take possession without marrying the widow or sister or daughter of his slain foe; and even then it was not he who took full title, but his progeny by the new wife. Peter Bellwood makes an interesting comment. There was no private ownership of land in the English legal sense, although in practice a lineage or family had the right to use its land in perpetuity.

But though there were high chiefs in Tahiti, there was no king, no supreme monarch or Inca, Emperor, Maharaja or Mikado, as was to be found in virtually all other societies, primitive or sophisticated, all over the world. On this island and indeed on all other Pacific islands and groups of islands, all of them Polynesian, there were balanced clans with chiefs, some stronger or richer in land or prestige than others, but never a supreme chief. This is a curious societal phenomenon, and I believe you will find it rarely except in the Polynesian race. An American Indian anthropologist might cry, Exception! But the American tribes lived in widely separated, extensive territories, each one speaking its own language, while the Tahitian clans (not tribes) were crowded together on one small island group, with one language only. Each was, in effect, one large family. Tahiti itself had many chiefs of its many districts. These areas were demarcated by the ridges of the many V-shaped valleys that radiate like jagged pieces of a pie from the central mountain peaks of the island. They vary greatly in size and shape of course, but their boundaries were as precisely known - to the inch - as were the complex kinships of aunts, uncles, cousins, children, and grandchildren of the fundamental owner, male or female. And there are valleys within valleys, which meant chiefs and subchiefs (or taatira) within chiefdoms. There are also islands and peninsulas and other natural divisions and subdivisions. The Polynesian was never a geometrical fellow as far as land was concerned, so in ancestral days there were never plots or blocks of land laid out in surveys as they are so meticulously delineated by the French today. The result was a multitude of landlords and properties that would be impossibly confusing except to a Polynesian. Fortunately he had a memory and traditions as precise and reliable as a thousand books of affidavits and deeds.

An old-time tale is told of a chief in Raiatea who had a restless and ambitious younger son. Because his older brother was to inherit the land, the younger one set forth in a fine double canoe, well provisioned with fruits, animals, women, and male companions. Four generations lager a descendant of his returned to the valley in Raiatea. There he learned that the original older brother's family had died out, so he claimed the ancient homeland. They asked him for proof of his rights and he recited without flaw the whole genealogy of the family, going back to the originating gods. This would have been a sacred family secret, so he was accepted immediately and granted the chieftainship of the land. Just how so many ranks and files of blood relationships would balance out without a supreme authority is a puzzle to us. But for them it was resolved by a system (can one call such a tangle a "system"?) of clans and chiefs of clans. And in this way, broadly related blood genes took precedence over what might otherwise seem hopelessly scattered and complicated pieces of soil. There were, and had been since time immemorial, four or five or six dominant clans and for many generations preceding the fateful European arrival, these clans had always produced recognized senior, or paramount, chiefs or chiefesses. These were the governing body of the island.

An engaging insight into their personal relationships as well as into the vagaries of Tahitian love is given us by Ariitaimai.

About the year 1650, Tavi was chief of Tautira, and prided himself on being as generous as he was strong. All chiefs were obliged to be generous or they lost the respect and regard of their people, but Tavi was the most generous of all the chiefs of Tahiti. He had a wife, Taurua of Hatiaa, the most beautiful woman of her time. The chief of Paoara and head of the Tevas at that time was Tuiterai. Like many a vain chief in Tahiti, Tuiterai could not hear of a handsome woman without wanting her, but Tavi's wife was a person of too much consequence to be approached except in the forms of courtesy required between chiefs, and therefore Tuiterai sent his iotai or ambassador to Tavi to request the loan of his wife, with a formal pledge that she should be returned in seven days. In the Polynesian code of manners, such a request could not be refused without a quarrel. It could not even be evaded without creating ill-feeling that might end in trouble. Had Tuiterai asked for Tavi's child or anything else that he regarded as most precious, the gift would have to be made, subject of course to reciprocity, for every chief was bound to return as good a gift as he received. Tavi did not want to lend his wife, but his pride and perhaps his interest required the sacrifice, and with the best grace he could muster he sent her to Papara. Apparently she made no objection, if the husband was satisfied, the island code had nothing to say to the wife.

Taurua came to Papara, like a Polynesian queen of Sheba, and made her visit to Tuiterai, who immediately fell madly in love with her, showing it by some acts that were amusing, and by others that were too serious for us to laugh at even after eight generations. One of his amusing acts was to take the name Arorua (Aro, breast; rua, two) as a compliment to Taurua's charms and as Tuiterai arorua he is known to this day. The more serious act was that, at the end of the week's visit, he broke his pledge to Tavi, and refused to return Taurua to her husband. This was an outrage of the most grievous kind, such as he might perhaps have inflicted on a very low man - a man fit only for a human sacrifice - built not on a chief; least of all on a chief of equal rank with himself. It was a challenge of force; an act of war. Tuiterai did not attempt to excuse it except on the plea of his infatuation.

