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Captain Samuel Wallis of HMS Dolphin was in bed when he took possession of what he was pleased to call King George's Island in honour of His Britannic Majesty. Wallis and many of his men were sick - they thought deadly sick - of scurvy and its many complications. In the scurvy's painful lethargy, the island they stood off taunted them. Its sweet smells wafted to them and they knew it to be more beautiful than any island they had ever seen. For five days they had slowly moved along its northern shore, probing the reefs for an entry and an anchorage, looking for a beach where they might land without wetting their muskets. Their contact with the islanders had been good and bad. The islanders who had come to the ship were full of antics, made speeches at the sailors, threw plantain branches into the sea, made small gifts of food. But when the ship's cutter went closer to survey the bottom, the canoes crowded in threateningly. Already the 'Dolphins' had killed and wounded some islanders to show the force of the musket and to drive off the great double-hulled vessels that could easily overwhelm their cutter. In the wardroom the officers deliberated whether they should risk a landing or hurry on to Tinian, four thousand miles away, and let the Pacific do its worst to them in the shortest possible time.
They really had no choice. Their bruised bodies, their suppurating gums, their swollen faces told them that. They had to stop their own rot with fresh food and get water in quantity before they went on. Matavai was their saving. The bay lay calm and deep behind the reef. A river curved behind the bend of the black sand beach. 'Port royal' they called it, with half a dream for a British rather than Spanish Main that never was to be, but Matavai, its native name, in the end held the day. They had a scare as they ran aground on a reef inside the bay. Once off they wee soon at anchor, undamaged except for a scrape on the Dolphin's new and experimental copper sheathing. Around them stretched a panorama engraved forever as paradise on the European mind. The 'Dolphin' saw the panorama more pragmatically. Their cannon could sweep it all, from off the port bow at what was to be later known as 'Point Venus', for the planet observed there, to 'Skirmish' or 'One Tree Hill' or Tahaaara, two miles around on the starboard side.
At Matavai the score of the first meeting of European Stranger and Tahitian Native came to its counterpoint. The bits and pieces of contact became dramatised, staged for the understanding it gave them of one another. In the calm of the bay, the ship's people and the land's people could organise their confrontation and in that sense make a meaningful. Captain Wallis could have simply fed his men and watered his ship, and gone on. But he needed to 'make history' by 'taking possession' of the island he had 'discovered'. For that, proprieties needed some play. The Tahitian, to believe their later legendary memory, saw their prophecies of being visited by canoes without outriggers fulfilled, but they also began to collect themselves in Matavai for a more dramatic reception that made more mythical sense to them.
The 'Dolphins' prepared their ship with the suspicion that they might be attacked and the expectancy that if they were to get food and water they must discover a trade. Their preparations for fighting were well practised. They divided into four watches, loaded the great guns with shot and grape, armed every man with pistol and cutlass. They varied in their count of the canoes around them, but they were agreed these numbered between four and six hundred. Perhaps four thousand natives manned them. No doubt the 'Dolphins; were apprehensive, but they had also smarted a little under the captain's instructions to 'test the temper' of the natives in the days before. They had suffered the indignity of cuffs and rough treatment and uncomprehending exchanges and now were not averse to teaching the natives a lesson. There was, as well an ambiguity in the situation. The 'Dolphins' had an etiquette for killing when they fought. They fought with rules, about prisoners and prizes, about surrender and the niceties of chivalry. But on the edge of this battle, the Natives were other. Their ortherness was nowhere so marked as in the wanton antics of the women who stood on the prows of most of the canoes. The women lifted their wraps and flaunted their nakedness. They made unmistakable gestures and responded to ribaldry of the seamen as if sex had its own universal language of natural signs.
