Possessing Tahiti - Social Actions Of A Symbolic Kind


The day after the violence was quiet. All day the Tahitians used 'a great deal of ceremony'. They stood in their canoes, peered hard at the Dolphin, made long speeches, held high their plantain branches. they clearly watched every move of the 'Dolphins' and if a sailor 'looked surly' or if there was any gesture that seemed hostile, the Tahitians held their branches high. in the end they threw their branches into the sea and came toward the Dolphin. Pointing to the shore and talking to the ship all the while, they threw a plantain branch on board. by this they had made a sacrifice and in their eyes made the situation manageable, for they then began to trade quite freely. the trade that afternoon was interrupted for a while when a seaman defrauded a Tahitian and the native made as if no strike the seaman and created a great fuss. The seaman, already bruised by the stones of the day before and no doubt remembering that he had tried to kill these same natives, was given a dozen lashes by Wallis. For him, it was s rueful token of the ambiguities of every meeting of Native and Stranger. 

the 26 June was the day for possession, the first of many such days for Tahiti as it turned out. Wallis took possession of Tahiti in the name of George III with a pennant and a pole, a turned sod, a toast to the King's good health and three British cheers. Nine months later, Comte Louis Antoine de Bougainville buried an oak plank inscribed with the message that Tahiti belonged to the French. He left the names of all his men in a bottle. Then the Spaniards, when they came, set up a Holy Cross, processed to it with lighted candles, sang their litanies, said a mass, fired their muskets and their guns, wrote a solemn little contention to themselves. Elsewhere it was different and the same. three crosses on Easter Island for Spaniards, cairns and inscriptions in New Zealand for the British, white flags in Tonga for the Dutch. turning the sod, pennies in a bottle, throwing sand into the sea, loyal toasts, carvings on a tree, scratchings on a piece of paper, showing the colours, nailing copper and lead plates to a post, ancient ceremonies of 'turfe and twygge' and English called them: solemn acts 'to bring faith and testimony in public forms' was the Spanish phrase.

Wallis, being in bed ill, sent Tobias Furneaux, his second lieutenant, to take possession of Tahiti. When Furneaux lined up eighteen able seamen, a sergeant with his twelve marines and three 'young gentlemen' or midshipmen on the black sand of Matavai bay, he was making ritual. He was making signs about authority and power, dominance and proper order; authority, power, dominance and proper order were established in the making of the signs of them. Presumably Captain Wallis could have shouted out from his sickbed, 'this island belongs to us' but that was not 'the right way of doing things'. That did not contain the double talk of straight lines, smart appearances, silence in the anks, snapped orders, reverences to the flag. the ritual occasion is marked off from everyday actions by special languages, formal postures, the slow motion of meaningful gesture, the fancy dress of formal occasions, careful etiquette. thee is always a 'priest' at ritual moments, someone who knows the established ways of doing things, someone who plans and marshalls the actions. Or there is a book of rubrics, a permanent record of the order of things. Of course in social actions of a symbolic kind it is always, in the phrase made famous about the thick description of them, 'wink upon wink upon wink'. the actions are a t4ext in which the abstract realities are mythically read, certainly, but the participants might be at the same time a ritual about the hierarchy of authority between seamen, midshipmen, servant and second lieutenant, or as in the case of the possession of Tahiti, it might have been telling the sailors about the wardroom divisions of their superiors. this was not the first time that the first lieutenant of the dolphin, 'Mr. Growl' they called him, was absent and the running of the ship and its occasions had fallen to the young and willing Toby Furneaux. Standing at attention, looking with a fixed gaze, feeling the ambience of sight and sound, even perhaps sensing the irony between their bedraggled condition and the solemnity of the symbols, they made ritual of never-ending amplification in its meaning. 

Tobias Furneaux marshalled his guard on the beach. Behind him in the bay were three boats, Mr. Molyneux in charge. Their musquetoons were trained on the small crowd of natives gathering on the far side of the stream. Behind the boats was the dolphin, cannons trained on the same target. the guard set a pole and pennant, or 'pendant' as was the navy's word. The pole was nothing grand or permanent, a spare spar, but tall enough to let the tapering colours stand free, and firm enough to hold them stiff in the breeze. The colours were red. James Cook saw them years later and simply called them 'British Colours' and, as we have seen, William Bligh sketched them and called them 'red buntin'. Whether red, then why red, might seem idle questions, but being curious about symbolic action is more complicated than idle. Furneaux would have asked his wardroom colleagues and then his captain which have asked his wardroom colleagues and then his captain which was correct, or he would have known that British colours were more appropriate than naval colours in acts of possession. And if accidents affected properties - say that they had none of the proper bunting to spare - its replacement would not have been made because only the 'indians would see'. Who saw it was themselves and the proprieties observed were a currency in their own relationship, about being responsible, about being a good officer. there is a comment from a later date about naval ceremonies hat is relevant:

