by Marau Taaroa & Henry Adams


Meanwhile Europe had totally lost its first keen interest in Tahiti. Like an old fashion, the South Seas fell into the hands of unfashionable people such as missionaries and whaling-captains; the glamour vanished, and the worn-out excitement faded away. When Cook returned from his second voyage, he brought with him a young native from Raiatea named Omai, and rather apologetically explained that he was not a fair specimen of the islanders either in birth or appearance. He seemed surprised to find that this specimen of "the middling class of people" proved to be a social success in London. "Soon after his arrival the Earl of Sandwich the first Lord of the Admiralty, introduced him to his Majesty at Kew, when he met with a most gracious reception, and imbibed the strongest impression of duty and gratitude to that great and amiable prince, which I am persuaded he will preserve to the latest moment of his life". He remained two years in England, 1775-1776, "caressed by many of the principal nobility" and attained even the great distinction of approval from Doctor Johnson as was recorded by Boswell, whose sense of humor seems to have been in no way stirred by the characteristic remarks of Johnson on the subject of polite manners in England and elsewhere.

"He (Johnson) had been in company with Omai, a native of one of the South Sea Islands, after he had been some time in this country. He was struck with the elegance of his behavior, and accounted for it thus: 'Sir, he had passed his time while in England only in the best company, so that all that he had acquired of our manners was genteel'".

One would like to have Omai's impression of Johnson's manners, but Omai had no Boswell, and left no memoirs, although he left something as good, for his portrait was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and, no doubt, is valued more highly now than ever Omai was in his native island, even when Cook brought him back there in 1777, loaded with gifts, which were probably soon appropriated by his chiefs or neighbors. A few years afterwards, in 1785, before Omai had wholly passed from memory, the poet Cowper devoted to him a page or two in the first book of "The Task", which bore the odd title of "The Sofa". Whether it was that Cowper's melancholia caused him to see things as they are, or whether years had brought already a disillusionment that was to make rapid progress in European thought, certainly the lines in the "Sofa" contained more truth if not more poetry than anything which had been said till then on the subject of the South Seas:

"Thee, gentle savage, whom no love of thee
Or thine, but curiosity, perhaps,
Or else vain glory, prompted us to draw
Forth from thy native bowers, to show thee here
With what superior skill we can abuse
The gifts of Providence, and squander life.
........... Duly every morn
Thou climbst the mountain top, with eager eye
Exploring far and wide the watery waste
For sight of ship from England. Every speck
Seen in the dim horizon turns thee pale
With conflict of contending hopes and fears.
But comes at last the dull and dusky eve,
And sends thee to thy cabin, well prepared
To dream all night of what the day denied.
Alas! expect it not! We found no bait
To tempt us in thy country. Doing good,
Disinterested good, is not our trade.
We travel far, 'tis true, but not for nought;
And must be bribed to compass earth again
By other hopes and richer fruits than yours".
Cowper did his country injustice. The London Missionary Society was formed in 1795 for no other object than to do disinterested good, and selected the South Seas for its first field of operations. The missionary ship "Duff" set sail from England in August, 1796, and reached Tahiti in March, 1797.

Thirty years had elapsed between the coming of Captain Wallis in the Dolphin and the coming of the missionaries in the Duff. Little was left of all that had charmed the discoverers. In these thirty years Europe had also passed through the experience of centuries; the dreams of Rousseau and the ideals of nature were already as far away as the kingdom of heaven. In 1797 the philosophers were dead; the guillotine had disposed of the innate virtues of the human heart; and war had swept away most of the landmarks of old Europe, with much of its old population; but the wreck of society that had occurred in Europe was not to be compared with the wreck of our world in the South Seas. When England and France began to show us the advantages of their civilization, we were, as races then went, a great people. Hawaii, Tahiti, the Marquesas, Tonga, Samoa, and New Zealand made a respectable figure on the earth's surface, and contained a population of no small size, better fitted than any other possible community for the conditions in which they lived. Tahiti, being first to come into close contact with, the foreigners, was first to suffer. The people, who numbered, according to Cook, two hundred thousand in 1767, numbered less than twenty thousand in 1797, according to the missionaries, and only about five thousand in 1803. This frightful mortality has been often doubted, because Europeans have naturally shrunk from admitting the horrors of their own work, but no one doubts it who belongs to the native race. Tahiti did not stand alone in misery. What happened there happened everywhere, not only in the great groups of high islands, like Hawaii, with three or four hundred thousand people, but in little coral atolls which could support only a few score. Moerenhout, who was the most familiar of all travellers with the islands in our part of the ocean, told the same story about all. He was in the Austral group in 1834. At Raivavae he found ninety or a hundred natives rapidly dying, where fully twelve hundred had been living only twelve or fourteen years before. At Tubuaihe found less than two hundred people among the ruins of houses, temples and tombs. At Rurutu and Rimitara, where a thousand or twelve hundred people had occupied each, hardly two hundred were left, and while nearly all the men had died at Rimitara, nearly all the women had been swept away at Rurutu. The story of the Easter Islanders is famous. That of the Marquesas is almost as pathetic as that of Tahiti or Hawaii. Everywhere the Polynesian perished, and to him it mattered little whether he died of some new disease, or from some new weapon, like the musket, or from the misgovernment caused by foreign intervention.

