by Marau Taaroa & Henry Adams


On the 18th of June, 1767, Captain Samuel Wallis, on a voyage of discovery round the world in H. M. Ship "Dolphin," first saw the island of Tahiti, or, as he called it, Otaheite. The story was told in Hawkesworth's Collection of Voyages, and has been told over and over again, for the world never tired of reading it; but I, who have lived in Tahiti all my life and know the tale by heart, shall not repeat it, except so far as it concerns me and my family; and it does so, closely, in the part which at the time most delighted Europe. I must start by saying that all our exact knowledge of dates in the history of the island begins with June 24, 1767 when Wallis warped his ship into the bay of Matavai, in the district of Haapape, the most northerly point of the island, where two years afterwards Captain Cook selected his station for observing the transit of Venus and gave to the projecting spit of land the name of Point Venus, which it still bears. The same day occurred the well-known battle, which was renewed June 26, and which ended in the defeat of the natives and sudden friendship for their new European acquaintances; yet even after the partial opening of relations, Wallis remained a whole fortnight in Matavai Bay, but no chief came near him, and the common people were not allowed to approach the ship or the boats in any considerable number, until at length, on Saturday, July 11, a woman came on board whose appearance gave to Wallis's narrative an air of romance so charmingly old fashioned that any words but his own would spoil it.

"On Saturday, the 11th, in the afternoon, the gunner came on board with a tall woman, who seemed to be about five-and-forty years of age, of a pleasing countenance and majestic deportment. He told me that she was but just corne into that part of the country, and that seeing great respect paid her by the rest of the natives, he had made her some presents; in return for which she had invited him to her house, which was about two miles up the valley, and given him some large hogs; after which she returned with him to the watering place and expressed a desire to go on board the ship, in which he had thought it proper, on all accounts, that she should be gratified. She seemed to be under no restraint, either from diffidence or fear, when she first came into the ship, and she behaved all the while she was on board with an easy freedom that always distinguishes conscious superiority and habitual command. I gave her, a large blue mantle that reached from her shoulders to her feet, which I threw over her, and tied on with ribands; I gave her also a looking-glass, beads of several sorts, and many other things, which she accepted with a very good grace and much pleasure. She took notice that I had been ill, and pointed to the shore. I understood that she meant I should go thither to perfect my recovery, and I made signs that I would go thither the next morning. When she intimated an inclination to return, I ordered the gunner to go with her, who, having set her on shore, attended her to her habitation, which he described as being very large and well built. He said that in this house she had many guards and domestics, and that she had another at a little distance which was enclosed in lattice-work."

This visit first opened the island to the Englishmen, as Wallis instantly noticed; but he was so much more interested in his introduction into good native society that he quite lost sight of politics. From this moment until he sailed from the island, July 27, his narrative ran almost wholly on the subject of "my princess, or rather queen," until it ended in a burst of sentiment which, as far as I can learn, stands by itself in the literature of official reports as the only case of an English naval captain recording tears as part of his scientific emotions.

"The next morning (Sunday, July 12)," continued Captain Wallis, "I went on shore for the first time, and my princess, or rather queen, for such by her authority she appeared to be, soon after came to me, followed by many of her attendants. As she perceived that my disorder had left me very weak, she ordered her people to take me in their arms and carry me not only over the river, but all the way to her house, and observing that some of the people who were with me, particularly the first lieutenant and purser, had also been sick, she caused them also to be carried in the same manner, and a guard, which I had ordered out upon the occasion, followed. In our way, a vast multitude crowded about us, but upon her waiving her hand, without speaking a word, they withdrew, and left us a free passage. When we approached near her house, a great number of both sexes came out to meet her; these she presented to me, after having intimated by signs that they were her relations, and, having taken hold of my hand, she made them Kiss it."

In Wallis's narrative this scene is illustrated by a large engraved drawing which makes a charming picture of everything native contrasting with the ludicrous effect of the English uniforms and attitudes. Most of the details seem fairly correct and carefully done; the long native house with its thatched roof is still common in the islands; the so-called queen, looking very young and delicate, with a long dress of native tapa, is followed by her women, stripped to the waist, and these by men in attitudes ot welcome.