'Ceremony is to a marked degree the cement of discipline and upon discipline the service tests. Worth of ceremony rests mainly upon the fact that it binds us to the past while at the same time it lends an air of dignity and respect in all official relations'. And the same author quotes Alfred t. Mahan on Admiral John Jervis, a man of these times, who had a strong belief in the value of forms and the habits of reverence:

'The very atmosphere he breathed was saturated with reverence. Outward reverence to he national flag, to salute the quarterdeck as the seat of authority were no vain show. conventional good manners, rendering the due of each to each knit together the social fabric, maintain the regularity of common life, remove friction, suppressing jars and ministering constantly to the smooth and even working of the social machinery'.

There is a phrase we use when we see other people doing something memorable or beating some record or doing things for the first time. We say they are 'making history'. contained within the phrase is a sense that what is remembered will change the environment in which others will act. they will have to respond in some way to the history that has been made. Samuel Wallis and Toby Furneaux were 'making history' in taking possession of Tahiti. They did not impose any system of ownership on Tahitian land. They did, however, leave an historical marker. they acted out events done with proprieties which they expected others to recognise. That memory of an act of possession was meant to change the relations of other sovereignties to this land now possessed. When James cook came to Tahiti lager and found that the Spaniards had written Carolus Tertius Imperator on their Holy Cross, he scratched it out and wrote Georgius Tertius Rex there instead. The Spaniards were furious for years. The Viceroy of Peru constantly tried to get another expedition together to scratch out Cook's inscription. It was not as if Wallis began British empire in the Pacific: he left no delegates, he built no forts. he simply 'made history' with the presumption that the history he made would hold others to the efficacy of his symbolic acts.

This is the beginning of events in the Pacific that have virtually no concern with the Pacific at all, but with the ways France, Spain, England, the United States, Portugal, the Netherlands, Russia, Germany, Chile, Peru, Australia, new Zealand and Japan have tried to make the other see the symbolism of their history making. It might be a fancied insult to a British consul in Papeete, or a slight to a French missionary in Hawaii. It might be a claim that an American trader had 'discovered the island first. It might be a diplomat's argument that an island on his Pacific map was strategically placed on the 'crossroads' between China and Cape Horn, Panama and Sydney. empires would jostle one another to impose some hegemony for their historical markers. Maybe one might be skeptical that the appearances of things should be so determining of the reality of things, but recently Britain and Argentina were at war - more accurately, were fighting a 'non-war' - in the Falklands. the historical markets about which that non-war was fought and the past joined to the present were made in the very years Tahiti was possessed b the same English, French and Spaniards making the same rituals. Wallis 'made history' in his acts of possession. He performed formal acts of which there was made a formal institutional memory. the King of England proclaimed the memory when he sent cook out to the Pacific to explore it further. The Stranger nations stored their memories of possession against one another and made sense of the past to rationalise their current divisions and statues.

Wallis left a more concrete historical marker at Tahiti. he left his flat on its pole. By the time Furneaux had read his proclamations and lauded the pennant to its place, a crowd of four or five hundred Tahitians had gathered on the bank of the river that divided them from the beach. They each held a plantain branch, a forest of a crowd, a crowd of sacrifices. If a flag might stand for something else - for nation, for legitimate power - if gestures around a flag might stir moods and sentiments of loyalty and pride, then so might a plantain branch. Cook remarked three years later how ever present was the symbol of the plantain, and how effective. it was a sign of pace, of deference, of sacrifice. Ta'ata meia roa, 'man long plantain' it was called, when a branch was offered to a god or to a chief as substitute for a human offering. Pulled from it natural environment where it abounded in rich variety, the plantain branch could calm an angry man, placate a god, legitimate a chief, given the conditions in which the sign could be read. As a flag could stir a manly bosom given martial music, a solemn tread and a supportive crowd, so a plantain branch might raise reverential awe, given the smell of rotting sacrifices, the shade of sacred trees, the beat and tone of a temple drum, the call of sacred birds, and the deferences of bared torsos and averted faces. It was the ambience of ritual action that made an environment in which the symbols worked. This was not easily experienced by Strangers. Instead of being entertained - held between the ordinary movements of social experience in a space to read the meanings of actions - the Strangers were the observers, catching the symbols but not the signs, translating the conventionalities of the Other's signals but not their meaning. to the Strangers the forest of sacrifices looked like a Palm Sunday procession and was depicted as such in Hawkesworth's publication of Wallis' voyage.