No doubt the new diseases were the most fatal. Almost all of them took some form of fever, and comparatively harmless epidemics, like measles, became frightfully fatal when the native, to allay the fever, insisted on bathing in cold water. Dysenteries and ordinary colds, which the people were too ignorant and too indolent to nurse, took the proportion of plagues. For forty generations these people had been isolated in this ocean, as though they were in a modern sanata-rium, protected from contact with new forms of disease, and living on vegetables and fish. The virulent diseases which had been developed among the struggling masses of Asia and Europe found a rich field for destruction when they were brought to the South Seas. Just as such pests as the lantana, the mimosa or sensitive plant, and the guava have overrun many of the islands, where the field for them was open, so diseases ran through the people.

For this, perhaps, the foreigners were not wholly responsible, although their civilization certainly was; but for the political misery the foreigner was wholly to blame, and for the social and moral degradation he was the active cause. No doubt the ancient society of Tahiti had plenty of vices, and was a sort of Paris in its refinements of wickedness; but these had not prevented the islanders from leading as happy lives as had ever been known among men. They were like children in their morality and their thoughtlessness, but they flourished and multiplied. The Europeans came, and not only upset all their moral ideas, but also their whole political system. In old times, whenever a single chief became intolerably arrogant or threatened to destroy the rest, the others united to overthrow him. All the wars that are remembered in island tradition were caused by the overweening pride, violence or ambition of the great chiefs or districts, and ended in restoring the balance. The English came just at the moment when one of these revolutions occurred. The whole island had united to punish the chiefess of Papara for outrageous disregard of the courtesies which took the place of international law between great chiefs. They had punished Purea, had taken away the symbol of sovereignty she had assumed for her son, and had given it for safe-keeping to the chief of Paea. They had recognized the chief of Pare Arue as entitled to wear the Maro-ura, which Purea had denied him by insulting his wife. Then the chief of Paea had tried to imitate Purea and assert supreme authority, only to be in his turn defeated and killed. Probably Tu would have never attempted to imitate Tutaha and Purea if the English had not insisted on treating him as king of the whole island. He was one of the weakest of the chiefs and enjoyed little consideration as far as his military power was concerned. The other chiefs would have easily kept him in his place if the English had not constantly supported him and restored his strength when he was overthrown. English interference alone prolonged his ambition and caused the constant wars which gave no chance for the people to recover from their losses.

Pomare could gain his object in no other way than by destroying one after another the whole of the old chiefly class. As long as one of them survived he was sure to be the champion of the great body of islanders who detested the tyranny of a single ruler, and knew what such a tyranny meant for them. If their legends show nothing else, they show that the natives knew much more about tyranny, and had much more reason to dread it, than the English or the French had known for many centuries; and against such a despotism as Europe could not realize, their tribal system, with its chiefs, was their only protection. They clung to it, and Pomare had no choice but to succumb, or to destroy it. He was a consummate politician, for the art of politics was the life of the chiefly class, and every chief knew by instinct and by close personal contact the character and thought of every other chief on the island. Pomare knew that what he was trying to do could be done only by wholesale destruction, and that, in order to do it, he must depend on outsiders; white men or Raiateans or savages from the Paumotus. The missionaries knew it also, for Pomare made no secret of it, and they recorded it as though it did not concern them.