"We then entered the house, which covered a piece of ground three hundred and twenty-seven feet long and forty-two feet broad. It consisted of a roof thatched with palm leaves, and raised upon thirty-nine pillars on each side and fourteen in the middle. The ridge of the thatch on the inside was thirty feet high, and the sides of the house, to the edge of the roof, were twelve feet high, all below the roof being open."

The house was no doubt the Fare-hau, or Council-house, of the district of Haapape, and the princess, as Wallis called her, who did not belong to Haapape but to quite another part of the island, was herself a guest, whose presence there was due to her relationship with the chief.

"As soon as we entered the house, she made us sit down, and then calling four young girls, she assisted them to take off my shoes, draw down my stockings, and pull off my coat, and then directed them to smooth down the skin and gently chafe it with their hands. Having continued it for about half an hour, they dressed us again, but in this they were, as may easily be imagined, very awkward. I found great benefit, however, from the chafing, and so did the lieutenant and the purser. After a little time our generous benefactress ordered some bales of Indian cloth to be brought out, with which she clothed me and all that were with me, according to the fashion of the country. At first I declined the acceptance of this favor, but being unwilling not to seem pleased with what was intended to please me, I acquiesced. When we went away, she ordered a very large sow, big with young, to be taken down to the boat, and accompanied us thither herself. She had given directions to her people to carry me, as they had done when I came, but as I chose rather to walk, she took me by the arm, and whenever we came to a plash of water or dirt, she lifted me over with as little trouble as it would have cost me to have lifted over a child if I had been well."

From this time Captain Wallis as well as his sailors became bewitched with the island, and especially by the women, who, according to his account as given by Hawkesworth, "are all handsome, and some of them extremely beautiful." The queen sent him scores of pigs and fowls, with bread-fruit, bananas, cocoanuts and other fruit in large quantities, and every few days came herself on board to see him.

"On the 21st the queen came again on board, and brought several large hogs as a present, for which, as usual, she would accept of no return. When she was about to leave the ship, she expressed a desire that I should go on shore with her, to which I consented, taking several of the officers with me. When we arrived at her house she made us all sit down, and taking off my hat she tied to it a bunch or tuft of feathers of various colors, such as I had seen no person on shore wear but herself, which produced by no means a disagreeable effect. She also tied round my hat and the hats of those who were with me wreaths of braided or plaited hair, and gave us to understand that both the hair and workmanship were her own; she also presented us with some mats that were very curiously wrought. In the evening she accompanied us back to the beach, and when we were getting into the boat she put on board a fine large sow, big with young, and a great quantity of fruit. As we were parting I made signs that I should quit the island in seven days. She immediately comprehended my meaning, and made signs that I should stay twenty days; that I should go two days journey into the country, stay there a few days, bring down plenty of hogs and poultry, and after that leave the island. I again made signs that I must go in seven days; upon which she burst into tears, and it was not without great difficulty that she was pacified."

The queen, or properly the chiefess, was no doubt inviting Wallis to visit her own district, and perhaps may have had political reasons, which Wallis did not divine, for the disappointment she showed so strongly. Wallis's refusal has cost us an irreparable loss in our history. She came aboard again July 25, and stayed till evening:

"As she was going over the ship's side she asked, by signs, whether I still persisted in my resolution of leaving the island at the time I had fixed; and when I made her understand that it was impossible I should stay longer, she expressed her regret by a flood of tears which for a while took away her speech. As soon as her passion subsided she told me that she would come on board again the next day, and thus we parted."

The day of separation came quickly, and at daybreak, July 27, the "Dolphin" was ready for sea. The whole beach was covered with people, among them the queen, who wished to go aboard in the ship's boat, which was taking off the last water-casks and her farewell presents; but, as the officer had received orders not to bring off natives in his boats, the queen launched a double canoe and was brought to the ship by her own people.