The Tahitians had their own layers of meanings, their own 'wink upon wink upon wink' to discern in the Strangers' ceremonies on the spit of land between sea and river. The Native Tahitians were intrigued for more than twenty-five years at the symbols of the Strangers' flags and their ceremonies about them. During Cook's stay at Tahiti as well as Bligh's, bored as the Tahitians became with the exotic behaviour of Strangers, they would collect nonetheless for their evening parades and their ceremonies about the flag. Even the Bounty mutineers erected their flagpole on Sundays would have large crowds to see them haul their flag. Before such fundamentalisms of authority Tahitians never ceased to have an anthropological wonder. On the occasion of the dolphins arrival in 1767, whatever else the Tahitians saw they interpreted it as a moment in which sacrifices were owed and they came with their forest of plantain branches to make them.        

When the 'Dolphins' left the beach and returned to the ship, they saw the crowd of natives approach the flag tentatively. with many gestures of deference, the islanders laid plantains at its foot and an offering of pigs. they were startled at the movements of the flag in the breeze. An old man came nearly all the way to the Dolphin in a canoe and made a formal speech. The sailors did not know its meaning, but it seemed to concern the flag. he threw a plantain branch into the sea and made an offering of pigs to the people on the ship as he had done to the flag, as if he had struck an agreement. With others he took the flag down and carried it away. That night the 'Dolphins' saw many large fires along the shore and on the sides of the hill. 

Next morning early, a crowd of several thousand processed along the coast. In the midst of them a young man held the flag aloft on a pole. They seemed to be making for a cluster of canoes near the marae Tarahoi. the 'Dolphins', worried that it augured a repetition of the day before, broke up the crowd with a few cannon shots, then harassed them with grape, and destroyed the canoes. when the remnants of the crowd collected at Tahaara, 'Siirmish Hill', the 'Dolphins' fired their cannon again, so that the crowd could see the balls bouncing across the landscape, ploughing through the trees. The cutter was sent in to the canoes and the crew finished with axes what the cannon had not done. Perhaps the 'Dolphins' were correct in surmising that the flag was being taken to the canoes. We cannot know. It was unlikely that thee was to be another attack however. right-handed processions, like those of makahiki, described by Sahlins for Hawaii, wee rituals for acknowledging sovereignty. later, other British flags acquired by the Pomares were carried at the head of these processions. In all probability the Tahitians were making for some canoe, some other Rainbow of 'Oro. We know they were soon to take the flag to the other side of the island, to the district of Papara, to a marae called Mahaiatea then being built or about to be built by the chief of the Landward Teva, Amo, and his wife, Purea. Amo and Purea were about to make an invention. Amo's name meant 'Wink'. they were indeed about to put 'wink upon wink upon wink'. 

Making Englishmen's Fantasies Work

Purea, or 'Oberea' as a much wider English public began to know her, was about to enter the stage of history as the 'Queen of Tahiti'. She was not queen, of course, but a royal personage was needed to make the Englishmen's fantasies work. how they invented her and she invented them belongs to the story of how Native and Stranger became symbiotic to one another, how they possessed one another. Indeed one has to say, even if the complications become confusing, he inventing of Purea did not end with the eighteenth century. Inventing Purea has been part of a long historical process and is illustrative not merely of the ways Native and Stranger become environmental to one another but also of the ways of the past becomes environmental to the present.

Purea entered the stage modestly enough. Two weeks after the rituals of possession, George Robertson, the master of the Dolphin, saw a small fleet of ten or twelve double canoes, all wearing streaming pennants of red, white, blue and yellow, land near the marae of Tarahoi. then Mr. Pickersgill 'on a walk in the country' ten days after that came upon a great house, the 'palace' as it came to be called. There he was entertained by the queen, and she in turn was fed hand to mouth by her 'ladies in waiting'. On 20 or perhaps 11 July - there is some conflict in the records - Purea came on board the dolphin. the captain treated her royally and there began a series of pseudo-social occasions in which Wallis and his officers displayed their civilised ways and enjoyed the gaffes that showed the satire in savage queens. they laughed at her simplicities in handling telescopes and cutlery and mirrors, but they were divided in their opinion at her extravagant sorrow at their departure as to whether i was a subterfuge to ambush them again, whether it was the childishness of natives, or whether it was they who were something special. On the whole they seemed to like their relations with this queen-but-not-a-queen in them they had control over their own marginality.