"In a conversation a brother had with Pomere [in October, 1800], the chief gave him to understand that there is a probability of war upon the island, but not directly. He did not seem to know who were his friends, or who his foes, but acknowledged the general desire of the people is a suppression of a monarchical form of government, and the reestablishment of independency in each district. It was observed to him that the arbitrary proceedings of Otoo were probably the cause of the present discontent. He did not deny it. Pomere wished much for a ship of war to arrive, which he supposed, by an interference in his favor, would restore tranquillity and confirm his and his son's authority. Or if a number of Englishmen like ourselves were to join us, and continue their residence among them in the manner we have done, he said he was sure there would be no war."

The missionaries' journals were as full of such evidence as the journals of Cook, Bligh, and Vancouver had been. All told how desperately the unfortunate people struggled against the English policy of creating and supporting a tyranny. The brutality and violence of Tu made him equally hated by his own people of Pare and by the Teva districts. I give a few such extracts to show what the missionaries saw and what they did.

"October 16 [1799].... Heard that five human sacrifices have, within a few days, been brought over from Eimeo to this island; also that many of the inhabitants of Opare (of the poorest sort) have fled to the mountains to avoid being seized for human sacrifices, as Otoo and Pomere are looking out for what they deem fit objects for that purpose.... It appears that these things are preparations for the purposed war, and that Pomere is doing what other blind heathens have done before him, laboring to bribe his idol-god to be propitious to him, and to forsake the district of Attahooroo.

"October 17. It is said the cause of the present war with Attahooroo is that the inhabitants of that district have resented the tyrannical and oppressive conduct of the chiefs, who exercise with an high hand their authority over those subject to their power.

"January 1, 1800. At one in the afternoon Otoo, Pomere and Edea assembled before brother Eyre's apartment, and the brethren presented unto each a musket and one four-pound cartridge."

[Letter to the. Rev. John Love, for the directors of the Missionary Society, January 14, 1800J. -- "This island is at present in a state of tranquility, but we fear ere long it will be involved in war, as a great disagreement is subsisting between Otoo, Pomere, &c., and the district of Attahooroo, one of the most powerful divisions of the island. From the Eliza has been landed on Pomere's account (without any interference of ours) one eighteen-pound carronade, two swivels, several muskets, and a great deal of ammunition."

"May 21. Hear there are commotions among the lower classes of natives against Pomere, chiefly on account of his tyrannical conduct (it is said) in frequently plundering them of their little property.

"May 23. Rumors of war still continue. It is reported that the commonalty are much moved against the principal chiefs, and are wanting to root them up altogether, and to restore the ancient form of government to the island: that is, every district to be subject to its own chief, without the acknowledgment of a superior over him. Our present situation appears very dangerous, but the Lord sitteth above the flood, and our times are in his hands. The depredations and wanton-ness practiced by Otoo's people upon the commonalty are said to be among the causes for the desire of a change of government....

"January 21,1801. War is still the subject of conversation around us; the common people harboring destructive thoughts against Pomere and all his family....

"January 31.... It is surprising what havock disease has made since we have been on the island [March, 1797]. Matavai is almost depopulated in comparison to what it once was, according to the accounts given by the natives; and not only this district but the whole island....

"February 2. Brothers Eyre and Henry, who were to-day out about the district, visiting the natives, bring a melancholy report of the appearances of things. The country very scantily peopled; the low lands overrun with long grass and underwoods which form swamps, stop the circulation of air, and tend much to the unhealthiness of the inhabitants; add to which the spirit of disaffection that is prevailing among the lower classes against Pomere and Otoo.

"March 6. This day four years we arrived at Otaheite, and have hitherto been preserved in a very kind and gracious manner. At present we see no good arising from our residence among the Otaheitans.

"June 26. A vessel came in sight.... The vessel proved to be His Majesty's armed ship the Porpoise, Lieutenant Scott commander, from Port Jackson [Sydney]. The commander delivered to us, from Governor King, a letter on His Majesty's service, [and] a letter to Pomere.

"June 30. [Note]. By intelligence that we have received, it seems that the arrival of the Porpoise is a very providential interference, as the affairs of this country were brought to such a crisis that a few days, if not hours, would have either dethroned Otoo or established him in his authority; this could not have been done without much bloodshed, the effusion of which we hope is now stopped, and Otoo and family will be permitted to retain quiet possession of their dignity. The Lord does all things well.