"The queen came on board, but not being able to speak, she sat down and gave vent to her passion by weeping. After she had been on board about an hour, a breeze springing up, we weighed anchor and made sail. Finding it now necessary to return into her canoe, she embraced us all in the most affectionate manner and with many tears; all her attendants also expressed great sorrow at our departure. Soon after it fell calm and I sent the boats ahead to tow, upon which all the canoes returned to the ship, and that which had the queen on board came up to the gun-room port, where her people made it fast. In a few minutes she came into the bow of her canoe, where she sat weeping with inconsolable sorrow. I gave her many things which I thought would be of great use to her, and some for ornament; she silently accepted of all, but took little notice of anything. About ten o'clock we were got without the reef, and, a fresh breeze springing up, our Indian friends, and particularly the queen, once more bade us farewell, with such tenderness of affection and grief as filled both my heart and my eyes."

Wallis did not know the name of his queen, or what her true rank was, or from what part of the island she came; nor did Bougainville, who touched at Hitiaa, on the eastern side of Tahiti, only eight months afterward, in April, 1768, remain long enough to see much of the place or the people; but both these explorers returned to Europe with such glowing accounts of Tahiti as created lively interest. At that moment Europe, and especially France, happened to be looking for some bright example of what man had been, or might be, in a state of nature, and the philosophers seized on Tahiti to prove that, if man would only rid himself of restraints, he would be happy. This is an account of our family, not a history of the island, and I am not well acquainted even with the names of the philosophers who brought about the French Revolution by trying to apply to France the state of nature which Bougainville described in what he called the island of New Cytherea; but I know that Diderot wrote a "Supplement to Bougainville's Travels" in the form of a dialogue between the ship's chaplain and a Tahitian supposed to be named Orou, and that Orou overwhelmed the chaplain by showing the superiority of Tahiti over Paris, and the immorality of constancy in marriage.

One of my friends has pointed out to me another French book, printed in 1779, an "Essai sur I'isle d'Otahiti", which oifers a pleasant jumble of Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Hawkesworth: "II est doux de penser que la philanthropic semble naturelle à tous les hommes, et que les idées sauvages de défiance et de haine ne sont que la suite de la dépravation de moeurs, qui ne peut exister chez un peuple qui n'en a pas même l'idée."

The naturalist, Commerson, who accompanied Bougainville, was the source of most of the pretty French illusions about Tahiti. His letter, published in the "Mercure de France", in November, 1769, was a romance in the style and in the spirit of Rousseau. It is too long to quote in full, but some of its passages are marvels of literature and science. He began by calling the island Utopia, not then knowing that his chief, Bougainville, had called it New Cytherea:

"Je puis vous dire que c'est le seul coin de la terre où habitent des hommes sans vices, sans préjugés, sans besoins, sans dissensions. Nés sous le plus beau ciel, nourris des fruits d'une terre féconde sans culture, régis par des pères de famille plutôt que par des rois, ils ne connaissent d'autre dieu que l'Amour. Tous les jours lui sont consacrés, toute l'isle est son temple, toutes les femmes en sont, les autels, tous les hommes les sacrificateurs. Et quelles femmes, me demanderez-vous? les rivales des Géorgiennes en beauté et les sœurs des grâces toutes nues."

Omitting his further remarks on this subject, which rose to the dizzy height of affirming that, in Tahiti, "l'acte de créer son semblable est un acte de religion", the next of Gommerson's scientific observations is that "tout chez eux est marqué de la plus parfaite intelligence". Even more admirable than their intelligence was their philanthropy:

"Pour ce qui regarde la simplicité de leurs mœurs, l'honnêteté de leurs procédés, surtout envers leurs femmes, qui ne sont nullement subjuguées chez eux comme chez les sauvages, leur philadelphie entre eux tous, leur horreur pour l'effusion du sang humain, leur respect idolâtre pour leurs morts, qu'ils ne' regardent que comme des gens endormis, leur hospitalité enfin pour les étrangers, il faut laisser aux journaux le mérite de s'étendre sur chacun de ces articles, comme notre admiration et notre reconnaissance le requerrent."