In the way of things, the day-to-day relations of Purea with the officers of the dolphin were less important than the history of them. that history was to compress Purea into one invention of two ethnographic encounters. No sooner had Wallis returned to England than Cook was sent out to Tahiti to check on Wallis' supposed sighting of the Great south Land and to measure the Transit of Venus across the sun for the royal society. the young Joseph Banks went with him. Cook and Banks found the politics of Tahiti changed. More correctly, they found they had to change their suppositions about the politics of Tahiti. Purea and Amo had been defeated in their plan to establish their son Teri-i-reree as the most highly titled and the most politically significant figure on Tahiti. The seaward Teva had erupted from Taiarupu, massacred many of the people of Papara and destroyed any hopes Purea and Amo had of making Mahaiatea the ritual centre of the island, the treasure house of the maro ura, and specifically of the maro ura with Wallis' pennant sewn into it. The maro ura had gone now to Utu'aihamurau at Pa'ea.

Purea was no longer 'queen'. The politics of the island, in so much as it concerned the Strangers, was in the hands of Tu and his line, the chiefs of Pare-Arue, near Matavai. These real events hardly made any difference to the history of them. Purea was about to be present4d as queen to the public of England in the recounting of them. In that way Tahiti was about to be possessed in another way. Cook returned to England in July 1771 and within five months was on his way to the Pacific on his second voyage, too briefly at home to publish an account of his first discoveries. Joseph Banks was in a huff at not being allowed to dominate another Grand Tour of the Pacific, and in any case was involved in the harum-scarum of his social-scientific life. The task of presenting the Pacific discoveries of Byron, Wallis, Cartaret and Cook was given to Dr John Hawkesworth by the Admiralty. Hawkesworth was a savant, more of a moralist than a geographer. The Admiralty contracted him, but he publishers, William Strathan and Thomas Cadell, made sure his Voyages would be entertainment by giving him 6000 pounds for the copyright, the largest payment in England for the whole of the century. Hawkesworth did not live to enjoy the money. within months of publishing his volumes he had died, killed by the anxieties which the jealousies, scandals and criticism of his work had raised. Possessing the Other is always filtered by the more immediate concerns of the familiar.

Dr Kawkesworth was a reflective man, very conscious of what he was about when he was translating other men's ethnographic moments. Was it his book? Who was the 'I' of the author that joined the navigators', different experiences? What did it mean to join not one but dozens of logs and journals together? What was the real experience - the dull data of sailing or the moral issues of the encounter? he had a sense that if his book was about Pacific discoveries it was also a vehicle for something else. that something else, his sense of the universal significance of totally particular events, is what got him into trouble. His critics were loud. the sailors, who he purported to represent, said he was not kike them at all. Dr Samuel Johnson, always cantankerous about natives and foreign places, thought that for Hawkesworth there were better things to write about for Banks better things to do. Horace Walpole got into a fluster. John Wesley disapproved. All sorts of people did not read the Voyages for the reputation that the critics gave it. it was an 'attack against religion and an outrage against decency', and 6000 pounds was just too much to pay for what many believed they themselves could do better.   

The extravagance of the critics' rage concerned almost everything about Hawkesworth's book, but they reserved a special sense of scandal that a moralist, who had been given a Doctor of letters for his uplifting thought, should have displayed the gross sexuality of the Tahitians and the randiness of Mr. Banks. There was horror, as well that Dr. Hawkesworth should have denied what everybody knew to be a 'particular Providence' in the saving of Cook's Endeavour after its shipwreck on the Australian coast. A 'Christian' who boned Hawkesworth in the press for months said it all:

'Our women may find in Dr Hawkesworths' book stronger Excitement to vicious indulgences than the most intriguing French Novel could present to their imaginations - and while our Mariners no longer look up to the Almighty for Deliverance from shipwreck - or feel Gratitude rise in their Breasts on being saved from impending Evils - our Libertines ma throw aside the Women of Pleasure, and gratify their impure minds with the Perusal of infinitely more lascivious Recitals than are to be found in that scandalous Performance'. 