"July 13.... Pomere again spoke about our engaging in war for him. He said the island was in a very disaffected state towards him; that a relation of his, the chief of Bola-bola, was in a dangerous situation; that his country was involved in war, himself wounded, and if he was to be overcome, the commonalty of Otaheite would rise upon him and us, and kill us all. Again we told him we would have nothing to do with war. Captain Wilson promised him three or four musquets and that he would also visit Bola-bola, and leave a musquet or two for his use. With this Pomere appeared satisfied."

These notes, which extend over eighteen months, describe the whole experience of the missionaries. They were frank and simple-minded, and made no secret of their situation towards Otoo, which is clearly described in a letter they wrote to the commander of a captured Spanish ship which put into Matavai Bay, February 1, 1799:

"Our situation is so critical among these people that we find it difficult so to carry ourselves as not to give offence to one or the other. Otoo, the king, is solicitous to have a musquet from the ship through our hands. We find it necessary for us, in order to preserve peace, to solicit you to grant us a musquet, if you can possibly spare one, for Otoo; and any return in our power to make, or a draft upon our brethren in England, for the value of the same, we will gladly give."

To preserve peace the missionaries did some very curious things which suggest, as they hinted, that they were glad to see the natives fighting together.

"August 20 [1800].... We hear great preparations are making, whether for war or peace is to be determined in a short time by some heathenish divination. If it should prove for war, those who are eager for blood seem determined to glut themselves. We rejoice that the Lord of Hosts is the God of the heathen as well as the Captain of the armies of Israel; and while the potsherds of the earth are dashing themselves to pieces one against the other, they are but fulfilling his determinate counsels and foreknowledge."

This Calvinistic or fatalistic view of the heathen justified or excused every possible action on all sides of every question, but the close neighborhood of contrary ideas was sometimes still more curious in the missionary records.

"June 23 [1801], Agreed that to-morrow be sanctified as a fast unto the Lord to supplicate him in a peculiar manner at this juncture in behalf of the inhabitants of the island; that he would be graciously pleased to keep them in peace among themselves, to open the door for the preaching and success of his gospel among them, to have mercy upon us, and help us to be able ministers and good stewards of the word of his grace.

"June 25. Mr. Broomhall, William Smith (late cooper of the Eliza), and two natives came from Opare with orders from Pomere to take out of the storeroom some iron rods, which are to be cut into small pieces and used as slugs or cannister shot for the swivel and car-ronade that Pomare has taken with him. They accordingly took out four nail-rods for the purpose."

Alternately praying for peace and helping Pomare and Tu to make war, the missionaries innocently hastened the destruction of the natives, and encouraged the establishment of a tyranny impossible for me to describe. Pomare was vicious and cruel, treacherous and violent beyond the old code of chiefly morals, but Pomare was an angel compared with his son Tu. I do not care to enter on the chapter of his personal vices, all which were as notorious to the missionaries as to the natives, but as he grew older -- in 1800 he was eighteen or twenty years of age -- and as he gained power, he developed a character such as the natives did not recognize as theirs, but ascribed to his savage Paumotu ancestry. The missionaries spoke constantly of the intense hatred caused by his treatment of the common people in his own districts of Pare Arue and Matavai: but if the missionaries, who held themselves aloof from other chiefs for fear of offending Pomare, had taken the trouble to inquire into the true nature of their situation, they would have found that the hatred of Tu was not confined to the commonalty or to the poor wretches reserved for human sacrifice. No doubt Tu carried human sacrifices, in his constant wars, to a point such as terrified beyond all previous experience the common people, whose numbers were so much diminished that three persons, taken for sacrifice, counted relatively as fifty or a hundred would have done a generation before; but even with this terror on their minds, and with the constant robbery of their property which Tu practised, the common people neither hated nor feared Tu more than he was hated and feared by their superiors and their local chiefs.

Already Pomare had succeeded in extinguishing the Vehiatuas of Taiarapu, and seizing that important district for his son. He had equally set aside the Ahurai family. He had established his own power in Eimeo, over the northern portion of the island. The old Teva districts and Hitiaa alone maintained an attitude of independence, and although Temarii Ariifaataia was dead the people of Attahuru, or Paea, with whom the whole population of the coast from Faaa to the isthmus were engaged, offered resistance that Pomare and Tu were afraid to defy without English aid. In the meanwhile, Tu threw aside all regard for the old courtesies of society, and terrified the chiefs as much as he terrified the mean people. Had they been the outcast class from which human victims were generally taken, the chiefs could hardly have been treated with more disrespect.

