Innocence, disruption, death, Tom Brooking

Aphrodite’s Island: The European Discovery of Tahiti
Anne Salmond
Viking, $65.00,
ISBN 9780670073962

The publication of a new book by Anne Salmond is always an occasion worth celebrating and savouring. Aphrodite’s Island, about the European discovery of, and encounter with, Tahiti is no exception in that her winning mix of anthropology and history, superb scholarship and engaging story-telling ability is as much in evidence as in her earlier books.

Indeed, it is hard to think of any other New Zealand author, J C Beaglehole included, who has written a book based on research in the archives of London, France, Rome and Lima, Peru, as well as Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti itself. Salmond admits to having translation help with the Spanish, French and Italian sources, but her fluency in both Maori and Tahitian ensures that all sides of this tale receive even-handed treatment and that the Tahitian side of the story receives more prominence than in any earlier account.

The tale that emerges, therefore, is unusually rich and multi-dimensional because this encounter involved the almost simultaneous discovery of Tahiti by three European powers: first the British under Captain Samuel Wallis in 1767, followed later by an increasing irascible Cook on each of his three voyages in 1770, 1773 and 1777; second, by Louis de Bourgainville and the French in 1768; and third, by Boenechea and the Spanish sailing from Lima in 1772 and again in 1774.

The story reads like a Greek tragedy as it builds with grim inevitability from initial innocent delight to disruption, death and disillusionment. As Joanna Orwin put it in her recent factional account of a similarly disastrous encounter between Marion du Fresne and his French crew with Bay of Islands Maori, this is a story about collision.

As in Two Worlds, Between Two Worlds and Trial of the Cannibal Dog, Salmond concentrates on telling her extremely complex story through the framework of a clash of two different cosmologies, or ways of understanding the world. This means she employs a multi-layered narrative reliant upon what Clifford Geertz would call “thick description” rather than utilising an explanatory theory, post-colonial or otherwise. There is nothing wrong with this approach in the hands of a master storyteller either, because, as American environmental historian William Cronon reminds us, a good story “makes us care about its subject in a way that a chronicle does not”, and “expresses the ties between past and present in a way that lends deeper meaning to both.”

Salmond stresses that the encounter was shaped by the fact that Tahitians at this particular time had become obsessed with maintaining the fertility of their edenic islands by performing ceremonies of a highly erotic nature. Led by a class of privileged “orators, priests, navigators, travelling performers and famed lovers”, known as ‘arioi , they worshipped the God of Fertility and War called ‘Oro in ways that appeared “lewd” and licentious to some of the European commanders.

It just so happened that the leaders of these various expeditions were very influenced by Rousseau’s notion of the “noble savage” and older classical ideas about Aphrodite, lover of Adonis, companion of Eros and the Greek goddess of love, beauty and sexual rapture who lived on the mystical island of Cythera. Aphrodite’s followers happily made love to her priestesses as a form of worship in much the same way as the ‘arioi  (both male and female) performed sexual acts in public. Interestingly, given the provocative dances they witnessed and the initial willingness of women of low rank to sleep with them, no-one seemed to view Tahiti according to the medieval ideal of the land of Cockaigne, where sensual indulgence came freely, without effort or complicated consequences like venereal disease.

According to Salmond, most Europeans saw it rather as a kind of Arcadian idyll, lacking rules or restraints, and abundant in limitless resources provided by nature rather than human industry. They assumed, therefore, that the handsome and athletic-looking men and alluring women they encountered lived in a state of nature, and practised free love untroubled by the constraints of civilisation.

Reading Tahiti as Arcadia blinded the Europeans to the fact that the Tahitians also lived by strict codes of behaviour. In fact, only select people, most noticeably the ‘arioi, were allowed to behave in ways that seemed loose and promiscuous by European standards. Few high-born or married women, for example, with the notable exception of paramount chieftainess Purea in her dalliance with Joseph Banks, were allowed near the sailors. The Tahitians, too, imagined they had conjured up these strange beings and their floating islands because of the whims of ‘Oro.

When venereal disease spread rapidly, and Europeans fired at and killed Tahitians, they blamed themselves for failing their Gods. ‘Oro was much associated with thunder and lightning, so firing weapons was translated completely differently by the Tahitians, who found it frightening not because of its novelty but because of its association with the awesome power of the divine.

The better educated of the European explorers gained a vague sense of these differences through Tahitian intermediaries who learnt English or French or Spanish, and taught the strangers some Tahitian, but no-one ever came to understand why Tahitians behaved so very differently. Nor did most European intruders learn that their curiosity and their desire to exploit resources breached the wider Polynesian notion of tapu.

Misunderstandings over fishing, negotiating food supply, removing breadfruit trees and forest cover and investigating burial grounds consequently undermined relations between visitors and indigenous Polynesians. The Tahitian habit of removing various items from ships, which they saw as a means of redistributing resources, infuriated all the European commanders, and Cook, especially, came to treat “theft” in increasingly brutal ways by kidnapping chiefs, seizing canoes and flogging suspects.

In the process of portraying Cook’s decline, Salmond reveals much more vividly than earlier scholars the extent of violence unleashed on the Tahitians by the English in particular, thereby hinting at why Tahiti became part of the French rather than the British Empire.