Actually, Dr. Hawkesworth was a disturber, an entertainer, on two counts. His exposition of native sexual customs was history, a story of what happened, not a fantasy. To tell it he had to affect a neutrality which, in his critics' eyes, he did not have by his telling it. His suspension of judgement was seen as a judgement. He disturbed and entertained in his relativist stance. Hawkesworth had remarked that he did not think it was by a particular divine intervention that the Endeavour was saved when the wind dropped as she ran aground on a reef off the New Holland coast. It ws no more especially providential, he said, than the sun rising every morning. It was his comment on an old and unfinished debate about the efficacy of prayer and the problem of evil. 'but it was transformed from a theologian's squabble into a confrontation about myth by the dramaturgy of his contentious publication. The fever of excitement about Pacific discoveries, the fever of excitement about a book that was 6000 pounds, the fever of excitement about the gossip concerning famous people, all transformed private opinion that did not matter into a public declaration of faith on which civilisation was seen to turn. People who would never have read Hawkesworth berated him for undermining the confidence of the masses who prayed for a helping intervention by a loving God. 

Without wanting to over-dramatise matters for the sake of a small point, let me say that within a European culture on the edge of a revolution in its own myths about the relationship of the supernatural and the natural, Hawkesworth's view on a 'particular providence' became an occasion in which many, in being forced to look at the Other, were entertained by ambiguities they discovered in themselves. 'Entertained', you will have noticed, i have begun to use with special stress. I refer to those social moments in which by many signs and actions we establish a setting in which we abstract or display the meaning of what we do. Purea appeared in Hawkeswowth's An Account of the voyages . . . by Commodore Bryon, Captain Wallis, Captain Cartaret, and Captain Cook in an engraving entitled 'A representation of the surrender of the island of Otaheite to Captain Wallis by the supposed Queen Oberea'. She was depicted as presenting a plantain branch as if it were a palm branch of peace. Behind her came a procession of her people, bowing and deferential to Wallis who held his musket like a sceptre and was supported by his guard who looked like a troop of Hessian mercenaries. A large crowd of Tahitians looked on, out of a pavilion-like grass hut. it was , of course, a 'representation' of a 'surrender' that never took place, with gestures that could never have been made. In that it was both as abstract and as concrete as Toby Furneaux's rituals of possession on the beach. In being history of something that never happened, it abstracted a truth whose accuracy did not matter: 'Tahiti belongs to us'. but Purea became famous in England most of all, because she had a tattooed bum, because she orchestrated a public copulation, because she watched while a young girl danced naked before Banks, and because, while she slept with Banks, he had his clothes stolen. She entered the English imagination not as the Other but as a setting for an argument about morality and corruption. to know here was to know and laugh at the real Mr. Banks (Hawkesworth 1773: 1/243).

The British possessed Tahiti by compressing the complexities of their ethnographic moment into a few experiences made memorable because they displayed Tahiti as a mirror for themselves. Beginning with Hawkesworth's account, descriptions of Tahitian ways and the Tahitian environment began to accumulate in books, magazines and newspapers, in notes and programmes for museum collections, in caches of letters and journals, in the memories of myriad conversations with those who had been there. there is no measure of their impact other than guess. there is no way of knowing if the infinite variety of experience was drawn together in any one image of Tahiti. le me argue, however, that there was such a compression of this varied experience, a reduction to simplicities. these simplicities emerged not so much out of philosophical systems concerning soft primitivism or out of a romantic mood, as out of dramatic ironies in which the Strangers were entertained by themselves.   