One or two such cases, showing the terror which Tu inspired among the chiefs, came under the notice of the missionaries. One related to members of Tu's own family:

"March 5 [1799].... The king and queen often about our habitations. Otoo very childish and brutish, and his attendants imitators of him.

"March 6.... A great concourse of natives about us, who are passing their time in eating, drinking, wrestling, drum-beating, singing, hallooing, throwing their arms and legs about in a frantic manner, and such like revellings. This assembly is owing to a marriage ceremony that is about to be performed between a chief of Oryatea [Raiatea], named Matte-ah, and a young woman, the daughter of the deceased chief of this district, named Mahei-annoo. She and Matte-ah are both branches of Pomere's family, and chiefs by birth....

"March 12.... Matte-ah aud Mahei-annoo, &c., went to the four brethren's habitation, carrying with them a great part of their property and prayed the brethren to take the same under their care, having just heard that Otoo had taken offence at the family, and had threatened to plunder and kill some of them. They appeared to be much agitated and distressed in mind. The brethren received their effects into their custody, and they returned to their dwelling declaring they would all die together. Their speech and looks were very affecting. Otoo's anger against the family, it is said, is because, when Matte-ah and Mahei-annoo were united, ... they went into the king's morai, which no one but himself is permitted to do. But this the family declares is false, that they kept to their own morai, and entered not into that of the king's. When we reflect upon the tyrannical disposition of Otoo, and the barbarous state of the natives, our peaceable situation in the midst of them is truly marvellous in our eyes."

On this occasion, as on most others where the victims received warning in time to prepare, Otoo denied the report, and the threatened chiefs were allowed to live. The full meaning of the incident appears in a later entry in the missionaries' journal.

"October 21 [1800].... Heard of the death of Mahei-annoo, the wife of Matte-ah. Her disorder was the evil in her neck, by which the passage of her throat was so destroyed as to prevent her receiving food. About three days before she died she was delivered of a dead child. She was in a district on the south side of the island called Puppe-haare, to which place she was taken the latter end of last month.... She was a young woman of good sense, considering her education, and in a great measure free from that levity which characterizes the inhabitants of this island."...

The person whom Otoo had thus terrified was no other than the beautiful Maheanuu of Papeari (Puppe-haare), the head of island society, as much the social superior of Tu as Tu was, by virtue of his English arms, the political superior over Matavai. To the natives, and especially to the Tevas, Tu in threatening to kill her and her husband was guilty of every atrocity known to the island code of morals and manners. Napoleon did not so much shock Europe by killing the Due d'Enghien as Tu would have shocked Tahiti by treachery to the Maheanuu and her husband.

The next example of the terror inspired by Tu among the greatest chiefs was in the case of Teohu, chief of Hitiaa, who came in March, 1801, to Matavai, with all his double canoes, in full chiefly state, with two human sacrifices, to make a treaty with Pomare and Tu. After the ceremony was over, and Pomare had returned to Pare, the missionaries recorded:

"April 15. During the night a woman came from Opare by water and brought Teohu and party word that it was Pomere's intention to kill him. This information threw them into a consternation, and the fighting men instantly armed, and placed themselves round the old chief as a guard. It appears that the woman who brought the intelligence is one of Teohu's party, and had mingled herself with Pomere's whence she gained her information. That Pomere will kill him if he can, there is perhaps but little reason to doubt, and Teohu is himself apprehensive of it, and much afraid, though Pomere carries himself with a great deal of apparent kindness towards him, and has even gone so far as to make him a present of a musket."

The chiefess of Papeari and the chief of Hitiaa were personages of great dignity, but the chief of Papara held more real power than them all, including Pomare and Tu. In order to establish his superior power, Tu could not avoid the necessity of destroying the Papara family, and putting one of the Pare Arue family in the chiefery of Papara. Accordingly, after the death of Temarii Ariifaataia, no chief of Papara was ever seen at Matavai. The missionaries, who mentioned every one else, never mentioned his name, or seemed aware that Temarii had a successor. They knew that Papara and Paea were in chronic revolt against Tu, but they did not care to know who led the revolt. They were satisfied to give Tu muskets and gunpowder to conquer Papara and destroy its chiefs without their knowing their own victim.

Previous Next

Tahiti - Marau Taaroa & Henry Adams