In the middle of this sea of sexuality, and in a canoe that everybody noted for its magnificence and for the 'awning' over the platforms that joined its double hull, was some sort of native director. The 'Dolphins' guessed he was one of the 'principal inhabitance'. He was wrapped in red-stained tapa cloth. He offered bunches of red and yellow feathers. It was he, someone said, who gave the signal with the wand in his hand. Thousands pulled pebbles from the ballast of their canoes and showered the Dolphin with painful accuracy. The Dolphin responded with awful effect. 'It would require Milton to describe', her master wrote. The canoes were smashed with round shot. When the natives rallied after the first shock and seemed to be returning, the three-pounders were loaded with seventy musket balls apiece and when the canoes we within three or four hundred yards they were sprayed, with 'considerable loss'. The great guns concentrated on the large canoe. It was the 'King of the Island', the 'Dolphins' thought. They admired the courage of those in the five or six canoes who stayed with the king even though he became the target of their firing. They will think us gods. Some of the crew said. and others worried what revenge the natives might take if they came with firebrands. By nightfall the powder-smoke had gone and the officers discussed whether it was spices they now smelled on the warm heavy air. They would marvel later how little effect all this killing seemed to have on the natives. It seemed to justify their own carelessness. The real politik of discovery and possession meant the native was not owed the ordinary etiquettes of war. The 'Dolphins' could think of nothing better to do in the aftermath of the slaughter than to 'act haughty' to the natives and teach them to trade more sensibly.
How the natives saw the Strangers is, by any standard of objective discourse, nothing more than informed guess. Yet to say that the meeting on the part of the natives was a co-ordinated and dramatised reception seems certain. That it was invented for the novelty of the conditions also seems certain. Their invention was suffused with their own old cosmological familiarities. it was not a "natural" scene just because the Strangers saw it suffused with their own familiarities. The co-ordination of the natives' attack was not at the hands of the 'king of the island'. There was no 'king of the island', and later there was a strange silence about this incident of violence among those who had ambitions to be 'king of the island' when the European visits became more frequent.
It made no sense in the Tahitian way of things to see the 'king of the island' as a chief performing a political or territorial role, no matter how natural it seems that they should have been defensive against an invading 'other'. The 'other' of their wars and battles was always territorially specific - other alliances, other islands. The 'other' of this encounter was much more genetic to their categories of identity. The women performing 'wanton tricks' in the canoes were a clue that something other than battle or ambush was in their minds. We know something of Tahitian war at sea. They had their etiquettes of killing too. They had their ceremonies of engagement and disengagement. In one of these were women performing 'wanton antics'. But in other circumstances, especially in the rituals of 'Oro, women's dancing was sacramental to the presence of the god. Like the tufts of red and yellow feathers, women caught the eye of the divine to focus it on prayer or an offering. Indeed, failing these, abuse of and aggression towards he gods were now unknown. Tahitian gods were not so distantly divine, even 'Oro, that they could not be tested and contested. There was no great contradiction seen in raising he attention of the gods by arousing their lust or making them angry.
No doubt it is commonsensical on our part to read the hurled pebbles and signalled attack as ordinary ambush. A keen perception by the Tahitians of the lust in the seamen's eyes might have led to a strategy of subterfuge in staging the women's dancing. The Tahitian had no experience of cannon and were not necessarily convinced of the power of the musket. Native greed. Strangers' callousness, misread signs are thus the commonsensical history of the event. But they are not, and it is common sense that is the deceiver. Greed, callousness and misread signs have their play, but the 'king of the island' was likely to have been an arioi master of a lodge or a priest of 'Oro. His double canoe was no battleship. it was likely to have been 'Rainbow'. The awning he stood on was likely to have covered the ark of 'Oro's accountrements, and who knows, the maro ura. What the Tahitians saw on the Dolphin was Tahitian gods, divine in the Tahitian way. Their agnosticism, their relativism was a long way off, long after the Dolphin's going, long after the supposedly humanising effect of the 'Dolphins' very ordinary behaviour. Tahitians were adept at seeing h divine in the human, whatever out. Tahitians were adept at seeing the divine in the human, whatever the contradictions. It is a Stranger's view, not a Native's, that thee is a necessary contradiction between common-sense realism and mythical understanding. Missionaries would later be scandilised at idolaters' irreverences to their idols, as if reverential piety were a measure of belief. Cook, and later Bligh, was cynically convinced of the superficiality of Native beliefs because each had seen the natives' distracted, formalistic behaviour in rituals. Natives as well as Strangers, ourselves as well as others, easily bridge apparent contradictions between myth and common sense. The insider knows that myth and common sense answer different questions.