to judge from the constant guffaws, one of the principal dramatic ironies turned on queen Oberea's 'pinked bum'. Maybe there has been a British cultural preoccupation with the lower anatomy over the centuries, but at the end of the eighteenth century there was clearly something very delicious in seeing the appearance of native courtly dignity shattered by the revelation of a 'tattowed breech'. Hawkesworth's account was followed by the publication of an extra-ordinary series of poetic and satirical letters. they wre purported to be written by many people - by a 'Professor of the Otaheite Language in Dublin and of all the languages of the undiscovered islands of the South Seas', by a Second Professor of the Otaheite and every other unknown language'. 'Oberea' herself supposedly wrote two to her lovers, one to Banks, one to Wallis. Omai, as her plenipotentiary, supposedly wrote to her and then to the 'Right Honourable the Earl of **, Late *******--Lord of the *******'. 'An officer at Otaheite' wrote to 'Lady Gr**v*n*r' a 'poetical epistle (Moral and Philosophical)', and a 'Lady of Quality' wrote to Omai. the 'Injured Harriet', Banks' jilted fiancee wrote to the 'presumptuous Indian' and 'savage usurper' 'Oberea'. the publications jabbed and jibed at Banks, stuck like a butterfly on his own collection board by the pin of his own naivety. They caught others as well, Lord Sandwich and his various ladies, 'the English arioi' of Pall Mall, venal bishops and ambitious bishops' wives, Methodist preachers with their 'bagpipical drawl' preaching messages 'dangerous to society'. And always there was the 'luscious' Hawkesworth who 'scenes obscene his pencil painted best'. These poems and letters cannibalised one another in their diversion: they came back again and again to the same incidents on the voyage. they made simplicities by repetition. they were redolent with classical and literary allusion: Dido and the Aeneid as representative of real high culture mocked the spurious charm of savages. They played the ironies every way - of English courtly cultivation seen through innocent primitive eyes, of raw savages seen by exquisite sophistication. 'Here painted faces bloom on every strum/in Otaheite we tattoo the bum'. 'Vain Oberea will in vain beseech/And to the bawdy winds betray her painted breech'.

Banks' botanical interests were the subject of every conceivable double entendre as critics explored the metaphorical field around his plant. 'Oberea' was a 'hapless fair one' for losing both her crown and her lover Banks. but she was also a 'hotty-tooty queen' for her easy morals. nothing gave an edge to their satire more than three sexual incidents in which Banks and Oberea played a part. one concerned a small Tahitian girl apparently marshelled by 'Oberea' and observed by Cook. the third was the stealing of Banks' vest and pistol while he slept on 'Oberea's' canoe. Thee was a fou4th whose context would take us too far afield. It was the subject of forbearing humour rather than satire. No doubt this was because promiscuity of the lower classes was less figurative than dissipation among the upper. This was the incident of the nails and the 'old trade of Tahitian women's sexual favours for the new currency of spikes and iron. there was a natural inflation as the women found there were bigger and longer nails. In these circumstances a nail was also a plant.

With nails we Traffic for the blooming maid
And the ships planks supply the dangerous trade
At last the fair ones see with strange surprise
Some nails produced of more than common size
The happy females with this treasure grac'd.
Display their triumphs and our coins debated.
In vain we sue, the Nymphs comply no more.
'Give us large nails', reaches from the shore.
(Poetical Epistle 1775)

Maybe there was a fifth interest that showed how the meeting of Other was translated into more self-centred concerns and were made memorable because of that. this was the furious debate as to who introduced the 'venereals' to Tahiti, Wallis or Bougainville? These British poems were sure that 'pining Venus mourns the gift of France' or were confident that when 'a Frenchman gave, a Briton heal'd the wound with Harray's patent venereal medicine. Beyond the poems, whose attention to venereal disease was slight, there wee louder and more official protests of British innocence. the matter was quickly transformed into an hour of national honour and international diplomacy, the continued memory or history of which affected 'Tahiti-Europe' relations for decades.

'Timorodee' became a word of some common usage at the end of the eighteenth century. It was taken to mean lascivious dancing of the sort that was performed for Banks by a young girl who ceremoniously, by his account,  'displayed her naked beauties' in making a present to him of the clothes that clothed her.

While, as she turns her painted bum to view,
With fronts unblushing, in the public shew,
They search each crevice with a curious eye,
To find Exotics - where they never lie.
O shame! Were we, great George, thy gallant crew,
And had we - damn it - nothing else to do,
But turn thy great design to filthy farce
And search for wonders or an Indian's a ...?
But then to print our tale!
O, curse the thought.
(Epistle from Mr Banks n.d.)

The public copulation of a young man and a girl of ten or twelve years at the gate of fort Venus under the direction of 'Oberea' was commented on by Cook. In his interpretation it was done 'more from custom than lewdness'. but Cook's niceties of judgement did not stop the howls of derision at such incipient cultural relativism. With barbarism so blatant, the soft savage was a mockery, and the lesson to be learned was that thee wee no lessons to be learned. the image of the young  Banks crying 'thief' in the middle of the night for the loss of his silver-frogged waistcoat and pistol while he lay naked beside his 'old friend Oberea' on her double-canoe was a gift beyond price for the satirist.

Didst thou not, crafty, subtle, sunburnt strum
Steal the silk breeches from his tawny bum?
Calls't thouself a Queen? and thus couldst use
And rob thy Swain of breeches and his shoes?