No sooner did Tuiterai's refusal reach Tautira than Tavi summond his warriors and sent them against Papara with orders to destroy the land and to kill its chief. Pakpara had no walls like those of Troy to stand a siege, its forces were beaten in battle, Tuiterai was taken, and Taurua was recovered. Among the score of wars fought in early societies about women, and then made the subjects of poetry or legend. The Tahitian variety has a charm of its own because its interest does not end as most of such stories end, with the revenge of the injured party. it should have ended in the usual way, and Tavi had intended to do what any Greek or Norse chief would have done: kill his rival and sack his villages; but the affair took another turn. Tuiterai was wounded, captured, and bound; but when his captors were about to kill him he remonstrated, not with any feeble appeal for mercy, but with the objection, much more forcible to a Polynesian, that a great chief like himself could not be put to death by an inferior. None but an equal could raise his hand against him. None but Tavi must kill Tuiterai.

Tavi's warriors, in spite of their orders, felt the force of the objection, which was, no doubt, in reality an appeal to religious fears, for Tuiterai as head-chief of the Tevas was a person of the most sacred character. They carried him, bound and blindfolded along the shore, some thirty miles, to Tavi. The journey was long, and the wounded chief, feeling his strength fail, urged them on, and as they passed each stream he managed to dip his hand in the water to mark his progress, for he knew the touch of the water in every stream. When Tavi learned that his warriors had brought Tuiterai alive, he reproached them for disobeying his orders. The pride of generosity had cost him his wife and a war; and still he must forget his character if he put Tuiterai to death with his own hand in his own house. The wars of Tahiti were as cruel and ferocious as the wars of any other early race, but such an act as this would have shocked Tahitian morality and decency. Tavi left himself obliged to spare his rival's life, but between complete vengeance and complete mercy the law knew no interval. A chief spared was a guest and an equal. Tavi gave Tuiterai his life and his freedom and Taurua besides. The legend repeats his words in a song which is still sung as one of the best known Teva ballads. 


A mau ra i te vahine ai Taurua
Tou hoa ite ee. e matatarai maua e.
Taurua horo poipoi oe iau nei.
To aiai no pohe mai nei au ite ono.
Nau hoi oe i teie nei ra.
A mau ra ia Taurua tou boa ite ee.
Mattarai mauai maua e.

Take, then, your wife! Taurua! my friend! we are separated, she and I! Taurua, the morning star to me. For her beauty I would die. You were mine, but now - take, then Taurua! my friend! we are separated, she and I!

nevertheless the overthrow of Papara was too serious a revolution not to affect the politics of the island. Tavi became by his triumph the most powerful chief in all Tahiti, and asserted his power by imposing a rahui. A rahui was a great exercise of authority, which might last a year or more, a sweeping order their everything produced during that time in the whole territory subject to the influence of the chief should be tabu. Not a pig should be killed; not a tapa cloth or fine mat should be made; "not a cock should crow."

The individual mid-eighteenth-century chiefs have come down to us in oral history, as recorded by the early discoverers and missionaries with reputations that can still thrill us today. Prowess in war or physical strength was respected and so was intellectual brilliance - even a master trickster or conniver or thief stood high in the esteem of the community. But the overriding, most worshipful quality of the great leaders was mana: a hard-to-define, commanding combination of wisdom, compassion, firmness, persuasiveness, and understanding - indeed the essence of what are generally recognized as the attributes of greatness in human beings anywhere, anytime. Shortly before the commencement of this narrative, 1750 or so, one chief stood above all in respect, though not necessarily in pow4r. Vehiatua, like Tavi, was the grand chief of the seaward Teva, the windward section of the most powerful and prestigious of the island's clans. Although Vehiatua was designated chief of the seaward Teva (as contrasted with the landward Teva) this was probably because his residence remained where he was born, in Taiarapu or "Little Tahiti," the peninsular island to the southeast. As their highest chief he was always recognized also by the landward Teva. It was they who owned and controlled the southern or landward districts of the island, Papara and Vaiari (now Papeari), the richest and most desirable lands of all.   

During the years preceding its "discovery" by Europe, there were on the island four main chiefs that concern us most. These chiefs were the hui arii, of which the high ones were arii tahi and the highest arii tahi. The whole concept of Tahitian hierachy is complex,  and interpretations of it differ depending on who is reporting it, a naval officer, a missionary, a merchant, a native Tahitian. The white man tends to simplify and twist into his own channels; this brown man tends to complicate - to a point of mystification. The main thing to realize is that power (or persuasion or influence) is rooted in the land or title as well as in the person or in his or her bloodline. Power is also divided into two aspects (1) spiritual power or hereditary prestige, and (2) political power or physical might. Complicate this further with male and female elements of both marriage and blood. Further still with the invariable inheritance of the firstborn was to the chief's title at the very moment of that son's birth, the chief then becoming regent. Multiply by five or six hui arii and their districts, intermarrying, interwarring, drying, and borning. And you have almost as many pieces and places to play with as you would in a chess game.