What always embarasses the Stanger's effort to understand the Native is the Stranger's insistence that the Native perceptions should be literal, while the Stranger's own perception are allowed to be metaphoric. So the Tahitian natives' supposed belief that the European Strangers were gods, 'from beyond the sky', is seen as a belief of literal equivalence between man and god, easily dispelled by the very ordinary behaviour of lusty, cantankerous seamen. Whereas the Strangers' more typical understanding of themselves is that they hold things in their varied meaning, so that there is for the Stranger no difficulty in taking 'he is a god' into any number of metaphors about perfection in physical beauty or intelligence or morality, without any necessary incarnational literalness. So that if one argues that the Native Tahitians received the Dolphin in a dramatic play that made sense to them out of their cosmology of 'Oro, there is a half expectancy that the illogicality or contradiction in the experience should have destroyed the literalness of their understanding. Their consequent make-believe in the face of contradiction is seen as either a sign of native simplicity, or as evidence that they were by this forced into a cultural agnosticism that was the seed of change.
History, myth, sacrament, ritual do not work that way. They all colligate the past and make understandings that bring order to the present. They do not prophesy what will happen or give a rubric for future behaviour. They make sense of what has happened by economising the wealth of possible causes of events down to principal determinants that really matte. This, from another perspective, is the issue that Marshall Sahlins addressed in Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities. The Hawaiians had a mythic understanding of Cook as the god Lono. They did not, because of that, act out the narrative of their legends with predictable literalness. Non-mythic factors in the event - fear, anger, imprudence, pride - had their impact. But these factors, like all the other inconsistencies and contradictions and novelties surrounding the events did not matter beside the simplicities that came from a few recognisable clues. To suggest, as I do, that the Tahitian Natives put the arrival of the European Strangers into the context of their beliefs about 'Oro with all the resonances those beliefs had in politics, religion and society, is not to write the history of their contact. What 'actually happened' is inevitably reduced in the story of it to a finite mixture of infinite actions and meanings. What significantly happened for the Tahitian natives was much simpler. The arrival of the Dolphin was the occasion of another 'Oro incarnation or materialisation and all the Tahitian associations of sovereignty and sacrifice, of colony and coming from 'beyond the sky', of alliance and title, were at work. it did not matter that the Tahitians were soon to discover that the 'Dolphins' wee very much flesh and blood qualities of deified chiefs and the man-made quality of deified things. Their transformations of their past and present experience wee about a much more real and immediate world beneath the appearances of things.
The Dolphin sailed into Matavai by what might always have been but certainly by her entry became, a sacred passage off the marae Tarahoi. She was, by any measure the Tahitians had, a special ship, of the quality of 'Rainbow', even perhaps of the quality prophesised when news of similar vessels that had visited other islands reached Tahiti. She screamed with the magnificent decoration of white sail and bunting and flag. The Tahitians offered her, from the moment they saw her, 'Oro's token human sacrifice. The plantain branches they offered her, the inducement of naked dance and sexual gesture by which 'Oro's presence was attracted to his sacred marae, spoke the metaphors by which they grasped the novelty of her arrival. Slain pigs, the bunched red and yellow feathers, which no doubt meant that at some Taputapuatea a human sacrifice was lying, made the novelty familiar. If the tone and direction of myths of 'Oro collected later are any indication, the Dolphin came like the marvellous canoes of old from afar and Tahitian expectancy, be the occasion for re-instatement and investiture of the ari'i rahi, be the circumstance for alliance and treaty, and the establishment in them of some hegemony. The arrival at Matavai was true to the myth of how 'Oro would arrive to colonise a new place. it had happened at Taiarapu long ago and more recently at Ata-Huru. The novelties did not matter, nor even the contradictions. The Tahitians were entertained by its simple meaning.
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