(Court of Apollo 1774)

It was a scene out of pantomime - I use the analogy advisedly for reasons that will become apparent. it was the farce of savage kingdoms, the malap0ropism of scientific gentlemen. 'Great Alexander conquered boys and belles', wrote the 'Injured Harriet'. 'Mine sailed the world around for cockle-shells'. What Wallis, cook and Banks saw and what Hawkesworth described were not 'exotics' at all. Banks' romantic effort, Cook's more puzzled attempt, Hawkesworth's tentative tries at discovering the Tahitians in their Otherness were denounced as insufferable license. the Tahitian were not not Other at all they were the same only worse. Even the most tenuous cultural relativism in understanding the Tahitians as they were threatened the common-sense realism. In the realpolitik of a joke all the world is the same. Strangers possess Natives in a laugh.



Purea and the whole context of her life comes to us through a chain of inventions and possessions by an infinite number of Strangers and by Purea's own Native descendants who in time became Srangers to her as well. the inventions of the Strangers came by way of their own historical reconstruction and out of many references, direct and indirect, made by later seamen and missionaries. Mostly these were a jigsaw of references to Tahitian men and women connected to Purea by marriage and descent. Much of it was in the way of reflections by the likes of Cook, Forster and Bligh, correcting he misinterpretations of one another. Its history, like all history's inventions, were made by what has been called colligation, the drawing together of the bits and pieces of many pasts, of many discoveries. 

Among the many little inventions of Purea, however, there has been one large one. It came a hundred years after her death, and it came from an unexpected pen, that of Henry Adams, American historian. wounded by his wife's suicide, inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's wanderings in the Pacific, Adams arrived in Tahiti in 1891. there he was more bored than enchanted, but in his last days as he looked for a ship to get away he met with an old woman of nearly seventy years, Arii Taimai. He met her, as it chanced, at the ceremonial opening of a bridge. The bridge has been built with the stones of the dismantled marae Mahaiatea, the sacred place which Amo and Purea had built for their son in 1767-8 in the days of their high ambitions. The old woman was pleasantly garrulous, full of the legends her father had taught her. Arii Taimai was of the Teva clan. her great-grandfather had been Amo's brother. she had, in her own name, title to more than thirty Tahitian marae. She had also been adopted by the widow of Pomare II, had spent nearly the whole of her life suspended in the web of rhetoric about dominance and legitimacy of Tahitian lines and titles.

For days on end in 1891 Arii Taimai talked to Henry Adams through the interpreter, her daughter Marau. Adams had to leave before he made sense of it all, but Marau forwarded further notes to him in Washington when he returned in 1892. Tari Salmon, son of Arii Tamai, visited Adams in Washington later in the same year. Adams returned the hospitality he had received in Tahiti and used Salmon as informant. Adams, back among his books, soon absorbed the accumulated history of Tahiti through the journals of Wallis, Cook, Bougainville and Bligh, as well as the publications of the London Missionary Society. with he extravagance of the wealthy and the fastidious, he had a few copies of his researches privately printed in 1893. then, feeling he had discovered his own American cultural commercialism in Tahitian idealism, he abandoned his mundane researches and went looking for his medieval spiritual roots in Europe. In 1908 he edited a version of the Memoirs of Arii Taimai. In it he maintained the fiction that it was Arii Taimai's pen that had written the memoirs. it is no great exercise of higher criticism to balance the heaviness and lightness of Adams' hand as he made an English text out of Tahitian memories interpreted to him in French by Arii Taimai's daughter. Every element of the Memoirs is a translation. None is so much a translation as Adams' projection of a Teva understanding of the past won from the experience of the waxing and waning fortunes of Purea who had lost, and of their enemies the Pomares who had lost and won and lost.