Still more wonderful, "leur aversion pour le vin et les liqueurs était invincible, hommes sages en tout!" That they showed ignorance of European conventions in the matter of property was not their fault, but a virtue:

"Je ne les quitterai pas, ces chers Taïtiens, sans les avoir lavés d'une injure qu'on leur a faite en les traitant de voleurs. Il est vrai qu'ils nous ont enlevé beaucoup de choses, et cela même avec une dextérité qui ferait honneur au plus habile filou de Paris; mais méritent-ils pour cela le nom de voleurs? Voyons ce que c'est que le vol? c'est l'enlèvement d'une chose qui est en propriété à un autre, il faut donc que ce quelqu'un se plaigne justement d'avoir été volé, qu'il lui ai été enlevé un effet sur lequel son droit de propriété était préétabli; mais ce droit de propriété est-il dans la nature? non: il est de pure convention; or, aucune convention n'oblige qu'elle ne soit connue et acceptée. Or, le Taïtien qui n'a rien à lui, qui offre et donne généreusement tout ce qu'il voit désirer, ne l'a jamais connu ce droit exclusif! donc l'acte d'enlèvement qu'il vous a fait d'une chose qui excite sa curiosité, n'est, selon lui, qu'un acte d'équité naturelle... Je ne vois pas l'ombre d'un vol là-dedans."

The natural goodness of the human heart and the moral blessings of a state of nature, were the themes of all Rousseau's followers, and at that time all Europe was following Rousseau. The discovery of Tahiti, as Wallis and Commerson painted it, was the strongest possible proof that Rousseau was right. The society of Tahiti showed that European society had no real support in reason or experience, but should be abolished, with its absurd conventions, contrary to the natural rights and innate virtue of man. The French philosophers seriously used Tahiti for this purpose, and with effect, as every one knows. Wallis's queen played a chief part in the European play, by exciting interest and sympathy; for the years before and after 1770 were sentimental, and, between Diderot's Orou and Goethe's Werter, the sentimental princess of Hawkesworth's voyages was at home. As the queen, according to our family record, was our great-great-grandaunt Purea, or rather the wife of our great-great-granduncle, and as I know something about Tahitian women, and especially about this one by tradition, I will not deny that perhaps Dr. Hawkesworth may have added some color of rose to the story that Wallis had to tell; but this has nothing to do with the curious accident that Tahiti really influenced Europe, and that our great-great-grandaunt, "my princess, or rather, queen", was, without her own knowledge or consent, directly concerned in causing the French Revolution and costing the head of her sister queen, Marie Antoinette.

As Diderot and Commerson show, the interest felt in France for the state of nature in Tahiti was largely caused by the eternal dispute about marriage and the supposed laxity of Tahitian morals in regard to the relations of men and women. I say "supposed" because no one knows how much of the laxity was due to the French and English themselves; whose appearance certainly caused a sudden and shocking overthrow of such moral rules as had existed before in the island society; and the "supposed" means that when the island society as a whole is taken into account, marriage was real as far as it went, and the standard rather higher than that of Paris; in some ways extremely lax, and in others strict and stern to a degree that would have astonished even the most conventional English nobleman, had he understood it. The real code of Tahitian society would have upset the theories of a state of nature as thoroughly as the guillotine did; but, when seen through the eyes of French and English sailors, who had not the smallest sense of responsibility, and would not have been sorry to overthrow all standards, Tahiti seemed to prove that no standard was necessary, which made the island interesting to philosophers and charming to the French people, never easy under even the morality recognized at Paris. So there again our aunt Purea, Wallis's queen, played a part in the drama, for, in an island which seemed to have no idea of morals, she was a model of humanity, sentiment, and conduct -- the flower of a state of nature.

Of course the sentiment of Hawkesworth, and the Gytherean tastes of Bougainville and Commerson, did not please every one, least of all in England, where French philosophy and shepherdesses were rarely welcome. A friend has given me a quotation from Horace Walpole, who wrote to one of his correspondents in 1773: "I hope you are heartily provoked at the new Voyages, which might make one a good first mate, but tell one nothing at all. Dr. Hawkesworth is still more provoking. An old black gentlewoman of forty carries Captain Wallis across a river when he was too weak to walk, and the man represents them as a new edition of Dido and Æneas." Whatever pleased the French was pretty sure to displease the English, and so, from the first, Tahiti took a French color which ended by deciding its fate; and there, too, our aunt Purea unconsciously may have been a chief agent in causing the sentimental attachment which brought the French squadrons seventy years later to our shores.

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Tahiti - Marau Taaroa & Henry Adams