Another important thing to remember is the extraordinary rights and privileges of a high chief. All must defrock to the waist in his presence. He must be carried on a servant's shoulders everywhere, since whatever land or house or shore is touched by his foot becomes his property forever. He eats only the choicest foods and is usually fed by another. He alone can sit on his marae and wear his red or yellow feather girdle. He alone can command human sacrifice, and so on and on. But all of these sacred honors are strictly limited to his own land and district. The chief of Pakpara is powerless in Paea. He may not even be permitted to visit there without invitation. So in a way our "men" are as move-bound as chessmen. Now, with these distinctions and particulars understood, let us return to the four most interesting chiefs in the Tahiti of the 1760s.

They were (1) Vehiatua of Tautira, who was head of the seaward Teva and by seniority head of both Teva clans, but he was old and sickly and about to die. (2) Amo of Papara, head of the landward Teva and of the richest and most powerful districts of the island, for his authority extended over Vaiari and Mataeia as well - the whole southern section. But Amo was by this time only regent to his young son, Terirere, seven years old in 1769, and his wife was the femme fatale Purea (more of her later). (3) Tuteha chief of the Atehuru, who reigned over the powerful western districts of Paea and Punaauia and was an uncle of the fourth, last, and most ambitious of the quartet. (4) Tu of Faaa. He was a relatively minor chief compared with the other three, but his clan was the Porionuu in the north, and to its Matavai Bay were about to come Wallis, Cook, Bligh, Vancouver, and the missionaries, bringing with them the powers of firearms and the concepts of kingship that were revolutionary to the Tahitian structure of politics and prestige.

A few years before Wallis's arrival in the dolphin in 1767, Purea, wife of Amo, had ordered the construction o the largest and most spectacular marae in Tahiti shortly after her first extant child was born, about 1762. According to Cook, who measured it carefully but not quite accurately, it was a wonderful piece of Indian Architecture and far exceeds every thing of its kind upon the whole Island, It is a long square of stonework built Pyramidically, the base is 267 feet by 87, the breadth and length at top is 177 feet by 7, it riseth by large steps all round, like those leading up to a sundial, there are 11 of those each 4 feet high which makes the whole height 44 Feet. Actually Cook's rough calculation must be wrong; it measures 267 by 377 feet, but according to Cook's great biographer, J.C. Beaglehole, it is the greatest in Tahiti and indeed in all of Polynesia, and certainly one of the glories of "Indian Architecture."

Purea's motives in launching this huge enterprise were perhaps to outshine her jealous sisters, to enhance the prestige of Papara, to demonstrate her own power. But mainly the wished to secure the future paramountcy of her son, Terirere. There was also probably mixed into this an urge to rival or even to dominate her powerful husband Amo. Things evidently were not going well between them, for a few years later Amo found other vahines for his sleeping mat, and Purtea was seen with other male companions. Terirere was their only living child, although not the first conceived. They had both been Ariois of the highest order, so no doubt Purea had had a number of previous children that had been disposed of by the conventional infanticide. One suspects that she was anticipating a break with Amo and that this great marae was the best way to insure the future of her son. It was Teriirere's marae; not even his father, Amo, could sit in the place of honor. Sometime previously Terii had been invested with the sacred and feather girdle of Papara.

The story is an involved one. Purea was not the eldest, but she came from a sizable family of sons and daughters of a very high chief. The older sisters resented the arrogance and pride and ambition of the younger one. They were also no doubt jealous of her radiant charm, for Purea was evidently blessed by the gods, she outshone even the great Amo. And she has always seemed to get her willful way - to wind up successfully in spite of her imperious airs. But this time she went too far. One of her sisters-in-law was refused the hospitalities and rights due her rank. The child of another was insulted. A local war broke out. Mighty Papara was overwhelmed. Amo and Purea took to the mountains and another chiefly balance had been upset. All this had occurred before the coming of the white man, but by then the situation had been resolved. Purea was back to greet Wallis and enough in her old spirits so that he dubbed her queen of all Tahiti. But the upheaval had left an uncertainty in the air and enough disequilibrium amount the older, higher chiefs so that a younger and lesser one could make progress - with European arms - a challenge that would never have been permitted had the old order been stable at the time.

Ariitamai (our heroine Huruata Salmon) told Henry Adams, in her old age and looking back on those days of her native Papara's glory and disaster, that it was usually a female who wrecked a kingdom, and as long as her beloved Papara was fated to be humbled she was glad that at least her Great-Aunt Purea was a surpassingly beautiful woman. Pura was the "Oberea" of Samuel Wallis, first European discover of Tahiti. In his eyes she was Queen of the island, a glamorous lady who arrived in a "royal barge," a large double canoe with a spacious deck-house where she and her "ladies-in-waiting" disported themselves, feasted, and entertained. Ashore, he tells us, she had a house 327 feet long, 42 feet wide, and 30 feet high (but actually it was the district council house, not Oberea's private manse). Wallis apparently thought that she had fallen in love with him and one suspects that if he had not been so ill a royal romance of sorts might have come about. he was a prime novelty, the first great white chief, and besides, by this time Amo was casting elsewhere.

Purea's affair with the Dolpin's captain, if you can call it that, was brief and fleeting, but she is for us a convenient traditional personage. She figures importantly just a few years later in Cook's introduction to "La Nouvelle Cythere."

First Encounter: The Explorers
1767 et seq.

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