Because the European visitors, with the exception of the rather prudish Franciscan friars from Lima, considered Tahiti to be something of a paradise, they also failed to realise that complex political battles were being played out between competing island groups. The warriors of Borabora always wanted to control the main island of Tahiti-nui, as well as the nearby island of Ra’iatea. Each European leader inadvertently assisted such manipulations as various factions played the English and the Spanish off against one another until the frosty Franciscans lost Spain the support of most islanders.

Disease, especially influenza, complicated matters further by bringing about the premature death of paramount chiefs (or ari’i maro ’ura) such as Vehiatua II, throwing any kind of orderly succession into chaos and disrupting the political stability of the Society Islands.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is the account of the five Tahitians who travelled across both spacial and cultural boundaries. Salmond dedicates the book to these men (along with four great scholars and teachers), and they are really the heroes of her story.

First, there was Ahutoru, who navigated the Etoile and Boudeuse around the Society Islands before heading back with Bourgainville to France. He caused a sensation at the French court, even though he was only five feet two inches tall. He seemed to enjoy himself immensely and developed a real passion for opera which seemed to remind him of the skits performed by the ari’i. Even though he suffered from illness, he survived and returned two years later with Marion du Fresne, but unfortunately after calling in at Mauritius he caught smallpox and died.

Tupaia, an ‘arioi  and high chief from Ra’iatea, master navigator and superb linguist, is better known as Cook’s translator on his first visit to New Zealand. He was an extraordinary man who not only managed to understand Maori, unlike other Tahitian visitors, but succeeded in converting star charts into cartographical representations of space. Some of his maps are reproduced for the first time and their usefulness to someone like Cook is immediately obvious. Little wonder that he made such an impression upon Maori and is still celebrated in East Coast traditions.

Clearly much of the success of Cook’s first voyage and the relative lack of violent incidents with Maori owed much to Tupaia. Sadly he died in Batavia of fever en route for England.

Hitihiti (or Mahine), another, much younger, ‘arioi  from Ra’iatea, sailed with Cook to Tonga and New Zealand on the Resolution in 1773. Unlike Tupaia he could not master Maori and made little impression, but he expressed much distress at the practice of cannibalism when Cook called in at Queen Charlotte Sound. Hitihiti survived the rigours of sailing around the freezing southern oceans bordering Antarctica. Having proven that the great Southern Continent did not exist, Cook sailed Hitihiti back to Tahiti via Easter Island and the Marquesas. It seems his odyssey influenced navigation and naming in the Society Islands because the Spanish collected names Hitihiti gave to some islands that differed from those recorded earlier by Tupaia.

Three Tahitians – Pautu, Heiao and Tetuanui – arrived in Lima in 1773. Heiao died there but the others made it back to help establish a mission, even though Tetuanui was ill with smallpox he had contracted on the return. Also known as Manuel, this young man worked hard to establish the mission until he fell out with the friars who lost credibility by unintentionally offending Tahitian notions of the sacred. Once the friars returned to Lima and the Viceroy of Peru lost interest, Tetuanui/Manuel disappears from the story. The other Tahitian Salmond acknowledges is Puhoro. Also a navigator, he managed to guide the Spanish back for their final voyage in 1775 to pick up the friars from their abandoned mission.

Perhaps the best known cross-cultural traveller was Ma’i (also called Omai) because he survived a return journey to England and maintained a high profile during his visit, when several portraits were painted. En route, he witnessed cannibalism practised on some of the Adventure’s crew in Queen Charlotte Sound, but, like Hitihiti, Ma’i had little impact on Maori he encountered. After meeting King George III and being lionised by Joseph Banks and the Earl of Sandwich, he returned with Cook on his third voyage. He urged Tute, as the Tahitians called him, to execute those Maori who cannibalised some of the Adventure’s crew, the subject of Salmond’s last book, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog. 

He also helped Cook avoid an ambush in Tonga. Yet, even though Ma’i returned with his own suit of armour and a horse, he had little influence on Tahitian politics because he was of relatively low birth (a hoa or chiefly attendant). His social superiors thereafter tolerated rather than celebrated his return, while Cook refused to help him avenge insults inflicted by the warriors of Borabora.

Rather like the apparently Arcadian world this book describes, it is not quite perfect. It could have been more rigorously edited, because the detail, fascinating as it is, becomes repetitious in places. Some 537 pages represent an enormous number of words. Showing my bias as an environmental historian, I would have liked Salmond to have paid more attention to the stresses placed on the Tahitians by the insatiable demand of Europeans for food and supplies, especially in a land that had marked seasons of scarcity as well as of plenty.

Still, this is asking for perfection beyond even ‘arioi. As it is, this beautifully produced book, whose illustrations alone justify the purchase price, is a majestic combination of academic and popular history. It will stand as easily the best account of the European discovery of Tahiti for a long time, until a new generation of historians, driven by different intellectual imperatives and contemporary concerns, ask different kinds of questions.

Meantime, most New Zealand historians and readers of history eagerly anticipate completion of Salmond’s trilogy on early encounters in New Zealand from around 1814 and the arrival of the mission to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.


Tom Brooking teaches history at the University of Otago. 


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