Henry Adams, speaking of Arii Taimai's voice, wrote of Purea: "If a family must be ruined by a woman, perhaps it may as well be ruined thoroughly and brilliantly by a woman who makes it famous'. As the Teva clan remembered her, Purea upset proprieties by demanding acknowledgment of her social superiority in symbolic ways. her son, a boy of eight or nine in 1767, was the most highly titled person in Tahiti, the possessor of both the maro ura and maro tea. In their policy, Tahitians had no difficulty in distinguishing the deference they owed to higher titles and the deference they owed to the politically dominant. Deference to high titles they paid at the sacred places of these titles, at the Taputapuatea in the case of titles that were owed sacrifice. Deference to political dominance they showed in submissive ceremony to symbols of extended authority. Submission ceremonies surrounded the acknowledgement of some sign of dominance as it was processed around the island. Political power was expressed not so much by the person and the presence of the ari'i as by the extension of his person in his symbols and by his messengers. It was acknowledged by gift and sacrifice. Purea's downfall occurred over her effort to equate the titled dominance of her son with the political dominance of herself and Amo. As the Teva told it, it was an affair of women. Purea, in building the marae Mahaiatea, imposed a rahui, a prohibition of food and behaviour that was the right of ari'i tahi alone to impose. to obey it was to acknowledge superiority. Two women, a sister and a brother's wife to Purea, challenged the rahui by paying formal visits to Purea. These formal visits demanded hospitality and therefore the lifting of the rahui between equals. the rift that followed Purea's refusal to acknowledge the women's equality and raise the rahui was said to be the cause of battle and then of the defeat of Purea that followed.

Different sources put the matter differently. After the investiture of Teri-i-reree at Mahaiatea, Amo and Purea wee said to have demanded the ceremonial submission that came with the procession of symbols around the island. Submission by the Seaward Teva was refused and in the battles that followed, Amo and Purea wee defeated and the maro and of Teri-i-reree moved to a new (but older) sacred place in Ahuru. this attempt by Amo and Purea to establish political hegemony over the whole island of Tahiti followed the Tahitian possession of the Wallis flag and its incorporation into a maro ura. The sources say quite explicitly that it was not the British jack that was paraded around the island but some other symbol. The most knowledgeable of modern historians of ancient Tahiti, Douglas Oliver, says that the favours the view that the British flag was incorporated in an already existing maro ura. It is, let their be no doubt, a question of guess and probability. Let me invent another sort of past out of what I see as a different set of likelihoods. 

The maro with the British colours was anew symbol. Descriptions of those who saw it say it was made of both red and yellow feathers, not just the red of the maro ura or the yellow-white of the maro tea. There is a logic in the combined colours that says that this maro had the qualities of all the others. The drawing Bligh made of it showed the bunting had been added to an existing maro, one would expect twenty years of sacrifices (from 1767 to 1788) to have enclosed the bunting with lappets of feathers. Let us say that the British flag, possessed by the Tahitians in the context of their 'Oro beliefs and seen by them as a symbol of political dominance and sovereignty after their violent disaster, was taken by the people of Amo and Purea to Papara. Thee it was constructed into a maro ura (the term is used generically by the Tahitians as well as specifically) that symbolised a different sort of title to a different sort of sovereignty.

Their translation was certainly some extension of the potentialities of their own symbol system. It was neither a totally new nor a totally old way of doing things. This new maro ura was in itself a history of the first native encounter with the Stranger. It was a moment, a text to be read by those with immediate knowledge of its meaning. it gave institutional continuity with all the structures and roles of its preservation and its ritual re-presentation. Perhaps Amo and Purea had already begun to build their new marae Mahaiatea before the dolphin had arrived. Perhaps the new maro demanded a special place. Certainly Mahaiatea was grander and more ambitious than any other sacred site on Tahiti and could have been something new for something new. The procession around the island demanded submission to a new sort of authority. That the Wallis flag itself was not processed more than one flag they did process with it, as they did at Pomare II's investiture. When they had several flags they attached them as well to their most sacred vessels, such as Rainbow, 'Oro's canoe. It makes sense to see the British possessing Tahiti in their flag and their violence, and Purea inventing an interpretive document of those events and making it symbols, of the hegemony she claimed.

Possessing Tahiti was a complicated affair. indeed, who possessed whom? Native and Stranger each possessed the other in their interpretations of the other. they possessed one another in an ethnographic moment that was transcribed into text and symbol. they each archived that text and symbol in their respective cultural institutions. They each made cargo of the things they collected from one another, put their cargo in their respective museums, remade the things they collected into new cultural artefacts. They entertained themselves with their histories of their encounter. Because each reading of the text, each display of the symbol, each entertainment in the histories, each viewing of the cargo enlarged the original encounter, made a process of it, each possession of the other became a self-possession as well. Possessing the other, like possessing the past, is always full of delusions.  

*     *     *     *     *

Tahiti Home Page

 click here Jane's Tahiti Home Page                 
      click here Jane's Oceania Home Page                  

Pacific Islands Radio Stations

 (E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 3rd November 2009)

eXTReMe Tracker
yahoo.gif (465 bytes)